Earthdawn Designer(s) Greg Gorden Publisher(s) FASA (1st edition)
Living Room Games (2nd edition)
RedBrick LLC (Classic edition, 3rd edition)
Publication date 1993 (1st edition)
2001 (2nd edition)
2005 (Classic edition)
2009 (3rd edition)
Genre(s) Fantasy System(s) Step System Set in the same world as Shadowrun, millennia earlier
Earthdawn is a fantasy role-playing game, originally produced by FASA in 1993. In 1999 it was licensed to Living Room Games, which produced the Second Edition. It is currently licensed to RedBrick LLC, who released the game's third edition in 2009 through Mongoose Publishing's Flaming Cobra imprint.
The game is similar to fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, but draws more inspiration from games like RuneQuest. The rules of the game are tightly bound to the underlying magical metaphysics, with the goal of creating a richer, more logical fantasy world. Like many role-playing games from the nineties, Earthdawn focuses much of its detail on its setting, a land called Barsaive.
Starting in 1993, FASA released over 20 gaming supplements describing this universe; however, it closed down production of Earthdawn in January 1999. During that time several novels and short-story anthologies set in the Earthdawn universe were also released. In late 1999, FASA granted Living Room Games a licensing agreement to produce new material for the game.
The 2nd Edition did not alter the setting, though it did update the timeline to include events that took place in Barsaive. There were a few changes to the rules in the 2nd Edition; some classes were slightly different or altered abilities from the original. The changes were meant to allow for more rounded-out characters and better balance of play. Living Room Games last published in 2005, and they no longer have a license with FASA to publish Earthdawn material.
In 2003, a second license was granted to RedBrick LLC, who developed their own edition based on the FASA products, while releasing the original FASA books in PDF form. The Earthdawn Player's Compendium and Earthdawn Gamemaster's Compendium are essentially an alternative second edition, but without a version designation (since the material is compatible anyway). Each book has over 500 pages, and summarizes much of what FASA published—not only the game mechanics, but also the setting, narrations, and stories. For example, each Discipline has its own chapter, describing it from the point of view of different adepts. Likewise, Barsaive gets a complete treatment, and the chapters contain a lot of log entries and stories in addition to the setting descriptions; the same applies also to Horrors and Dragons.
While RedBrick tried to remain faithful to FASA's vision and also tried to keep the visual style, they revised almost everything, and introduced some new material to fill the gaps. RedBrick also began publishing Earthdawn novels in 2007. On July 8, 2008, RedBrick announced a new line called Age of Legend 4e, a port of the Earthdawn setting for use with the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition rules.
In 2009, RedBrick announced the end to the Earthdawn Classic edition and the production of a true third edition of the game. In order to get a larger audience for the third edition, RedBrick is publishing the book through Mongoose Publishing's Flaming Cobra imprint, the first two books of which were released in July 2009.
In 1999 Pyramid magazine named Earthdawn as one of The Millennium's Most Underrated Games. Editor Scott Haring noted (referring to the FASA edition) that "Earthdawn had an original, inventive magic system (no mean trick given the hundreds of fantasy RPGs that came before), and a game world that gave you the classic "monsters and dungeons" sort of RPG experience, but made sense doing it."
In Barsaive, magic, like many things in nature, goes through cycles. As the magic level rises, it allows alien creatures called Horrors to cross from their distant, otherworldly dimension into our own. The Horrors come in an almost infinite variety—from simple eating machines that devour all they encounter, to incredibly intelligent and cunning foes that feed off the negative emotions they inspire in their prey.
In the distant past of Earthdawn's setting, an elf scholar discovered that the time of the Horrors was approaching, and founded the Eternal Library in order to discover a way to defeat them — or at the very least, survive them. The community that grew up around the library developed wards and protections against the Horrors, which they traded to other lands and eventually became the powerful Theran Empire, an extremely magically advanced civilization and the main antagonist of the Earthdawn setting.
