Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Earthdawn - 1st edition core

There was a point in reading this book that I felt compelled to go digging through the various boxes that are holding my rpg collection so I could compare it to 4th edition. See, there were long passages that felt eerily familiar, and while I have read this exact book before, that was about 20 years ago. I flatter myself at times, but my memory isn't that good.

Turns out, Earthdawn 4th Edition recycled long stretches of text from the original core. Not having access to 2nd or 3rd edition, I couldn't tell you whether this was because Earthdawn was generally conservative with its edition changes, or whether it's because 4th edition, specifically, was a deliberate throwback, but I'll admit, I've grown used to new rpg editions being completely rewritten. Even when there aren't major errors to correct or new mechanics to experiment with, seeing the common locations, characters, and themes from a new perspective has been one of the great pleasures of rpg collecting.

Still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Most of my commentary for the 4th edition Player's Guide and Gamemaster's Guide still holds true.

Hey, does this mean I can wrap this post up early, just take this one book as a freebie? Or should I take this opportunity to go more in-depth about subjects I glossed over last time?

Oh, fine. Earthdawn's magic item rules are pretty good. They were good in 4th edition too, but they didn't impress me until I realized they were thought up in 1993. Basically, your character's signature items will level up with your character, but in order to unlock the various upgrades, you have to discover more and more of the item's backstory.

One of the best things about Earthdawn in general is the way it embraces and explores the archaeological nerdery implicit in the whole "dungeon" concept, and its magic items are simply another piece of the puzzle. Lots of games will try and blow smoke up your ass about magic items being unique treasures with individual names, but few would dare follow up with,"so if you want that extra +1 damage, you're going to have to go to the decaying ruins of the city where it was forged so you can find the ledgers that prove which of the master's six apprentices was the one to actually make this particular blade." (That last part was a paraphrase of a real example).

My only real problem with the Key Knowledge system, as presented, is that you have to discover the facts in a fairly rigid order. Like with the Frost Pouch - at level 3 you have to know the name of the glacier that provided the ice, and then at level 5 you have to know the name of the air elemental who helped create it, and while learning the name of a spirit is canonically the more difficult task, it's not inconceivable that events would conspire to reveal the information in the opposite order. It feels weird to me that a PC could be running around with a level 5 Key Knowledge, but be unable to use it because they're stuck at level 3. I guess if I were running it, I'd rule that Key Knowledges could be used in any order and simply rely on the fact that later ones are harder to keep things generally moving in the right direction.

Oh, and I finally twigged to the logic of the Step system. This was no great leap on my part, because the book says what it's supposed to be (a dice-pool's Step is the average number you'd roll with those dice), but it took me longer than it should have because the book's explanation was wrong. So, with the first few Steps, the ones that use single dice, it's sort of true. Step 3 is a d4 because even though the average roll on a d4 is 2.5, you could also say that half of all rolls will be 3 or higher. Same with d6=4, d8=5, d10=6, and d12=7. 

Where it starts to go off the rails is Step 8 - 2d6. I made a note about that when I read it. The average roll on 2d6 is 7. Everyone knows that. The game of craps is built around it. So how were they getting 8 as an average value? Turns out, the answer was easy, but I retained too much of my mathematical training to see it. A d6 is Step 4. Step 4 + Step 4 = Step 8. Thus 2d6 . . .

My God . . .

I suppose it's not that bad. You're really just trying to generate a number here, and maybe the higher you go, the less relevant precise math is going to be because who cares if were talking about mode vs mean vs whatever unholy thing is going on with Steps if the difference is only a few percentage points? However, the math gets real weird at the boundary points when you change the total number of dice being rolled. Step 7 is a d12, which gives you a 1-in-12 chance of rolling 12. Step 8 is 2d6, which gives you a 1-in-36 chance of rolling a 12 (Interestingly enough, the odds of rolling 8 or higher are exactly the same, for Steps 7 and 8 - 5-in-12 versus 15-in-36).

Then again, maybe it might be a good thing to have greater center-bias as skill levels increase. It might allow extreme low-level rolls to threaten typical high-level rolls. It's an open question, anyway, because I'm not sure it was a deliberate design feature, given the way the difficulties scale.

Although, if we're going to be super-precise, we've got to factor the exploding dice into it. . . Or not. We're talking about a system that's remained mostly unchanged since 1993, so it's likely that there's plenty of empirical evidence that it more or less works out.

Overall, I'd say that Earthdawn is a pretty solid core. The system is a little goofy, but it's got a ton of good ideas. My intuition about the 4th edition player/gamemaster split was right - the game is much better when it's all in one book. Barsaive is still one of my favorite settings - largely "traditional" fantasy in its aesthetics, but well thought-out details and a willingness to get weird when the situation calls for it. I'm looking forward to reading the supplements and getting some expanded setting information.

Ukss Contribution: Lots of great stuff here. I've got about a half-dozen candidates in my notes: blood pebbles, gemstones that are implanted into your skin to act as armor or the astral eye, an amber sphere that burrows into eyesocket and lets you see magic, airships, a crow that tests your hospitality and gets really mad if you're less than perfectly polite.

I am, however, going to have to go with something I called out in my 4th edition post - the wind catcher talent that allows sky raiders to jump off of airships and make precision paratrooper attacks. In Ukss, they'll jump off airplanes, but the idea is the same.


  1. I reached out when Earthdawn 4th was in the works, and the developer gave me the MS to look at. It was my first exposure to the system and I came back with honest criticism about the step system. I never heard from them again.


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    2. More broadly, I would say that there's a deep, mostly-unnoticed divide in the RPG community between people who want a novel or interesting dice system (if you're going to spend that much time paying attention to something, surely it should be something you like), and people who want an unobtrusive one (to better focus on things which interest them more).

      This plays a little into system complexity, but there are certainly some very complex systems with simple dice rules, and vice versa.

  2. Actually the Steps are the average for the dice since you have to add 0.5 to the average for a non-exploding die to get the average for an exploding die.