I’ve found Wizards of the Coast’s official offerings this year for D&D to largely be of little interest to me. There was a new Essentials Kit which seems to provide a followup to the Starter Set with more character generation rules incorporated in it. There’s been the Baldur’s Gate and Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventures, but I haven’t been too interested in the official campaigns for 5E. And there’s been various tie-in materials – starter sets riffing on the popularity of Stranger Things and Rick & Morty, and a supplement covering the setting of Acquisitions Incorporated. None of this especially floats my boat.
However, the last major release of the year I find a real treat. This is Eberron: Rising From the Last War. With its main designers credited as Keith Baker (the creator of the Eberron setting) and Jeremy Crawford and James Wyatt, major 5E rules wranglers (Wyatt also worked on the original 3.5E release of the campaign setting), it updates the classic setting from its original presentation in 3.5E-era D&D to provide a basis for running games in it, including a fat stack of religions, cosmological details, races (including honest-to-goodness shapeshifters, dreams in human form, and of course the iconic
Terminators Warforged, and even an entire character class (not just a subclass – a whole class, the Artificer) distinctive to Eberron.
The book is absolutely stuffed to the gills with useful material, including a full chapter going in depth on the city of Sharn, the assumed home base of player characters, and its home continent of Khorvaire – shattered by the titular Last War (and with a new war potentially brewing). As well as giving interesting rundowns of the major nations (and unclaimed wild regions) of Khorvaire, the book also gives basic rundowns of the other continents of the world, and in a nice touch they end up not only offering suggestions for why player characters might visit those continents, but also ideas for how groups or individuals or generic trouble from those continents might choose to come to Khorvaire, which is a big help in making those materials relevant to your campaign even if you’ve decided you’re going to focus on Khorvaire rather than going full-on globetrotting.
Tonally speaking, the Eberron setting is sort of D&D fantasy noir, with pulp action and cynical intrigue being more of a feature of the setting than naive Dragonlance-esque heroism. It’s a world where there’s a lot of ways for PCs to do good and be heroes, if that’s the angle you want, or a world where your PCs can act like grimdark Shadowrun characters just as happily. (The “Dragonmarked” families who use their magical gifts to exert monopolies over various activities even provide a fantasy equivalent to multinational corporations.) The book offers a range of suggestions (with some fun rules features) for group concepts – from the agents of monarchs to reporters for a newspaper to researchers for a university and so on and so forth – which allow for a much richer variety of campaign concept than “murderhobos wander around setting, obtaining treasure and killing monsters for the greater good”.
The magical steampunk approach to the setting instantly distinguishes it from any other official setting for D&D, as does its pulp-noir tone, which I suspect helped it get ahead of the pack in the original “pitch a campaign setting idea” competition that it was the winner of. TSR might have been fool enough to produce Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk and Mystara products in parallel, but Wizards of the Coast has always been more savvy than that: yes, those settings have their differences, but they have sufficient overlap in tone and style that those differences are only really apparent to those who have looked into the specific details, whereas if you took Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Planescape you’d have a clutch of settings which are about as different from each other as they can get whilst still being recognisably D&D-ish.
Indeed, Eberron is a world where more or less everything in modern D&D can find a home. I was interested to see that in a couple of spots this book refers you to Xanathar’s Guide or the Ravnica book, which jumps out at me as a slight departure from business as usual in 5E. In the Adventurer’s League and similar official organised play contexts, the rule is that you can build your character based off the Player’s Handbook and one other source – a ruling which is essential to allow Wizards to sustainably expand the game. It means that the number of combinations in character generation they have to consider is capped – you can’t do that thing from 3.X-era character optimisation where you cherrypick options from a whole swathe of different supplements which were never envisioned as all being used in the same campaign at once, let alone being used to generate a single player character, in order to produce something absurd.
It does seem like that to properly support Eberron, a lot of careful work has been done to make sure that everything has come out right. The Artificer is something which has been playtested via the Unearthed Arcana releases on the Wizards’ website for a good long while, and 2018 saw a first-draft 5E treatment of Eberron released via the DM Guild scheme. Evidently, Wizards only wanted to release the setting book when they were satisfied that they had the rules infrastructure in place to support it, but I’m glad they finally got around to it; by embracing the quirks of the D&D systems and monsters and whatnot, Eberron ends up being a much richer and more interesting setting than your typical “Midwestern American values, Renaissance Fair aesthetic” fantasy world.