The peoples of the world built kaers, underground towns and cities, which they sealed with the Theran wards to wait out the time of the Horrors, which was called the Scourge. Theran wizards and politicians warned many of the outlying nations around Thera of the coming of the Horrors, offering the protection of the kaers to those who would pledge their loyalty to the Empire. Most of these nations agreed at first though some became unwilling to fulfill their end of the bargain after the end of the Scourge, wanting to have nothing to do with the bureaucratic nation run on political conflict and powered by slavery. After four hundred years of hiding, the Scourge ended, and the people emerged to a world changed by the Horrors. The player characters explore this new world, discovering lost secrets of the past, and fighting Horrors that remain.
The primary setting of Earthdawn is Barsaive, a former province of the Theran Empire. Barsaive is a region of city-states, independent from the Therans since the dwarven Kingdom of Throal led a rebellion against their former overlords. The Theran presence in Barsaive has been limited to a small part of south-western Barsaive, located around the magical fortress of Sky Point and the city of Vivane.
The setting of Earthdawn is the same world as Shadowrun (i.e. a fictionalized version of Earth), but takes place millennia earlier. Indeed, the map of Barsaive and its neighboring regions established that most of the game takes place where the Ukraine and adjacent Russia are in our world. However, the topography other than coastlines and major rivers is quite different, and the only apparent reference to the real world besides the map may be the Blood Wood, known as "Wyrm Wood" before the Scourge and similar in location and extent to the Chernobyl (Ukrainian for "wormwood") Zone of alienation.
Two Earthdawn supplements cover territories outside Barsaive. The Theran Empire book covers the Theran Empire and its provinces (which roughly correspond to the territories of the Roman Empire, plus colonies in America and India). Cathay: The Five Kingdoms covers the lands of Cathay (Far East).
The setting of Earthdawn features several fantasy races for characters and NPCs:
- Dwarf - Dwarfs in Earthdawn are similar in appearance to the classic D&D or Tolkien dwarfs. They are the predominant race in Barsaive, and the dwarf language is considered the common language. Their culture, especially of the dominant Throal Kingdom, can be considered more of a Renaissance-level culture than in most other fantasy settings, and forms the main source of resistance to a return of Thera's rule in Barsaive.
- Elf - Elves in Earthdawn fit the common fantasy role playing convention; they are tall, lithe, pointy-eared humanoids who prefer living in nature. Elves in Earthdawn naturally live a very long time; some are thought to be immortal. Such immortal Elves feature in many cross-pollinated storylines with Shadowrun. A subrace of Earthdawn elves are called the Blood Elves. The blood elves rejected the Theran protective magic, and attempted their own warding spells. These wards failed, and a last-ditch ritual caused thorns to thrust through the skin of the blood elves. These ever-bleeding wounds caused constant pain, but the self-inflicted suffering was enough to protect the blood elves from the worst of the Horrors.
- Human - Humans in Earthdawn are physically similar to humans in our own real world. Human adepts are granted a special Versatility talent to make them more mechanically appealing. Humans in Earthdawn are considered to be somewhat warlike in general outlook.
- Obsidiman - Obsidimen are a race of large, rock-based humanoids. They stand over 7 feet (2.1 m) tall and weigh over 900 pounds. Their primary connection is to their Liferock, which is a large formation of stone that they emerge from. Obsidimen are loyal to the community around their Liferock, and eventually return to and re-merge with it. Obsidimen can live around 500 years away from their Liferock, and their ultimate lifespan is unknown, as they generally return to it and remain there. Due to their rocky nature and long lives, obsidimen are rather slow moving and deliberate in both speech and action, and can have difficulty understanding the smaller races' need for haste. However, if aroused by a threat to self, friend, or community, obsidimen are fearsome to behold.
- Ork - The ork race in Earthdawn is physically similar to other depictions of orks in fantasy role-playing. They are tribal, nomadic and often barbaric humanoids, with olive, tan, beige or ebony skin. They are relatively short-lived, and as a result many attempt to leave a legacy marked by a memorable death—preferably one that leaves no corpse. Before the Scourge almost all orks were enslaved by other races.
