28 August 2012

Earthdawn: Part 1 - Introduction

This is the first part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Index of articles.

Earthdawn is likely my favorite game of all time. Over the course of many years I have playing with the thoughts ofwhy it always figured at the top of that list, warts and all. There is something about it that conjures all of the joy and freedom of my childhood, but still has grown up with me to reveal deeper elements. It has all of the mechanics and material to tell rich and vibrant stories, the world is one where you do something, and there are just so many things that it can do.

This is what I am getting at, the passion that I have for this game. When I first started this blog, a very good friend of mine told me to write about what I care about and everything will come from there. He's absolutely correct, of course. This series about Earthdawn has been put off for a while; half-written drafts and proposed outlines that went nowhere. I was afraid to do it a disservice, to not get the format right. It's not about any of that, it's about that I really love this game and I want to get other people to love it too.

That is where all of this is going. Until I have nothing left to say about Earthdawn, I'm going to be writing about it and hopefully you are willing to give it a read. If there is any particular topic or analysis that you would like to see, leave a comment and I will be more than happy to address it.

The line's travels have been more curious than most and have recently come full circle.Released in 1993 by FASA, the line was closed in 1999. The final release was Dragons, an e-book that I vividly remember printing out at the campus library after a chemistry final. That same year Living Room Games (LRG) acquired the license and released a second edition in 2001. In 2003 Redbrick acquired a license as well and released Earthdawn Classic, while cleaned up the rules and compiled many of the supplements into enormous POD tomes. In 2005 LRG stopped publishing Earthdawn and in 2009 Redbrick released the third edition of Earthdawn, now the sole holder of the license. On 26 Aug 2012, publishing has reverted to FASA in something like a merger between FASA and Redbrick. Currently Earthdawn is available in the third edition rules, along with Pathfinder and Savage Worlds editions.

Earthdawn is best described as a love letter to D&D. It crafts a world to support and give consistency to many of the classic D&D tropes (e.g. the ecology and appearance of bizarre monsters, the prevalence of dungeons and why treasure is at the bottom, the drive for adventure despite the inherent dangers, etc.). As well Earthdawn addresses many of the complaints that have been voiced over the years with regard to D&D (e.g. constantly upgraded magic items, the continual need for clerics, supremacy of wizards, etc.). The influence from many of these innovations can still be seen in game design today.

The setting, in brief, is post-post-apocalyptic; civilization effectively ended, but has since been rebuilt to an extent. Around 500 years prior to the assumed start all of the many people retreated into kaers, magical bomb shelters, to hide from what would otherwise be a mass extinction event called the Scourge. During this 400 year period the magical reality (astral space) and physical reality grew close enough for otherworldly entities known as Horrors to cross into our world. The Horrors feed off the pain and fear of sapient creatures and have a great interest in cracking into the kaers, to no small amount of success. The survivors emerged into a world that was very different from the tales they had been raised on. It was a twisted version, filled with monsters and Horrors.

Adepts are the heroes of the setting: individuals that can use magic through natural talent and force of will by aligning themselves with archetypes known as Disciplines. Because of who and what they are, it is their responsibility to explore this new world, protect the people trying to rebuild, banish the Horrors that remain, and find and rescue those that have not yet emerged from their kaers. The magic employed by all Adepts involves Weaving magical Threads to Patterns. Everything with a Name has a Pattern, and those that can give Names have a special place in the universe. They are collectively known as Namegivers and all of the player races belong to this group. Weaving Threads to an object with a Pattern requires knowledge of them, so many Adepts expend considerable effort to learn the history of the item in question so that it will gain power as they do.

These are a few of the elements of Earthdawn which will forever capture my imagination. I'm going to expand on these and many more. Please leave a comment if there is anything you would like to see, or if you are enjoying what you read. My hope is that others can be inspired like I was.


  1. Hunh.. this game sounds interesting.. I take it there is some reason why people have to leave these bomb shelters to begin with? All the player races are Namegivers and so are capable of this magic.. so then all the PC "classes" are different ways of "weaving" etc?

    One last question.. with all the publishing history is there one version or set you would recommend others to get if they are interested in playing?

