30 March 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 18 - Troubadour

This is the eighteenth Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

Overview

The Troubadour is the soul and memory of the land. It is their duty and privilege to pass onto Namegivers their shared culture and heritage, to teach them of better times and give hope, to spread the legend of heroes both past and present, but above all to inspire them. It is only through that inspiration that the next generation of heroes can rise up and continue where the previous generation left off.

These adepts are performers and historians, travelers and sages. They must learn of the stories and wonders of our world, then pass them on to the Namegivers of the land. Through this, their own legend will be built. Given that they are not particularly versed in combat, it only makes sense that they would be surrounded by many other dangerous and talented individuals. This also has the side benefit of providing a a fantastic way to generate new stories to tell as they travel across Barsaive. Though tempting to cast their self as the hero, it is always best to downplay their own actions in favor of their companions. This maintains the integrity of the legend, as this Discipline is dedicated to truth and it always has a way of getting out there.

When making a Troubadour, there are a few things to consider and elements that can create more a more vibrant experience for everyone. Creating their mentor and detailing how that character shaped the Initiate is important to most Disciplines, but the Troubadour can have some inherent prejudices and rivalries, similar to a Swordmaster, that may make this relationship more important. Perhaps there are rivals out there seeking to discredit your mentor and their students.

Another element to consider is what drives you. Is it the love of the performance, the looks on the faces of the crowd? Perhaps it is the exploration, the travel, the excitement? Maybe learning new things, from songs, to legends, information about the flora and fauna of Barsaive, even the lands beyond? Could it be the desire to share all of that with the people, the act of which binds them together into the Barsaive that we know? 

Deciding on your favorite instruments and performance styles - maybe you are traditional and have a lute or harp and sing, maybe you play a drum or other percussion instrument and engage in rhythmic poetry, is there a form that you do not like? What are your favorite stories, songs, epic poems, etc? Detailing these elements, perhaps even writing some excerpts can create some depth to the world. Working with the GM could even incorporate some of these into the ongoing story. It is also appropriate for the Troubadour to record the Adventure Log every session, while this may seem like an onerous task, it shows your investment.

Discipline Violations

These are best employed not as a stick, but as a chance for the player to take a deeper look at what it means to follow their Discipline. The most important duty for any Troubadour is to share the knowledge they gain. You may see them as the original proponents of the slogan "information wants to be free". Violating that is a serious issue for these adepts. Along those lines, destroying, fabricating, altering knowledge is to the detriment of everyone. They are dedicated to the truth, and while they may fight a war of public image with rivals, it can be an issue if things go too far.

Their desire to learn new things (to them) could put them at odds with others in their Group. These priorities will often align with, or at least not necessarily detract from, the general goals of the companions. Sometimes, however, this compulsion may cause problems. When time is precious, when there are conflicting interests, or when those pursuits cause problems all on their own. Even their own prejudices as practitioners of their craft can cause issues as their rivalries catch up with them, or those who feel slighted by their "version" of events.

Specialists

There are three different Troubadour specialists available: Mapmaker, Romancer and Sage.

The Mapmaker has Navigation instead of Mimic Voice is a First Circle Discipline Talent. Read/Write Language is also a First Circle Discipline Talent and Impress becomes an Initiate Talent Option. As well, Research is a Second Circle Discipline Talent and Disguise Self a Journeyman Talent Option. They also lose the ability to perform for audiences with Half-Magic, but may instead use Half-Magic for Mapmaking Tests. This specialist changes many of the trappings of the Troubadour, seeming like an entirely different Discipline, but the core themes are still the same; they are still adepts that value knowledge and the spreading of that knowledge. They just favor the former over the later; their primary interest isn't just in knowing useful information, but in finding it. For campaigns that will have a great deal of exploration and not much in the way of urban adventuring, this can be an attractive alternative, particularly if there isn't an adept with those Talents in the Group (such as a Scout).

The Romancer has Flirting as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Winning Smile as a Second Circle Discipline Talent. Item History is an Initiate Talent Option, and Disguise Self and Seduction are Novice Talent Options. Haggle and Throwing Weapons are no longer Talent Options. This specialist takes the social and trickster aspects of this Discipline and dials them up. Access to two entirely new social Talents (Flirting and Seduction) and two new social Discipline Talents (Flirting and Winning Smile). The two Talent Options they lose (Haggle and Throwing Weapons) aren't any particular great loss. The biggest hit this specialist takes is moving Item History to Talent Options as it costs a Karma and is one of the most useful Talents in the game. It is similar to Disguise Self (with the Karma cost) and will likely be a useful Talent Option to help this specialist out considerably. Games with a considerable amount of subterfuge and urban adventuring will find a great deal to like about this specialist. In a more traditional adventuring situation, not much is gained here.

The Sage has Read/Write Language as a First Circle Discipline Talent, Research as a Second Circle Discipline Talent and Book Memory as the Third Circle Discipline Talent. Mimic Voice is an Initiate Talent Option, Disguise Self and Empathic Sense are Journeyman Talent Options. Sage specialists give up a great deal of their trickster nature in favor of pure knowledge Talents. Still social characters dedicated to spreading their knowledge, they may be  less directly interested in the world. If your game is likely to have a very low level of nonsense (e.g. tomfoolery and shenanigans), and/or urban adventures, then this may be a solid choice. That is not to deride them at all, the abilities the Sage specialist brings to the table a useful by any stretch of the imagination.

Talents

Initiate
Talent Options: Emotion Song, Haggle, Melee Weapons, Read/Write Language, Speak Language

First Circle
Discipline Talents: First Impression, Impress, Item History, Karma Ritual, Mimic Voice

Novice
Talent Options: Avoid Blow, Etiquette, Heartening Laugh, Lasting Impression, Taunt, Throwing Weapons, Winning Smile

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Disguise Self, Durability (6/5)

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Empathic Sense

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Story Weaving]

Journeyman
Talent Options: Blade Juggle, Book Memory, Diplomacy, Engaging Banter, Graceful Exit, Performance, Research, Slough Blame

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Inspire Others

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Resist Taunt

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Leadership

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: Lion Heart

There are a few areas which the Troubadour brings to any Group, but they primarily fall into social interaction, leadership and support.

