Wednesday, May 12, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Adept's Way

 The Adept's Way raises one of the fundamental questions of tabletop rpg design - to what degree are the mechanics of the game meant to literally exist inside the setting? There's usually a spectrum at work here - "mundane" skills are probably an abstraction. The Great Leap skill may represent an objectively measurable long-jumping ability and have 15 discrete levels, but nobody's arguing that if you plotted the long jump distances of Basaive's citizens, they'd fall into 16 neat little rows. Because that's not the way it works in real life. Even if you set up a system of "Jump ratings" based on a standardized system of measurement, most people would fall between the upper and lower bounds of any particular category. They'd say "my Jump Rating is 2 and a third" or I have a "JR of 10.645" because we're talking about a continuum here. And that's just for something that's relatively easy to define. What benchmark are you going to use to differentiate between individuals' Academic Rating or Charisma Quotient? Exactly, the very thought of trying is a nightmare.

Thus skill systems exist mostly as a matter of convenience. However, on the other end of the spectrum, magic is usually pretty literal. "Fireball" is the name of a spell and people identify it as such. It's written down in a book. That's how you learned it.

"Hey, I heard a rumor that there was a grimoire in the ruined kaer that contained the 'Fireball' spell."

"That's great! Ever since I became an elementalist, I was looking forward to casting 'Fireball!' Let's go get it!"

-- A perfectly reasonable conversation in the Earthdawn setting.

It's a little weird that this dynamic seems to hold across every fantasy setting, seeing as how the only remotely comparable thing like this in the real world is computer applications. I'm guessing it's because magic isn't real, so it doesn't have to map neatly to any real-life human capability. Spell memorization in D&D comes to mind. Nobody learns something well enough to do it once a day and then forgets it immediately after. And forget ever making sense of memorizing the same spell more than once a day. And then if you don't cast one or more of the spells, they stay memorized for as many days as it takes, until you cast them, and then you forget again. No form of learning or expertise works like this, it's a naked game mechanic, but since the laws of magic are whatever you want them to be, you can just say that the observable reality matches the game rules.

Where it gets fuzzy is in the grey area between mundane traitss and wizard spells - when your magic is based off a skill or your skills utilize magic. You look at a spell description and it says that it has a certain effect based off your spellcasting skill, one that's objectively measurable like area of effect or duration and you run into the long jump issue again - you have to assume that the discrete and consistent values are a rules convenience. Presumably there are people who casting a spell that lasts for ten minutes and thirty seconds, or has a range of 101 yards. There probably aren't meant to be exactly 16 viable categories for every effect. Same thing with the magical version of Great Leap - there is probably a whole continuous range of big magic jumps.

Or maybe not, because what this book establishes is that classes and levels are precisely known in the world of Earthdawn. It's kind of a plot point. Nethermancers are suspicious of other mages approaching them for mentorship because they learn the Willforce talent at the third Circle instead of the 5th Circle, and they resent the idea of teaching their secrets to people who aren't really interested in Nethermancy. Weaponsmiths have a professional organization in every major city, and you have to be Eighth Circle or higher to get the leadership job. They know what Circle you are because there's a ceremony that accompanies each advance in level. By implication, it's possible to work out the Talent prerequisites. And while it's not necessarily the case that Talent ranks are reified, the Talents themselves definitely exist.

I don't know if this counts as a complaint. I guess the issues I've got with Earthdawn's inflexible class system become exacerbated if we're talking about true descriptions of actual people, instead of just convenient widgets for a game system. Real people have rough edges and complicated histories and you can never be entirely sure about what they can do. I accept the necessary simplification that comes with making rules, but the bargain is that we're not talking about the setting.

Most of the time. The Adept's Way is talking about the setting. Sometimes it works. The spellcaster classes kind of make sense, for the same reason that overly literal magic works in general. The more specific classes are also probably fine - you could sell the Swordmaster or the Sky Raider as esoteric paths, and they have some nice integration with the setting. There are Swordmaster tournaments, and the Sky Raiders are so associated with highlands troll culture that non-trolls who follow it adopt troll customs and beliefs. Then you have utterly generic Disciplines like Warriors and Archers. Or Thieves. How weird is it that there's this group of people who go around calling themselves "Thieves" and they brag about teaching each other magical techniques for stealing stuff and they're just sort of allowed to exist.

I think I would have preferred it if the Disciplines were more specific. Like, instead of being called "Thieves," they were "the Order of the Shadowed Hand" or something, and were based out of the shady criminal-run city of Kratas. That would make the whimsical characterization choices, like Archers being obsessed with truth because arrows fly in a straight line and since they combine skills with magic, their skill becomes a metaphor for their life. Something that specific and weird works fine for a narrow tradition or cult, but are a poor fit for something meant to be a full one-fifteenth of your possible character options.

And it's likely that on some level, the authors of The Adept's way agree with me, because it's made clear that the 15 in-character narrations for each of the Disciplines are merely one possible perspective and other viewpoints are possible. Although, even then the alternatives are implied to be narrow and specific, just in a slightly different way (for example, some "Thieves" are actually "Spies," but it's always possible to tell the difference between the two). 

Overall, I'd say this is probably the weakest Earthdawn book so far. It's not bad, exactly, but it does demonstrate the shortcomings inherent in trying to explicitly justify all of your game's fantasy tropes. It's often interesting in the specifics (I loved a lot of the Elementalist chapter's incidental details about spirits and the balance of nature), but the repeated pattern of eccentric philosophy - apprenticeship and advancement details - stereotypes about other Disciplines - winds up feeling a bit silly in its broader effect. 

Ukss Contribution: It's a bit simple, but I liked the flower spirits that elementalists sometimes summon. They don't get more than a name drop here, but it's a cute image.

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