Wednesday, September 1, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)The Blood Wood

Everything's covered in blood! This will be a Blood Post, written on my Blood Computer, consulting my Blood Notebook that I hand wrote with my Blood Pen.

I kid, but the Flora and Fauna section did give us Bloodberries, Blood Ivy, Blood Oak, Blood Monkeys, Blood Ravens, and Blood Wasps. And then there are the elite Blood Elf magicians known as the Blood Warders. I mean, I get it, it's the Blood Wood, so blood is kind of their whole deal, but maybe something could be "sanguinary" or "crimson," just for a change of pace. Just spitballing.

It wasn't really that bad, though. One of my favorite details was actually blood-related. When your foot sinks into the soft earth of the Blood Wood, blood will seep into the footprint you leave behind. That's pretty damned creepy.

Which is as good a segue as any to move into my main . . . observation about this book. It's not entirely clear why it exists. I mean, branding, obviously - Earthdawn uses a lot of difficult to trademark vanilla fantasy elements, so when they invent a never before seen elf variant, it makes sense to give them a book - but beyond that, I'm not sure how I'm meant to use this book.

You see, when we talk about previous geographical supplements like The Serpent River and Throal: the Dwarf Kingdom, those are places you can actually go. You can legitimately say, in-character, "Hey, let's go to Throal, we can take the Serpent River."

(True story - after coming up with that last sentence, I took the Barsaive boxed set off my shelf to consult the map and make sure it made geographic sense. My conclusion is that the Serpent River will shorten your journey to Throal considerably from just about anywhere in Barsaive, but you're still in for a bit of a hike for the last few days . . . unless you're in southern Barsaive and pass through Lake Ban to sail up the Coil River tributary that feeds into the Serpent, but I suspect that the Coil is unnavigable at the altitudes near Throal itself).

And, of course, once you get to either of those places, there's going to be something for you to get involved in. Many mysterious factions are forming around the ailing dwarf king, assuming you don't get sidetracked by the constant infighting among the rival aropagoi. 

You try that shit in the Blood Wood and the Blood Elves will fucking kill you. And if the patrols don't get you, the magical traps or enchanted shifting pathways will. It's a matter of policy. People outside aren't allowed in, and people inside aren't allowed to leave.

Of course, that could all just be set up. Dangerous area = opportunity for adventure, and all that. And . . . I guess. It's not as if adventure is impossible or anything. It's just that there aren't really any ruined kaers (well, there's one, but it's buried under a fortress) or valuable caches of treasure. The woods are a good source of True Wood (basically, a magic item component), but harvesting it is a skilled technical trade. Players might be interested in solving the mystery of the Forest Heart to try and save the Blood Wood from the corruption that is slowly killing it, but that's more of an extended campaign premise whose resolution would change the face of Barsaive forever (and also, it wouldn't pay very well). And it's certainly possible to contrive reasons to go into it ("we need this rare herb" or "our friend has gone missing and we're certain they need help"), but if so, the bulk of the book is going to be of very little use.

The best possible use of this book is probably to run self-contained Blood Wood games. You play as Blood Elves and you get involved in the politics of the realm. It's not a place with especially dynamic politics - it's ruled by an absolute monarch who banishes (to distant parts of the Blood Wood, lest you think this is a PC backstory hook) anyone who disagrees with her too effectively and there is no mechanism in either law or custom for anyone to object to this - but, assuming that your players are okay with chasing the favor of the queen, there are factions and agendas and rival noble houses to give PCs plenty to do.

Ultimately, though, this is worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. The reason you get this book is that you're invested in the story of Barsaive and are intrigued by these sexy goth elves that keep showing up and want to know the secrets of their homeland and the details of how their society actually works in practice.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am exactly the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it, as expected, but it's not one you'd point to to showcase Earthdawn's strengths as a game. Like, the book is so certain that you're not going to fight Queen Alachia that they don't even give her a full stat block, but she's  pretty great as a literary villain - she's imperious and vain, ruthless in the protection of her power and dignity, but she's also courageous in her opposition to Thera's evil. The only reason she really counts as a villain at all (aside from being an autocrat, but that's just par for the course in fantasy) is because she made a terrible choice in an impossible situation and is now committed to the idea that she alone is able to deal with the consequences.

She's not, though. The book makes clear that the Blood Elves are in constant pain, thanks to the magical ritual that caused them to sprout thorns from underneath their skin, and that this pain is sometimes so unbearable a significant fraction of elves don't survive the ritual (between 10 and 30 percent, depending on the age at which it is given), and of those that do survive, it is not uncommon to commit suicide shortly thereafter.

And now that the Scourge is over . . . they keep doing it. Their entire society has just decided that they're okay with torturing children . . . well, except for the dissidents who are kept far away from the court and any suggestion of political power. Most of the conservatives think they're doing it to preserve the Blood Elves' unique culture (of being constantly tortured throughout their unnaturally long lives), but the Queen knows the real reason - the corrupt heart of the forest requires massive blood offerings to survive.

Look, lady, I don't want to gainsay the choices you made in a moment of crisis. The survival of your people was at stake, I get it. But it's time to step down. You gave cancer to the mystical tree that is the spiritual heart of the elvish people and now you're stuck between feeding that sickness or letting it die, and you are clearly in over your head. It's a complicated technical problem, sure, but master sorcerer or not, you don't have the right to keep the bulk of the world's elf population out of the loop . . .

Oh, right. I hate monarchy IRL and it's bleeding into my critique. Point is, the text is pretty clear that Alachia is not going to solve this problem, and is, indeed, the biggest obstacle to other people solving this problem, but she is not a boss fight. In fact, even meeting the Queen is a rare privilege, seldom granted to common elves and almost never to outside adventurers.

And that's this book's main weakness. You get the view from the top, complete with write ups for the land's important nobles and academic and cultural luminaries (who are often one and the same, because the elves have a very class-stratified society), but only rarely the people the PCs are actually likely to meet. 

It's other main weakness is metaplot. It spoiled the canonical ending of Prelude to War (Hey, I was going to get around to reading it, I swear!) and dropped hints of mysterious setting secrets without providing closure. Queen Alachia is probably an immortal Great Elf and may have already been queen under a different name, but the only reason I have to think that is a series of incredibly unsubtle hints. I guess I shouldn't get too upset about it, being the style of the time, but it bugs me. It's clear that you've got something worked out - the hints about the Denairastas were far too specific for a location that has not been mentioned since the Barsaive boxed set - but you're holding back for a future book that may or may not even see print. I guess I'm lucky that these 1st edition books are pretty cheap on the secondary market.

Overall, I liked this book. It didn't set my mind aflame with new adventure ideas, but it was a pretty decent read. The late 90s was kind of a golden age for rpg products that blurred the line between game supplement and fiction, and Earthdawn, in particular, has always been especially good at that genre.

Ukss Contribution: There's some interesting imagery in this book, most of it blood- or thorn- themed, but there's really only one thing it could have ever been - giant carnivorous squirrels. They're big squirrels who swarm-attack larger creatures and tear off pieces to bury like normal squirrels bury nuts. It's all part of the cycle of (corrupted by obscene blood magic) life.

No comments:

Post a Comment