This article originally appeared in Pyramid #7
BARSAIVEPublished by FASA
Written by Chris Kubasik
Barsaive is the first boxed campaign set for FASA's fantasy roleplaying game, Earthdawn. For those of you who tuned in late, Earthdawn is set in a fantasy world recovering from several centuries of occupation from the aptly named Horrors, powerful malevolent creatures from another plane. But the cycle of magic is on the wane, and most (but not all) of the Horrors have been forced back to their home dimension. The native survivors are just now emerging from their kaers, magically-protected places of refuge, though many of the kaers fell to the invaders during the long centuries of darkness.
As Chris McCubbin wrote in his review of the original Earthdawn game in Pyramid #3, the setup makes for an appealingly logical fantasy world that still has room for tons of adventure. There are vast uncharted areas to reclaim and resettle, political intrigues in the cities, power plays between empires trying to regain lost glory, and good old dungeon crawls for players who just want to explore abandoned and overrun kaers and take on whatever's inside for the accumulated goodies of an entire community. This is not to say anything bad about the game's rules (they're fine), but the strongest part of Earthdawn is the game background.
And that strength is exactly what Barsaive capitalizes on. The boxed set contains two books, a 64-page Gamemaster Book and the 128-page Explorer's Guide to Barsaive. The Gamemaster Book is chock full of ideas for a referee to use in original adventures -- major characters that can be the PCs' mentor, employer, or even foe; legends that are told around Barsaive campfires that could lead the characters into wild adventures whether the tales are true or not; dozens of secret societies, all with their own agendas and enemies; and NPCs, new treasures and new creatures. There are enough ideas in this book to keep any Earthdawn campaign going for years.
Perhaps even more impressive is the Explorer's Guide. As has now become common in RPG supplements, the Explorer's Guide is written as if it was a book of Barsaive history, compiled by the kingdom's finest scribes under the direction of Merrox, Master of the Hall of Records of the Great Library of Throal, as commanded by King Varulus III. Sections include a history of the Scourge (as the 400-year invasion by the Horrors is called), geography, politics, travel, daily life, flora and fauna, and even a section on the Theran Empire. Each section is written by a different fictional author, and his or her point of view is an important part of what's written. Other scribes have added marginal comments to support, disagree with, or sometimes just expand on the main text. This is the same technique FASA has put to such good use in their Shadowrun sourcebooks, where sourcebook-type data is overrun with comments from hackers around the world tossing in their two cents' worth. It works well here, too, making the reader feel like he's reading a real history penned by thinking, breathing people.
There's other neat things in the package, too. The 36 color trading cards of various magical items and creatures are not only pretty but have some use in the game as well. The monster cards have stats on the back, making them a useful reference, and the magic item cards can be given to players to represent that their character owns that particular item (the backs of the magic item cards are left blank so that the players don't know everything an item does . . . ).
You can't do a boxed campaign set about a fantasy world without a map, right? FASA delivers a wonderful map, pretty enough to hang on a wall, that has a really neat movement system built right in. Instead of using hexes or inches or other wargame conventions to govern movement and distance, we're put right into the game world. The characters adventuring in Barsaive would use a map marked like the one in the game box, along with a gadget known as Shantaya's Sextant. Lining up the sextant on the map in relation to well-known landmarks and the position of the twelve constellations of the Earthdawn zodiac, PCs would plot a course to their destination. And that's exactly what the players have to do, too, thanks to a cardboard die-cut version of Shantaya's Sextant that comes with the game. Just another example of the great lengths the authors have gone to in order to draw the players deeper into the game world.
This is an excellent game supplement, reasonably priced. For people who play Earthdawn more than once a year or so, it's an absolute must-have. For everybody else, it's just a must-have.
-- Scott Haring
Article publication date: June 1, 1994
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