- Troll - The troll race in Earthdawn is also similar in appearance to many other fantasy role playing depictions of trolls. They are very tall humanoids, with a hardened skin and horns. Socially, they form clans to which they are fiercely loyal. Troll clans often raid one another, and a significant subset of the troll race are crystal raiders, which command many of the airships of Barsaive. Other trolls, known as lowland trolls, have merged with mixed communities around Barsaive, although most retain the fierce cultural and personal pride of their less-civilized cousins.
- T'skrang - The t'skrang are lizard-like amphibian humanoids with long tails and a flair for dramatics. Many of them exhibit the behaviors and characteristics which are stereotypical to a "swashbuckler". T'skrang are often sailors, and many t'skrang families run ships up and down the rivers of Barsaive. A rare subrace of t'skrang, the k'stulaami, possess a flap of skin much like a flying squirrel's patagium, allowing them to glide. While k'stulaami can be born as a random mutation in any t'skrang line, they tend to congregate into communities filled with their own kind.
- Windling - The windlings are small, winged humanoids; similar to many depictions of fae creatures, they resemble small elves with insect-like wings. They have the ability to see into the astral plane, and are considerably luckier than the other races. Windlings are often somewhat mischievous, hedonistic, and eager for new experiences, and are culturally similar to the Kender of Krynn, but without the same kleptomaniacal tendencies. They have wings similar to those of a dragonfly and are one to two feet in height.
- Leafer - A Race native to the Dark Forest of Vasgothia, the Leafers are a race of sentient plant Name-Givers.
- Ulkmen - Another Race unique to Vasgothia, the Ulkmen are Name-Givers that have been merged with Horrors. In addition to his Talents, an Ulkman Adept gains a Horror Power every 4 Circles. Despite their origins & horrific appearance, the Ulkmen are a largely peaceful people.
- Jubruq - The only 'Half-race' in Earthdawn, Jubruq are half human or ork and half elemental spirit. They are native to the Sufik Tribes of Marak.
- Jackelmen - Native to Creana, Jackelmen have the body of a human and the head of a jackal. They are a warrior people and are thought to practice cannibalism.
- Barsaive (Ukraine/Russia/Byelorussia)
- Throal Kingdom/Throal (dwarves, monarchy)
- Iopos (city state, magocracy)
- Blood Wood (Elves, monarchy)
- Kratas (city of thieves, kleptocracy)
- Urupa (city-state, important port)
- Jerris (city-state)
- Travar (city-state)
- Trollish clans of mountains (sky raiders)
- T'skrang clans (aropagoi) of the Serpent River (traders)
- Vivane (city-state, under occupation by Thera)
- Haven and Parlainth (ruins)
- Great Dragons
- various Secret Societies
- Outside Barsaive
- Theran Empire (Thera)
- Cathay (China)
- Jih Poh (Japan)
- Indrisa (India)
- Shosara (Scandinavia)
- Talea (Italy)
- Vivane (Greece)
- Rugaria (Bulgaria)
- Creana (Egypt)
- Arancia (France)
- Marac (North Africa)
- Vasgothia (Germany)
- Torinachia (Denmark, considered a smaller Province within Vasgothia)
- Aznan (Horn of Africa)
- Fekara (Africa)
- Araucania (South America)
- Slithering Wastes (Spain)
Magic in Earthdawn
Earthdawn's magic system is highly varied but the essential idea is that all player characters (called Adepts) have some access to magic, used to perform abilities attained through their Disciplines.
Each Discipline is given a unique set of Talents which are used to access the world's magic. Legend points (the Earthdawn equivalent of experience points) can be spent to put up the characters level in the Talent, increasing his step level for the ability, making the user more proficient at using that specific type of magic.
