Earthdawn is set in the land of Barsaive. They released a supplement about the whole setting. The whole setting. And this isn't like D&D where alternate campaign worlds is considered a norm. There's not, as far as I know, an optional setting that uses the Earthdawn rules, but takes place in like, ancient Greece or something. Barsaive is the world of Earthdawn. Or, at least, it's the only part of Earthdawn's world we're ever going to see.
Which means that for all that Barsaive is a good book filled with interesting information, it's also the case that its subject matter is the entire game.
Beyond being, you know, a little weird, it also winds up being pretty darned shallow. To take a random city as an example, Jerris gets 2 paragraphs in the core book and about 10 paragraphs in Barsaive. Sure, it's five times the information, but it's still only-three quarters of a page.
And it's not as if I want to complain about this. It's more of a thing I like, and in becoming more, it retains the qualities I liked about the original thing, so in terms of value, it's pure upside. It's just that I'm thinking of self-indulgent core books like Exalted 3rd edition or Mage20, and I think that this whole boxed set, less a few redundancies, could be added to the Earthdawn core, and it would still clock in at less than 500 pages. And then I wonder what Earthdawn 4th edition gave up so it could fit into those digest-sized books.
Although, I suspect I am once again letting my very specific circumstances bias my judgement. I'm reading my way through Barsaive and I get to the section about the Crystal Raiders and I think, "hey, I've got a whole supplement called The Crystal Raiders of Barsaive." Then I get to the Serpent River and it's, "whoa, just like the book Serpent River." And then it's on to the dwarf kingdom of Throal and . . . well, you get the point. It's probably not a typical use case for someone to buy all the supplements and only then decide to read them.
So can I put the knowledge of Barsaive's imminent obsolescence out of my mind and just focus on it as a singular work of worldbuilding? No, probably not. But I can try to pretend (or, more likely, pretend to try).
All right, I'm getting into the mindset of my younger self. I've just come off of playing AD&D 2nd edition all through my adolescence and I'm still a dumb little shit who doesn't understand the difference between game systems. I've picked up what I think is a new campaign setting, a la Dark Sun or Planescape. What do I think of it?
I think I might like it, but my younger self has a hard time articulating why. See, if we start with the high concept and talk only in the broadest of summaries, Earthdawn has a lot of things that teenage me spent a lot of time loudly and theatrically bemoaning. It's a world of elves and dwarves, with orks and dragons and you spend most of your time exploring underground ruins in search of treasure to help the scrappy underdog kingdom fight off the evil empire. There's some interesting imagery, like dinosaur cavalry and elemental magitech, but there's also a lot of stuff that's very much "standard D&D fantasy."
It's strange that I never noticed this until I read it back to back with Forgotten Realms. Maybe it's because I first came to the setting via the easter eggs in Shadowrun, so I slotted it into my "weird fantasy" category and thereby dodged my old "ugh, not another generic fantasy setting" filter. However, with some new perspective, I can say with confidence that Earthdawn is incredibly vanilla.
But it's not bland. That may be why I never connected it with the Realms before. It's the difference between using vanilla because you happen to have some laying around and using vanilla as the signature ingredient in a well-thought out recipe.
I've already talked about a few of the elements that make Earthdawn's setting so refreshing - like the fact that dungeon-delving and monster-fighting are well-justified by the backstory, so much so that something as quotidian as exploring the ruins of a magical city while fending off attacks from extradimensional Horrors feels like it has a built-in drama and pathos - so let me narrow in on a subject specific to this book and use it to illustrate my point. Let's talk orks.
If I wanted to be cynical about this, I could say that Barsaive uses orks in a pretty conventional way. We see a variety of ork NPCs and orkish settlements, and they're all some sort of rough customer. This isn't a canonical truth about the species. They don't have an alignment, let alone "always chaotic evil." There are quite specifically ork shopkeepers and farmers and architects. It just so happens that all the orks who get names and specific descriptions are bandits, soldiers, or thieves.
However, there's a confounding factor at work here. Despite being used in a relatively predictable way, Barsaive's orks feel surprising. I painted with a pretty broad brush when I said "all named orks were some variety of tough-guy," but the operative word in that sentence was, in fact, "variety."
Take the main ork culture - the one that's by and for orks, as opposed to the ones where orks just happen to be mixed in among the populace (a distinction that by itself would be wild to make in the Forgotten Realms). The ork culture is one of horse-riding warriors . . . except that it's not a monoculture. Some of the orks ride dinosaurs, oxen, or bears (modulo fantasy nonsense). And even aside from the aesthetics, different groups of orks have different values and priorities. Some of them are bandits and some are mercenaries, and there's one group of bandits whose leader is trying to shape them into mercenaries and another group of mercenaries that is notorious for its brutality and insists on being allowed to capture as much loot as they can.
And on an individual level, orks have personalities, motives, and agendas! Can you even imagine such a thing. One of the leaders is named "Terath the Contemplative" and his nickname isn't even ironic or anything. His top lieutenants are his son and his daughter, and they are gradually becoming deadly rivals. The son has been on defense duty and has started forming an attachment to Throal, whereas the daughter is convinced (not without reason) that the son is going to defect with half the company and irreparably wreck their inheritance. You know, drama. But with orks!
It gets the exclamation point when you compare it to The Vast, from the Forgotten Realms boxed set, published the exact same year. It's the ancient orcish homeland, long colonized by dwarfs and humans, where orcs have not yet been completely driven out. . . and there's not a single named orc in the entire section. There's not even an orcish culture, at least not above the level of a single corrupted word. And then we have Barsaive, which spoils us with a half-dozen variant ork cultures and their supporting NPCs.
I think, on the level of the pitch, Earthdawn doesn't sound very radical ("they're orks, but . . . wait for it . . . they ride horses"), but when the rubber hits the road and you're actually reading the words on the page, the change in attitude makes a huge difference ("they're orks, but . . . we're going to put in some effort to make them feel like characters in a fantasy setting.")
Now, I don't mean to come so hard at D&D here (. . . or do I . . . no, no, let's keep it civil). It would be easy to snark and say that Earthdawn is like if D&D were a well-put-together piece of fiction, but it's important to acknowledge their differing set of circumstances. Nobody expected D&D to exist, and it came together gradually from the contributions of hundreds of different people. Even the Forgotten Realms, which exists largely because Ed Greenwood was a pre-D&D fantasy nerd and 1st edition early adopter, is not so much the product of singular vision as it was a seed planted in fertile soil.
"Standard" D&D fantasy is basically a meme. Its outlines are the ideas that, for one reason or another, gained traction and eventually the whole thing accumulated enough momentum that it started propagating amongst people who had never experienced its original inspirations. Earthdawn is standard fantasy done with intentionality. As a result, I'm probably not going to be able to quote anything from Barsaive that will surprise you (the T'skrang pilot paddle-driven riverboats whose anachronistic design probably came directly from a god - is that something), but if you read it, I think you'd find its thoughtful and humanistic tone to be a breath of fresh air.
Ukss Contribution: I liked the Everliving Flower, a rose that's been enchanted to never die. It doesn't have any other powers, so it's a bit of a Macguffin, but not every piece of magic needs to be useful to wandering adventurers.