Sunday, December 5, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e) Shattered Pattern

Shattered Pattern is the first Earthdawn adventure where I really feel like I've been given the keys to the setting. If the PCs fail to recover the dragon eggs from Tyrlaan, the Nethermancer (i.e. necromancer), he will successfully corrupt them into servants of the Horror Verjjgorm, and they'll be a major threat going forward. No reset to the status quo, no other group of heroes coming in and doing the job, no indication whatsoever that the stakes are not real. 

I don't mean to sound so backhanded here, because the other Earthdawn adventures had a lot to recommend them, but it feels weird that the first adventure to feel truly open is also the first one to really indulge in metaplot. I think it may be down to being a higher-level adventure. This one is meant for characters of 5-7, and the core book only goes up to level 8. Maybe it was a case of allowing the PCs to have a major setting impact before they retire. Or maybe it's just a shift in the line's philosophy. I did notice that the setting sourcebooks got more metaplotty as time went on, so perhaps the adventures are on the same arc. It's something to keep an eye on as I go forward.

For now, I think I like it. It's a little odd that the more interesting outcome results when the PC fail. In that case, the sequel campaign will have to deal with cursed dragons serving a primordial Horror from before the dawn of time, whereas if they succeed, then a cult that was a problem is now slightly less of a problem. Don't get me wrong - "hunt down the sinister cult who is trying to throw the land into chaos" is a decent idea for a follow-up game, but the cult's activities are all secret, so if you thwart them at every turn, then the status quo will remain exactly the same. That's a broader problem with genre fiction, though - villains act and heroes react. 

Because it's such a common trope, I can't even count that as a flaw. The only thing I'd say was a flaw is the weird overlap between the guy who hires the PC at the start of the adventure and the villain the PCs fight at the end of the adventure. What happened is that hundreds of years ago, a wicked elvish sorcerer made bargains with the Horrors - he would betray the people he promised to protect, and in exchange the Horrors would teach him powerful magical techniques. And then, after he got what he wanted, he slew the Horrors that gave him the power (I'm using the plural because he did it twice). In recent years, this guy pledged his service to a third Horror, one who is probably too powerful to fall victim to another backstab (I have to assume, otherwise that suggests Verjigorm has a real problem securing reliable help), and since Verjigorm is the "Hunter of Great Dragons," the service involved stealing a dragon's eggs and corrupting them magic.

The person who hires the PCs is a drake, which is a kind of shapeshifter who can switch between dragon and humanoid forms. He worked for the Great Dragon Icewing and he tracked the sorcerer to his lair . . . and was promptly beaten so badly he lost all his memories. The PCs enter the picture when the now-amnesiac drake decides he's going to spend a portion of his mysterious treasure to get a bunch of adventurers to try and uncover the truth of his identity.

The issue is that the drake's humanoid form was an elderly elf. As a result, the adventure is convinced that the PCs are going to get him confused with the villain. The text brings it up in every chapter right up until the final dungeon. And you could not be blamed if you thought this was an intentional ambiguity that is meant to lead to a bunch of mistaken-identity shenanigans. But the text is actually incredibly clear - "The similarity . . . may lead people to the logical but incorrect conclusion that Tyrlaan, betrayer of helpless people to a dreadful death, is the man who hired them. . . If this happens, remind the players that the evidence their characters have found is far from conclusive."

I can see how players might come to think that two characters whose main distinguishing characteristics are that they elvish, male, and old, are the same person. But if the adventure is going to make a point of advising the GM to shut down that line of speculation every time it comes up, then why not just change a couple of salient characteristics of one of the two characters. Like, maybe the sorcerer needs to be old, because he has a Scourge-era backstory, and maybe he has to be an elf, because that's the only fantasy race long-lived enough to be that old, and there's 50 percent chance that he's going to be a he, but then the drake could be female, or take the form of a human, or just not look so old. When you continually bring up how likely it is that these very similar characters will be mistaken for each other, it starts looking like you're doing it on purpose.

That's really the only flaw. Some might object to the fact that the PCs are given three locations to investigate and, while the plot escalates sensibly if they go from nearest to farthest, if they go to the farthest location first, they can short-circuit the entire adventure and defeat the boss before they even know enough about him to mistake him for their employer. I'm not one of those objectors, however, because it's pretty unlikely to happen and even if it does, well, that's just the consequence of a genuinely open design. Needless to say, if I ran Shattered Pattern, I'd ignore the book's advice to shuffle the locations around if it looks like the PCs are going to the wrong one.

Overall, I feel like Shattered Pattern might be the start of a new direction for Earthdawn adventures. I'm hoping that, as we go on, we'll start to see bigger stories with wider scope and more consequential decisions. Then again, there's always the danger of getting so into the metaplot that you start locking out new players. And yet, those weird, insular stories are always the most fun to comment about (what is Earthdawn's answer to Samuel Haight?) so maybe I win either way.

Ukss Contribution: I'm super immature and always giggle when these fantasy books use "bone" as a prefix. All three of the adventure's major locations contain bone circles that are guarded by bone spirits, and I definitely snickered inappropriately, but I do like the idea of an elemental spirit made from bones.

No comments:

Post a Comment