Monday, September 27, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Crystal Raiders of Barsaive

Did you ever notice how weird it is that pirates are a popular heroic archetype, despite the fact that their whole job is robbing people under threat of terrible violence? It must be one of those highly-specific cultural folkways - at some point we decided that high seas robbery was okay as long as the perpetrators are sufficiently jaunty and the victims have vague, old-timey jobs like "spice merchant." Sure, stealing is wrong, but we all agree that sometimes a guy just has too much spice.

Maybe it's a subconscious (or fully conscious, what the fuck do I know) rebellion against the sins of colonialism. Yeah, those treasure ships on the Spanish main were definitely hauling the ill-gotten loot of a century of rapacious imperial plunder, and maybe it's not ideal that the ones who capture them are European adventurers instead of Native American freedom fighters, but at least that wealth isn't going to the fucking king.

The vigilante angle is definitely part of the crime genre. A lot of victims are rich assholes, and the story becomes one about criminals outside the law vs the criminals who write the law. Robin Hood, et al. It's a little weird if you dig too deep, but it kind of makes sense as a fantasy. Rules can be stifling and it might be fun to be a lovable rogue and sail on a boat.

I only bring it up because I think maybe Crystal Raiders of Barsaive forgot to establish that its titular characters were supposed to be the fun type of pirates. I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for, because the suggested campaign models all revolve around playing Crystal Raider characters, but the parts where they tried to morally justify large, violent men dropping from the sky and seizing peoples' crops could maybe have used some more obvious genre trappings in order to seem less . . . assholish.

The Crystal Raiders believe it is dishonorable to take goods by stealth, so they make sure to attack people first before stealing their shit. And you can't just surrender to them and pay them tribute, you gotta fight 'em. Their view is that you earn the right to keep your stuff by being strong . . . in the very specific way that they're stronger than everybody else in the world. Their philosophy of "struggle gives life meaning" doesn't acknowledge "working for decades to build up a prosperous town" as a valid form of struggle. No, it means "hitting stuff with swords" and "hitting stuff with swords" only (oh, okay, also enduring extreme elements and giving birth to children, but certainly nothing outside of their provincial experience of living up in the barren Twilight Mountains).

Obviously, it's a self-serving point of view, and if the Crystal Raiders were meant to be villains, then it would be useful for establishing that they are nearly impossible to bargain with and they are never. going. to. stop. But they're not villains. They're just a group that is sometimes at odds with the other established cultures, who have some unpleasant beliefs and practices, but are generally part of the tapestry of Barsaivian life. Much is made of how their raids are spread-out and sporadic enough that they are little more than a nuisance to the great rulers of the land and thus the immediate situation is indefinitely sustainable.

The vibe I got from them was very strongly "post-DS9 Klingons" (a sensation made more acute by the fact that one of their leaders is called Mar'tok). They're these tough warrior guys who are always talking about "honor," and they like fighting to an unseemly degree, but they are dedicated enemies of the evil empire (in DS9 - the Dominion, here - Thera) and thus potentially powerful, if problematic, allies for the designated protagonist civilization.

Or, for those of you who aren't both Earthdawn nerds and Star Trek nerds - they're vikings, basically. It's not subtle. Their airships are called "drakkars" and they're powered by rowing (rowing through the air works on the principle of sympathetic magic - the rowers' willpower is sorcerously converted to motive force through the ritualistic act). And there's the raiding thing, of course.

Which is maybe something that could help us dial in on what makes them such a bummer. Pirates are usually softened to make them roguish antiheroes, but vikings are generally more ambiguous. Still protagonists, sure, but they're not automatically any better than their rivals. You can do a "vigorously alive manly men vs corrupt and decadent nobles" story or a "viking politics are unbelievable petty" story, but the main characters are still likely to be complete assholes to nearly everyone they meet. They're usually only "heroes" in works that cast their assholishness as a particular virtue.

I'm not sure that's what's going on here, though. Like, I'm 90% sure that FASA understood that the newot system was very definitely slavery. Trolls capture people in their unprovoked raids (you see, they raid because of the barrenness of their native land - they only steal because other people have things that they want), drag them back to their villages, and force them to work under pain of death, but it's not technically slavery, because newots can potentially earn their freedom . . . if they prove their worthiness to their captors. Oh, and the status is hereditary, on the off chance that a captive couldn't manage to "prove their worth." But, also, there's a troll abolitionist group, and they are quite definitely heroes. Certainly, it seems impossible to write the sentence "Broken Chain devotees see enforced servitude of any kind as slavery" without experiencing a profound sense of irony.

My conclusion is that the Crystal Raiders are meant to be . . . complicated. Their actions, both towards outsiders and each other, are often pretty terrible, but they follow a code, and there is a beauty and grandeur to their culture. They are not mere brutes, but masters of many impressive crafts and for all their violence, their motives and drives are very human. Plus, their politics are incredibly petty and they are canonically already enemies with the setting's most corrupt and decadent nobles. So, if you're on board with a viking story, this book definitely has you covered.

My only complaint about this book is that it doesn't do more to address "getting on board with playing a viking" as a topic. It just sort of takes for granted that you're going to want to do that. And that is literally my only complaint. Not that it's a perfect book or anything, but it does live up to Earthdawn's generally high level of quality. Each of the Crystal Raider moots was distinct and interesting, with at least one, and often several, attractive plot hooks and enough individual quirks that  portraying them in-game would likely be pretty satisfying. There was clearly a lot of thought that went into the worldbuilding and it was incredibly fun to read.

I just wish it wasn't so prone to taking the trolls' account of their actions so close to face value.

Ukss Contribution: There are a lot of things in this book that hit my specific buttons. I liked the Gray Forest, an ordinary woodland implausibly adapted to the slopes of a volcano - because I like weird trees. And I liked the Crystal Span, a prismatic arch that split the light of the setting sun to make Great Sword Valley look rainbow colored - because I like rainbows.

And I loved the part where explorers can enter Death's domain by "diving into a boiling pool of magma," because Earthdawn very consistently has the best ways of bringing heroes back from the dead (step 1, commit suicide in the most hilariously painful fashion imaginable; step 2, hope Death is feeling generous enough that day to give you a 2-for-1 refund).

It's actually a pretty tough choice this time, so I'm going to go with something I can use - Ago'astia, the crystalline Horror known as "the stone of doom." In addition to trying to rule the world, it creates "fantastic structures of multicolored crystal."

Because I like rainbows.


  1. Enjoying the Earthdawn and Planescape reviews

    1. Even though I'm a bit behind on the reading (catching up, though!), I am too. =)