First Impression, Impress and Empathic Sense are all Discipline Talents that directly involve the social interaction mechanics, but Resist Taunt and Leadership also support this theme. Additional support for this is in their Discipline abilities and Talent Options. I won't go into a discussion about these mechanics here, the link should cover everything. On a trickster level, Mimic Voice and Disguise Self are very social in nature and useful, but do not strictly interact with the social mechanics. Nonetheless, having access to the other social Talents can make them significantly more useful.

Given their natural role as the face for a Group, it is also common for them to be the leader, or at least the core that keeps all of the adepts playing nice. The primary Discipline Talents for this role are Empathic Sense, Inspire Others, Leadership and Lion Heart (even though it only affects the Troubadour). The first two help with Group cohesion, while Leadership is valuable for rallying NPCs to your cause.

Their support role is somewhat minor, but still important for any Group that doesn't have a more prominent support Discipline, such as a Weaponsmith. Every Group will want a character with Item History, it is simply that important to the game as a whole. If you don't have a Discipline with it, then try to strong-arm the human into taking it. It's not just useful for gathering Key Knowledge, but also for any investigation legwork. Inspire Others is a buff for all friendly characters to all action tests. This is very good, and as a Discipline Talent you don't have to worry about the Karma cost.

Despite their strengths and what they bring to any Group, the Troubadour has some weaknesses. Most notably, they don't have much to do in combat; it simply is not their area to shine. In a campaign with that spends a considerable amount of time in civilization, interacting with other Namegivers, this won't be a big deal - the Troubadour will have plenty of other things to do and ways to contribute. In heavily political and social games, they will probably be the stars of the show, bringing various abilities to the table and able to tackle most any situation with intrigue.

For games that will be combat or exploration heavy, returning to cities only for supplies and downtime, this Discipline will likely be sorely lacking. They may still have things to do, but many of their Talents will go to waste, unused. This is a great Discipline for the right game, but make certain you are in the right game first.

The Troubadour suffers from a classic tragedy; far too many good Initiate Talent Options. Deciding early on exactly what kind of Troubadour you are (or aren't) will help when making some of these early decisions, particularly with regard to what your role will be within your Group.
  • Emotion Song - Having this as a Talent Option displays an interesting distance from the classic role of bard. This Talent has use for pushing the social agenda for any Group, particularly when looking to affect entire communities.
  • Haggle - With a good Charisma, the Troubadour is a natural for this Talent. However, they have enough other good Talent Options that this may not make the cut; particularly if there is another character with this Talent (you only need one).
  • Melee Weapons - The first combat Talent these adept's have access to. Unless you are waiting for Throwing Weapons at Second Circle, this is a solid choice for any character.
  • Read/Write Language - Most useful for Troubadours with sage interests, this rarely makes the cut. On the bright side, it is perfectly usable (if expensive and time consuming) as a skill.
  • Speak Language - As the face for any Group, this Talent is going to be valuable for any negotiations. With Talent Options at a premium, increasing the skill may be the most viable (if expensive) option.
A continuation from the tale of Initiate; there are more good Talent Options available at Novice than there are opportunities to select them:
  • Avoid Blow - Even though their combat Talents are few, I still don't care for this Talent Option. Particularly since there are so many other choices that will support their primary and secondary roles much better.
  • Etiquette - This is almost a must for any social character and should give the player more leeway to avoid a faux pas in a new social situation.
  • Heartening Laugh - While entirely appropriate, there is a Karma cost and this particular bonus isn't required very often. Odds are also good there will be a Swordmaster in your Group.
  • Lasting Impression - A fantastic social Talent. One of the best for social interactions and establishing relationships to your benefit in a campaign.
  • Taunt - Likely the most useful combat Talent these adept's have access to. It is in theme and the support nature always welcome to the more combat oriented adepts in the Group. This is a great Talent for any character, but particularly for a Troubadour.
  • Throwing Weapons - The other attacking Talent they have access to and it arrives somewhat late. Since this Discipline will rarely be in the thick of things, there is something to be said for taking a Talent that keeps you away from all of that mess. Your damage, however, will be lackluster, particularly at higher Circles (barring a Thread Item that creates or returns weapons).
  • Winning Smile - A good social Talent, but not quite as amazing as others; it is a little more limited in application, but the bonus is solid.
The Journeyman Talent Options have interesting choices for your character, which is what arguably makes them the most fun. Certainly, there are Talents that are more generally useful, but there are fewer winners and losers at this tier than those previous (which makes it more fun to me):
  • Blade Juggle - The classic Troubadour combat Talent. It increases Physical Defense and provides counter-attacks in close combat. This Talent is singularly responsible for a Troubadour once resembling a hedgehog and spending obscene amounts of money on forging weapons.
  • Book Memory - Any Troubadour that favors knowledge over performance (sage v. bard) may find this to be a very useful Talent to have. If you took Read/Write Language above, this is almost certainly you.
  • Diplomacy - Social interactions are the strongest suit for this Discipline and along with that is being a leader. This Talent plays those themes and brings the role of a power-broker (or peace maker, if that's your thing) to the forefront.
  • Engaging Banter - If your Group engages in capers, this may be something worth considering. Odds are reasonable that you will know if this Talent suits your game by the time you get here and it can be useful to have more than one character with this capability if it is particularly valuable for how you approach problems.
  • Graceful Exit - Again, I've never seen a character take this Talent and use it, though this would be one of the few Disciplines where I could reasonably see that happening. If combat simply is not your thing, then this will quite likely be your thing. That being said, you will want to continually improve this Talent so that it works when you need it to work.
  • Performance - This seems like a strange inclusion, particularly at Journeyman; that maybe this should be something Troubadours know how to do through Half-Magic. This is not unfair, but this Talent (and there is an equivalent skill, if you wanted to get in on it earlier) is a part of the social interaction sub-system. It is a pretty good part too, granting bonuses to a large group of people (though it does cost Karma). This is one of the most generally appropriate and useful Talents available.
  • Research - While this may seem most appropriate for a sage Troubadour, almost every Group will benefit from having access to this Talent. Most have to live with the skill, but even if there is a Wizard already, having two adepts is better than one. I quite like this Talent, though you will likely know how useful it is for you.
  • Slough Blame - Perfect for the Troubadour on the go - and by "on the go" I mean "on the run". If Engaging Banter was appealing to you, then you definitely will want to pick this up, even if it wasn't, this is still a amazing Talent to get out of jail free for just a few minutes. 
Races

