11 August 2017

Earthdawn 4E: Anatomy of a Thread Item 03 - Astral Sextant

This is the third 4E Anatomy of a Thread Item, an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

Found in Parlainth (p. 54), I don't believe astral sextant was updated to 3E. Just watch, someone is going to prove me wrong in the comments - in which case, I will gladly update with the location where it can be found. I can only recall this particular thread item appearing in one game over the years, which happened to be set primarily in Parlainth. Go figure.

However, it wasn't the only game in that setting. Just the only with this item. Which caused problems. It came down to strong differences of opinion on how exactly it should do its thing. The players felt it should actually be useful, rather than require a lot of pixel bitching to get it pointed exactly in the right direction. The GM felt the information it provided was too powerful to make it easy to use. I think there was a chart that required two rolls to get the exact horizontal and vertical direction based on our base of operation in Haven. Then things got funny if we used it anywhere else. Funny in that space seemed to become decidedly non-Euclidean.

From an objective perspective, both groups were right. Not only that, but as alluded previously, it's not really easy on a GM to use. There is no range on this - point in a direction and you know stuff. Lots of stuff. Which also leads to a lot of, "Some random Horror thousands of miles away, focus."

In lieu of listing out each original thread rank and effect, I'm going to give a brief summary and take a shot at rebuilding it because it is a cool thread item

At first, you get to know the location of the nearest Horror, including the distance in the direction the device is pointing. "A difference of even a few degrees will result in a different reading; the sextant cannot detect a Horror even slightly to one side of the straight line from the pointer." Pixel bitching. If used in combat, this isn't such a big deal. However, this power is absolutely useless in combat - thanks astral sextant, I know where it is.

Second rank, it gives the type of Horror. This is a little strange as it indicates a universal taxonomy of Horrors as taxonomy isn't intrinsic. Even if programmed, did the creators include every kind of Horror, is there anything they didn't encounter? What about Named Horrors? This quickly gets weird and starts to remove some of the interesting guesswork that may go along with identifying Horrors.

Third rank, the user now gets the Name of the Horror and if the Horror senses the user's presence. That first one was potentially the thing a campaign was made of. 

Fourth rank, the astral sextant also detects Horror constructs (okay) and Horror-marked individuals (not-so-good). It gives names (so much for hiding your identity), if they know the user is there, and type if a construct. So... this removes a lot of the paranoia that can be associated with having Horror-marked people out there. Now, just point your doohicky them and all questions answered. Also, in an interesting twist, the sheer volume of Horror constructs in a place like Parlainth now makes this really hard to use to find a Horror, since there just needs to be a construct in the way, "Another freaking strawman? Ugh!"

Finally, at Fifth rank, the astral sextant gives up Horror powers, talents, spells by any "Horror-touched" creatures it detects. And the rough Death Rating in relation to the user. This kills the mystery in many ways. An argument can be made that's the entire purpose of the device, but this is really just too much. It's very easy to see both sides of using it in a game and why it simply never showed up - it is both too powerful and too limiting.

So, let's try to fix that. I don't think this is going to be an easy task and there may be multiple drafts before it's right. But you have to start somewhere. A major concern with designing effects for this is ensuring it doesn't make (currently unavailable) Horror Stalkers obsolete. One way is to assume if a game will eventually have a character who pursues Horror Stalker, this isn't an appropriate thread item to include. This is honestly the easy way out. So, let's shoot for them both being able to co-exist at the same table and maybe, eventually, take that easy way out.

Starting out, the tier of the thread item. It has the base cost of a Warden tier item, but the thread ranks of a Journeyman item. Detour: While these are not incompatible, my preference is to provide examples that color within the lines so they are most useful as examples and benchmarks. The hope is this makes it easier for others to follow and make informed decisions when going outside those guidelines.

For right now, I'm going to put this at Journeyman - though this decision may change. The biggest reason is the effects at Rank Seven and beyond are pretty big and I'm wary of this providing that much information. However, if the effects end up too powerful, it may get expanded to Warden with eight ranks and some effects pushed back. The Mystic Defense is set at 14 because that's the top end of the Journeyman range (10-14) and it feels appropriate for this particular thread item.

The general effects for this thread item involve determining the location and some information about Horrors and Horror constructs. Anything related to Horror-marked victims is being removed because that's no fun. Right up there with magic powers that detect lies. The plan is to stick to that direction, but create something more useful and palatable to both players and GMs; there's no point in writing a thread item the former never use and the latter never introduces.


Astral Sextant
Maximum Threads: 2
Mystic Defense: 14
Legend Point Cost: Journeyman


Thread Rank One
Key Knowledge: The owner must learn this device is called an astral sextant and its Name.
Effect: 
For 1 Strain as a Standard action, the owner makes a PER + Thread Rank test against the Mystic Defense of each Horror and Horror construct within Thread Rank × 20 yards. If successful, the astral sextant indicates the number of detected targets within the range.

This should be a useful detection ability that doesn't provide too much information, which is always important. Effects like this can be trick in the form of something like a spell because access to them may not be appropriate for every game, but a thread item is something specifically introduced by the GM, meaning it absolutely is appropriate for that game. The effect was initially tied to Astral Sight, which allows it to scale much better for higher Circles. But that limits the characters who can benefit from this thread item significantly. Moving it to PER + Thread Rank means it's about understanding the astral sextant itself, which is good because it's doing all the astral heavy lifting. The 1 Strain cost discourages this effect from being used over and over until there is a good result.

Thread Rank Two
Effect: The owner gains a +2 bonus to all PER + Thread Rank tests with the astral sextant and it now indicates the direction of each detected target.

Providing bonuses to the test is how I decided to solve scaling issues for now. Given the limited applicability of the test and how much it impacts the game, I don't think this is too much of an issue. By the end, the total bonus to PER (including Thread Rank) is 14, which should be good for the most part. The effect also improves the initial ability, which is an ongoing thing with this item.

Thread Rank Three
Key Knowledge: The owner must learn the precise location of the chamber in which the astral sextant was built.
Effect: The 
owner gains a +4 bonus to all PER + Thread Rank tests with the astral sextant and the range increases to Thread Rank × 50 yards.

Thread Rank Four
Effect: The owner gains a +6 bonus to all PER + Thread Rank tests with the astral sextant and it now indicates the distance to each detected target.

Thread Rank Five
Key Knowledge: The owner must learn how many gears the astral sextant contains.
Effect: The owner gains the Scrutinize Horror special maneuver.
Scrutinize Horror (Owner): The owner can spend additional successes on a Perception-based test at a cost of 1 Strain per success. The test must target a Horror or Horror construct's Mystic Defense and the owner must see or astrally sense the target. Each success allows the player to ask a specific question that reveals one of the target's game statistics or abilities. This special maneuver may be used once per round and only affects one target per use.

This is the big effect it's building towards and I like it because it's interesting. It effectively gives Creature Analysis only for Horrors, which is territory stepping on the toes of Horror Stalkers. However, there are some limitations, such as the Strain cost per success, the equivalent Horror Stalker ability won't have. It can be used with the basic effect of the thread item, using the provided bonus, or any applicable talent the character may be using, such as Anticipate Blow, Astral Sight, or Mystic Aim. Sorry Awareness. For talents that provide bonuses, this is an opportunity cost, reducing the bonus for information. Using just the basic effect still allows any Discipline access to this effect, which is important.


Still, this may be too potent for a Rank Five effect and more appropriate for Rank Seven.

Thread Rank Six
Effect: The owner gains +8 to all PER + Thread Rank tests with the astral sextant and can use Scrutinize Horror twice per round.