This is the third part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.
The sapient races within Earthdawn are known as Namegivers, though not all Namegivers are appropriate for PCs (dragons come to mind). They feature fantasy staples (dwarf, elf) as well as original entries (obsidimen, t'skrang), but all are at least somewhat unique in execution. Examples of this are the dwarf love of debate and bright color, and the contrast of orks as both raiders and the staunch defenders of personal freedom.
Each race has special abilities and attribute modifiers, though these are not directly balanced against each other. The disparity is addressed through Karma. Namegivers with less to offer mechanically have greater access to Karma and the benefits that it provides. Karma allows for temporary bonuses to magical abilities and makes a significant difference. I have never seen a character feel that they were at a disadvantage because of their racial selection.
Here is a list of the playable Namegivers in Earthdawn and things that I like, find notable, or find myself writing about them:
Dwarf: I have never particularly considered myself a dwarf person; maybe it's the stereotypical borderline alcoholism and prevalence of Scottish accepts. That being said, I like the dwarfs in Earthdawn. They are progressive intellectuals and builders. The desire to build manifests in both physical and the abstract; amazing architecture and seeking an ideal civilization. They are the cultural center of the default setting, Barsaive, as well as the most populous race. They have a decidedly ancient Greek feel, as well as a love for bright colors and company. The only issue I have is with the default attributes - high toughness and strength, with a penalty to charisma. This does not really match with the fluff as presented; they are merchants and politicians, not doughty soldiers. A secondary problem is that there are three other Namegivers that have very similar attribute spreads, but all of the get more strength (which is generally sexier than toughness) than dwarfs. This creates a situation where I have rarely seen a PC dwarf despite being about a third of the population. To fix this, I have a house-ruled set of attributes that I feel matches more with the dwarfs of the setting and presents something far less stereotypical.
Elf: Once the center of the culture was within the borders of Barsaive, but since the events of the Scourge things have changed. There is a profound sadness to those elves outside of the traditional seat of power, knowing what they have lost. This is matched by a sense of distrust from other Namegivers; not much is known about the Blood Wood and the Blood Elves that call it home and no one is making an effort to fix that. Beyond this, the elves are still a people of grace and love for all that is beautiful in life.
Human: The major difference for humans and most fantasy settings is that they are only the third most populous race within Barsaive. That is a basic assumption that can be difficult to internalize at times and make come to life at the table, but it can also have a profound affect on how things play out - it makes things feel different and highlights that fact. Humans still maintain their classic trope of diversity. How this is portrayed mechanically is interesting. Typically humans are a go to choice for players that do not want to get too mixed up in mechanics, but in Earthdawn they are by far the most mechanically involved choice. Their racial ability, Versatility, is complex in application, but powerful, particularly when it comes to rounding out a Group. It just requires quite a bit of system mastery to get the most out of it, or even use it.
Obsidiman: Without a doubt the most unique race in a game known for unique races. Despite their name, obsidimen are genderless and formed rather than born. It's complicated, strange and not well explained - obsidimen have little interest in explaining something that no one else can really begin to conceptualize. This is just the tip of the iceberg on why I consider them a roleplaying challenge, to put it lightly. What makes them so interesting is also their greatest weakness: they are so alien, so different, that it is hard to come to terms with what their motivations are. The Liferock is the beginning and end of their existence. It is where they emerge from and return to, melding their memories with those of their brothers. They exist outside of the Liferock for 800 to 900 years, after which they return and don't leave anymore, becoming a more-or-less permanent part of the gestalt consciousness. They truly exist in a different way than the rest of the Namegivers and that can make them hard to integrate. However, they can also be very compelling, often stoic characters when they work.