While any Namegiver can follow the path of the Troubadour (and should), not all are created equal in this pursuit for mechanical purposes. Charisma and Perception are the key attributes for this Discipline, being both social and knowledgeable characters. This rapidly narrows down the list of races that are better suited for those requirements - elves, humans and windlings.

Dwarfs and orks both have penalties to Charisma, trolls have a penalty to Perception and obsidimen have penalties to both. While t'skrang have a bonus to Charisma, Troubadours have no way to capitalize on their tail combat racial ability.

While elves and windlings have bonuses to both Charisma and Perception, windlings are the real standout for this Discipline. They have the largest Charisma bonus in the game for default races (+2), a number of useful special abilities (Astral Sight, flight and improved physical defense), and the best Karma out there. The downsides? Poor strength, toughness and weapon damage. Given that these adepts are not combatants, these should hardly matter.

Humans fit into this in the same way that they always do: Versatility. They may not have a natural inclination for this Discipline, but they more than make up for it with the ability to fill in any gaps in the capabilities, expanding them into new areas, or adding more specialization.

Equipment

The only item here that has equipment restrictions associated with it is Blade Juggle, which simply requires using weapons no more than your one-handed size maximum. Beyond that, there is nothing to worry about. This means you can tank up with all of the armor you want, including a shield or a two-handed weapon. It is worth noting that Blade Juggle doesn't require any free hands to maintain, so you can freely attack while it is up, using a pole axe, or broad sword and shield; whatever suits you. 

23 March 2013

Earthdawn: Adventure Log 14 - Welcome to the Jungle

This is the fourteenth Adventure Log in an ongoing series about Earthdawn.Introduction and Index.

The Theran Empire is an interesting element of the Earthdawn setting. Ostensibly one of the primary villains, they also save a great many Namegivers through their knowledge gleaned from the Books of Harrow. Though there is certainly room for discussion on how much they quashed aid offered by the great dragons, that is a realm best left for each campaign to explore.

How the Theran Empire is portrayed is something that I prefer to customize for each campaign. It depends on the kind of story that I want to tell - if it is a simple game of raiding kaers and cleansing Barsaive of Horrors, then Therans will be in the background and serve as fairly one-dimensional opposition; they aren't the focus of the action. In a more nuanced game, such as the one this adventure log is taken from, then their role is less clear.

In any game where they are introduced, there are two elements to address for the Theran Empire: their interest in Barsaive and slavery. The first pertains to how aggressively, if at all, are they pursuing their agenda of bringing the open rebellion of Barsaive under heel? This is all, of course, from their perspective. Barsaive (mostly Throal) takes the view that they successfully repelled the oppressive regime and won't be hearing from them again. This can play out anywhere from non-existant (they simply do not show up in the game), to opposition along the lines of Nazis for Indiana Jones (chasing after the same resources), to outright war.

For this particular game, the goals of the Theran Empire are currently ambiguous, but there has been some activity within Barsaive, particularly involving their old t'skrang allies. There are more questions than answers and at this time real shows of force. It is a story waiting to unfold.

The second element, slavery, is not terribly easy to cast in any other light than absolutely terrible. The setting makes no effort to do so, which is the right choice. To add some depth to the practice, I have had the Theran Empire from this campaign heavily influenced by the Roman Empire (to showcase against the Grecian Kingdom of Throal). The form of slavery they practice is less chattel slavery, and more along the lines of indentured servitude/serfdom. They have some rights and may get their freedom, but are often treated as members of the family, though without the option of leaving. There are exceptions to this, such as slaves that will not behave. They are often sold to the military to power their great stone airships and, well, that isn't something you survive. Other city-states in Barsaive (most notably Iopos) practice the form of chattel slavery that is most familiar.

My goal in this is not to defend the practice, but to cast it in a slightly different light from how Throal portrays it. They have an agenda are spreading propaganda; they want to be the dominant nation within Barsaive and enforce their influence through a soft power. With those seeds of doubt, the entire conflict has more shades of grey to it. Towards that end, the face of the Theran Empire that is currently in play is fair and honorable, though not good. Which means that everything they do is suspect and terrifying, apparently. For example, you cannot capture free Namegivers and enslave them, doing so is punishable by death, but it is entirely expected to enslave your defeated enemies rather than put them to the sword.

There is a great deal more to the Theran Empire, such as the other lands, but for these are the important elements as they relate to this adventure log. When you introduce the Theran Empire into your game, you should first ask what role you want them to play and what you want them to do. They are a human face to put on atrocities as compared to the very inhuman Horrors.

Adventure Log – 14 Welcome to the Jungle

Recorded By: Ting V’strimon the Merciless of Urupa


Date: 07 Charassa – 17 Rua, 1507 TH
Group Name: Mismatched Steel

Group Members
Elmod the Nethermancer
Honeysuckle Sunspray the Windmaster
Jak’Tak the Weaponsmith
Ontheros the Horror Stalker
Sogun the Messenger
Ting the Swordmaster

Darron of Lang(1) approached me wanting native art from the Servos and to find his cousin, and establish trade relations in one trip. Fair amount of cash to be had for that, plus whatever we find in the jungle. I have a good feeling about this trip. Jak pounded out a couple of weapons to use as gifts, which was as great idea. Took a warship toward the jungle. We went in further than we did the last trip. We took our goats and got a move on. The human tribe(2) found us in short order. They have been having some trouble with the local t’skrang tribes(3). We made with the greeting rituals and gifts, and started talking about trade. They seem willing to trade, but would like us to help them first with a plague a few days away.

