A lone human figure sits waiting in their meditation chamber, their lips, moving in silent whisper. As you step beyond the threshold, they open their eyes and stare at you and through you. Four eyes watch through two sockets, one pair dilated, content, and relaxed. The other pair twitch as if about to erupt. They scream and you feel it pierce deep within your mind.
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The World: Eberron
Lucas: [00:00:32] Hello, and welcome to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers show us their favorite monster and we discover how it works, why it works and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.
On this show, I describe every tabletop role-playing game as having a setting, a chance operator, and mechanics, which is useful, but not universal. Fantasy RPG Dungeons and Dragons has embraced many settings over its 40-year publication history.
In fact, the recently released source book Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft offers some three dozen micro-settings called Domains of Dread. You might be familiar with the concept already from the country of Walakia in Netflix’s Castlevania; Ravenholm from the Half-Life games, which I am certain is not a coincidence; or Dr. Doom’s Latveria in Marvel comics.
For my money, though, D&D’s most interesting setting is Eberron, the pulp adventure and film noir setting created by Keith Baker and first published in 2004. I’ve covered this setting before, in my episode about the Warforged Colossus. But 10-story robots are only the beginning of what this intricate and expansive fantasy world has to offer.
Whole continents of story existed in Eberron, and while much of the story takes place on the continent of Khorvaire, you’ll find that strange-eyed figure’s meditation chamber on a different continent in the country of Rierdra, the particular favorite of my guest on this episode.
Imogen Gingell: [00:02:02] I’m Imogen Gingell. By day I am a space physicist, I work on solar system plasma dynamics, but by nights, I spend my time thinking and writing about Eberron in D&D.
I joined Manifest Zone which is a podcast put together by – well, at the time it was Keith Baker, who created Eberron; Wayne Chang, who is a well known as the producer of many of Keith’s DM’s Guild work, like Exploring Eberron; and then Christian Serrano as well. But they had a spot open and I’d managed to meet Wayne and the others through the Across Eberron collaboration. So the invited me in and said, would you like to talk Eberron? And, absolutely, there’s nothing I could talk about for longer.
The podcast is very much lore focused. Usually we take sort of one broad topic. It might be one of the races of Eberron, it might be one of the nations, it might be a concept like the war or artificers and so on. And then we wax lyrical about it for an hour. So some of the episodes are really good for, especially if you’re new to Eberron lore, put them on and listen, and you’ll end the hour as an expert.
Of the ones I’ve recorded so far. I think the Rierdra one is my favorite but that’s just because it falls into a topic that very much interests me.
I went back and picked out a bunch of my favorite sort of monsters I’d made between the third and fourth edition stuff I’d put on the internet and then I collected It into the Codex Siberys, which was the first big project that I put on DM’s Guild. There were a few Riedran monsters. So there was the Crysteel Golem, there was the shattered Kalashtar, there was a lot in that. But a lot of those concepts ended up being brought together in an adventure I published in September called Escape from Riedra. So that is the first published adventure to ever visit that region, official or not, as far as I can tell, and we did the deep dive to check. And yeah, some of the Codex Siberys monsters appear in, that adventure, such as the shattered Kalashtar.
Lucas: [00:04:20] It’s fascinating to me that it’s been more than a decade since Eberron was released and we are still finding new pieces of it to explore.
Imogen Gingell: [00:04:29] Yeah. Absolutely. And as far as Riedra while the whole of that continent, Sarlonna, is concerned, it did have a source book to sort of flesh out all the details in third edition. So that was called Secrets of Sarlonna. And it was one of the long-form hardcover books that, that there was so many of the third edition and the lore in there just kind of, it really did grab me.
So I’d been wanting to write an adventure that visited that place for, so long. And I finally managed it and then converted it into a Dm’s Guild products with the Across Eberron folks. So it’s sort of been hovering around at the back of my mind for quite some time.
The Country: Rierdra
Lucas: [00:05:11] What happens on Riedra?
