I had the pleasure of DM’ing a game of Earthdawn last week. We got together most of the old group from high school and had a full day of gaming. It was great fun, but also displayed the strengths and weaknesses of Earthdawn, which was created in the mid-90s, compared to today’s games.
For those who might not know it, Earthdawn is sort of a high magic post-apocalyptic fantasy world with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft monsters.
Earthdawn’s main strength is its campaign world. It is incredibly rich and detailed and is much more coherent with actual logical explantions for dungons and ruins. Its world is full of jungles and Inca-like ruins, which is a welcome change from the standard ‘European’ setting.
The best part is probably is the way magic is described. There is an astral space layered on top of the real world, and inside that lurks many foul monsters and it has been tainted by the magical apocalypse. At the same time everything has names, and magical patterns that symbolize what it is, which can be viewed by many characters. This creates an extra layer of storytelling, as you can work in important locations or item’s symbolic meaning, and let characters perceive interesting things related to the background or plot. Magical items always have histories, and require deeds and quests to unlock. This is very much opposed to the ‘Detect Magic’ of Dungeons & Dragons.
Therefore for my new D&D campaign, I have merged the Feywilds, the Shadowlands and Astral Space to something more akin to Earthdawn’s astral space, and called it the Warrens (stolen from Steven Erikson’s excellent fantasy novels). They are also path’s to tread, and a place you can go, much like the Spirit World in the Werewolf the Apocalypse game. This takes some rewiring of a number of spells, but I hope it will pay off to make a more interesting magic experience in my campaign.
Earthdawn and Consequences
The Eartdawn system is quite ‘crunchy’. And I certainly had forgotten how long combat can take. One issue is initiative rolls every combat round. The reason for that is good – that some characters gain special advantages if they are acting before their enemy in initiative. But it really slows the game down.
It has one great thing going for though, which I hadn’t realized when I played it in high school. Combat is full of interesting choices. Many of the better combat abilities, such as avoiding an attack, either cost a little bit of damage, or extra magical energy (which you have to buy with experience), and spell casters can speed up the casting of their spells by accepting higher difficulty numbers. All this makes for very interesting combat, where almost every choice has to be weighed against its cost. I like that!
The same can be said for the way you advance your character, but that is another story…
As I noted in a discussion on another RPG blog, it is a shame that the modules made for the game aren’t better. Most of them are railroading a lot, and although full of cool stories, they don’t exploit the backstory well enough.
The Parlainth Box set is one of the best expansions to the game (maybe to any game!), and has a general description of this ruined city and its inhabitants and wonders. It is a great play-ground. But why haven’t they made a fully detailed abandoned Kaer (apocalyptic fantasy shelter against lovecraftian horrors) as a dungeon module? Most of the Kaers in the modules are very small (only 8-12 rooms) and seem very inadequate as long lost self-sustaining communities. Why isn’t there a sandbox module with a village or town in trouble, and a range of adventures and adventure opportunities located around it? Sure the Dwarf Kingdom (Throal) source book comes close, but it only has the story ideas. Not the full mini-adventures.
All in all, I loved coming back to the game. I made a prequel to our very first adventure (Mists of Betrayal), set in Parlainth. But I don’t think I will be running another campaign in it, ever. I feel I have spent enough time in that setting, there is not enough left for me to explore, and I am very fond of the speed and ease of use of the new Dungeons & Dragons.