They took us out a day to get us pointed in the right direction. The next day we started to lose our way. We were completely surprised by a giant praying mantis(4). The thing beat on my ass, and the rest of the party took it out quickly. While resting though, some of the local t’skrang came and harassed us for a bit. They were laughing when we told them where we were going. Also overheard some of their discussion, which sounded like they killed Darren’s cousin and his party. But they were willing enough to let us go.

The area up the hill was super disturbing, so we headed back down a bit to camp. On my watch, Elmod was not paying attention and we were ambushed by a giant black mantis(5). Once again I shielded the party from the initial blows. I managed to hit it with one of the most impressive blows I have ever delivered. The beast was felled in short order.

The next morning, we entered the ruined city(6). The d├ęcor was overwhelmingly covered in crystalline web. In moments a hellish beast, spider body with a human head and face, made of crystal and pus(7). Honeysuckle knocked it down, but it laughed hideously and produced some kind of maze web from its belly. I thought the others would be in trouble, but the web was almost instantly shattered. The creature comes back out to shoot some web on Jak, as another spider-thing drops from the ceiling. I stabbed it quickly. The original created another web tunnel, as another shows up and drops from above. After that were was some confusion. I headed straight for the center, some of my mates showed up here, but no creatures. Jak made a bellow, pointed us to where the bigger of the two spider things was. That put Sogun, Honey, Jak and I in the same place, slaughtering the disgusting beast.


After that, it was a short matter of chasing the other one down and hacking it to death. As it died, the metal webs disintegrated, giving us an unobstructed view of the ruins. Toward the center of the city was a crystal covered shrine, very glittery. It was trying to do something to the others, so Jak started smashing the crystal. Honeysuckle dive attacked the thing, and both Sogun and Elmod looked as if it almost hurt them as well.

When the crystal stuck at us, crystals would form in that person, and was causing massive damage(8). We stuck to our swords and beat on the thing until the light went out. Inside the temple, we found bodies wrapped in web, but they did not follow the description of the party we were looking for. After that, it was just making our way back to the humans.

Upon our return, there was a huge feast, tattooing and introduction to the tribe. They did not know where the party we were looking for was, but they knew that they t’skrang were leading people to a slavers’ camp.

As we approach, people come out of the woods and greet us. We describe the party we seek and are lead to the admiral(9). After a brief discussion with him, he returned the “slaves”. Se we picked up our goats, and go find our pick-up boat, and set off back to Bartertown.

Time for me to train again.(10)


(1) See entry cataloged under: Adventuring Groups: Miscellaneous: Mismatched Steel - 002.
(2) Cathans, presumably. See entry cataloged under: Adventuring Groups: Miscellaneous: Mismatched Steel - 009.
(3) Most likely jungle t'skrang. They are renown for their savagery and rumored to eat the flesh of other Namegivers.
(4) An inshalata is my supposition based on the location.
(5) Horror construct known for it's ability to reproduce on its own. These are extremely dangerous and if a colony has been established within the Servos. This needs to be addressed.
(6) The implication here is a lost citadel within the Servos and that is fascinating. An anthropological expedition should be sent out to investigate this site.
(7) This sounds like a variation on a Horror construct, the jehuthra.
(8) Something similar to a crystal entity is most likely accurate, though it is difficult to place from the sparse description.
(9) Slavers and admiral? This raises only questions and there is not nearly enough information here regarding this topic. The implication is Therans, but that doesn't make sense.
(10) Received and edited by Zamirica One-Knee.


*     *     *


This particular adventure was essentially about the Group coming into their own. Notable characters from many of their previous logs, most of them not listed. It also had a number of adepts that were inspired by the PCs follow in their footsteps and Initiate, followed by gathering into a Group and then getting in over their heads. Returning back to the Servos and meeting the Cathans, along with the older connections, give a sense that actions matter beyond just the adventure they happen in - which is something that I always try to foster.

Also a unique reward, the Blood Tattoo, for those who took part. I like to give out unique rewards like that as a part of adventuring. Legend Points and Thread Items are well and good, but there is something about a bonus that is unique, no matter how small. It's special.

This adventure itself was a few parts, introducing some new horror elements in the first half, a greater sense of dread and mystery to what is within the Servos. Which also ties in with the overall metaplot in a subtle way; the themes were all present, but not over by design.

The second half touched on another developing metaplot. The details of this plot have all been implied, rather than stated, and is significantly more ambiguous. As things play out, this plot should be significantly more epic in exposition as it reaches a climax, less "adepts dying in some forgotten cave" and more "big damn heroes doin big damn heroic things".

Part of my goal with this setup was to create a dichotomy between the plots - one is terrible and inhuman, virtually unknowable, while the other is terrible, but all too human. Both raise questions regarding what is going on, but while the former has very inhuman motivations, the second has very human motivations. 

If this all sounds a little cagey, that is because I don't want to give things away before their time.

The adventure itself went well. The search for the Initiates had the desired effect, the characters were afraid, and wanted little to do with the temple complex beyond what they had to. Blood Tattoos were a big hit, the level of personalization made them even more thematically interesting (there is something fundamentally compelling about totem animals). In the second half (which occupied the last paragraph above - a great deal more happened) some of the preconceived notions on Therans were challenged, some important NPCs were introduced and perhaps a little more mystery as to what exactly the last group of Therans were doing in the Servos. 

If I were to do it all again, I would have tightened up the pacing in the first part and worked more on the handouts and props. I've always found that the correct background music goes a long way to establishing the atmosphere for those kind of expeditions, and I don't recall having any music. The final conflict could have been spruced up a bit; it was a little to static in retrospect, but I wanted to balance that with the associated themes. Time was a constraint in putting it all together (isn't it always?), but I wanted to build up the temple complex more and give it a distinct feel with the architecture and areas to explore. There is a distinct possibility that it will come up again, so that opportunity isn't lost.