Imogen Gingell: [00:05:13] Well, one of the key premises in, in setting up Eberron was that the designers wanted a place for everything that’s significant to D&D. And for some that’s Xendrik , which is a continent, the jungle continent with the ruins and so on, you can put anything there. But Riedra was the place where the designers wanted to put psionic magic or psionics. So in the same way that Khorvaire asks, “How would arcane magic shape society?”, Sarlonna in general and Riedra specifically asks, “What if psionics were widespread?”. Psionics in D&D is the kind of magic that can manipulate minds.
Riedra is the largest empire on Sarlonna and a dystopia of the worst kind where there is a sort of a ruling class called the Inspired who use psionics to manipulate the populace into accepting them as their rulers.
And they do this with a network of psionic magic supported by giant monoliths which tell everyone, via telepathic, broadcasts, how to feel, what to do. And yeah, it’s a hell hole. yeah, everyone there is very happy because they’re forced to be. So digging into the deeper lore, the Inspired set up a religious order whereby they’ve convinced everyone that they are inspired by great spirits. And in truth, they’re possessed by fiendish dream nightmare monsters from another world. So they manipulate dreams, they manipulate minds and they’ve created this stagnant utopia with which to manipulate the world. And it’s terrifying.
The Kalashtar of Eberron
Lucas: [00:07:07] Which does lead us to the question of the kalashtar. Are they native to Riedra?
Imogen Gingell: [00:07:13] Not as such. The Kalashtar are opponents of Riedra, I suppose is the word. Most of the Kalashtar live in a place called Adar, which is a sort of a mountain refuge that borders with Riedra. And when the Inspired came to power the people of Adar, they had a sort of monastic tradition, retreated into the mountains and closed themselves off from, the influence of that place.
But the key thing that makes them more than human is that they are a refuge for spirits of the same sort that rule Riedra. So these are the Quori spirits who are nightmare fiends. But in the same way that there are fallen angels, there are some risen fiends, and the Kalashtar were some of those nightmare spirits that didn’t fall in with the sort of evil manipulation that, the Inspired were trying to achieve.
So rather than be hunted down and killed on their home plane, the Region of Dreams, those risen spirits binded their souls to the monks in Adar and that power is now inherited by their children. So every kalashtar is born with a sliver of a shared dream spirit that fled the nightmare realm. It sounds pretty wild when I put it that way, but they are the good guys.
Lucas: [00:08:51] Yeah. I think by the time we get to kalashstar, we are operating at several levels of subversion in that Eberron is D&D but slightly different, and kalashtar are these spirits, but slightly different.
Are there any real world influences or antecedents or other legends or myths that you could point to that would be similar to the kalashtar or help people understand what they are and what they do and where they come from?
Imogen Gingell: [00:09:18] Hard to say. I think one of the things that Eberron does very well is that it creates cultures, that aren’t just direct analogs of real world ones. So it puts together new and interesting. Factions from pieces of inspiration spread far and wide. So you can’t look at the main continent on a Corvair and on, and say, here is the Egyptian country, or here is the Western European country, here is a native American country and so on, but you can piece together where some influences might lie.
So you can look at kalashtar and the Adar, and you might say, well, you have a monastic culture in the mountains and you might look to somewhere like Tibet or Nepal. But then you start drifting into, psionic nightmares and enchantments and everything and you add a new spin on it that really mashes out with some other real world fiction, all kinds of stuff, about theory of the mind and psionic powers in general, which, you can look to things like Neuromancer for.
So I, I, yeah, I hesitate to draw to, you know, point at a real world and say, this is this, because there’s more to it than that.
You could even just look back in European folklore you know, what is the nightmare and things like that, of these malignant spirits that, manipulate or intrude on your dreams or you could look to. the sleep paralysis demon that sits on you and you can’t do anything because it’s started this weight on you that, sets at that gap, that just sits between being asleep and being awake. Yeah, but then you could also look at the, of the art of the Quori, these dreams, spirits, and see all these tentacles snapping claws. And you can think to the sort of Lovecraftian horror, that kind of gets mixed in with that.
