01 October 2012

Earthdawn: Part 13 - Thread Items

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

Thread Items are a major part of every Earthdawn game. They are one of the main pathways for adepts to gain power, but also serve to drive the adventure and story as the Group sets out to learn more about them. Crafting them can also serve these purposes and gives the players a chance to create part of the game. This can serve as a powerful incentive to some players. Previously, I have written about these aspects of the setting and system. For this article, I am going to focus on creating them (in game), designing them (out of game), and introducing them into a campaign.

Creating a Thread Item is the purview of magicians and Weaponsmiths and is a complicated, lengthy task. Unless performed for purely economic reasons, it is also a very personal one - this is an expression of the character's will given form. Players and the GM should work together to establish the elements that will be involved in this creation and their mechanical effects. Weapons and armor so enchanted will always require being of the highest quality (full uses of Forge Weapon or Forge Armor, as appropriate), and any other items will benefit from associated quality as well - the process is aided by decoration, and particularly if the base item is crafted by the enchanter. Gathering the various materials which will go into the item help create a bond between enchanter and item. Crafting the item and performing the enchantments to include symbolic elements also helps considerably - these are a chance for legend building and bringing something extra to the table. For these symbolic elements, look at what the strong themes for the end result are, perhaps it is a blade meant to evoke water - in which case perhaps the blade is forged entirely from a single kernel of True Water, heated in lava from Death's Sea and quenched in the Serpent River.

Beyond the ingredients, there are also techniques that can be employed in the creation of a Thread Item and each Discipline has their favorite. Weaving True Elements into the item is the most direct method and common; it is favored by Elementalists and Weaponsmiths that follow that element of their Discipline. Each True Element (Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Wood) has different properties and incompatibilities. Though those can be overcome or enhanced through the creative application of mixing True Elements in certain ways, perhaps first weaving small amounts of True Earth into the Pattern, thus allowing True Fire (never a forgiving element) to be incorporated without fear of consuming it, and to prevent the True Earth from extinguishing the True Fire, True Air is also incorporated to provide a fuel and lightness to counteract the density of the True Earth. There is no right answer here, just whatever you and the GM decide is awesome - the dice will let you know if it was a good, or terrible plan.

Magical ingredients, such as the loot collected from the corpses of so many creatures, are also useful for this process. There is less defined here because there are so many options, but the odds are you have killed something in the past, or heard of something you haven't seen yet, that will be useful for your project. Ingredients here can also include herbs, living crystal, bones warped by a changeling, or something else within the setting (I like to introduce these kinds of ingredients frequently, it is simply fun). Orichalcum deserves special mention here, though it is technically a True element. It is, in fact, all of the True elements in a special form of True Earth. It can be used for pretty much anything, will amplify whatever it is bound to, and is ridiculously valuable and hotly contested. This is the premier magical ingredient.

Magicians also have access to permanent spell Patterns and bound spirits, the latter favored by Elementalists and Nethermancers. To include a spell, the enchanter must first know the spell and then construct a proper housing for the spell and a way to empower the spell. Conveniently, the process of creating a Thread Item does all of those things, as the Pattern of the item will empower the spell and the entire process makes the housing. Binding spirits is potentially difficult and unethical, depending on how the spirit feels about it (also buyer's remorse). That being said, it is also versatile and can rely on the spirit's innate abilities to further boost the Thread Item. Future users of the item can also potentially use the trapped spirit's powers, though there are some risks associated with that.

Designing Thread Items in 3E has very clear guidelines which are extremely helpful. Though they would be even more helpful if they were actually followed all of the time. There is more consistency than 1E with regard to relative power, much, much more, but not all of the time. When putting a Thread Item together, I have my own guidelines derived from those provided based on what tier the item is (Novice, Journeyman, Warden or Master) and the Thread rank for the effect.

While it would be nice to say that I start with a history and let things grow from there, an organic development style - that is not how it works for me. Given the amount of work that I put in, I try to create every item with a character in mind, or characters, and design them around their purpose and what effects I think would suit the character and player. Once I have the mechanics complete, I will write a backstory (generally tied in to other aspects of the game) and from there derive appropriate Key Knowledges and Deeds. This will be covered in detail in future articles.

The tier of the item will determine the costs associated with Weaving Threads as well as the rank limit - the highest Thread rank available. Higher tier items have higher costs, limits and are more difficult to Weave Threads to, but generally offer greater rewards. The highest tier item that can be purposefully created is Warden. The exceptions to these are Legendary items, which have the most potential, allowing up to Master items and the full 15 Thread ranks. In general I prefer to keep most items within the Journeyman to Warden range and will often expand on their original rank limit with Legendary ranks gained after the item is created.

When designing effects, the general guidelines are +1 to something (armor, damage, defense, talent, etc) for the first four ranks, then +2 at five and up. At rank 7 the effects tend to be less bonuses and more abilities, but that marks another increase in power. An exception to this is rank 1 for armor, shields and weapons: their standard benefit is to make the improvements from Forging permanent; so a broadsword (Str+5, Size 3) would be a Str+8 weapon, and an espagra-scale cloak (3/1) would be 5/2. For Novice and Journeyman items I will adhere to these pretty strictly - they are very cheap to improve - and the Journeyman items gain their benefits for the comparative increase in costs at rank 5 (Novice are limited to rank 4 and Journeyman to rank 6).

