Monday, August 16, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom

 These good books are always the hardest for me to write about. Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is better than decent, but it's not great. It's not even "great, but flawed." It's just a skillfully made rpg supplement. It's got a good high concept and it's executed well.

And maybe, if I were a more skillful critic, that's something I could get some mileage out of. These old Earthdawn books are very consistent about punching above their weight class. Don't you see, it's a dwarf kingdom and it's underground, but the book is largely about the king's relatives, and sometimes the drama at the library. . . and I would not blame you one bit for nodding off in the middle of that sentence.

The wild thing about this book, though, is that my snarky description was not all that reductive, despite giving the entirely wrong impression. I suspect I would have finished this book in two days, had I not been hit with a flare up of depression, and yet, if I were to tell you what captured my interest, it would be nonsense like, "some people know about the king's mysterious illness and other people don't," and "some people respect the young prince, and other people don't" and the ever-popular "some people are in favor of the kingdom's liberal reforms, and other people aren't."

I think at this point I have to acknowledge that I might have a greater than average investment in the story of Barsaive. I'm 8 books away from a full 1st edition collection, and it's practically a certainty that I'm going to eventually get those missing volumes. I'm exactly the sort of fan that FASA was deliberately trying to cultivate, and this book was aimed more or less exactly at people like me. The introduction says it best, "Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is a transitional product in the Earthdawn line. In addition to providing gamemasters with basic information on the center of recovering civilization in Barsaive, it sets up several conflicts to be developed in subsequent Earthdawn products."

All aboard the metaplot train, people!

However, I don't think that's it. I think this book's strengths lie in intangibles like pacing and editorial focus. There are descriptions of various locations and NPCs and they strike a nice balance between having enough detail to make them all distinct, but not being so long as to wear out their welcome. And interspersed are plenty of adventure suggestions, giving you ideas about how to use all the stuff you've just been reading about. In other words, nothing that should surprise you, but rather the fundamentals of the genre, done well.

But even that's not entirely it. I can't stress enough how this is a book about an underground dwarf kingdom with elaborate laws and a well-developed culture of craftsmanship, because if you lose sight of how extremely conventional it all is, you won't be able to experience the dissonance that comes with it also being somehow 100% distinctly Earthdawn.

Here's a relevant quote:

Longtime residents of Throal tend to see the Royal Guards as their friends and protectors, a role the guards cherish. When dealing with citizens disposed to like and trust them, they uphold public order in a firm, but cheerful manner . . . 

In the new cities, the guards frequently take a harder approach, sometimes even coming to regard the people they are protecting as their enemies.

A lot of settings have fantasy racism, but Earthdawn is one of the few to have fantasy structural racism. And that's a deliberate aesthetic choice. Throal is the dwarf kingdom, but all of the other fantasy races live there, to some degree, and the book takes the time to work out what that might be like. It's not a deep dive or anything, but I'm hard pressed to think of another example of "the cops will hassle you if you're a minority," even in more cynical works. The effect can sometimes make the connection between fantasy races and real world minorities seem overly explicit (there's a section about orkish difficulties with educational attainment in a dwarf-dominated school system that is a bit . . . uncomfortable), but that same connection also leads to the Earthdawn books treating their fantasy creatures like actual people. It would take a keener social observer than me to really untangle these books and work out what they're trying to do, but it is definitely distinct.

It's tough for me because in a lot of ways I'm grading on a curve, and when the contrast is, say, Forgotten Realms' treatment of regions like the Vast, it's easy for me to say "this is self-aware and socially conscious," but it's also a book that has a character say that Throal has "a civilizing mission" and then the OOC narration acknowledged that he was talking bullshit, but was "not far off the mark." Throal's whole deal is spreading its watered down monarchist liberalism through cultural imperialism, and the book doesn't have the vocabulary (or perhaps the inclination) to critique that. But also, there are plenty of people who resist or resent Throal's influence and they're not entirely villainous, so I don't know. 

Hey! Look over there! It's a bar called "The Tattooed Human." How hilarious is that?

If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that I wished it would lean a bit more into the setting's post-apocalyptic elements. What you've got is, in essence, a giant, city-sized fallout shelter and right outside its doors is a ramshackle settlement called "Bartertown," and it works well enough as a fantasy location, but if it used a few more relevant tropes, the concept could really sing. Parlainth: the Forgotten City dared to be a western and it was one of the best campaign books I've ever read. Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom is pretty darned good, but it lacks that level of ambition.

Ukss Contribution: There's a group called "The Mirage." They believe that the material world is an illusion and that suffering is caused by an alienation from a person's true spiritual existence. It's mostly a benign religious movement that offers solace to its followers, but there's an offshoot that's all like "nothing is real, which means that every shitty thing I do is an illusion, might as well just indulge my worst impulses." There's not a lot of depth to it, but I like "the Mirage" as a name for a criminal organization.