Friday, August 20, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Earthdawn Survival Guide

 It's Earthdawn's answer to AD&D's Wilderness Survival Guide and I feel like the predictable thing for me to do is point out how it's better, but that would be misleading. It is better, but mostly because there's less of it. Don't get me wrong, it's well-written, but the confluence of subject matter with FASA's fiction-driven style means we're subject to the part of the bildungsroman where the callow young hero learns the most efficient way to pack for a camping trip. Later on, a book within the book will describe herbs.

It's the exact same incomprehensible vision that drives the Wilderness Survival Guide, but instead of 5 pages of rules for food gathering, breaking it down between plants, fish, and terrestrial animals, it's 5 paragraphs that amount to "roll high to not die."  Like I said, it's better because there's less of it. 

Or is it? If we're talking about a campaign model where you can go out into the middle of nowhere and die because you didn't add the right items to your equipment list, then maybe there's a place for that extravagance. The more rules there are, the more ways there are for you to die, and thus the more ways for you to avoid that death by, like, eating a fish or something.

Certainly, if this were a combat-focused book, I'd say that bigger is better. But that's because combat is a central element in nearly every rpg out there. Different foes have different feels and require different strategies, because that's baked into the numbers on your character sheet and the powers you have access to. It would require bottom-up design to make a game that was as focused on survival and exploration.

The Earthdawn Survival Guide is not that game, however. It makes an effort, but it never really offers a payoff for its rules. The things you care about, the events and people that drive the story, are still found in between all these bouts of wilderness travel, and the book doesn't make a very good case for why it's cool when you arrive at the dungeon half-dead from starvation, or when you surive the dungeon and wind up getting killed by the weather.

I think it's the fluid nature of time in rpgs that makes survival so difficult to use as a story element. Time compresses between each significant event and expands when such events happen in rapid succession. Thus, a two minute fight can stretch out to an entire session, because each jab and block and dodge gets individually called out, whereas a two month voyage can last roughly as long as it takes to say, "you travel for two months without incident." You can extend the time you spend in the voyage by slicing the abstract "travel" into more concrete actions like gathering food or taking shelter from the weather, but are you really going to subject your players to the 60 distinct foraging rolls? Do you have what it takes to make, "the day when we couldn't make much progress because of the rain," into a memorable setpiece, comparable with delving into monster-infested ruins?

Obviously not. So you're still going to wind up handling the voyage with abstraction, compromising at some point between dismissing the entire trip in a single line of downtime and running the whole thing in turn-by-turn initiative order, but unfortunately, the book doesn't really help you narrow in on where exactly that compromise should be. It just gives you some numbers to roll and some status effects to impose.

But at least it's short. The rules take up 30 out of 119 pages, and that's enough. The bulk of the book is fiction, which is of mixed utility. The parts where the narrators encounter completely mundane hazards like snowstorms or muggings are immersive enough, but I kind of feel like I don't need to be reminded to wear boots or not flash my money. As the GM, I would also feel like a total jerk if I enforced those strictures on my players. But I liked the parts where it described fantasy dangers like breathing True Air or previously undetailed regions like the Wastes or the Badlands. It expanded the world in some interesting ways and offered new potential adventure ideas.

Overall, I'd say that this is a decent enough book for the concept, but the concept itself was too weak to support a book. The new locations could have supported a supplement (I especially liked the Poison Woods, where all the plants and animals are undead), and the hazards could have been part of the core rules, but the parts with potential were too short and the parts with the rules were too long. I enjoyed reading the fiction, but I have little interest in using the book in a game.

Ukss Contribution: It's revealed in this book that windlings, the foot and a half tall fairy creatures, will hunt boar. Considering that boar hunting is a dangerous pastime for even burly, full-grown humans, this is an absolutely wild image. I have no idea how a creature that small is ever going to take down one of the orneriest animals ever to live, even if there's a whole horde of them, but I love mock epics and would be happy to see them try.


  1. Good review.

    Do you have the Secret Societies book?

    1. I do. I'm reading these book in the order of the numbers on the spines, which means that Secret Societies is three away.