07 September 2012

Earthdawn: Part 5 - Thread Magic

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

As has been stated before, magic is everywhere in Earthdawn. It is the heart of the setting and the system. If you ever talk to a fan of Earthdawn, it will not take long for the conversation to quickly turn to the magic. The threads of magic weave together to create a complex pattern, which is unique to Earthdawn. Magic touches the life of every Namegiver in Earthdawn, whether they are an adept exploring the strange and often broken world, or a villager still utilizing the fertility of the kaer as they try to build a new life.

There are two forms of magic in Earthdawn, common magic and Thread magic. Common magic can often be created through alchemy which is a skill that anyone can use. It is practical science in a world of high magic. Thread magic is where you begin to manipulate the fabric of reality. At the risk of sounding cliche, it is where the real magic resides.

Previous articles have been incorporating some of the various concepts that are important for magic in Earthdawn. They have danced around the topic and informed some of the primary ways that characters interact with it. Hopefully it has given some reference for the metaphysics underpinning the setting and system. Now we're going to get at the meat of the subject: Thread magic.

The basis of all Thread magic begins with a Pattern. Each Pattern is unique and has a Name. Interacting with a Pattern on a fundamental level involves Weaving Threads to it. Only adepts can perform this feat, using the Thread Weaving Talent. Each Discipline has their own variation of that Talent (e.g. War Weaving for Warriors, Threadsmithing for Weaponsmiths and Wizardry for Wizards), but they are largely the same, though there are some differences which will be addressed later.

Every Namegiver has a Pattern and as discussed previously, it is through their actions that other things gain Names and Patterns. Places of significance can earn a Name, and thus a Pattern. The province of Barsaive received its Name from the Therans when they claimed it as a part of their empire. Prior to that it was a collection of tribes and cities, though nothing of importance. It was through that Name and Pattern that Barsaive became a thing. The province gained a cohesion that had never been known before. Barsaive itself became a living thing with rudimentary desires, and the Namegivers living there felt the new bond of identity. That is the power of a Name. Items can also gain Patterns and Names, whether they are intentionally created with a Pattern, or they earn them through legendary deeds.

The Patterns of people and places will generate Pattern Items over time as their legend grows. These items are important somehow to the legend of that Namegiver or place. They do not have a Pattern of their own, but are an extension of the greater Pattern they represent. As the legend of the original Pattern grows, new Pattern Items may be formed and/or old Pattern Items may grow in importance. It is through these items that you can Weave Threads to the core Pattern. If you have access to a Pattern Item of significant enough importance, you can affect major changes to the basic nature of the Pattern and Rename it. Blood Wood is the most famous example of this action, becoming a macabre reflection of what was once beautiful by misguided hubris.

By Weaving these Threads you can gain power while acting in that location, against that person (including Named Horrors), or give strength to the person through your Thread. For these reasons the Pattern Items for places of importance are highly sought after and protected, and there is great danger in having your Pattern Items stolen. Entrusting a comrade with a Pattern Item is a display of significant trust, often accompanied by a Blood Oath. Through such a partnership both parties can benefit significantly.

One option that adepts have available to them is creating a Group Pattern. It is a special type of Pattern that requires all involved to swear a Blood Peace with each other - they may take no action against those they share this bond with. The Group will need a Name and a sigil, and each member will need to select an item of importance to them in relation to their role within the Group. These will often be related to the events that brought the Group together, or their early exploits. The items will become Pattern Items for the Group and for each adept. Through this Group Pattern, the adepts may strengthen their abilities when acting as a part of, or in the direct interests of, the Group by Weaving Threads to their Group Pattern Item. This provides a framework to show the importance of cohesion and that the adepts are not a collection of individuals, but a part of something greater than the sum of its parts. There is a definite change once the Group Pattern is formed, though it is not uncommon for some players to initially abstain. In general, it doesn't take long for them to take the oath as the benefits can be significant.

Though Pattern Items and Thread Items are similar, they are different in how they function. Pattern Items are only an extension of a larger Pattern and through that connection they grant access to the greater Pattern. Thread Items have their own Pattern and are special on their own, even the most generic Thread Item metaphysically has a unique identity and a Name. Thread Items are the equivalent in Earthdawn to magic items in other settings, though so much cooler. They have a legend, not necessarily an extensive one, but that just leaves more room for the item to grow with you. As above, your items can spontaneously generate a Pattern through involvement with your legend, taking abilities associated with your exploits. Items that already have a Pattern can generate new Ranks based on your Legend. This is why magic items in Earthdawn are often spoken of so highly: they have personality, and they are yours in a way that a +1 flametongue never will be.

Before you can Weave a Thread to a Pattern, you first must know about the Pattern. In the case of your own Pattern, this is rarely going to be an issue. For your Discipline, you are learning about it by walking its path and meditating on what it means. In-game this is represented by raising Talents, performing your Karma Ritual, and ultimately training for a new Circle when you have mastered your current curriculum. For Pattern and Thread Items, this means learning Key Knowledges.

Key Knowledges are pieces of information about the Pattern that are integral to the legend that formed it. The first Key Knowledge is always the Name of the Pattern. For weaker Patterns, that may be the only Key Knowledge, but by the same token the Threads that can be Woven will be weak as well. The more legendary the Name, the more powerful the Pattern and the more Key Knowledges that must be learned to Weave ever stronger Threads to the Pattern. This is particularly true of Thread Items and will represent a significant portion of many adepts' activities: tracking down Key Knowledges. The catch to a Key Knowledge is that it must be learned through some action. Simply reading it in the Great Library might work for a Name, but after that point you have to get your hands dirty and begin to walk the path of the legend. Sometimes even engaging in Deeds that relate to the legend: performing actions that the item was originally used in to build its legend.

This mechanic for Thread Items creates instant adventure. It gives every player a stake in the world and an active interest in engaging in it. Thread Items can be used to tell entire stories unto themselves, reveal secrets, set adepts onto righting ancient wrongs, or any number of campaign developments. At the very least, Thread Items add considerable color to the world and represent a chance for each character to leave their mark on the setting. The downside to this is that Thread Items represent a considerable amount of work. Handcrafting them is an investment, both in the mechanics and the setting material. Despite that, I have always found it to be worth the trouble. There is something about finding a Thread Item in Earthdawn that is hard to define. Since improving Threads to the item is limited by Key Knowledges (and Legend Point costs), it is not a big deal to hand out powerful items early on. The advancement of the item is easily controlled, but there is a certain joy in having your things grow with you. The entire experience has powerful mojo. I can guarantee that any Earthdawn player will be more than happy to tell you all about their Thread Items.

To help with the extensive work surrounding Thread Items, I will be writing a series of articles regarding how I go about creating a Thread Item. As well, there will be additional posts on specific types of magic, such as blood magic, spellcasting and crafting items.