Thursday, October 7, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd

The thing I like most about The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd is that it's one of the most politically-focused rpg supplements I've ever read, but it's also 100% about the screaming berserker guys you automatically think about when you're asked to picture orks. The Metal Hand tribe is a large band of horse-riding raiders who view agriculture as a crime against the Passion of Nature, and will brutally attack any permanent dwelling inside their territory - now, lets talk about the political marriage between the Chief's daughter and the son of his greatest rival, the Chief of the Broken Fang tribe, and how various power blocs within the tribes are likely to react to the inheritance issues and how the daughter and son plan to merge the tribes over the objections of their fathers. Oh, and both Chiefs are competing for the job of head general of the nation's armies, as the prophetic messiah who has claimed the title of High Chief is preparing to do battle with an encroaching imperialist power and is weighing the value of potential foreign alliances.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly what makes the politics in this book so satisfying, but I think it's the way that Cara Fahd's politics exist in the context of a search for orkish identity. Krathis Gron, the Chosen of the Passion and High Chief of Cara Fahd, is driven by this romantic idea of rebuilding the ancient orkish nation, which fell even before the Scourge. To do this, she advocates for the adoption of an authentic Ork culture, one not beholden to Thera or Throal, but it's clear that this culture needs to be created rather than discovered, because of huge gaps in the archaeological and ethnographic records and the centuries-long ork diaspora. Different factions have different ideas about what this culture should look like, probably because of their vastly different experiences in that aforementioned diaspora. It's nationalist separatism, but the nation does not yet exist.

It's a little problematic that this national identity centers on being an ork. Earthdawn started off as relatively good at avoiding the fantasy cliche of slotting its races into separate and distinct polities. "Here is the elf nation. There is the dwarf nation. Now let's move on to the ork nation." Instead, there was a sense I got that most places were mixed. The culture of the average location in Barsaive is one with a fair mix of the corebook races, and enclaves of one particular race were outliers - part of the reason the Blood Wood is so weird and sinister is because it is emphatically "elf only."

The supplements have often felt like they're trying to disabuse me of that notion. The Serpent River was about t'skrang culture, The Crystal Raiders of Barsaive was about troll culture, and now Cara Fahd is about ork culture, if only be the implications of its absence. And while the books have been great about showcasing diversity within the confines of the races' high concepts - for example, the various ork tribes have different rites of passage, diets, architecture, and economic aspirations - there is still the sense that some important behaviors are tied to race in a way that transcends geography or common cultural influence - for example, all the ork tribes (except one) ride a mix of horses and thundra beasts, instead of picking one animal or another based on local conditions. Similarly, lowland trolls care about honor and only t'skrang can build paddle-driven riverboats. It's a weird middle-ground between "racial monocultures" and  "every fantasy species is as diverse as humans."

I think, on balance, The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd leans in the right direction - the differences between ork immigrants from various parts of Barsaive is something that drives many of the book's conflicts. However, I also think that the decision to make it canon that 70% of Barsaive's orks have migrated to Cara Fahd winds up having the opposite effect on the bulk of the setting. One of the best parts of Earthdawn so far has been the way that sometimes a random NPC will be an ork or an elf or what have you, despite there being no particular reason why an ork or an elf would be especially suited to the NPC's role.

I blame the shortening of the Scourge. This isn't actually an explicit or intentional phenomenon - the Scourge is still canonically 400 years - but lately, the Scourge has started to feel shorter. I think it probably started with the Thera book, but Crystal Raiders has been the worst offender. Basically, we've been learning a lot about pre-Scourge history and that history has been having more and more of an effect on what's going on in the present. I think it's the result of an accumulation of canon. You start off dropping a few hints in early books, then later books wind up having a lot of established facts to draw from, and so they elaborate, and then sooner or later, half your history section winds up being about antediluvian triva. We're not quite at Exalted 2nd edition levels of irrelevance, but we are on the same track. We've got a post-apocalyptic setting that consistently underestimates the trauma of the apocalypse.  Trolls were great airship builders before the Scourge and they kept up the art for the 20 generations where they couldn't see the sky.

The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd commits to the idea that nomadic cavalry has always been a part of ork culture and not just something they decided to start doing after emerging from the fallout shelters, despite the fact that the Barsaive boxed set went out of its way to establish that rapidly changing customs were a natural side-effect of the short ork lifespan, and I do think I have to count that as an error, but I think it's more of an error of wasted potential than any great mistake. Cara Fahd itself is a very interesting and well thought-out fantasy location, with plenty of opportunities for mercenary employment and rogue archaeology (or you could take the advice of the GM chapter and pitch a campaign where players are "loggers, miners, or construction workers"), and you could easily port it to any setting that has room for an ork kingdom (Forgotten Realms players, this is basically the closest you're ever going to get to a sourcebook for The Vast). The fact that it doesn't get maximal use out of Earthdawn's backstory is just a nitpick.

Overall, I think The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd was a fine way to finish up 1st edition's setting books. It's got a nice balance of fascinating human drama and high fantasy nonsense - one of the kingdom's lost treasures is a mountain that has been shrunk down to fit in a bottle and then subsequently used as a mace, because orks gotta ork.

Ukss Contribution: The Metal Hand tribe got its name because its founder came across some fellow orks who were being put on trial for raiding and the dwarf magistrate decided to add some noxious cultural insensitivity to the proceedings by throwing the accused ork's ancestral sword into a cauldron of molten bronze. Heva Ulya was so outraged that she went berserk and stuck her hand into the metal to retrieve the priceless heirloom. Inspired by how utterly badass that was, the orks rose up and escaped, forming the core of a group of radical primitivists that robbed people for the sin of living in houses and working on farms.

Not sure I care for the primitivism ("any who do not live by the natural order of the world do not deserve to live peacefully in it"), but I do love an awesome origin story. I'll have to keep my eyes open for ways to adapt it.

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