“The Last War” and The Great War
Influences upon the Ebberon D&D Setting
War: the very thought of it brings to minds untold horrors. War is unique in the history of man primarily because of its duality. At no time have so many men died for so little accomplishment.
World War I has been called “the Seminal Catastrophe” by no few historians, armchair and otherwise [ 1 ],[ 2 ]. Many of us learned the groundwork of what led to the war growing up, either in class, or in any number of documentaries. Everyone in Europe banked on the fact that no one would take a war that far. Surely someone would blink. Calmer heads would prevail, and the whole of Europe (which was, for many people, the only world they knew) would avoid disaster.
One double-regicide and several nations’ worth of blustering later, multiple countries would send their youth into the meat grinder that was the Front, and untold ruin would be all that the 1910s were really known for.
That’s the thing: most people assume no one wants a war. That goes for the people who want to avoid the carnage, and those who would use the threat of said carnage as leverage. Fantasy worlds aren’t very different here, as told by a decent narrative. If you’d like a good lead-up into the absolute tragedy behind World War I, I highly recommend Extra Credits’ “The Seminal Tragedy” [ 2 ].
Nothing motivates characters quite like the overarching struggle found in a war. They’re trying to win it, stop it, or escape it (or possibly rescue someone or something from it). It’s the rare individual who would make a point of ignoring it, whether out of stubborn principles or apathy. The world, or at least a corner of it, is in turmoil and flux. The status quo is likely over, and none can completely sit out that storm. This is where heroes are forged, cowards are lost, and fools are revealed.
War has consequences as well. New rivalries and feuds come about. The United States, France, and Great Britain all had a tumultuous time together when the U.S. was in its infancy. Flash forward a century, and the alliances between the three are as strong as ever; and that’s just the diplomatic level. Think, for a moment, about the cultural effects of wars. Certain nations still hold grudges (several Korean friends of mine have very dim views on the Axis powers from World War II), and many people are displaced. This means cultural upheaval in so many ways across every continent.
But we should also remember the advances that come with war time. Some, being more benign, make their way into the hands of everyday people at some point. Others, made for death and destruction, hopefully never make it past the front. Landmines and mustard gas each come to mind in the case of the Great War. Now ask yourself: how could this be extrapolated further in a world where magic is afoot? What about in a world where both technology (albeit to a lesser degree than the 1910s) and magic exist side-by-side?
The Legacy of War in Eberron
Eberron is a different world entirely when looked at in the large scale; it deals with the big question of what happens next, one that never gets looked at when you hear about stories of war. Although we live in a world shaped by exactly those forces, we rarely if ever look at the ramifications of them.
Keith Baker’s “Eberron” proposal, depicting a world coping with the aftermath of what was called the Last War, won the Wizards of the Coast setting submission contest. War had ravaged the world, and though war was not being waged at the time of the setting, war had changed things irrevocably. Previous allies had become suspicious of one another; even as new technologies had sprung up in the wake of devastation. Five countries had split into multiple smaller ones, and alliances had shifted with respect to those who had once been enemies to maintain their freedom. After 100 years of continuous war, reconstruction was happening much like it had in the American South after the Civil War. Trade routes that just a year before had been closed due to predation by privateers were now open for business. Soldiers were returning home to try to live life and find their place in peacetime society. Furthermore, an entire nation was gone, eliminated by the magical equivalent of a nuclear blast, creating a population of refugees struggling to fit into new homes and new countries, if they could find homes at all—a scenario we see playing out in Europe today. War had changed things in Eberron, and it has created a unique and interesting storytelling opportunity for Dungeons & Dragons since 2004 [ 3 ],[ 4 ].
The idea that our own Great War, as the First World War was called initially, was the direct influence for the Last War seems perfectly logical when you compare the two. The Last War incorporated elements which made World War I unique, most notably the slow, grueling rate which any progress was made. World War I infantry endured the most difficult form of warfare mankind has faced to date: trench warfare. While trench warfare had been in use during the American Civil War, it arguably reached its zenith (or nadir) in World War I [ 5 ]. Soldiers were required to hold positions and advance when the land between enemies could be measured in tens or hundreds of feet yet, each totally unable to make effective military impact for days or months at a time. Grenades, poison gas, artillery, snipers—everything was part of the massive assault on the resolve of the various troops and front lines [ 6 ]. By the end of 1914, Shell Shock (classified today as post-traumatic stress disorder) was thought to have afflicted as many as ten percent of British officers and four percent of enlisted men, with many conflicts of opinion as to the genuineness of the condition and how best to treat it [ 7 ],[ 8 ].