Lucas: [00:11:06] He’s back!
Imogen Gingell: [00:11:08] For something like Riedra, you can look very easily at things like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which has a rigid caste system. You have your alphas and your betas and your gammas and so on. And that kind of system pretty much drives somewhere like Riedra. So you have, there is a strict caste system which in the canon is racially divided. So if you want to explore racist power structures, you can do. But, it sets up the Inspired as the highest cast that, divinely inspired by these spirits.
And then beneath them you have the changelings, and beneath them the humans, beneath them everyone else. You can reincarnate into the higher caste by doing good works in your life, which doesn’t really mean doing good works. It means doing what you’re told.
All kinds of dystopian fiction but Brave New World sticks out for me as a kind of exploration of rigid castes that Riedra does.
Lucas: [00:12:08] And it’s only at this point I think at least three subversions down that we can begin to address the question of the shattered kalashtar. So can you walk me through what a shattered kalashtar is?
Imogen Gingell: [00:12:22] Yeah, this was a monster that I created for the Codex Syberis. So it wasn’t one that I’d done for, for previous editions. It was a new arrival for that book. And the point of the shattered kalashtar was to say, okay, we have this bond for regular kalashtar for a kalashtar player character.
You have a bond between a human or, descendent of a human and a sliver of the soul of a nightmare spirit. And the shattered kalashtar asks. “Well, what happens when that bond breaks?” So rather than have this union of human and dreams, spirit minds unified and working together in the same goal there is a schism drawn between the two, they’re separated. They become unable to communicate well. Understandably that leads to some stress in said kalashtar. So it’s devised as a way for a kalashtar to bend under pressure and break, introduce a new supernatural threats.
Which can turn a kalashtar into a villain or an easy villain, you know, driven by the madness of their mind, having been torn into that difficult to understand, difficult to control and they lack that sort of continuity of mind that might make them easy to talk to, or rather it would makes it a challenge to talk to you or to reason way or to encounter in your D and D adventure.
This is taking up a person and breaking them. It it’s, it’s a monster in the sense of both human evil and supernatural evil, I think, on the one hand, because, it’s a character that you can introduce to your player characters as someone they know, or someone who they might expect to be an ally. But then you can reveal to them gradually either. Wow. Gradually or instantaneously that something’s not quite right here. And doing monstrous things, I suppose. And maybe they’re doing that in pursuit of something they feel is good, or maybe they’re doing it because their mind is broken and they don’t understand what they’re doing. So I think you can, you can take the shattered kalashtar and you can do either in fun ways. Yeah.
How to Handle a Shattered Kalashtar
Lucas: [00:15:15] It gives you justification to do a lot of the things that I’m really hoping listeners of Making a Monster will do with they’re monsters, which is to use them more intelligently or to ask better questions or to read into the coding of the stat block and draw from it, the intent of the designer with the full gravitas and danger that it represents
Imogen Gingell: [00:15:35] Exactly.
Lucas: [00:15:35] There’s a question that I have about environment and key features. I believe that – especially in terms of beasts, which are the most common monsters in D&D – that monsters are a product of their environment. With an NPC, or the option to be an NPC like the one you’ve given here that that rule can be a lot more flexible. But is there a place you might encounter a shattered kalashtar more often or somewhere where you’re more likely to find them or a part of a story in which they’re more likely to appear?
Imogen Gingell: [00:16:04] So I think that there are two main places or main themes I try to pull on with a shattered kalashtar. And I think that informs how and where I’d put them. The first is to is the one I actually used in the escape from the atria adventure which is to include a shattered kalashtar as a NPC embedded in a resistance cell inside Riedra.
So this character is called Nivi. She appears in that adventure and she has being defending a cell of dissidents who are hidden in the underground tunnels beneath the town you visit in that adventure. And she’s been there using her psionic power to mask the dissidents that’s holed up in those tunnels except that the constant psychic stress of doing so has eventually caused her mind to break.
