Rating - 4: useful for any campaign (buy it)
Gaming book: Dungeons and Dragons, 3.5 Edition.
Role-playing games lie along a continuum from crunchy to fluffy. "Crunch" is rules mechanics: the game qua game. Without crunch, you are just playing make-believe, which is fine but is not what we are doing here. High crunch games hew closely to strict rules, and high crunch books have detailed rules, mechanics, and applications of them. "Fluff" is the story, the imaginative part of the game. Without fluff, you are just engaging in mathematical calisthenics, again fun but not what we are doing here. High fluff games make less use of dice and calculators, and high fluff books go extensively into settings, history, and personality. Good games can lie anywhere along that continuum, and the best games have excellent fluff with the right amount of crunch to make it work in practice.
This book has the best fluff ever.
Normally setting-specific material gets knocked down a rating point almost by definition. If you do not play in the Forgotten Realms, Realms-specific material is not useful to you except as inspiration for your own. This book is excellent not just for the quality of its writing but for its enormous potential to be used in any campaign. If you play Eberron, great -- here is how to use the dragonmarked houses. If not, great -- you have even more flexibility in how you use the ideas in the book, and they are still useful.
Dragonmarked takes ideas that were skipable in the original Eberron campaign setting and expands them each into something you could base a campaign around, if not multiple campaigns, or a great tool for a story arc, or just something convenient to have in the background. You have thirteen houses, each of which has interests to advance, internal politics, and relationships with the other houses, along with connections to the politics of the game world and other organizations. The level of detail is adequate for whatever degree to which you want to use the dragonmarked houses, and if you need to go a level up or down, that is there, too.
Let's take House Ghallanda as an example. You read the original book and say, "Great, there are halflings who have minor magical powers that make them better innkeepers. None of my players is going to burn a feat for that, and where am I going to go with this?" At the simplest level, this is a game mechanic for franchises. Anywhere worth going will have a Gold Dragon Inn, so this cuts down on your work in designing part of the setting; if you use the cliché adventure opening of "a shadowy figure approaches you in a tavern," it makes a lot of sense here, because all the wandering adventurers stay at the Gold Dragon Inn.
What about the house itself is interesting? It is the most widespread information network in the world -- innkeepers and bartenders keep their ears open and their mouths shut. If you want to know who you would talk to about x in this town, ask the Ghallanda representative. He has friends, and his friends have friends, and they have a web of favors that could let you run a halfling mafia story.
Let's go one level deeper and get inside the House. Maybe you are flitting across the globe along that web of favors, giving and receiving, or maybe you are getting yourself into the baron's ball with the caterers (your cousin in the House). Your family still has ties to nomadic halflings on the Talenta Plains. You are in the traditional role of providing succor to visitors and travelers, if you wanted to try something with an ancient Greek theme, of course balanced by the family's profits, if you wanted to try something with a modern corporate theme. You also have a line of poison-wielding anti-hero assassins in the family tree, so watch it.
How about House Ghallanda in relation to the others? You are connected to architects from House Thuranni, entertainers from House Phiarlan, and you might have a bouncer from House Deneith or Tharashk. In some locations, you might share space with House Sivis's message depot, and are the equivalent of an airport motel around House Orien's overland routes or House Lyrandar's airships. House Ghallanda is one of the least political houses, but you get all these chances to work in, with, or against the other houses' plans. This does not even mention the differences in philosophy with the other halfling dragonmarked house, and how you feel about those ancestral ties.
That would be the quick version of things you can do with the least dynamic houses. If you want to talk about a major power player in the setting like House Cannith, the rabbit hole goes still deeper.
Let's say you do not want to use the dragonmarked houses at all. These are still great inspirations for other organizations or characters. Each house comes with a coherent and/or conflicted approach to the world, and you can use those as thought-through philosophies. Mercenary halfling healers? A respected order of knights that cannot decide whether to collapse or to take over the world? Low-key half-elf racial supremacists? Yes, I can run with this!
Do I sound excited? Good ideas, great execution, excellent detail and levels of detail, useful for plug-and-play while integrated into a larger world. This is a home run. Let's go to the chapter-by-chapter (4 chapters, 160 pages).
The ten pages of Introduction are good, rather than a paragraph of flavor text in a mostly useless page. It sets the stage and structure for Chapter 1, giving a brief history of the dragonmarked houses, their internal structure, and the roles players can take in relation to the houses.
Half the book is "The Houses," thirteen of them. Each section starts with an introduction to the house, which varies in length based on the house's history or current state of disarray. Houses with large or recent problems, like fractured House Cannith, have long descriptions, while stable House Jorasco needs only half a page of introduction. "House X as an Organization" lists the guilds each house controls, how one joins the house, the benefits of membership and the Favored in House feat, how one advances, what sort of missions the house has for its agents, its status and relations in the world, and its holdings. You also get adaptation recommendations for different ways to use the house and a sample NPC (no repetitive text!).
Given my comments that started this review, I need to add little here. The house descriptions are good, useful, and compelling, and the consistency of presentation means that each gets similarly strong treatment. Some are sections are weaker than others, and I am particularly fond of the House Jorasco description.
Chapter two has the requisite "Prestige Classes," one for each of the twelve dragonmarks (across 40 pages). (Yes, twelve dragonmarks, thirteen houses: one of the houses split.) They mostly extend the houses' signature abilities into combat. The Blade of Orien uses movement in combat, the Storm Sentry uses weather, and the Unbound Scroll uses the written word. The Silver Key is similar to the Dungeon Delver. The two halfling house PrCs are both considered aberrations in their houses: poisoners with the Mark of Hospitality and plague-carriers with the Mark of Healing.
Chapter three is ten pages of "New Feats," all of which require a dragonmark of some kind. Each house gets a feat or two specific to its mark. Each class gets a feat like fast healing while raging. You can add new powers from the Spell Compendium to your dragonmark or acquire new options for action points. Aberrant marks get attention, too, with ways to advance and enhance them as one can do with the true dragonmarks. Most of these are weak character options given the feat investments required, but a Dragonmarked Heir with feats to burn will find further advancement here.
We conclude with a dozen pages of "Magic and Dragonmarks." Most of them are like the feats, tools for the dragonmarked, but some are tools against the dragonmarked and others relate to dragons. These also vary with dragonmark strength, so those who have invested in greater and Siberys marks will get more from the spells. You also get three new dragonmark items. The book ends with three pages on aberrant marks, discussing history and perceptions thereof. Aberrant marks get scattered attention throughout the book, but they remain a side story to the focus on the houses.