Scale of Complexity can sometimes be good.
Another Nostalgia post, which basically is a good thing because it means I'm getting back on track with keeping this thing up to date. Once again I'm going back to a game which I used to play, and haven't had the chance to continue playing for a little while. In this instance we are going to look at another roleplaying game. As with last time I'm going to cover what I see as the three main areas of a game: The background, the system, and then the enjoyment level.
Though, always remember, as with any RPG, some games can win or lose depending on who introduced you to it and ran the games. Believe me, the following game was not for the faint-hearted.
Welcome to one of the most complicated games I have ever played. Thing is though, Earthdawn did it with such aplomb that you very easily forgave it all its complexities. The main thing, however, that drove all of this forgiveness was just how different it was, to anything else on the market. Earthdawn is a classic, a classic which continues to be developed, but in my opinion it is the second edition of the game that was always worth a really close look at. Unlike Deadlands, however, even the later versions of the game have used the same system, the same background and the same fiddly dice mechanics of the original. So lets start with the background.
Welcome to Earth (yes it is meant to be this earth, just a slightly different version of it). Unlike in our written history, the truth about the Earth is that is goes through a cycle of magic rising and falling. As magic drops the only thing that is left behind is humanity (and over time our technology), but as magic rises more and more species and "things" can exist. In fact Earthdawn is set in the same universe as Shadowrun, with Shadowrun basically being set when magic starts to rapidly ascend again. Anyway, back to the nostalgia. The last time magic was on the rise (quite a long time ago), an Elven scholar realised that at the height of the magic cycle a rather nasty set of creatures called Horrors come into being. These things not only feed on the massive amount of magic, but also any living thing that contains it. Plus, those tasty morsels are even more appetising when they are saturated with Fear. Of course it doesn't help that all name-giving races are inherently magical, even the humans (and there are rather a lot of them).
So our Elf decides that he has to work out how to beat, or at least survive, the arrival of the Horrors. Starting as just a library, and over time expanding to a grand city, then the Theran Empire. The empire traded the secrets they discovered for slaves from around the local area, ultimately demanding tribute to get the clever wards and protective mechanisms the other nations needed to get through the Cataclysm to come. With the spells and plans of Thera, the people build huge underground cities to protect their people, mostly using the wards designed by the Theran Empire to stop the Horrors getting in. Problem was, in some places it happened far too soon. Some Kaer's weren't even ready, others only just sealed the gates in time. However, when the Horrors came, more people lived through the event than perhaps would have done before.
The game world starts just 400 years after all of this (just?). Players come from an area called Barsaive, where the Kaer's have begun to open again. The world outside is a mess, creatures that once where normal and passive are now aggressive and changed. That's just the fuana, flora and the land itself aren't much better. More importantly for the characters though, the local Dwarven Kingdom of Throal aren't willing to be a slave nation anymore, and have rebelled against what little forces of Thera are up and about already. Some Kaer's still sleep, and it is clear that others either opened far sooner, or were broken into by the Horrors. There is also a sneaking suspicion that not all of the Horrors are gone, and that while it is the weaker Horrors that are left, a weak Horror isn't exactly pleasant to meet.
Taking it one step at a time
So the principle of the Earthdawn mechanics was extremely complicated to the uninitiated. Certainly reading the rulebook wasn't a sure fire way of learning how the game worked. I once said to someone that "should you ever want to play Earthdawn, make sure at least half of the group have already played it before". Doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement I know, but all that I meant by it was that for novice players it could be a little daunting.
The good stuff of Earthdawn was that there wasn't any of the standard troupe about races and classes.
I don't think I can list all of the classes, there were so many, but I will highlight a few: Warrior, Sky Pirate, Necromancer, Elementalist, Duelist, Ranger, Archer, Acrobat.. it went on an on, with more being added to the list each time a new source book came out. The classes were actually called Adepts, and this was because every single hero kind of used magic. The idea was that anyone in Barsaive could, and often had to be, a bit of a soldier, but the heroes knew how to tap into the innate magic of the world to do even more impressive things. To represent this, you could buy skills, and this is where it got really complicated.
Each "step" you bought in a skill made you better at that skill. With me so far I assume. However, unlike other games, instead of increasing how much of a + you got to your roll, or changing the target number, instead it completely changed the dice you got to roll to do your skill checks. Step 1 was 1d4-2, step 2 was 1d4-1 and step 3 was 1d4.. easy enough so far. Step 4 was 1d6, 5 was 1d8, etc etc. by step 8 you got to 2d6 and then up to 1d8+1d6... it was a good job the step table was on the character sheet in 2nd edition. Modifiers, like fear, generally changed which step you were on, so it could get very complicated.
Magic, actually lets say spell casting because it is different, was also a new experience for any long term player. Unlike DnD, where you picked a spell, rolled a dice and saw if it worked, a true Spellcaster could be using up some of their actions, or even rounds, "building" their spell. The game paid you off for this delay, by generally allowing you to blow the head off of something you hit (if you hit) that a warrior may have to spend some time actually hurting, but that whole click and boom approach to magic just wasn't there.
So was this actually fun?
Dear lord yes.
So here is the thing. After a while a +1 each level of a skill is just boring. You don't get a scale of power. Those click and boom spells are great, but sometimes you are horribly reliant on them (and there was a way to get something like it in Earthdawn, but I don't have enough time here). As a spell caster in Earthdawn you really felt the raw and hard work you had to go through the get magic to do what you wanted, and sometimes the soul crushing horror when you can make the spell form, but can't actually throw it in the right direction.
The background, also, made sure that the game worked. Remember what I said about everyone out there can be a soldier, but only the heroes could do the cool things. Well, at rank 1 you were more or less the guy that was a soldier, you weren't much better than the normal people in the world. So you start out doing the same thing they do, man the lines, hold back the local animals who aren't quite right, deal with the small time crones and crooks. Do it enough though, and you really feel things shift around you, suddenly you are the daring heroes running in to save the army against the Horrors, you are meeting the Blood Elves of Thornwood (not actually the best idea) and diving into Parlainth as it reappears from the mist (a terrible idea).
What Earthdawn does, extremely well, is the concept of scale. Not only of how much more powerful you become, but the scale of the world, the scale of the dangers and the scale of change from being a new Hero to something seriously special. Yet at the same time, you could easily be put back into a box and slapped about a bit if you got too big for your boots.
Plus the diversity of what you could play. It might well be daunting at first, but there were few games which allowed you to truly be something different each and every time you made a character and progressed them through the ranks. Warhammer Fantasy RPG is probably the only game I have played that really made you feel like your character was growing and advancing in a unique way. WFRPG probably does it better, but thats for another post.
There are four editions of this game now. A game so good that when the original company went
And never, ever, go to Parlainth.