My main takeaway from The Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide is that the decision to split the game into two volumes was not a fruitful one. Sure, it makes sense to keep the monster stats and magic items a secret, but I see no reason to segregate the climbing rules, and certain things, like the setting information do active harm to the game by being hidden away in a GM supplement.
Okay, so it's 2018, and it's highly unlikely that anyone is coming across Earthdawn 4th Edition by accident. I mean, I discovered it by accident, when I went into the local game store and saw it on their rpg shelf, but even then, it didn't have to sell me on the game. I knew right away what it was, and how improbable it was that I'd ever see it again. Still, if I'm imagining an alternate universe where these books were destined for the hands of an utter Earthdawn naif, then I have to question the wisdom of putting the game's main selling point - its incredible setting - into a book marked for GMs.
Because the setting information here really is quite good. It combines the familiar with the novel in a way that feels fresh. Like, it's a fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and whatnot, but dwarves are the most common race, outnumbering even humans. And the dwarf kingdom is underground, but that dovetails with the setting backstory in a really fruitful way. Of course, dwarves would have certain advantages in a world where all sapient life spent six of the last seven hundred years huddled in underground bunkers. And yet, aside from its exotic location, the Kingdom of Throal is portrayed in much the same terms as any fantasy kingdom - it is driven by profit and pride, but sometimes the idealists win. Just because they're a kingdom of dwarfs doesn't mean they're pigeonholed as the "dwarf kingdom." It's a remarkable bit of world-building.
But if I had to narrow the appeal of the setting down to one single element (which I don't have to, and really shouldn't - there's a lot of great stuff there), I'd say that what makes Earthdawn great is that it really manages to capture the sense of loss that comes with its post-apocalyptic setting. Lots of fantasy stories are set in the ruins of some prior, great civilization, but they often seem to use these ruins as a sort of adventuring loot box. Rarely are they engaged with as ruins - places that were once filled with activity and life, but which have since faded away.
The way Earthdawn establishes this is subtle. Take, for example, the broken kaers. Let's be real for a second. They're dungeons. They exist to be big, dangerous boxes full of thrilling monster fights and fabulous treasure. And they succeed in that. But, the plot of going into a kaer, clearing out the monsters, and retrieving the treasure also manages to be effortlessly affecting, even without further embellishment.
And it all comes down to one choice that seems obvious in retrospect, but which eluded me for years - Kaers are not mysterious. You never have to wonder "for what purpose did the ancients construct such an elaborate underground structure." You know it was to take refuge from an implacable enemy. And you never have to wonder "what fate befell the inhabitants that such a place would be abandoned to monsters." You know. The refuge failed.
But the trick Earthdawn pulls off is actually a two-step. Because Barsaive is not a bleak world, where people are constantly wailing in grief over a past that can never be reclaimed. The thing that most sells the sense of loss is that world is really quite the opposite. It's a world filled with hope. The people of Barsaive are rebuilding. The Horrors are in retreat. The evil empire suffered a major defeat. The dwarves of Throal were sincere when they said they were going to use their influence to liberate and unify, rather than rule. It's called Earthdawn for a reason. Tomorrow is going to be brighter than yesterday (with the help of the heroes, of course). The world has faced its darkest moment and survived. Life endures.
But then, sometimes, you come across a reminder of the people who didn't make it . . .
And that's what makes Earthdawn so great as a setting. And it's a shame that so little of that made it into the player-facing book. I'm glad that it's still somewhere, but I can't help but feel that the Player's and Gamemaster's Guides are less two stand-alone books, each serving a particular purpose and more two complementary volumes of a single work, that can't really function without each other. In fact, my theory at this point is that printing technology isn't really well suited to making a 1000-page book at 6"x9", so they arbitrarily split it in half to make it easier to manufacture.
Oh well, it doesn't much affect me on a personal level. I own both books and I was happy to read them. I may even put out feelers in my gaming group, see if anyone's interested in starting an Earthdawn game.
Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be cautious here and go with "cats can see into the astral." Such a picayune detail, doesn't especially help anyone but a Beastmaster character, and the only reason I even know about it is that the writers made the odd decision to include normal, non-combatant animals in their bestiary alongside Griffins and Unicorns.
So, you know, if you ever need to fight a mule, Earthdawn's got you covered. They don't have any magical powers or anything, but they are pretty good at carrying gear, so they could be armed with anything.
Seriously, though. The thing about cats seeing into the astral is a detail I really like. I enjoy it when fantasy games take real world superstition and make it function within the context of their rules.