First released by FASA in 1993, Earthdawn was the game for several of my internet acquaintences back in the day. My friend Joe was such a fan that he formed his own gaming company, Living Room Games, and acquired a license to produce splats, and later an entire Second Edition. As I don't have a habit of being nice to the games I review, I will not be touching LRG's Second Edition out of deference to my old pals, and the Third Edition from Red Bricks LLC is too new for the purposes of this blog, so we'll be examining good ol' First Edition today.
Earthdawn, in all its incarnations, can be described as a sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. Hundreds of years ago, the background goes, the world's magical aura peaked, allowing mindnumbing Horrors from the astral plane to cross over into the material world and wreak all manner of chaos and destruction. This was the time of the Scourge, and during it, most life on the surface of the world was erradicated. However, the "Name-giving" (sentient) races of the world (humans, elves, orcs, trolls, dwarves, etc) were warned of this impending disaster by various wizards and shamans and prophecies, and constructed elaborate, underground cities called "kaers" in which to hide and wait out the destruction. The kaers were sealed shut for centuries while the Horrors plagued the earth; some cities survived unharmed, others were breached by rampaging monsters or natural disasters. The setting's "present day" is about four centuries after the start of the Scourge, when the magical aura has started to subside, and most Horrors have been forced to retreat back to the astral plane. The majority of the surviving kaers have opened and civilization has returned to the surface, though some vast, underground cities remain closed, their populations unaware of the changes taking place over their heads. For those playing along at home, you may have noticed that you can replace "kaer" with "vault" and "Horror" with "atomic bomb," and suddenly you're playing Fallout, four years earlier.
All of this is detailed in the book's extensive background fluff, primarily written "in character," as anecdotes, histories and oral traditions recorded by denizens of the fictional world, and punctuated with beautiful art, ranging from fully realized paintings to atmospheric pen-and-ink drawings. Beyond its postapocalyptic tone, however, Earthdawn sets itself apart from most other fantasy RPGs by largely doing away with linear character progression. Rather than levels, character advancement is measured in "Circles," with each Circle containing a new set of talents and abilities that the character can access. However, acquiring a certain about of experience does not automatically advance a character to the next circle. Rather than the usual XP systems, Earthdawn awards players "Legend Points," which can be used to purchase Karma (which can be spent to improve dice rolls, similar in some ways to Action Points and Action Dice in various d20 flavors), or used to improve Skills, Talents, and other class-related abilities, or finally to gain a new circle alltogether. Furthermore, in the Earthdawn system, dice rolls increase in magnitude by "Steps," representing increasingly potent combinations of dice. The number of dice rolled when a character, for example, swings a broadsword, would be determined by adding their appropriate, governing attribute (Strength) to the Damage Step of the sword. In other words, while most games would assign a static dice value to that big, two handed greatsword, Earthdawn simply assigns it a modifier that improves your overall attack and damage rolls. The degree of improvement corresponds to a combination of dice, noted on the Step/Action table, a portion of which is reproduced below.
Unlike the previous games reviewed here, Earthdawn uses a point-buy system for generating attributes, allowing players a customizable, yet objectively measurable way to design their characters. All characters begin with 66 attribute points to spend. A score of 5 costs 0 points, scores below 5 grant additional points, scores above 5 cost points. My initial attribute array, before adding in racial modifiers, appears below.
Attribute Points: 66
I've buffed up Perception and Willpower, having decided to create a Nethermancer (a magic-user focusing on spirits and other planes of existence), whose spells rely heavily on those two attributes. I've decided to build a T'skrang, part of a race of flamboyant lizard-people. While not entirely optimized for spellcasting, my gaming group has a tradition of off-type lizards, and I felt like joining in. Now, the T'skrang gets a +1 to Dex, Toughness, and Charisma, making my racially modified stats look more like:
With that sort of array, he's strictly a back-row character, but we'll see just what he can do shortly. Before we get to skills and spells and talents, we need to derrive our character's Death Rating (hitpoints), Wound Threshold (amount of damage he can take before suffering an injury), and Unconsciousness Rating (amount of damage he can take before being knocked cold), along with his carrying capacity, movement speed, initiative, and other secondary attributes. Fortunately, there are no complex calculations here; everything is based on the Attribute scores above, converted via a massive table on page 52 of the book.
