This article originally appeared in Pyramid #3
EARTHDAWNPublished by FASA
Designed by Chris Kubasik, Greg Gorden
Developed by Lou Prosperi
FASA has risen to the top of the industry by publishing science-fiction games and licenses, so nobody really knows what to expect from Earthdawn, their first original fantasy game.
Like all FASA games, the Earthdawn line is a complete and self-contained entity, combining original mechanics with a detailed and well-supported world background. The Earthdawn game system is not compatible with any other game on the market (although there is a detectable family resemblance to Shadowrun).
The world of Earthdawn is a multi-racial fantasy world in the process of recovering from a magical holocaust. There's been some discussion on the Internet, I understand, about whether FASA intends Earthdawn to be taken to be the same world as Shadowrun, only a couple of dozen millennia earlier. My personal opinion: sure, Earthdawn and Shadowrun can represent two different epochs on the same world, if that's what the GM wants, and if he doesn't push it too hard.
The fundamental idea behind the setting is that Earth's magical field fluctuates regularly over a cycle of several centuries. When it's at its lowest, there's almost no magic; but when magic is at its peak, the walls between the worlds weaken and demonic horrors (called, logically enough, "The Horrors") from another reality can slip through. This is called "The Scourge."
Normally in these crisis (which usually last several decades) the few survivors are reduced to utter savagery, from which they only slowly recover as the magical tide ebbs and the Horrors are forced to retreat back to their home plane. However, the most recent Scourge was anticipated and the peoples of Earth were able to erect magical defenses -- the most common of which is an underground city protected by Elemental Earth, called a Caer. Not all Caers endured -- many were penetrated by the Horrors and their inhabitants massacred or driven mad. However, many other Caers did survive the Scourge -- enough to preserve most of the pre-Scourge civilization and knowledge.
The game is set about two centuries after the end of the last Scourge. Curiously, something seems to be interfering with the natural magical flux. The magical field of the Earth has apparently stabilized before bottoming out. This is both good and bad -- it's good because there's enough ambient magic to make practical magery possible, but bad because the magic is also sufficient to allow a few Horrors to cling to our reality.
The neat thing about Earthdawn's setting is that it provides a completely logical framework for all the traditional fantasy roleplaying adventures. In D&D-style games, the realism-minded player is forever wondering, "if this kingdom is so ancient and civilized, why is this treasure-filled, haunted ruin sitting undisturbed ten miles outside the capital city?"
In Earthdawn, everything has its place. For intrigue or urban adventure, the PCs need only stay in one of the several major cities that survived the Scourge. For protracted wilderness quests, there are thousands of miles of abandoned wilderness waiting to be recivilized. And for good, old-fashioned dungeon crawling, the landscape is liberally dotted with broken Caers and the ruins of abandoned pre-Scourge cities.
Humans are not the only race in Earthdawn. In fact, they're not even the most important race -- Dwarves tend to dominate the interracial society both politically and intellectually. The total roster of races includes the five traditional races also found in Shadowrun -- Dwarves, Elves, Humans, Orks and Trolls (trolls are more like GURPS Ogres), in addition to three new races. These are the T'Skrang (swashbuckling, tailed amphibians), the Windlings (diminutive winged humanoids) and the Obsidimen (phlegmatic stone-creatures). Within the nonhuman races, there are several intriguing sub-groups, including the Troll Crystal Raiders, tribes of feared sky-Vikings in flying warships; the Ork Scorchers, mounted plains barbarians; and the Blood Elves.
The Blood Elves will probably be great favorites of those who prefer their fantasy dark and grim. During the Scourge, the Elven court's magical defenses started to fail. In desperation the Elves, knowing that the Horrors were attracted to positive emotions, magically modified themselves so that thorns sprouted out through their flesh, causing eternal, painful wounds. In conquering their pain, the Elves also conquered their emotions, which held the Horrors at bay. The full cost of this operation to the sanity and souls of the Blood Elves is still being assessed.
There's lots more cool stuff in the world of Earthdawn. Political conflict is provided by the friction between the benevolent, multi-racial territories of Barsaive and the expansionist Theran empire. The Therans expand their power and influence primarily through the trade and conquest made possible by their fleet of flying traders and warships, some as big as a small town.
The gods (called "Passions") walk the earth and can be encountered physically. Ancient dragons guard their memories of the remote past as fiercely as they guard their treasures. There's even a sea of flame where the brave crews of flying ships fish for magically-potent nodules of elemental fire.
Earthdawn mechanics are unique and a bit complex (especially when compared with such currently popular non-hierarchical games as Vampire and Amber Diceless), but they also seem to be consistent and quite playable.
Character creation is mostly class-based (Earthdawn character classes are called disciplines), and characters also have skill levels (called circles). Character creation is an involved equation involving race, discipline, rolled and figured attributes, talents (magical abilities) and skills. A few Shadowrun-style character archetypes are also provided, to serve as examples and for the benefit of those who might not have the time, experience or inclination for the full process.
The most unique thing about Earthdawn PCs is that everybody uses magic (this does not mean that everybody in the world uses magic, just all PCs). Characters are either adepts or magicians. Adepts are those whose magical abilities are limited and overshadowed by other abilities -- thief adepts, swordsmaster adepts, troubadour adepts, etc. Magicians are characters to whom magic is the main thing, and their abilities are much more powerful and versatile (their non-magical abilities, of course, are much less potent than an adept's).
The basic rules offer 13 possible disciplines (10 sorts of adepts and three flavors of magicians). While the game offers a good range of character types, I hope FASA plans on expanding the list of disciplines in the future. Just off the top of my head I'd like to see healers, wilderness guides, assassins and traders added as possible adepts, and gamers with a penchant for magic hacking will doubtless come up with countless ideas for new magician disciplines.
Combat and other task resolution is accomplished using a "step system." A full range of polyhedral dice is used. Basically, to accomplish something you roll against a target number determined by the task's difficulty. The better you are at the job at hand, the more dice you get to roll, and the larger the dice will be. This can get rather unwieldy at the upper end, involving rolling up to six dice of as many as four different types (although few PCs will ever get this good). If you roll the highest number on any given dice, you automatically get to roll that die again, adding the new roll to your original total. Thus, there's a measurable chance (however microscopic) of a character accomplishing virtually anything.
At this writing I haven't yet seen the final product, but the preliminary promotional art looks excellent in color, and the physical quality of FASA products is beyond reproach. At Origins, we were able to see some prerelease editions; this hardback will stack up handsomely next to others on your shelf, and the interior illustrates even more strongly the industry's move to clean design.
Although it never becomes bogged down in cliches and avoids outmoded concepts, Earthdawn is, at heart, a very traditional heroic fantasy RPG. In fact it might be, in a very literal sense, the last word in heroic fantasy roleplaying -- as the art of the RPG continues to expand beyond its sword-and-sorcery roots, Earthdawn might just turn out to be the last great FRPG. I predict it's going to be a hit, and a fan favorite for years to come.
-- Chris W. McCubbin
Article publication date: October 1, 1993
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