Finally, the creature loot made for this adventure was the jehuthra thorax web. It was tricky to pull off - from figuring out how to do it to execution. Picture framing wire was used in the end (paper clips didn't work so well) and is just prickly enough to be uncomfortable around.

13 March 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 17 - Thief

This is the seventeenth Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

Overview

The Thief takes; it is simply who they are and what they do, and all Thieves do this. It is a singular and inescapable truth about this Discipline. What they take depends on the individual Thief, but the most important question is why they take.

There are two varieties of Thief, the selfish Thief and the trickster Thief. Every Thief will prefer to rely only on their own abilities. For the selfish Thief, there is no exception to that. They have no desire to share anything with anyone else, ever. Relying on another for any reason is tantamount to notifying them that you are weak and specifically how you are weak. Which will just invite them to take from you. This is unacceptable. They take to have; they take because they want to have it, or they don't want someone else to have it. Ultimately, the selfish Thief has no interest in anyone else and exist to prey on others.

While a trickster Thief would rather rely on their own abilities, they have learned that this is not always possible. They take not because they want, but because they would rather free others from their obsession with things rather than what matters. Money will not help you, but friends will. Objects, obsessions, these things only serve to create barriers between Namegivers and what they truly want: community, friendship, love. This is their goal, though it can be difficult to understand for those on the outside. True friends of a trickster Thief will understand, or at least pretend to so that they no longer find themselves unwillingly involved in these important lessons.

Of the two kinds of Thief, only the trickster has any real place as a player character in a campaign. The selfish Thief is a self-serving adept in a way that is inimical to fostering any sense of camaraderie from which a Group will form. Even though they are primarily self-reliant (which comes with their often unique territory of handling traps and going on the black-op), a trickster Thief will still form the bonds vital to any Group.

When creating an adept of this Discipline, it is important to consider their background. The experiences of each Initiate will be significantly different based on who initiated them into the Discipline. There is no formal methodology of instruction, it is handed down from teacher to student, improvised, ad hoc, simply whatever will work at the time. Those interactions will likely shape the adept's outlook and interactions, what kind of Thief they are.

Another important question is to expand on exactly why they take things, why is that concept important to them and why were they drawn to that philosophy. Part of the answer to that should include what they take; is there something they find irresistible? Perhaps it is a particular kind of thing, or a situation which they simply cannot pass up. Keep in mind that a trickster Thief has no real interest keeping a low profile - theft is an act of showmanship! A calling card is always a classy way of informing everyone in the know of your exploits. That way bragging can be more subtle.

Discipline Violations

These are best employed not as a stick, but as a chance for the player to take a deeper look at what it means to follow their Discipline. A selfish Thief should suffer a crisis whenever they rely on anyone else or find themselves becoming attached to anyone. If they ever doubt their abilities, that doubt will eat at the very core of who they are. Since they take for themselves, what they are taking is of vital importance; if it is ever taken from them, they must get it back. To fail in that is to fail at being a Thief, it is to admit weakness.

Trickster Thieves will have issues if they ever become too attached to anything, if they ever start feeling greed, or becoming obsessed. Their primary ethos is about freedom, which means that laws do not exist to be obeyed and oppression should be questioned. This is not generally in the deep defiance a Liberator may engage, but a more casual and flagrant display. As well, their desire to spread their exploits compels them to engage in extravagant heists and then ensure everyone knows they were behind it.

These are activities that could easily put a trickster Thief at odds with the rest of their Group (though easily endear them to a Swordmaster with the right bent). They will get into trouble and likely drag the rest of their Group with them. These adepts may find it impossible to keep a low profile when not actively engaged in skulduggery and Adventure Logs penned by them may read as a tell all expose.

Specialists

With seven (!) different specialists, the Thief has by far and away the most specialists. These include the Assassin, Burglar, Confidence Trickster, Cutthroat, Romancer, Slasher and Spy. You are almost guaranteed to be able to tailor your character to your particular needs between these and Talent Options.

The Assassin has Melee Weapons as a First Circle Discipline Talent, while Picking Pockets becomes an Initiate Talent Option. The Novice Talent Option Haggle is replaced with Missile Weapons and the normal 7th Circle Karma ability is replaced with the ability to spend 1 Karma on Damage Tests. These changes make the Assassin significantly more combat capable and this is likely to be a popular specialist for many adepts that are likely to spend most of their time away from civilization (where Picking Pockets won't be very useful).

The Burglar has Climbing as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Picking Pockets as an Initiate Talent Option. Also, Evaluate is a Seventh Circle Discipline Talent and Fast Hand is a Journeyman Talent Option. This particular setup is more practical for the adventurer that has considerable combat support already. It trades things to do in town for an emphasis on dungeon crawling.

The Confidence Trickster has Charisma instead of Perception as an important attribute and the Sixth Circle Karma ability changes accordingly. Also, First Impression and Haggle are Second and Third Circle Discipline Talents (respectively), while Detect Trap and Disarm Trap are Novice Talent Options. Additionally, Bribery is a Novice Talent Option (Great Leap is no longer a Talent Option), and Graceful Exit is the Fifth Circle Discipline Talent, while Sense Poison is a Journeyman Talent Option. This specialist is significantly different from the baseline Thief and optimized for a intrigue heavy city campaign. They can still perform all of the Thief trap-related duties through Half-Magic, but are now significantly more socially oriented characters.

The Cutthroat has Unarmed Combat and Search as First Circle Discipline Talents and Silent Walk and Trap Initiative as Initiate Talent Options (Climbing is no longer a Talent Option). Steely Stare is the Sixth Circle Discipline Talent. For me, this Specialist somewhat misses the mark on what is generally being looked for in a Thief: Search is available through Half-Magic, Silent Walk as a Discipline Talent is the Thief's thing and Unarmed Combat isn't very good (particularly when you have nothing else to support it). 

