15 September 2012

Earthdawn: Part 8 - Citadels and Kaers

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

Prior to the Scourge massive projects were undertaken to protect the Namegivers during those 400 years. The Empire of Thera brought vast provinces under their yoke and sold knowledge gained from the Books of Harrow, knowledge on how to construct the citadels and kaers that would be salvation from the Horrors. Villages banded together, sometimes selling half of their population into slavery and accepting Theran rule to afford their only hope. Others, such as the seat of the elf nations, Wyrm Wood, and the dwarf kingdom of Throal, spurned the Therans and went their own way to varying results.

Citadels are large cities with a dome of True Earth constructed over them, along with wards, traps, and the vigilant adepts that called the city home to protect them during the Scourge. Some cities employed more exotic methods of protection. The most famous of these is Parlainth, the capital of Theran power in Barsaive. Theran magicians removed it from the physical world entirely and erased all memory of it, relying on a series of clues to reveal the key that would bring it back. It would have worked too, if it wasn't for those damn Horrors infesting it prior to the citadel being sealed away. Kaers are underground shelters sealed under the same protections as the much larger citadels, just smaller and more numerous. They are a collective of communities and drew all of the inhabitants from the surrounding areas prior to sealing.

Both of these homes were constructed to last, with numerous magical amenities to make the centuries as bearable as possible. Traps were automated and self-resetting, wards were routinely inspected and repaired by the magicians within, and magic was used to replicate day cycles, purify water, and aid in growing crops. Still, tensions tended to run high after generations of living on rations without space and in constant fear of the Horrors.

Each shelter was also equipped with a method to measure magic levels and detect when the Scourge was over and it was safe to emerge: a ball of True Earth over a pool of True Water, the inherent magic of the two repelling each other. As magic levels reduced, the True Earth would slowly drop. When the magic levels lowered to the point that Horrors could no longer exist in the physical world, the True Earth would fall into the True Water and make very mundane mud. After  400 years passed, the True Earth stopped dropping. Some kaers opened their doors, wanting to explore the world they have only heard stories about. Others still remain sealed away 100 years later, waiting for someone to arrive and tell them the Scourge is over. Yet others were breached and only Horrors and death wait within.

Locating and exploring citadels and kaers is one of the primary adventuring aspects of Earthdawn. The number of kaers that have not been opened is unknown; a great deal of effort was put into concealing their existence and location to hide them from the Horrors. Finding a kaer typically involves piecing together legend and rumor, finding information, then tracking down the location. The rewards for liberating a kaer include the thanks of an entire society, bringing that many more Namegivers back under the open sky, and the accompanying legend. Finding a breached kaer is a much more dangerous prospect; whatever broke in is likely still living there. Though not without its own rewards: the treasures of the inhabitants of the kaer still remain, along with the chance to rid the world of whatever Horrors reside within. Also the legend of defeating such threats, of course.

Citadels are similar, but much greater in scale: delving into a kaer is a dungeon crawl, while a citadel is exploring a lost civilization. Odds are that any undiscovered citadels have been hidden by some extensive means, but that just means the risk and rewards are that much greater. Uncovering a breached citadel, like Parlainth, could lead to an entire economy springing up around it to support the numerous adepts seeking fame and fortune within. The dangers and treasures of a discovery on that level would be many-fold and attractive for just as many reasons.

Since uncovering a citadel is a unique experience, this will primarily focus on kaers. That being said, much is applicable to both structures. The first piece that the players will encounter when introducing a kaer is the trail of information leading to it, though they could stumble upon its existence just as easily. Uncovering Key Knowledges for Thread Items is one of the best ways to introduce a kaer into a campaign. It gives a starting point and a very compelling reason to follow the plot thread to its natural conclusion. For some Groups, the puzzle of finding these sites and then going in is what captures their interest. For others, exploring kaers is just another part of the quintessential Earthdawn experience.

Each group will develop their own preferences, but exploring a kaer can give a deeply satisfying dungeon crawl experience without any potential dissonance as to why this underground death trap was built, why it is full of monsters that make no sense, why it was constructed in such a nonsensical fashion, why the traps have not been set off, and why there are big piles of treasure at the bottom with a massive boss fight. Alternatively, a society of very grateful people that are eager to see their new world. The fact that all of this has been addressed within the setting and makes perfect sense, is simply beautiful.

From there, the warding of the exterior needs to be developed. They are built underground, relying on the natural protection and concealment of earth to help in addition to the True Earth impregnating the walls. Very little expense was spared to ensure that each kaer would be able to survive the Long Night, but all too often it still was not enough. Many of the wards are specific against Horrors, Horror Constructs and the undead, though a pit full of spikes is effective against most anything. The way leading to the kaer is deliberately confusing, full of mundane and magical traps, as well as illusory terrain; anything to stop a potential invasion. Adepts will have to contend with these extensive measures, as well as whatever is still roaming the area. Creatures from the surrounding area could have made homes there, ork scorchers could set up camp at the entrance, or a Horror that could not breach the kaer within may have made a home. Adventuring Groups will generally not be alone.

The final piece is the kaer within. If it has not been breached, there is the society within to consider. The characters will be lauded as heroes, but I find the most satisfaction if their involvement with the community does not end there. After the centuries trapped in a box, it is likely that tensions and factions have arisen, each with their own agendas and could likely see their rescuers as just the kind of Namegivers they need to help push that agenda. Beyond the politics, there is also the very mundane task of helping them integrate into society. The dwarf kingdom of Throal provided every kaer with a copy of The Book of Tomorrow, a guide to help maintain the memory of what the world was like and give a shared culture of Barsaive, making the process of emerging less painful. The shared culture has been a boon in facilitating communication, particularly with the Throalic Dwarf spoken as a common language and the only language most Namegivers can read.

All too often the kaer will have been breached and the inhabitants slowly tortured to the extent of the Horrors' patience. Some particularly unfortunate kaers may still have inhabitants within, existing as the playthings of an alien psychopath over generations. Kaers that have been broken will invariably hold macabre scenery as the invading Horrors had their way with the interior. Here is an opportunity to drive the horror aspects of Earthdawn home. The sense of despair and hopelessness of those that once lived there should be evident. Building tension and a growing sense of dread can be a difficult thing to pull off, but it can make an amazing build up to the final encounter. The final conflict with the Horror should be horrifying. There is nothing they won't say or do to accomplish their goals and the chance to feed once more on these new playthings is irresistible. The adepts are on the Horror's home ground and things can get interesting. Scenery and minions are excellent elements to introduce, perhaps haunting images of what came to pass in this corrupted place. Always remember that the Horror's endgame isn't to necessarily kill the adepts, until it has been abundantly clear that's the only option, but to feast on their pain and fear.

When it is all over, there is one last element: treasure. This is a great way to introduce Thread Items into a campaign, whether finding them or generating them through legendary deeds. All told, citadels and kaers encapsulate a very old school game design with a clear intent and purpose. Coupled with atmosphere and noble goals, they will always be an iconic part of the Earthdawn experience.