With that out of the way, now we can get to skills and talents. At start, an Earthdawn character gets one Rank 1 "Artisan Skill," and two ranks worth of "Knowledge Skills." Magic users get one Artisan Skill, Robe Embroidery, so there you have it. Artisan skills are more or less mechanically useless and under normal circumstances, an Earthdawn character will never actually have to make an Artisan skill check; according to the background fluff, individuals who are corrupted by Horrors are unable to concentrate long enough to perform artisan tasks (such as sculpting, weaving, etc), so having an Artisan skill proves the character is uncorrupted. Now, because Nethermancers deal with weird magic from other realities, I'm going to go ahead and spend two ranks on Knowledge: Horrors.
With skills assigned, we get into the real mechanical meat of the character, Talents. Talents are where each discipline becomes mechanically distinct from one another; an archer will have talents for aiming and evasion, a cavalryman will have talents for riding and melee combat, etc. In the case of my Nethermancer, he starts with access to the following First Circle talents: Karma Ritual, Read & Write Language, Read & Write Magic, Spellcasting, Spell Matrix, Spell Matrix, and Thread Weaving (Nethermancy). The character has 8 rank points to distribute among these talents, which affect the rate at which he regains Karma points, his ability to learn new languages and spells, and the difficulty he has casting those same spells. I'm pouring two points into Nethermancy,one into each Spell Matrix, two into Spellcasting and one each into R&W Magic and Karma. This allows me to store one First Circle spell in each Matrix, regain one Karma point each time I use my ritual, and increase my steps for casting a spell by 2, my steps for weaving a complex spell by 2, and my steps for learning a spell by 1. For the spells themselves, I have access to 7 "Spell Points," (equal to the Perception step), which can be used to purchase spells from any circle. First Circle spells cost 1, Second Circle cost 2, etc; since this little lizard can only cast First Circle spells, I'm focusing on those, though you can purchase from any circle; you just can't access those spells to your character advances to the required Circle himself.
Bone Dance (one point)
Command Night Flyer (one point)
Spirit Grip (one point)
Undead Struggle (one point)
Insect Repellent (one point)
Shield Mist (two points)
Of these, I can't cast Shield Mist yet, but it never hurts to be prepared for later. Spirit Grip and Insect Repellent go into the Matrices for immediate access. Now, for actually casting these spells, the rulebook suffers from a serious case of vagueness. Spirit Grip requires no threads, and can be cast by a Spellcasting test, rolling dice for the character's Perception step + his Spellcasting rank. In this case, that would be Step 9, or 1d8+1d6. Insect Repellent, however, requires a Thread to be Woven first; so, the character spends one round Weaving the spell, and then makes his Spellcasting check once he's done Weaving. In order to Weave a Thread, the character must pass a Thread Weaving test. The book, however, does not say what to roll for a Thread Weaving test, in any section that I could find detailing the magic rules. Presumably, one rolls the appropriate Attribute (probably Perception) + the Thread Weaving rank, as with Spellcasting, but it could also be designed so that I just roll on the Thread Weaving rank. If Rank + Attribute, then I'd be rolling 1d8 + 1d6 again and casting fairly consistently, but if I'm supposed to just roll on the Thread Weaving rank, that's 1d4 - 1, which produces fairly unfavorable casting results.
My inability to locate the Thread Weaving Test information is indicative of a larger problem with first edition Earthdawn, that being the complete lack of organization in the rulebook. The book is heavy on fluff - beautiful, well written, incredibly atmospheric fluff - which lays out a world that is, quite frankly, one of the most exciting that I've ever seen in a stock pen-and-paper campaign. However, while the writers and editors have an amazing talent for creating fiction, they were pretty bad at laying out mechanical information in a way that makes it easily accessable. The book discusses the same features, such as Thread Weaving, in multiple sections (Talents, The Working of Magic, and Spellcasting), each section referring back to the other sections for more information, no single section providing all of the needed information to use the mechanic. Hopefully, later editions resolved these organizational and editorialerrors. Certainly, if I were going to actually play the game, I would grab the more recent Third Edition.
My ever-supportive fiancee will not be joining in the character creation this week, as her new, absurdly early work schedule is kicking her ass at the moment. Hopefully, her sheets will return next week, as things settle down around the office.
All images above are sourced from the now out-of-print Earthdawn First Edition, published by FASA.
This ancient, Earthdawn fansite from the 1997 Internet contains a good portion of the First Edition rules.