Another major connection the Last War drew from the First World War was technological advance driven by warfare. While battle technology always advances in response to war, it was especially so in the First World War, as this armed conflict could not be fought in the “traditional manner.” There would be no formations marching forward into lines of musket-wielding soldiers, as was seen at battles like Gettysburg. The invention of the rifle extended range and accuracy to firearms while also improving penetrating power against traditional armor. Unlike the arrow, its range was now so great that you might not even see or hear the weapon that killed you. With every infantryman carrying a rifle, marching in the open would prove to be a death sentence. The alternative was to fight from some kind of cover. It was trench warfare which made the First World War particularly special and deadly as the entry to contemporary warfare as we know it [ 9 ].
Facing death in one form or another but not experiencing it is truly psychological torture and probably made life on the front lines a waking hell for everyone involved. Much like the sword of Damocles, the threat was there but impossible to confront directly. Yet that wasn’t the worst part; indeed, that was the newly developed technology. When the opportunity to create a new weapon happens during wartime, it is often used with great efficiency on unsuspecting troops. In the Eberron setting, magical developments among the nations of Khorvare permitted fundamental changes in the way war was waged in the Last War. Karnath’s widespread use of the undead as a major part of its armies made their use as shock troops invaluable for breaching and clearing lines of No Man’s Land, overwhelming defenses by forcing their opponents to expend them against the already-dead. Although undead were not a new thing, the use of the corpses of both friend and foe alike as troops was both jarring and devastating to those facing their former friends and allies in battle. Similarly, Cyre developed the warforged, living constructs to supplement their organic troops with advanced, resilient, and semi-intelligent ones. The warforged, mostly autonomous intelligent animated beings, were issued very special orders and sent to kill the enemy. Due to their intelligence and special upgrade capability, as well as their ability to gain levels in many different classes, this made the warforged potentially better than traditional troops over time [ 6 ].
Similarly, our Great War saw advances deployed to counter the overwhelming advantages of the rifle, which was by then the deadliest infantry weapon before the war over any sword or musket. The development of the airplane allowed for scouting from relative safety high over the trenches, and for air strikes using grenades dropped from altitude, both previously unavailable. The German development of the zeppelin revolutionized air travel and warfare, albeit with significant hazards to the traveler. On the ground, the development of the tank would eventually invalidate trench warfare by using its armored mass as an impervious mobile bunker, rolling clear across the trenches to carry troops safely from one side of the field straight to the other. The rifle itself changed to account for these advances. Against tanks, the anti-tank rifle was developed, creating a 20mm round specifically designed to penetrate tank armor and harm crew or light off ammunition within the tank itself [ 9 ].
Advancements during the course of the Last War, meanwhile, came in the form of military magic, including undead, the warforged, magical artillery, flying mounts, and floating fortresses. However, Baker states that the canon publication regarding the Last War, Forge of War, did not fully account for full breadth of possibilities of what magic could have reached during the war, or suggest answers against such magical battle-borne advancements. Where the rifle was noted to be the primary weapon common among all sides of the First World War, he especially notes that Forge of War does not detail a primary weapon common among all nations which stalemated the Last War for so long, merely its advancements [ 6 ].
Ostensibly, such achievements in magic were not limited to purely military applications. In the post-war setting that is Eberron, Baker shows how magic had been adapted and streamlined to become accessible first to the common soldier and then to the public, just as technology did after both World Wars. During World War II, advances in computing were driven by necessary research and development for rocket guidance by the Germans [ 10 ], and remote turret controls for high-altitude pressurized bombers for the United States [ 11 ], and codebreaking for the British [ 12 ]. Radar systems became a reality because of the need to track attack aircraft before they struck, permitting a timely response; because of sensors such as these, the airplane is one of the safest forms of travel today [ 13 ]. World War II military rations included chocolate bars—not for dessert, but for emergency energy and morale [ 14 ]. The inventor of M&Ms was probably inspired by stories of soldiers in the Spanish Civil War eating beads of hard-shelled chocolate—but these were strictly for the military until after the war [ 15 ].