So she’s barely hanging on and you encounter her inside hidden underground storage chamber sat amongst a bunch of other rag-tag bands of dissidents. Other Riedrans who want none of this and have managed to resist that, that psychic aura. So she’s presented there as a, good guy who’s tipping on the balance where if you put a foot wrong, maybe she’ll erupt.
The other thing you could do is to put one of these shattered kalashtar in the control of the Inspired. So, perhaps the Riedrans, the Inspired have captured a Kalashtar and through the stress of the poor treatment, or just psionic influence they’ve caused that Kalashtar to break, and then they could perhaps use that shattered kalashtar as a weapon.
You send it a ticking, psychic mind bomb with the face of one of your old friends back to, to to the good guys. So you kind of counted them sort of metaphorically on the leash of the inspireds perhaps in that dungeon or even in one of the gray palaces, you could encounter them in the dark and dingy tunnels, dissidents But as an NPC, as you say that, that the options are quite broad.
Lucas: [00:18:21] The reason that Making a Monster is what it is, is that it’s much, much easier to discuss a monster, at least in the way that D and D uses the word, rather than a player character, because they have a stat block rather than a character sheet and they don’t level up. So on the stat block, you’ve put together for the shattered kalashtar. What are the most important mechanics or attributes or features that you’ve rendered here?
Dream Rend: An ability WotC wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole
Imogen Gingell: [00:18:44] So there are a couple of main abilities I should say, you know, beyond the sort of basic attacks or psionic spells and such one is the captivating eyes which is one of their traits essentially, whenever you look into that deep into that eyes, you have a chance to be transfixed.
So you have that charisma saving throw to resist being charmed. But charmed in the sort of loose sense of captivated rather than, forced to do that bidding. But I think that the most mechanically distinct feature is that Dream Rend feature which is a sort of a bespoke psionic blast that I wrote for them.
And the idea of this Dream Rend ability is to give the play of characters a bit of a flavor of the pain that this kalashtar is in. It’s a sort of an area burst and if you become affected, you gain a special condition called schism. You take some damage as well, but this cause it was the interesting part. So the idea of this schism is, is it’s for the players to emulate the same sort of split in the mind that the kalashtar has. And in doing so I put together a mechanic that kind of breaks the fourth wall. But one of the great strengths I think of, of putting out fan content, especially on the DM’s Guild and stuff, is that you are afforded more room to try things. So I don’t think this mechanic would ever make It into a official Wizards of the Coast book because it’s easier to pick and choose, a DM can decide to, I like the idea of that. Let’s give it a go. You can just afford to go a bit wild.
So the way it works is that if you suffer a schism when you want to take an action on your turn, you have to secretly tell the dungeon master. So you might say, I want to attack the guard. And then the dungeon master will turn to one of the other players at the table and say, what do you think this player would do in this situation? And if they say. Oh, I think they would want to attack the guards then great. It happens if they say oh, I think they want to cast your light wounds or cure wounds – that’s my edition showing.
Lucas: [00:21:07] It very much is. Oh, that’s special.
Imogen Gingell: [00:21:13] Say they want to cast cure wounds at first level. And they say, oh no. Then the action fails. And the point of this is to represent is your character acting how other people think they would act? So it’s a way to emulate that slit between the Subconscious or super conscious, sort of top level personality stuff that other players might have encountered versus a deeper, , what is your character’s inside voice saying that, if not, you might not be able to access that because the other players don’t know that.
So it’s a way to try and bring out that that’s gets them into real play because you’re , rewarded for trying simply actions that other people are expecting. If that makes sense.
Game design is about player satisfaction
Lucas: [00:21:59] it really does. I’ve said this on episodes before that one of the great strengths of being a part of a party in a game like this is that eventually your character becomes predictable. I think a better word might be reliable, that other players at the table can predict what that character would do.
And I think you’ve succeeded as a player when other characters can say, of course that’s such a fighter move. And what you’ve done here is enshrined that beautiful moment of reliability and predictability in playing your character well inside of the stat block that’s fascinating to me. I’m glad to see it.