    1. Yep. Each type of Adpet knows a different form of weaving than the other, so your Swordmaster's Threadweaving skill will be different than the one your Weaponsmith knows. Also of note, they dont cross. So you cant use threadwiving via your swordmaster (Swordweaving?) to do stuff like cast mage spells and what not.

      I was very happy with the first, liked the one by redbrick, and am currently running 4th ed and enjoying that. Were it me, I'd go with 4th since it is likely to be easier to find the books as they're still in print and it is a very good revision of the system. Some things were changed that I didnt think needed it, but I'm not unhappy with any of the changes I've found thus far (even though my original reaction to the change in Karma wasn't...er... nice. lol)

  2. As demonstrated by the seminal feature, Blast From the Past, no matter how nice the bomb shelter is, it is still a bomb shelter and you have been cooped up with these people for generations; tensions rising within the kaers is a major theme. The kaers generally play an important role within the community and explicitly not all kaers have opened, for various reasons (mostly a fear that the Scourge is not over, but Fallout could offer other motivations as well, just without the social experiments).

    My very next post will be addressing Disciplines and how they function within the system and setting. All of the major system concepts are also represented in the setting, which is a very neat and mostly unprecedented piece of symmetry that I enjoy quite a bit.

    The current edition (3E) is mechanically my favorite. There is a new version of it (Revised) available in digest format, but I don't know what the full extent of the changes are. In general I am going to try and address all of the mechanics to the most recent version that I have. The system has changed very little at its core across all editions, which means it will take getting very specific to make any statements inapplicable to the entire line and I'm going to try and call those out when they occur.

  3. Excellent description of the game and the flavour! Now that the rights have moved back to FASA it will be interesting to see what they do with it. Maybe now they will finally marry Shadowrun's past and Earthdawn's future ;)

  4. Thanks, it's great to hear you liked it! Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see things) Earthdawn and Shadowrun will be irrevocably separated; FASA intends to publish three new game lines in the second, sixth and eighth ages (Earthdawn is the fourth and Shadowrun the sixth). The second age era will ostensibly be about dragons, the sixth a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" type setting, and the eighth a sci-fi horror setting (I think). It is worth noting that the eighth world setting is explicitly not Equinox.

    I may be wrong regarding the new sixth world setting and it could actually be a seventh world setting - existing in the ashes of Shadowrun. Nonetheless, with the license firmly at Catalyst, I doubt that we will be seeing anything more than the occasional easter egg - which is sad, because I particularly enjoyed those connections and piecing through the lore to make them.

  5. Good grief - I had no clue - saw that FASA picked up the license again but didn't realize they were pushing the other Ages. I still feel there is so much to plumb in the Earthdawn era. Even easter eggs would be nice as it would validate some theories we have ;)

    That being said (and completely off-topic) I hope they get a different artist than Laubenstein for the interiors of any new ED source material, I always had trouble buying into some of his interpretation except for the highly detailed brocades/fabrics on his characters. The art style never clicked with me, and none of the guys I played with (waaaaaay back in 1e) could either.

  6. Hey, I love Earthdawn for many of the reasons you mention. I will confess to never having used any version of the Earthdawn rules. More recently I bought the Savage Worlds books and plan to run a game. You mention above "the continual need for clerics" was something ED addressed. Can you tell me what you meant?
    Cheers, Rusty

  7. Essentially, every character in the Step system (the native Earthdawn system; I cannot speak towards the Pathfinder and Savage Worlds versions) has their own healing, called Recovery Tests. How much they heal and how many you get per day is based on your Toughness attribute and some Disciplines provide bonuses as you increase in Circle, as can Thread Magic. To use them, you must rest for an hour, or have just awoken from a night's sleep. If you are suffering from any Wounds, which are serious injuries, they will reduce the amount you heal and can generally only be healed after all of your damage is gone. In this way the "death of a thousand cuts" is considerably easier to recover from than a series of serious injuries, despite resulting in the same overall damage at the time.

    Most healing is done through your Recovery Tests, such as Booster potions and Heat Food, which both increase how much they heal, but some healing aids, like Healing potions, provide their own Recovery Tests if you don't have any. The Physician skill can also help in healing by reducing the penalties of Wounds, and Questors of Garlen also can have access to healing aids along those lines.

    Does that make sense and/or answer your question?