The military forces of Aundair were the Last War’s magical masters, exemplifying artillery and air power in manners no other nation could match. With a natural talent for handling all manner of flying creatures, the creation of flying ships gave them the power necessary to hold off most attacks on their borders. Yet nothing could have prepared them from an attack from within. The enemy they fought most often eventually convinced over half the country’s land mass—and a fifth of its population—to secede from them. This rankles to this day and may be cause for war in the future. However, one of the most horrific components of the Last War, which many will take as a representation of a nuclear blast destroying and killing all life in the country of Cyre, was not that [ 6 ].
Cyre, the home of the rightful heir to the throne and true ruler of all the kingdoms combined, was attacked by friend and foe alike in an attempted coup. Magically powerful, and hurt and angered by a betrayal, this heir perpetrated an act so vile that a deal may have been made with some otherworldly entities of an evil nature. There are very few spells that could in theory cause the devastation of Cyre on such a level, but the description of the type of damage done it isn’t fire damage, as one would suppose it would be if it were a nuclear blast. In fact, the only historical match to that description would be the dreaded silent killer: Mustard gas. With a smell of musty hay and often colored a yellowish brown, mustard gas causes a slow, painful death by stopping lung function; more notably, long term exposure causes the survivors to have strange cellular mutations [ 9 ]. With all of Cyre being trapped and the gas not letting anything decay, a magical variant of mustard gas seems highly probable. Combine that with the magical mutations and the likelihood increases. While every country had some technological advantage to keep them from being overwhelmed with undead, whether it be warforged, air forces, raw magic, even sheer numbers, Cyre’s leader decided that if the kingdom was to be overthrown by bloody revolution then everything in the kingdom would be destroyed. The entire nation—its armies, the enemies within its borders, even its own people—were killed by the blight [ 6 ].
Follow the money. Well, follow the territory, at least.
With Cyre gone, there was no longer any need to fight. There was no one willing to defend the corpse of Cyre, and no one wanted to conqueror a dead land; the fighting unilaterally stopped and went home. Unfortunately, the wheels of progress don’t stop so quickly; there were people who had just signed up to fight and there were weapon orders that were still being filled. Meanwhile, people come back from war changed in ways that most people never think about. Bill the butcher comes home to his old job, only to see the butchered bodies of his friends and enemies on the battlefield every time he raises his knife. Imagine the leaders of the coup after one hundred years they find themselves the victors: not only have they won, they have ended all opposition. At the same time, the spoils of war are left unclaimed; unlike in most wars, where the losing side is pillaged and ransacked for whatever wealth can be found, the entire wealth of Cyre is trapped behind a wall of certain death. This is perhaps the sweetest revenge any ruler could ever have on their enemies: here is the wealth and magic of an entire kingdom, if only you have what it takes to come get it by wading through the horrifying undead or mutated hordes that guard it [ 6 ].
Logistics are the enemy that no plan survives contact with. My colonel in J.R.O.T.C. was fond of that saying, and it lingers in my head (along with stories about how to be a teetotaler on the front lines of Vietnam). The Influenza of 1918 took a horrendous toll on both sides of the Great War, slaughtering soldier and civilian alike. While the initial fatalities blended in with the horrendous statistics of the time, doctors eventually realized they’d run into a deadly new virus. This forced the development of new techniques, treatments, and medical technology. The world eventually felt respite; though not without great cost [ 16 ],[ 17 ]. Similarly, the Last War was just as responsible for some new innovations.
Then, there is the unpredictability of war, sometimes referred to as a fog. You never know where or who your allies are at some points. The Eastern Front became a very different beast with the coming of the Russian Revolution [ 18 ]. I’m going to reference an old favorite here: the Red Star setting. Imagine if Russia had a more magical uprising. The unpredictability becomes a greater factor. Here we see what Eberron might eventually become: cutting-edge, modern technology seamlessly blended with magic. The two are literally fabricated in a way so as to complement each other’s strengths and shore up potential weaknesses [ 19 ]. War becomes more brutal with that kind of advancement. Perhaps Eberron is gearing its way up (yes, I made a steampunk joke; may the Gods have mercy on my soul) towards something far worse in the future.
As I just pointed out, necessity is the mother of invention. You’ve all heard that maxim more times than you can count. War intensifies necessity more than almost anything. Enter the warforged: autonomous creatures that are as much constructs as they are life. While the events of the war result in no few going free, the conflicts sees armies of these metallic juggernauts clashing upon the many fields of battle [ 6 ].