The Romancer has Charisma instead of Dexterity as an important attribute and the Fourth Circle Karma ability changes accordingly. Also, Flirting is a First Circle Discipline Talent, Winning Smile is a Second Circle Discipline Talent and Seduction is a Third Circle Discipline Talent. Trap Initiative, Detect Trap and Disarm Trap are now Novice Talent Options (Haggle, Sprint and Surprise Strike are no longer Talent Options). I quite like this specialist, and it may just be me. They have a lot to do and many ways to contribute, even continuing to do trap related things through Half-Magic. In a dungeon crawling campaign, they are unlikely to be very effective, but in games that feature significant social interaction, they can bring quite a bit to the table (granted, in a specific area). As an additional Discipline to a Swordmaster... there is a lot to like here.

The Slasher has Close In as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Trap Initiative as an Initiate Talent Option (Search is no longer a Talent Option). Also, Conceal Object is a Sixth Circle Discipline Talent and Slough Blame is a Journeyman Talent Option. This is going to be a combat character (though without an actual combat Discipline Talent, d'oh!) focusing on smaller weapons. From the numbers, this is a risky proposition, requiring small weapons, which means lower damage in general and a damage boost that is difficult to pull off until Journeyman (when there still isn't much support). It's neat in theory, but... I just cannot see this being better than an Assassin in most circumstances.

The Spy has Search as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Picking Pockets as an Initiate Talent Option. Novice Talent Options include Read/Write Language and Bribery (losing Haggle and Sprint), and Journeyman Talent Options include Book Memory and Research (losing Call Missile and we'll call it Evaluate). This is another good specialist for a Thief more interested in adventuring than spending most of their time in a city. However, since most of the changes are to Talent Options, it comes with very little commitment to the changes. None of the lost Talent Options are critical (or even good choices most of the time) and Search as a Discipline Talent is almost certain to be more useful. In all, this is a very good specialist for the average adventuring Thief.

Talents

Initiate
Talent Options: Avoid Blow, Climbing, Melee Weapons, Search, Throwing Weapons

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Karma Ritual, Lock Picking, Picking Pockets, Silent Walk, Trap Initiative

Novice
Talent Options: Detect Weapon, Disguise Self, First Impression, Great Leap, Haggle, Sprint, Surprise Strike

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Detect Trap, Durability (6/5)

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Disarm Trap

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Thief Weaving]

Journeyman
Talent Options: Call Missile, Conceal Object, Dead Fall, Direction Sense, Engaging Banter, Evaluate, Graceful Exit, Mimic Voice

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Sense Poison

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Slough Blame

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Fast Hand

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: True Sight

The Thief (excepting specialists here) wears a few different hats in their themes and can add to that variety through Talent Option selection. Their first area of expertise is traps (Detect Traps, Disarm Traps and Trap Initiative). Through Half-Magic, they can deal with all of this at First Circle, though may not be terribly good at it quite yet. This supports their common role in classic fantasy RPGs. As well, they gain your standard stealing Talents, whether Picking Pockets, or breaking and entering (Lock Picking and Silent Walk).

At Journeyman, they begin to add to their trickster capabilities and become masters of intrigue. Fast Hand, Sense Poison and Slough Blame all find their greatest use in a city setting. Sense Poison in particular for high level social games with the highest stakes. True Sight is going to be useful in any setting where you may encounter an illusion.

In other games, the Thief character is typified as a jack-of-all trades, granted more skills than other characters. This is not the case in Earthdawn. Mechanically, they have some very specific themes and their Talents support those strongly. It is worth noting that combat is not one of those themes. This Discipline is notably poor at combat, with even their Talent Options being notably poor in that area.

These adepts shine the brightest in games and situations where finesse is beneficial over force. Games where there isn't much interaction with other Namegivers, beyond purchasing gear, won't give a Thief many opportunities to show off and contribute. Despite their loner nature, they only mechanical thrive when they have people around them to play off.

There is only one must have Talent Option at Initiate, though if you find yourself with empty selections at higher Circles, you may be revisiting these:

  • Avoid Blow - The value of this as a Talent Option is still dubious. However, a Thief tends to get into trouble and this is their only defensive Talent. The more practical side is that the Thief has a lot of good Talent Options and it is going to take quite a while for this to outpace natural Physical Defense into the realm of reliability.
  • Climbing - As a natural pick at espionage for any Group, this should be taken as a skill at the very least.
  • Melee Weapons - You are going to want either this or Throwing Weapons as a Talent Option. In general, I prefer Melee Weapons because the investment is less for better damage return.
  • Search - Easily one of the most useful Talents in the game, but a Thief has the advantage of receiving this as a part of their Half-Magic. While it is better as a Talent, more effective and more potential, as Half-Magic it is free and you can spend Karma on it.
  • Throwing Weapons - While I may prefer Melee Weapons, if you have a great Thread Weapon for Throwing Weapons, this is actually a decent pick for a Thief. I would suggest combining this with Conceal Object..
The Novice Talent Options are a variety of ways to tailor your character to the particular game you are playing. A game with significant intrigue will want to look at Detect Weapon and Disguise self, while something more traditional (dungeon crawling) is likely to get more mileage from the combat supporting Talents (Great Leap and Surprise Strike).
  • Detect Weapon - Appropriate to the overall themes of this Discipline, there may be some hard decisions at this tier. Selecting this will depend on what role you serve within your Group; are you the primary source of intelligence in a game fraught with urban dangers? If so, this may be useful.
  • Disguise Self - Given the activities that the average Thief finds themselves engaging in (which is to say, the illegal variety), this is almost a must. As soon as you are in a city, this is useful. If you are doing hardcore dungeon crawling (e.g., a Parlainth campaign), then give this a pass.
  • First Impression - I always like to take this Talent when it is available simply because it provides an additional area of the game to participate. While it is great to have one primary social character, it is good to have a back-up just in case.
  • Great Leap - This Talent tends to just be fun. It is also effective when combined with Down Strike (available as a skill) for some reliable extra melee damage. Useful for getting to those hard to reach spots as well as aiding in daring escapes.
  • Haggle - A Thief highly invested in making money will probably get use out of this, though if there is a Weaponsmith, it is probably best to pass - they will be better at it. The biggest advantage a Thief is likely to bring has to do with fencing goods of dubious origin.
  • Sprint - Similar to Great Leap, despite the Karma cost, a Thief is more likely to use this to get out of trouble than to run into something terrible. If you find yourself fleeing on a regular basis, there could be some value here. If not, then keep looking.
  • Surprise Strike - This can be selected very early and these adepts tend to get more use out of than most, but it is difficult to use on a regular basis. When Conceal Object becomes available, the utility of this Talent improves considerably. This is still one of the few ways to increase Throwing Weapon damage.
At Journeyman, the Talent Options build on the direction from the Novice tier. Unless your direction is dungeon crawling, in which case there may not be much for you.
  • Call Missile - If you have Throwing Weapons and do not have a Thread Item that returns your weapons to your hand, you are going to want this.
  • Conceal Object - This is going to be useful for any Thief that has something to hide, particularly if they have Surprise Strike.
  • Dead Fall - I still have never had a player actually use this Talent to achieve anything meaningful.
  • Direction Sense - If no one else in your Group has this Talent, it is useful enough to consider, even with the Karma cost. The odds are reasonable that you will be looking for someone or something at some point in your game. 
  • Engaging Banter - Useful for any game with intrigue, a caper, really any situation where you want to keep a mark distracted. If that is something you would find useful by this point, then this is the Talent for you.
  • Evaluate - This is the other half of Haggle and you will probably want it if you have the other.
  • Graceful Exit - This is another trick in the book of a Thief looking to make a clean getaway. If you find yourself frequently in those situations, you may want to consider this Talent. You may also want to consider what you are doing on a regular basis to get into those situations.
  • Mimic Voice - The primary value of this is for games that involve some level of intrigue, which means that most campaigns will see value there. Even a dungeon crawling game may get use of of this Talent.
Races

