01 April 2014

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Thread Item 46 - Puppet Familiar

This is the forty-sixth Anatomy of a Thread Item in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

Found in the Gamemaster's Guide (pg. 138), Puppet Familiar is a Thread Item first introduced in Gamemastering Earthdawn (pg. 41). My current game has an adaptation of this thread item. Well, it had. Things went sideways in ways I didn't expect (those players!) and I'm fairly certain that the group is hoping that is the last they have seen on that plot.

There will be an analysis of how the 3E Thread Item stacks up to the proposed guidelines (pg. 46 of the Gamemaster's Companion) and what it looked like in its original release.

Puppet Familiar
Spell Defense: 15
Legend Point Cost: Warden

The Spell Defense is low for the tier (minimum 16 for Warden) and the thread ranks come in just shy with seven. This item has a maximum of two threads, which is pretty standard. However, that actually becomes distinctly problematic at Rank Five.

Thread Rank One
Effect: Spell Matrix of Rank equal to the Thread Rank.

Always a welcome effect for any spellcaster.

Thread Rank Two
Effect: Two Spell Matrices of Rank equal to the Thread Rank.

And here is where I have a problem. As I have stated previously, I am not a fan of thread items that have more than one spell matrix. It sets the precedent that having a thread item which is nothing but spell matrices (which upgrade, of course) is perfectly acceptable - if perhaps a little hyperbolic. One spell matrix per thread item keeps things reasonable and keeps thread items at least a little interesting.

Thread Rank Three
Effect: One of the spell matrices is improved to an Enhanced Matrix.

Not only do we have two matrices, but one is already Enhanced and it's not even Rank Five yet. Yeah, I have a problem with this. Enhanced Matrices represent a significant step in power for a spellcaster (check out Astral Spear v. Spirit Dart). This is something that a Third Circle magician can be carrying around and start to deform the game with their capabilities. It would be worth the price (800 LP? Easy).

Thread Rank Four
Effect: Both matrices are now Enhanced Matrices.

Oh good, because just one wasn't enough.

Thread Rank Five
Effect: The puppet comes to life with no talents or skills and has Attribute Steps equal to the owners' -2.

There are a lot of problems with this rank. Just to start with, remember how there can be two threads attached to this item? Well, on which owner are the Attribute steps based? Not only that, whose personality does it mimic? This thing is independent and mobile, so it's hard to claim who is "wearing" it at any time. This makes accessing the spell matrices questionable - who gets access to them?

Moving from there, this rank requires 1 Blood Magic Damage, which isn't a lot, but what it offers in return is... not good. The fact that there is an independent critter loyal to your character seems cool, until you realize they can be killed (I guess? it has a Death Rating) and are pretty useless. Think about trying to accomplish anything as a spellcaster using only your attributes. Okay? Now reduce those by two... yeah. You already have two Enhanced Matrices, now you are paying 2100 LP and a Blood Magic Damage for this? Those future ranks had better be worth it!

Thread Rank Six
Effect: The spell matrices are now Armored.

Worth it? Not really. Armored Matrices have generally been a way to get more Enhanced Matrices with an effect which might matter at those tiers where people are attacking your spell matrices. This is not that common. I've seen it happen a handful of times in 20 years. 

Thread Rank Seven
Effect: 1 hour ritual and 1 Blood Magic Damage can turn an Armored Matrix into a Shared Matrix.

Let's just be really, really honest for a minute here: an Armored Matrix is better than a Shared Matrix. Sure, it's cool to stack all of those early Circle spells in one matrix and call it good. But I would much rather have a spell with one thread pre-woven. That is a turn I don't have to spend weaving threads. That is worth far more in practical terms than every single first Circle spell on deck. Out of combat, you have (effectively) all the time you need to access your spells. In combat, every action counts and Enhanced/Armored Matrices save actions. On top of the fact this is downgrading your matrix, it takes an hour and commits health to Blood Magic Damage to make it happen. This is also the capstone.

How does it all stack up? This is an item that any magician would be delighted to have. Two extra Enhanced Matrices for a low cost? Granted, they only go up to Rank Four, but there are plenty of great spells to always have on hand with a thread pre-woven at those Circles. In all seriousness, those last three ranks are best ignored. Everything that you actually want is in the first four and you can improve an Enhanced/Armored Matrix to much higher ranks as needed. This item is a strange example of peaking early, then best being ignored. Is it the Jefferson Airplane of thread items?

This will likely cause problems if introduced into your game before Fifth Circle. Just the ability to get two more spell matrices, let alone Enhanced Matrices, is a big deal. Even after Fifth Circle, that is still a lot of Enhanced Matrices that the magician will have access. Many of the difficult choices they have for spell selection will vanish as they have access to a large number of powerful matrices.

For pure flavor, I like this item a lot. So much that I made a different version that played quite well. For mechanics, just keep on walking. Everything after Rank One is fraught with problems. Yes, it can be fixed and it is even worth it. But this is not a good item out of the box and not something that should be used as the mechanical inspiration for anything.

How does the 3E version compare to the 1E version? Let's find out:

Puppet Familiar (1E)
Spell Defense: 13
Legend Point Cost: Journeyman

The Spell Defense is reduced, as is the tier when compared to 3E. The maximum threads is still the same, along with the same problems that creates.

Thread Rank One
Effect: Spell Matrix of Rank equal to the Thread Rank.

The same.

Thread Rank Two
Effect: Two Spell Matrices of Rank equal to the Thread Rank.

Also the same.

Thread Rank Three
Effect: One of the spell matrices is improved to an Enhanced Matrix.

Still the same.

Thread Rank Four
Effect: The puppet comes to life with no talents or skills and has Attribute Steps equal to the owners' -2.

Well, this showed up a rank early, so that's a thing. Though it is listed as the Deed and the effect is listed as "None. Isn't that enough?". As though this effect is somehow actually helpful as written. It can be (if it had skills/talents like everything else in the game), just not how it is written.

Thread Rank Five
Effect: Both matrices are now Enhanced Matrices.

And it shows up a rank later.

Thread Rank Six
Effect: Three Enhanced Matrices.

Cough, gag, wow. 

Thread Rank Seven
Effect: Four Enhanced Matrices.

Really? No one thought this was a bad idea? 

How do they stack up? The 1E version is... it's just freakish. The 3E version certainly took the power down a few steps, though it was all concentrated in the first four ranks. For 1E... that whole animated thing, which actually printed a snarky comment like that was the best thing this has to offer, is really just a speed bump between you and two more Enhanced Matrices. Which is simply madness. Don't forget, it also costs less in 1E. Yikes. I'm now remembering why this never, ever, ever, ever, ever showed up in my 1E games.