Imogen Gingell: [00:22:39] Yeah, when I’m designing monsters, I really like to avoid the stunned condition because it’s essentially miss attack and no one likes that. But I think there were ways to emulate that without By kind of Maine where you can still play with the action economy rules, but also leave the players feeling satisfied.
And I think, well, I hope this succeeds in doing that because it still gives the player something to express at the table. So they still get to think about what they would do. And if, as you say, you’ve built up enough camaraderie with the other player characters or the other players that you succeed, it feels really good.
You feel like you’re beating the monster where, so you can still sort of inject that stun like mechanic, but still have it feel good. That was sort of the goal there. Yeah.
Exploring trauma in D&D
Lucas: [00:23:33] I asked before about how the kalashtar might be heir to other stories that have been told. And that’s, that’s one part of what this podcast does is to look backward. The other part of it is to look forward into the moment or into the present. Is there it’s okay to say no to this? Because just from my reading of it, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of very rich and very, weighty topics that are coded here is this.
Was it part of your hope that making this monster are encountering this monster, we’d give people a way to understand something in the world that they live in or things that they might encounter outside of the game. And if so, what? What does this monster tell us about the world we live in?
Imogen Gingell: [00:24:28] Good question. I think the key theme that I wanted to look at in a monster like this is from a lore perspective, the theme is what happens when you take something that’s supposed to be good and you break it. What is your limits? What is your sort of, what is your breaking point? And if you pass beyond that breaking point, are you, or is that thing recognizable as what it was before?
It’s sort of an expression of What trauma can do. And if you sat down at the table and you encountered shattered kalashtar as a sort of antagonistic NPC, I think it’s all the richer if it’s perhaps someone you knew as a good guy before because you can explore that and well, that process of breaking someone or something, you know?
So if you’re exploring that with a character that you’ve known for some time, it can be all that more impactful when you start to show that breakdown in a very powerful. Way powerful in terms of the magic they use and powerful in terms of a breakdown of any emotional connection you may have had to what they were before and what they are now.
You know, I hope that makes sense.
Lucas: [00:26:09] I’ll tell you I felt that this is a bit more personal than I usually get, but to my mind the default state of the world is broken this that it’s the image of something better than it is now. And I’ve also heard it from quite a few people on the podcast. Some of the most interesting stories that you can tell are the ones that that allow for a villain to be redeemed.
Imogen Gingell: [00:26:34] Yes. Yeah.
Lucas: [00:26:35] I think you’ve done something really beautiful here.
My guest is Imogen Gingell, co-host of the Manifest Zone podcast, D&D adventure designer, writer, artist scientist, and true Renaissance woman. If you want to know more about the shattered kalashtar, you can find the full stat block on the show’s website by following the link in the show notes or at scintilla.studio/monster.
It’s the holy grail of subscriber gifts, and it contains updated art by image in herself. Seriously, is there anything she can’t do?
If you want to get involved with Imogen’s work, the best way to follow her is on Twitter @ILGingell, or to subscribe to Manifest Zone wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Making a Monster, fill your whole podcast feed with monsters and pulp fiction and space physics, I dare you.
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Imogen Gingell: [00:28:02] Oh, I know you’ve been talking to the Sivis Echoers.
Lucas: [00:28:08] Find all that and stickers at patreon.com/scintilla studio. That’s patreon.com/s C I N T I L L a.studio.
There are five episodes left in the second season of Making a Monster so make sure you follow the show wherever you get your podcasts. So you don’t miss a single glowing eye or toothy maw and there are more to come. I promise.
Next Episode: Varadrel, the kaiju angel
Jackson Lewis: As it soars towards the city, you step out to get a little better, look at this creature and the hairs on the back of your neck, stand straight up, you feel your breath catch in your chest. Whatever this thing is, you know, it’s here for one thing. You’ve seen demons. You’ve seen the most vile, cruel pit fiends rip apart humans with their bare hands, and laugh about it. But this thing is different because the aura it radiates is irrevocably, cosmically good. But it still begs the question, “Why does this thing terrify you? Why does this thing trigger every single fight or flight response in your entire body?”