But what about after the Last War? I’d like you to all consider the Clone Wars. Yes, the ones from Star Wars. Whatever your feelings on the prequels (and I can tell you I definitely have some), Lucas unearthed some interesting territory here. A Jedi commissioned an army of clones to be birthed from the DNA of a single warrior. The resulting, artificially grown troops were trained in combat from birth. Their entire lives were dedicated to offense and defense [ 20 ]. What would the Republic have done with the clones once the Separatists were defeated? Many potential answers exist within the canon, and fans love to speculate themselves.
Some warforged began new lives among the other races of the world. Perhaps the clones might have done the same? Likely they’d be drawn towards different trades, being human in most respects. Still, a “what might have been” scenario is easier to puzzle for them. In the case of the warforged, we need a bit more spelled out for us.
A leader rises among the warforged: The Lord of Blades. His goals are nothing less than continued self-determination for his race, no matter the cost to the peoples who once used them in battle … or to any other lineage, for that matter. Meanwhile, other warforged follow their own destinies, using their talents for war, or perhaps other skills they begin to cultivate outside the battlefield [ 6 ].
Eberron’s The War ended in 996 YK. Campaigns officially begin in 998 YK (though let’s face it, a lot of the campaigns out there definitely take place during the war) [ 6 ]. In the scheme of things, that’s not a lot of time between events—especially when you consider the technology of the world. Even Earth in 1919 had telegraphs, postal services, automobiles, and a series of railway systems. Word of the Armistice took time to get around, nonetheless. That means that fighting continued even after the official cessation of hostilities. While Khorvaire certainly has innovations and magic to boot, it’s still somewhat behind on message conveyance when compared to the early 20th century. The Treaty of Thronehold might not circulate to every corner of the realm for some time yet. That can mean continued fighting for some time, especially for units and ships that went beyond nautical maps.
Wars end, due to attrition, diplomacy, external interference, or—occasionally—outright victory or defeat. The memories of those who lived through it will preserve the struggle and the aftermath, though not always with the same accuracy. That’s doubly true when one species has a lifespan ten times that of their opponents. A goblin might see the battles as being unspeakably long ago, whereas a centuries-old elf looks at those days as being back in their own youth. Lest we forget, the issues after wars end bring about social, financial, and emotional turmoil. Science might get a boost during war, only to wind down when the necessity for more efficient weapons fades. Like Germany in the wake of the Great War, a nation that sees itself as wrongfully arbitrated against will be more likely to seize on a conflict they think will bring them back to the top. There is no world authority in the realms of fantasy to arbitrate disagreements before, during, or after a conflict; at least, not like the U.N. or its predecessor, the League of Nations. I suppose that some long-lived dragons might get involved for the negotiations, but at that point, gods and titans might as well. It’s hard to find a neutral party in a world war, whether on Earth or some far-flung storybook. Fate might not be kind, and the flames of war might be fanned anew. Across all the worlds we’ve come to love in science-fiction and fantasy, heroes and villains alike die by the score.
But then, we get another story out of it, don’t we? I’ll see you all next week. Until then, I’m going to spend a few days getting In Flanders Fields out of my head [ 21 ].
- “With its Five Nations setting, and the baggage following ‘The Last War’, many tropes of this backdrop draw upon the Great War in Europe.” Source: World War 1. Map Of The Western Front Showing The Position Of The Opposing Forces On Nov. 4Product Type:Poster PrintPublisher: Everett Collection. posterazzi.com/world-war-1-map-showing-the-point-on-the-carso-plateau-reached-by-the-italian-forces-under-general-cadorna-in-1917-history-item-varevchisl043ec991/
- “The world of Eberron continues to reinvent itself with each edition.” Source: media.dnd.wizards.com/Eberron-321888_Gallery_Thumb_Overlay.jpg
- “With its airships and pulp fantasy motif, the setting is a compelling one that continues to draw in fans of JRPGs and anime.”
As SFS’s Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cardinal has found his editorial duties at Steam-Funk Studios often reconnect him to parts of fandom he’d have otherwise overlooked. Andrew has DJed, catered, and run travel logistics in the goth scene as DJ Rasclin. Other credentials include staffing for Anime Central and work for the US Census Bureau. As the second of our Senior Editors, he advises on strategy for both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse, remaining a steady guiding hand.
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- Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Directed by George Lucas, screenplay by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, performances by Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, 2002.
- John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” May 1915. Reprinted at greatwar.co.uk/poems/john-mccrae-in-flanders-fields.htm. Accessed 7 Mar 2021. (Ed. note: Leonard Cohen’s recitation is among the best: youtube.com/watch?v=cKoJvHcMLfc, accessed 7 Mar 2021).