This is the fourth part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.
Most actions that require rolling in Earthdawn are performed using a Skill or a Talent. They are similar in many ways, but also different - only adepts get access to Talents and that is mechanically the core of what sets adepts apart from everyone else.
Skills are mundane abilities, ranging from artisan to combat and knowledge applications. Improving them takes a teacher, Legend Points (experience points), money (plenty of money) and time (precious time). They are also limited to Rank 10. The costs become progressively more expensive, with extensive downtime required to advance them. In addition finding a teacher for the higher Ranks can be a task in itself. This is all by design as it showcases the inherent advantages adepts have over non-adepts in their chosen areas.
Every character at least starts with artisan and knowledge skills. The former because it is a commonly held belief that no one touched by a Horror can create a thing of beauty; a common greeting ritual is to share artisan skills and display that you are capable of creating something beautiful, thus free from the influence of Horrors. The latter because they are exceptionally useful. Knowledge skills come up more in Earthdawn than any other game I have played. That may be because every character receives them by default, or perhaps because of how strange and dangerous the setting can be. It is also notable that these types of skills cannot generally be replicated with a Talent.
Earthdawn Classic expanded beginning character's access to skills and Third Edition increased them further. This change is nice as it allows you to round out a character with more than just the Talents from their Discipline, without actually increasing the "power" of starting characters, just the range of challenges they can competently face. As a houserule, I allow characters to improve Skills without a teacher for significantly increased time spent training - you are reinventing the wheel, after all; though it has rarely come up.
Talents are explicitly magical abilities, some of them more overt than others: Throwing Weapons is superlative skill with anything designed to be thrown, while Lock Picking will conjure a telekinetic lock pick for you, and Air Dance floats you above the ground and grants supernatural speed. Improving them takes Legend Points and 8 hours of meditation. They are limited to Rank 15. These are significant advantages over Skills in pretty much every way - Talents are better and why adepts have major advantages over non-adepts as they increase their Legend, with the explicit caveat that if they lose their magic for whatever reason, they lose access to their Talents.
As discussed previously, Talents are an expression of the connection to your Discipline. In Third Edition there are two types of Talents, Discipline and Option. Discipline Talents represent abilities that every practitioner of your Discipline has; they are used for advancing in Circle and Karma can be spent on them. Talent Options are the areas that are related to your Discipline, but not part of the core curriculum. There is no requirement to ever select them, though at second Circle Durability becomes available and there is no reason to not select it, to the point that I am not alone in houseruling Durability to be a free selection (which is a change in Revised). Their inclusion allows customization within a Discipline - a Swordmaster could decide to focus on dueling and select Acrobatic Strike or socializing and take First Impression. These are what allow you to shape your character outside of their core competencies.
Every new Circle has one new Discipline Talent which must be learned and a new Talent Option can be selected from the available options. As Circles grow higher, Talents become more powerful and more overtly magical. This doesn't mean that you lower level Talents are less useful, far from it - they are the foundation that your character is still built around. Higher end Talents are more specialized, more expensive to improve, and often more costly to use. As an adept gains more Talents, it is subtle, but the game will slowly teach you how their Discipline operates most effectively and how the Talents work together. For example, the Swordmaster will steadily gain Talents that emphasize combat against one opponent and patience; setting things up for a turn where they can apply numerous modifiers and seize the moment. Sky Raiders have a classic Talent combination: Great Leap and Down Strike. They learn Great Leap early, allowing them to make significant movement for free, and learn Down Strike as their damage increasing Talent, which requires them to be descending from above, which tends to be the last thing many a poor Air Sailor sees. This incremental learning gives every player the sense of discovering their Discipline as they advance and exploring new ways to combine their abilities, particularly when Talent Options are included and that growth can be expanded in directions the player wants.
Despite the advantages Talents have over Skills, the latter still have a valuable place in an adepts arsenal. Once you've reached Journeyman status (fifth Circle), the associated costs with Skills are not comparatively bad with the increased costs for new Talents. That period also marks when characters tend to have extended periods of downtime: researching something at great length, crafting a masterpiece, or being involved in the community. During this time players usually start to examine what competencies they would like have do that their Discipline doesn't offer, which is where Skills come into their own. A few Ranks can make a significant difference in performance for minimal investment. This illustrates the system working as intended. An adept will never be overshadowed by Skills, but they can give a character more depth and well-rounded competencies.
Strain is the primary currency for the more powerful Talents: it is blood magic, temporarily sacrificing your strength to fuel your magic. The importance of blood magic within the setting will be discussed in greater detail later. During downtime taking Strain is trivial and in my most recent game, the Nethermancer and Weaponsmith abused it to improve their crafting abilities. In combat, Strain is what allows combat-focused characters to shine. They have a greater reserve to call upon and more ways to spend it. A human spellcaster that learns all of the best combat Talents through Versatility still won't have the "juice" to capitalize on those abilities. This balancing works well and keeps characters from dominating outside of their niche.
Increased competence with a Talent also lends itself to developing new uses for that ability. These are called Knacks and are used to expand on your abilities without having new Talents that are overly-specialized, while keeping the potentially more powerful applications from characters that are just starting. Very few Knacks are automatically purchased (Shadow Hide being a notable exception) and are generally another way to further customize your character; not every Warrior is going to master the ins-and-outs of Thread Weaving, but that means no one will expect it when you do.
The final piece to this topic is Half-Magic. These are the general things you are assumed to be capable of simply by practicing your Discipline, even if there is no Skill or Talent for them specifically; though they will often grant access to Skills. For example, Weaponsmiths may use Half-Magic to care for arms and armor, recognize them and their origins, for crafting metal items and eventually living armor. Like Talents, these are innate knowledge and not gained through any practice, but through aligning your Pattern with the concept of your Discipline - these are things that a Weaponsmith should know, and so they are things that you do know.