Caster Disciplines use the same Talent system as others, but also have access to spells. How a player character obtains spells varries depending on his Game Master; but how they are used is universal. Casters all have special Talents called spell matrixes which they can place spells into. A spell atuned (placed into) to a matrix is easily accessible and can be cast at any time. Spells can be switched out of combat at the players will; however, once in combat they must use an action to do so (called re-atuning on the fly), which requires a set difficulty they must achieve, or risk losing their turn.
It is generally recommended that Casters only use spells while they atuned, but it is not impossible to cast on while it is not. Casting a spell that is not in a matrix is referred to as raw casting. Raw casting is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Earthdawn magic system. If the spell is successfully cast, it has its normal effects along with added consequences. Raw casting has a very good chance of drawing the attention of a Horror; which can quickly turn into death for low level characters (And for high level characters as well in some cases).
One of the most innovative ideas in Earthdawn is how magical items work. At first, most magical items work exactly like a mundane item of the same type. As a character searches for information about the item's history, performs certain tasks relating to that history, and spends legend points to activate the item, he unlocks some of the magic in the item. As the character learns more about the item and its history, he can unlock more and more power within the item.
Each magical item, therefore, is unique by virtue of its history and the scope of its powers. For example, one magical broadsword may have only 4 magical ranks and only increases the damage of the blade. On the other hand the legendary sword Purifier, has 10 magical ranks and grants its wielder numerous powers.
Earthdawn stands out from other tabletop RPGs with a unique approach to skill tests. Players wanting to perform an action determine their level or "step" for the skill, talent, or ability to be used. This step can then be looked up in a list of dice to be thrown; it is the next-highest integer of the average roll of the dice(s) in question. For example, two six-sided dice will on average yield a result of 7, thus the step number 8 means that 2d6 willl be rolled. The consequence is that each such dice roll has a 50% chance of yielding a result at least as high as the corresponding step number.
The result of each die is added (dice which reach their maximum value are thrown again, adding each maximum to the tally, along with the final result below maximum) and compared to a value decided by the game master/storyteller according to the difficulty of the task. This approach means it's always technically possible to succeed with a low step number, yet leaves room for failure on high step numbers. This will sometimes make combat last longer than in other games. As per the above, the difficulty value where the odds of success are perfectly even is identical to the step number.
Examples of steps Step Dice to be thrown (Classic and 2nd Edition) Dice to be thrown (3rd Edition) 1 1d4-2 1d6-3 2 1d4-1 1d6-2 3 1d4 1d6-1 4 1d6 1d6 5 1d8 1d8 6 1d10 1d10 7 1d12 1d12 8 2d6 2d6 9 1d8 + 1d6 1d8 + 1d6 10 1d10 + 1d6 2d8 11 1d10 + 1d8 1d10 + 1d8 12 2d10 2d10 13 1d12 + 1d10 1d12 + 1d10 14 1d20 + 1d4 or 2d12 (Earthdawn Classic option) 2d12
The dice in steps 3 through 13 form the basis of an 11-step cycle. To form steps 14-24, add 1d20. To form steps 25-35, further add 1d10 + 1d8. For higher cycles, continue alternating between the addition of 1d20 and 1d10 + 1d8. Step 2 is rolled as step 3, but you subtract 1 from the result. This is notated as "1d4 - 1". Step 1 is 1d4 - 2.
The 3rd edition changes this by removing d4s and d20s from the system. Steps 6 through 12 (as listed above) form the basis of a 7-step cycle. To add 7 steps from then on, simply add 1d12.
See list of Earthdawn books.
- ^ Staff (December 1993). "Feature Review: Earthdawn". Shadis (10).
- ^ "Living Room Games Forums". 2009-01-30. http://forums.lrgames.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=1043&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=30. Retrieved 2009-01-31.
- ^ Haring, Scott D. (1999-11-25). "Second Sight: The Millennium's Most Influential Company and The Millennium's Most Underrated Game". Pyramid (online). http://www.sjgames.com/pyramid/login/article.html?id=1240. Retrieved 2008-02-16.
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