Monday, February 22, 2021

(Earthdawn) Denizens of Earthdawn Volume 1

Quick, describe humanity!

Don't worry, I'll wait . . .

"We are unfortunately prone to see ourselves as ordinary."

Um, okay. Nice try. You'll get it next time, I'm sure.

No, no. Let's be fair. Earthdawn wrote itself into a corner here. It made the bold setting choice to have the most common fantasy race be dwarfs, and it's something that fits perfectly into the setting's backstory while also giving the game a unique feel. A great choice, in my opinion, but one that winds up leaving the good old human race feeling somewhat vestigial. Humans in Earthdawn are pointedly not ordinary. Dwarfs are ordinary. The only people who would be in any position to think that humans are ordinary are us, the readers. In the context of the setting, humans should be just one more exotic fantasy species with weird physiology and powers.

It's not a task I envy. Fantasy rpgs have humans because the players are human, and because humans are the sum total of everyone who has ever existed, fantasy-rpg humans have to accommodate every conceivable character quirk. You can't say "humans don't like to eat worms and stick things up their nose" because somewhere there's a human that likes to do both. It might be possible to make humans the non-magical or anti-magic species, but there are a ton of stories about human wizards so even that's a little dicey. The path of least resistance is to give humans some sort of BS hook like "versatility," despite the fact that individual humans are not notably versatile. If we were all that good at multiclassing, we wouldn't have been so skeptical about Michael Jordan's baseball career.

It's one of the few missteps in Earthdawn so far. Thankfully it's pretty short. The rest of the human chapter gets specific and it's decent. There are five different human cultures and only one of them is notably racist. It's tricky, because it's a villain character who describes the jungle-dwelling Cathan people as "savages," but the more benign narration counters with condescending praise for how "simple" they are. My intuition is that they were ahead of the curve, for 1994, but not by enough that it merits praise.

Also, there are three other races to cover. The main pitfall in a supplement like this is making your fantasy creatures into monocultures. I'm not sure this was an issue on anyone's mind back in 1994, but if it wasn't Denizens of Earthdawn does an adequate job of dodging it.

The T'skrang have four total cultures, but lose points for two of them being distinguished by physiology (the k'stulla are mutants who can glide on leathery wing-flaps and the Pale Ones have luminescence, silvery, fish-like scales, and forked tongues), but I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt because Barsaive is not that big a place and a significant fraction of T'skrang are Throalish (dwarf kingdom) by culture, even if their amphibious nature and delicate reproductive cycle (T'skrang lay eggs, but only 1% mature into baby T'skrang, the rest are unfertilized and subsequently eaten . . . yikes) require distinctive architectural concessions in terrestrial cities.

Elves are a trickier case, because they deliberately try to be a monoculture. Before the Scourge, the Elf Queen of Wyrmwood acted as a kind of elfish pope - living a life of exemplary elfishness that all other elves patterned their own lives after, lest they be "Separated" and cast out of elf culture forever. However, what this singular spiritual and temporal authority mainly accomplished was to highlight the fracture points in this would-be unity.

An Elf Queen declared the entire nation of Shoshara to be Separated when they adapted their ways to a chillier northern climate. The arbitrariness of her decision so undermined the crown's moral authority that when her granddaughter made the decision to reject the Theran Empire's exploitative terms for the knowledge of kaers (basically "we'll teach you how to survive the Scourge if you all become our slaves"), only the elves of Wyrmwood itself followed her. The rest decided to take their chances with the Therans. That eventually led to another fracture of the elfish people when the Queen made the fateful decision to abandon her failed kaer and rely on blood magic (the genius-brain idea of "the Horrors can't torture us if we're in constant self-inflicted agony" worked exactly as planned, but the elfish diaspora reacted with predictable outrage).

So the elves are a monoculture, but one that is in the process of disintegrating, and sometimes in denial about the fact. That's interesting enough to very nearly make up for the fact that Earthdawn elves still owe quite a lot to D&D elves (so much so that the "Roleplaying Hints" section reminds players to be more subtle about the traditional elfish sense of superiority).

And then there's windlings. They're cute little fairy creatures, and I like them as a sort of fantasy backdrop, but as a PC option, they seem to be the token "annoying" species. Their whole deal is how they love to insult and prank people, but they're so pure of heart that we're supposed to find it charming.

"A windling sees teasing and joking not as a hurtful thing, but as a sign of affection." Sure, but how do the people they're teasing feel about it? I see what they were going for - "the harmless little guy who spouts off like he's trying to start something" is a classic comic archetype, but players don't need that kind of encouragement. The windling would likely be your favorite character in an Earthdawn novel, but an exhausting one to deal with at the table (or maybe I'm just a big grump . . . that's definitely possible).

Although the windlings do have texture. They're also the guys who will relentlessly seek vengeance if you offend them, and they have a 4-1 male-female ratio so their young men engage in brutal gladiatorial contests for the honor of mating. It's not a texture I particularly love, but it was there. And I did love the art featuring the Theran windling being carried around on a mini sedan chair, lounging like a decadent Roman aristocrat, so I guess cuteness does count for something after all.

Overall, I'd say Denizens of Earthdawn Volume 1 was a pretty successful setting book. I question the wisdom of relegating dwarfs, the most common species in Barsaive, to Volume 2, and it's a little ridiculous to have a section about roleplaying hints for human characters, but I liked the overall format. Each of the different Name-Giver types was described not just in fantasy physiology, but also in terms of their arts and crafts, their trade relationships, and their myths and legends. I often find that "mundane" details like that are an effective way of making the fantasy elements feel real and alive.

Ukss Contribution: The T'skrang really got a huge boost from this book. Their section is the longest and most intricate of the four. And while we learn many surprising and fascinating things about their lifestyle and biology (the males produce milk, they don't manifest any sexual characteristics until puberty, they use their tails to make obscene gestures [there's a picture; it's hilarious]), I'm not sure I want to go through the effort of introducing a second lizard-folk species.

Instead, I'm going to steal something from their culture and give it to humans - the tradition of the Lahala. These wise-women undergo a special ritual that gives them access to the ancestral memories of every Lahala that has preceded them since the beginning of the T'skrang people. I really enjoy magic that's kind of low-key, but emotionally and philosophically fraught.

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