Most Namegivers can make a decent Thief of some variety; the exception is obsidimen, who are just bad at it in every way (penalties to Charisma, Dexterity and Perception, otherwise known as the attributes you are going to be using). The incredibly strong sense of personal honor that trolls feel prevent them from becoming this adept, but even beyond that they do not bring much to the table mechanically (average Charisma and Dexterity with a penalty to Perception). Both of these races also have poor Karma, which is often important to a Thief despite not having combat Discipline Talents: failing on many of their Talents has a significant downside.

Dwarfs and orks can both make interesting an interesting Thief; both are average in Dexterity and have a poor Charisma. However, a dwarf Spy ties into their erudite nature quite well and an  ork Assassin will have good Karma in addition to more damage. Both will be working at a slight disadvantage if going after a social build.

Elves, t'skrang and windlings bring solid attributes to the table and can pretty much do it all. The t'skrang gets special mention for being able to capitalize on the Cutthroat with their tail combat, and windlings can easily take advantage of the Slasher's Close In (which still doesn't make it attractive).

Humans have the same advantage they always do: Versatility. It is always a big advantage and can be used to further specialize (picking up the rest of the social Talents a Romancer is missing), or fill in the gaps in capabilities (some combat Talents to go with an Assassin). This Discipline tends to be involved in multiple Disciplines more often than most, and the only cases where I have seen it remain as just a single Discipline is for humans (because they can easily get away with such things).

Equipment

Here's a funny thing about this Discipline: beyond Trap Initiative, they have nothing that means they need to go first. If you have good Karma, then even Trap Initiative may not be a significant concern. It's a strange place where the Thief has every reason to strap on the biggest armor they can and pick up a shield. Two-handed weapons may very well have too high of a minimum Strength requirement for the average Thief to meet (enter the ork Assassin). Aesthetically, it is weird, however, you have pretty much nothing else to protect you in combat. In an equally odd side bonus, who is going to assume the tank in crystal plate (which was totally acquired above board) is a Thief?

03 March 2013

Earthdawn: Part 23 - Blood Magic

This is the twenty-third part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

Blood magic is hardly a new concept to the fantasy genre, but how it is handled in Earthdawn is a unique approach to the subject. Typically, blood magic is portrayed as dangerous and negative, something that villains do and heroes may turn to as an option of last resort (most commonly as an aspect of martyrdom - a noble sacrifice, lesser of two evils, or ends justify the means). This is generally even the case in the parent setting, Shadowrun. Blood magic is used almost exclusively by Aztechnology, a corp that may mildly be described as "villainous".

In EarthdawnMagic is a part of everyday life and blood magic is simply another kind of magic; not a wholly uncommon one at that. Everything must be powered somehow: common magic uses alchemy, true elements and other discrete things, though they tend to not be very powerful; spells and thread magic derive their power from astral space, though this only available to those who can work this kind of magic (adepts); and blood magic is powered by your life essence. Every adept will engage in blood magic through Strain, perhaps frequently, while even non-adepts may make Blood Oaths or use Blood Charms. Shadowrun even has hints of these elements, the Great Ghost Dance has been indicated to be a ritual powered by blood magic, and the Dragonheart. Drain from spells could be argued to be an example of blood magic, even if it isn't recognized as such (the magic level in the 6th World is considerably lower, thus spells require a great deal more effort).

There are a few kinds of blood magic that characters in Earthdawn will likely encounter: Blood Charms, Blood Oaths and Sacrifice Magic.

Blood Charms

References to Shadowrun for this topic are common because this is one of the ways in which Earthdawn betrays its roots. Blood Charms are the fantasy equivalent of cyberware, and quite ingenious at that. While rarely as extensive, few adepts go without having some Blood Charm or another; Absorb Blow, Death Cheat and Garlen Stones being particularly common. Whether they help keep you alive, as with the previous examples, a bonus (Desperate Blow), or a new capability (Darksight Eye), they all come with a price: Blood Magic Damage.

This damage is the primary balancing factor when considering how many Blood Charms you want to load up on. Combat characters can handle more and are generally in need of more; they also tend to be more geared at that role. That being said, there really is something for everyone. The damage you take may be temporary if the Charm can be removed, or it may be permanent (generally the eye Charms), and may also require Strain to power it on top of the Blood Magic Damage. These Charms are not cheap, but can be exactly the thing you need to come out victorious (hence, Desperate Blow/Spell).