Ork: Another interesting take on a classic fantasy race, also one that shows some of the connections to Shadowrun. Orks occupy some interesting creative space. They are often portrayed as villains - ork raiders, especially the dreaded cavalry Scorchers, are a plague across the land to the people trying to rebuild. In addition, they represent a significant underclass; once a slave race that won freedom and created a kingdom. However it was lost prior to the Scourge in a pointless war. Though the victory over them was Pyrrhic as the opposing kingdom fell during the Scourge. There are also those that are dedicated to ending slavery in all forms and bringing justice, as well as those that seek to reclaim and rebuild their lost glory and pride. As the second most plentiful race, and would likely be the first if they didn't die from violence so often, their stories are likely involve prejudice and working against a system that doesn't seem to want them. Indeed, the entire storyline of Cara Fahd (the ancient ork kingdom) can be particularly moving and tragic.
T'skrang: Easily the most popular race from Earthdawn, the t'skrang are flamboyant matriarchal lizard people that have a nearly unmatched exuberance for life. Flashy in dress and behavior, I have never had a group that did not include a t'skrang and it is not hard to see why - they are just fun. Most of their society exists along the major rivers where they control the trade in family merchant houses. The various houses exist in fierce competition with each other and it is not uncommon for conflict to breakout between rival crews on the riverboats.
Troll: There are two groups of trolls within Barsaive, the highland and the lowland. The lowland trolls are those that have integrated into society at large, though still maintain many of the same traditions. Highland trolls are who most of the stories are told. Living high in the peaks, they raid across the land in their airships and with crystal weapons; high fantasy vikings. No matter where they call home, trolls are all honorable and proud and it is wise to not forget that fact. At around nine feet tall, that is a lot of troll to have angry at you. Trolls are another very popular Namegiver for reasons that should be obvious and I can count the number of games I have run that did not include a troll on one finger.
Windling: An example of how many of the default assumptions which most fantasy world exist on are not quite the same for Earthdawn. Windlings are 18 inches and can fly, which presents some unique capabilities for any group to have access. It is easily to equate them to halflings or kender, though not entirely accurate. They are curious about everything and come from very tight-knit communities that share everything; life is rough when you're under two feet tall. This means that they are also absolutely fierce protectors of those they would consider family (including most friends) and rarely think only of themselves. They have some rather unique connections to the world, not the least of which is a natural ability to perceive astral space. Something to be aware of are windling spellcasters. All of the disadvantages windlings have are based around size and strength, receiving compensation in defenses and amazing access to Karma. For a spellcaster, these disadvantages are not disadvantages at all, and the ability to fly means that most dangers are trivial to avoid. I have found that it can be a potentially disruptive character. On the other hand, there is a windling-only melee Discipline, the Windmaster, that capitalizes on the strengths of windlings to make a truly dangerous tiny fighter.
Onto a related topic that highlights another part of Earthdawn that I enjoy. Names are an intrinsic piece of the magic that pervades the setting and system. One of the more subtle, but powerful aspects of Earthdawn. The importance placed on Names can be seen throughout the game and you will interact with them, but as you grow in power their place and importance will become more prominent in ways that I don't necessarily want to spoil right away.
Within the world of Earthdawn, only Namegivers can grant Names through their actions. This is one of the things, perhaps the most significant thing, that makes Namegivers special; Names are powerful. Everything with a True Pattern has a Name, and vice versa. Once something has a Name it becomes alive in a way, it has transcended simply being a place or an object and gained the ability to affect its own fate. This will not necessarily manifest in any particular fashion, but the more powerful the Name, the more events will bend around it.
It is important to note that despite how powerful Horrors are, they are not Namegivers. They can receive Names through interactions with Namegivers, which is a terrifying thing. A Named Horror has a malevolence that transcends and they begin to define their existence through their deeds. There is a danger in Naming things, however once a Horror has a Name, it also becomes an individual with eccentricities and weaknesses. Through preparation, a Group can take advantage of this and they will certainly need all of the help they can get.
Changing a Name will inherently change the Pattern and it will never be the same. A Namegiver that does this will lose all of the Threads Woven to their Pattern, and will begin to lose all connection to their old life. Objects and places undergo a similar process, though require access to a major part of the Pattern, and this decision should never be undertaken lightly. Certainly the elves know that well, and what was once Wyrm Wood stands as a continual cautionary tale of hubris for all.