Warden items tend to start off looking at two different +1 (equivalent) bonuses, usually things that are more fun than strictly powerful. The increased costs for these items means that while they have a few more ranks (rank limit 8), it is going to be expensive on the way there and I like to provide incentives along the way. Early access to Talents that are not extremely powerful (Swing Attack, for example) or that are not as useful when you finally do get access to them (Forge Armor) are good places to look. Master items will take this another step further, but (as I use them) they tend to be very rare and have effects that benefit the group as a whole - they may belong to one character, but they are for everyone.

Checking the Thread Items that have already been created for you is a great place to start when looking at effects that are not just bonuses. That may sound like a cop-out, but it will be important for every GM to figure out where they want the relative power-level of the Thread Items in their game to be, and this process will strongly influence that. I prefer to have them be on the more powerful side. This encourages the players to interact with the world in seeking the Key Knowledges and performing Deeds, and, let's face it, toys are fun and more powerful toys are more fun - within reason, of course. Similarly, this also encourages players to create their own Thread Items, since the effort required will be worth the investment. Any opportunity to have the players create their own fun and set their own goals is something I try to never pass by.

To put this all together, I like to write out an outline of the item: each rank and the effect for that rank, inserting spaces for Key Knowledges and Deeds where appropriate (every odd rank is standard). Then I fill in effects and get an overall impression of how the item looks. My preference is to design the mechanics of a number of items (usually the same type, such as weapons) at the same time. This allows me to directly compare where they are all at with each other, ensuring that everything is on par for the associated costs. I do not want any jealousy from my players on Thread Item inequity vis-a-vis how powerful they are.

With that at a place that I am happy with, I will move onto the description of the item. Since these are all tailored to a character, I prefer to keep them within the visual style of that character. For some, this may be sleek and dangerous, perhaps bright and showy, or even worn and completely mismatched. This aspect is a subtly important one because it seems innocuous, but the goal is to give the players something that they want and if it doesn't look appealing, they may not want it, no matter how powerful it is. Alternatively, that could be the joke. It is worth mentioning that I am notorious about putting terrible jokes in items. I make no excuses for this behavior.

Key Knowledges and Deeds are next up. As mentioned above, the standard placement is to have them be required at every odd rank and this is almost always what I employ, though Legendary ranks may break that pattern. The first Key Knowledge is always the item's name. After that, it depends on the origins of the item. The Name of the creator, or anything notable about the creation are good places to start. Deeds should generally be related to either the creation (repeating a part of the process) or the Legendary rank (repeating the action which formed the rank in question). These Key Knowledges and Deeds form the basis of the legend and should be used to steer the story; where do you want the Group to go and what do you want them to do? The players will do these things, so be prepared and careful what you wish for at times.

Introducing Thread Items into a game is generally done as a reward, or found as treasure. My preference is to bring too many into play at once, as that can easily lead to indecision about how to tackle them. Only magicians can Weave Threads to the item prior to 4th Circle, though it is a common house rule to disallow that and require everyone to be 4th Circle before Weaving any permanent Threads. The reason is that other players may be jealous of the magicians' early access to the Thread Items, which can be a fair concern, though I don't tend to worry about it as their advancement is slower in relation to the other Disciplines (they have an additional Discipline Talent to increase) and it is fully in my control when the players get access to Thread Items.

One of the primary things to consider when introducing a Thread Item is its Spell Defense. Even if you know the Key Knowledge, you still must be able to actually Weave the Thread. This means that characters won't likely be able to use their more powerful items until they have the skill (or Talent, as the case may be) to back it up. This is another useful factor in limited access to powerful items that may be introduced early, but don't be terribly surprised if the players are a little grumpy that they cannot use their new toy which they have gone to the effort of learning Key Knowledges for (though Karma and blood magic can both provide boosts for this).

Here is a short example of a Legendary item from my game:

This particular item does not have any Key Knowledges because its True Pattern was generated through the actions of a character (Jak'Tak). It started as his physician's kit and had been the primary source of healing for the Group for a very long time. That particular character was invested in the Group over himself, and his kit began to represent that in some ways. As well, the character, as a Weaponsmith, was interested in things that he had created for himself over items created by others for him. It has started out relatively average, but with the small number of ranks, there is plenty of room to grow. Future ranks were intended to be more mystical in nature, but also dependent on the deeds performed.

Doctor’s Bag
Maximum Threads: 2
Spell Defense: 10
Legend Point Cost: Novice

This is a rough and beaten leather bag with numerous pouches containing what amounts to a physician’s kit. The stitching is thick and sturdy, and appears to have once been a dark red. It is well taken care of and loved, though some may mistakenly consider it crude with the number of herbs and more common country-type remedies.
Thread Rank One
Effect: For 1 Strain the bearer may, through careful dilution and specific knowledge, turn one physician’s kit application into two.

Thread Rank Two
Effect: The bearer may gain a bonus to his Physician Tests equal to the Thread Rank.

Thread Rank Three
Effect: The bearer gains a +1 rank bonus to his Physician skill. This does not actually grant the Physician skill.

Thread Rank Four
Effect: The bearer gains a +2 rank bonus his Physician skill. This does not actually grant the Physician skill.