Any Group with a Nethermancer, or accomplished alchemist, is going to have access to Blood Charms by simply making them. With downtime, they can create them at half-price, which means if your Group is anything like mine, there is going to be a sack stuffed with Absorb Blows. With even more time, they can also develop their own Blood Charms, which is awesome. The guidelines on doing that are broad, but straight-forward - one of the Blood Charms that I created for my players is the Blood Tattoo.

It is a variation on the Karma Charm (not to be confused with the Blood Karma Charm) and was a gift for providing a service to a Cathan tribe. In this particular game, Cathans are some of the premier Nethermancers in Barsaive. Any character can only have one and it is an expression of who they are - the end result is a totem that represents that Namegiver (typically an animal, but not required). It has a cost of 4 permanent damage and for 1 Strain the adept can spend a Karma on the Talent associated with the Blood Tattoo. This is slightly more powerful than the standard Karma Charm, given the limited access it is something that gives each of the characters a distinctive "you had to be there" story.

Some Thread Items may require this kind of blood magic for a deeper bond with their wielder. Those Deeds tend to be accompanied with a significant benefit of some kind, as well as signs of sentience from the Thread Item as it draws power not just from raw magic, but also from life and that connection. It always goes well.

Blood Oaths

Probably the most ubiquitous form of blood magic to the denizens of Barsaive, Blood Oaths represent a very serious way to enforce behavior. They are also the foundation of an Adventuring Group. Whether they like it or not (depending on which end they find themselves), these are going to show up. There are three types of Blood Oaths: Blood Peace, Blood Promise and Blood Sworn.

Blood Peace is the Oath that most players will enact, since it is required to form an Adventuring Group. It's pretty simply: not to hurt each other, or allow the other to come to harm through inaction. This isn't one of those things where you can argue your way out of it; it is powered by your life and intent matters. The duration is for a year and a day, and if you come out the other side, you gain a +1 to your Death Rating (unless they are a part of your Group) and your scar turns gold or silver. Breaking this Blood Oath, like any Blood Oath, is bad business. Permanent damage and a Blood Wound. Those take a year and a day to heal, and generally give the impression that you aren't to be trusted. The second part of the Oath is the truly dangerous part and this is not something to take lightly.

Blood Promise is generally the Oath that most players will find inflicted upon them (though some may use it to their advantage). That being said, there is some upside for the dangers and 4 Blood Magic Damage: +1 to a Talent or skill for the duration (up to a year and a day). This is generally used to enforce some kind of behavior, such as not talking about an event, or performing a particular task. It can be an interesting way for two characters to help each other out in the joint creation of a magic item, trying to eke out every bonus they can (see Strain below).

Blood Sworn is the rarest Oath and one that I have only seen once, though also by far the most powerful. It is Blood Magic marriage, essentially, only without the necessity for romantic components. This Oath binds two Namegivers together for a their lifetimes and the effects of breaking this Oath are very rough. The benefits to swearing it, however, are significant. It simply requires a level of trust and willingness to be together for the rest of your life that few without romantic leanings are going to undergo. The requirement of being loyal to each other for at least three years prior to the Oath remove any fears of Vegas-style Blood Sworn.

It is worth noting here that obsidimen have a connection with the rest of their brotherhood that means any Blood Oaths they engage in apply to all of their brotherhood as well. Ergo, they are unwilling to take part in them. While this is an interesting bit of flavor (even appropriate), it presents a number of setting problems: how are they going to take part in a task where the employer requires them to swear a Blood Promise of secrecy? They may not be a part of an Adventuring Group (which is a thing). In the end, I do not like this setting element and have never enforced it in any game. It is limiting with no payoff, it really isn't fun.

Sacrifice

While not the most common overall, it is the most common type of blood magic for adepts. This diverse category includes Strain, pushing Talents, ritual blood magic, Dying Act, Dying Curse, Dying Legacy and Dying Oaths. I know, diversity when four of the seven categories include "Dying" is questionable at best.

Strain and pushing Talents are common effects. The latter tends to show up the most when involved in activities that happen during downtime, such as Item History, Forge Weapon and crafting magic items. A +3 bonus for damage that can easily be healed over the course of a day is a strong benefit. The +7 bonus is significantly more problematic and I don't believe I have had a player use that effect outside of combined with a Dying Act. Ritual blood magic is, let's be honest for a moment, usually the realm of plot. While I have had players consider engaging in it, none of them did so in the end. There is this Nethermancer in my current game and he could go either way at this point...

Dying Act essentially allows you to dump all of your remaining Karma into a single roll, in return for dying afterwards. You may as well push your Talents while you are at it - you are already at the worst case scenario. Dying Curse allows you to, quite literally, get in the last word and screw someone over from beyond the grave. On the whole, this effect should be used sparingly from NPCs, but it is a fantastic way to have a recurring NPC go out. Dying Legacy is how many Legendary Thread Items are created and I have always considered it to be an additional element to a Dying Act (or Dying Curse, if that's how they roll), rather than a one or the other situation. Dying Oath is almost always related to a plot; the dying character extracts an oath from another character to do something, and in return they get the dying character's remaining Karma which may only be spent on all tasks related to the oath, even if you cannot normally spend Karma. You have a year and a day to complete the task and if you don't, you cannot regain Karma for another year and a day. I would highly suggest that you intended to do this thing in the first place.

For my own game, I have added Blood Gems, the crystallization of blood spilled during Sacrifice blood magic. They have appeared a few times and they players are somewhat wary of them - while useful in creating magic items, there is the natural hesitance regarding using blood magic to power things. There may have also been some bad experiences with blood magic. The ambiguity surrounding how they are created is part of their mystique: whenever they are found, it is clear that something happened there, something where sacrifices were made. Though there is no indication as to what happened. Were they formed as a part of a Dying Act, Dying Curse, or a terrible blood magic ritual? No matter what, they are significant.