Thursday, December 30, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Blades

 Oh, Blades, Blades, Blades what am I supposed to do with you? No, seriously. What am I supposed to do with you? Because I know for certain that the one thing I am not going to do with you is run you as a series of Earthdawn adventures for six to eight PCs of circle six to nine. 

I'm being snarky, of course, but this time the snark is not directed at the book, but at myself. I am dead certain that if I attempted to run this adventure, it would be a complete disaster. The question now is how universal my experience might be. It would be pretty arrogant of me to declare that just because I can't do something it means that it can't be done. 

However, I'm not sure it can be done. Blades is meant to be used as an ongoing subplot in a larger campaign. At some point (canonically, the end of Shattered Pattern, but really, whenever) you find the titular blades and, like all Earthdawn artifacts, you must find the key knowledges necessary to unlock their powers. This book is a series of five adventures, the first four of which offer a key knowledge as a reward.

And I have to say, before anything else, that I love this structure. Magic items unlocking new powers as you learn more about their history is probably Earthdawn's best mechanic. And a set of seven identical magical items, all with the same key knowledges, bundled together as an adventure path meant to weave throughout the entire campaign, drawing the entire party in and acting as the adventure rewards in a very organic way - it's sheer perfection. From a purely design perspective, I'm in awe.

So what was all the "this may be impossible to run" hand-wringing about? Well, it all comes down to the fact that the specific adventure associated with these specific blades feels really fucking urgent. The way it's supposed to work is that you advance your ranks in your magic item gradually over time, spending xp to level it up and going on the Blades adventures only when you reach the bottleneck ranks and can't advance any further without the key knowledge. Since unlocking the next rank can cost hundreds, or even thousands of xp, you'll have to do a lot of adventuring in-between, especially if you want to advance in your Discipline, in addition to your magic item mastery. For example, the adventure that gives you the level 5 key knowledge awards a base of 3100 xp, but buying the rank 5 and 6 advancements on the blades cost 5500 xp, requiring at least an extra full adventure just to qualify for the next chapter of the story.

And that's a perfectly fine bit of pacing, except that the blades, in addition to being powerful magic items that can benefit any Discipline, are also cursed with the trapped spirit of an ancient Horror, who inspires treachery and murder in anyone the PCs get too close to. That rank 5 adventure I was talking about? At least a dozen innocent (ish) people die because of the blades' curse. You're captured by a a group of Tamers (people who deliberately turn their backs on human technology in order to live in harmony with nature) and their leader, a powerful beastmaster, slays them all in the night before eventually committing suicide from grief once the curse wears off and she realizes what she's done. And sure, they were planning on sacrificing you to the forest spirits (based on the wacky belief that you've brought evil into their homeland), but this keeps happening. Later adventures in the series rack up an even higher and innocenter body count, and it's kind of implied that this is going on even in your unrelated adventures (the original owners of the blades were so oblivious for such a long time that it led to the downfall of the entire kingdom of Cara Fahd).

That's why I think the whole arc might be impossible to run. At the end of the first adventure, you learn that the blades are cursed, and will cause death and destruction everywhere they go, but the only way to break the curse is to fully power up the blades and then use them to slay the spirit trapped inside. The powered-up blades are its biggest weakness. It's not quite impossible to kill the Horror with other weapons, but the damage rating of all other attacks is reduced by 10 (which is a lot).

And let me reiterate - there is very definitely a trail of bodies the PCs are leaving behind them while this whole powering-up process is going on. So it's kind of hard for me to imagine the events of Blades as anything less than the PCs' top priority.

Although, I think Blades would be a difficult series of adventures to run even if you promoted it from "subplot" to "plot." It all comes down to some very challenging questions about the nature of responsibility and agency.

You roll into town and the villagers start having nightmares of terrible violence, and then one of the victims acts out his nightmare while sleepwalking. A whole family is destroyed, children are left orphaned, and the sickness lingers even after you leave. If you come back later, you discover the first incident set off a whole chain reaction of revenge murders. And yes, it's all down to the Horror who has infected your blades, and there's not anything you can do to stop it (even if you bury the blades, the Horror can exploit the connection of your activated magic item levels to continue to act through you), but once it becomes obvious that these reactions are inevitable, maybe you have an obligation to at least try and mitigate the damage by staying far away from populated areas. Although, since the information you need to break the curse is usually in a populated area, that becomes a tough dilemma to navigate.

And then there's the question about what to do with the Horrors' victims. The book treats them as if they were somehow culpable in their atrocities, but it doesn't strike me as a very convincing position. First of all, the mechanics of how someone becomes "corrupted" suggest some pretty powerful and direct mind control. You roll a check based on how much the PCs have leveled the blades (the Horror gets stronger alongside the heroes) and that check targets the victim's spell defense. The roll gets a bonus if the victim has prior feelings of anger and jealousy, and maybe you could interpret that as a form of complicity, but I feel like it's at most a shifting of probability. It doesn't take much of a success to get the victim to do something they wouldn't otherwise do, and given Earthdawn's exploding dice, in theory anyone can be influenced to do anything. Towards the end of the adventure, the Horror is tossing out rank 12+ influence effects against NPCs with spell defenses of 3 or 4, meaning that maximum level successes are more common than literally any other result. The guy who attacked his wife while sleepwalking never even had a chance.

The adventure has a very grim atmosphere, as a result. The typical antagonist doesn't even want to be there. In fact, they weren't even an enemy until you came along and exposed them to the mind-control field that turned them into enemies. You fight the ghosts of ork heroes (who were tortured by the Horrors during the Scourge and can no longer tell the difference between friend and foe), corrupted obsidemen (who are the remnants of those who gave their lives trying to defeat the Horror the first time around), and even the shade of Kragen Overtall, who betrayed the Seven Spokes, sworn defenders of ancient Cara Fahd (after succumbing to the Horror's mind control). It is only at the very beginning (when the Horror's influence is so weak that it can only nudge people who were planning shit anyways) and the very end (when you fight the Horror itself) that you face foes who were unambiguously in control of their own actions.

The biggest thing this adventure is missing is the sense that you are on a healing journey, that you are doing this all just as much for the benefit of the people being coerced into opposing you. In the end, when you slay the Horror, a psychic wave goes out, informing its victims of their tormentor's demise, but there's not much of a sense that it's worth it. That you, the PCs, can be forgiven for bringing the corruption aura into town with you because that was the only way to rid the world of the greater evil.

And that's a big part of this adventure's difficulty to run. Am I a good enough GM to sell the bittersweetness? To somehow bring these dozens of ruined lives into a coherent theme about . . . I don't know, the preciousness of personal autonomy or something. Also, can I pitch this to my PCs in such a way as to earn both their buy-in and their patience. "You are on an incredibly dark path that will burden you with some impossible moral choices, but you can't rush it because everything is going to get worse at a very deliberate pace that is only marginally under your control."

I don't think Blades is a bad adventure. I think it's a terrible adventure, in both the good and bad sense of the word. I'm not ready to rule out the possibility that there's some virtuoso GM out there, with a group of PCs invested enough to pull it off (and if this adventure is ever going to work, it's going to need the active cooperation of the PCs), but I am positive that I am not that GM.

Ukss Contribution: The first villain, who likely would have been an ass even without the influence of the blades, lived inside a fortress made from a "hollowed out fossil skull of a gigantic lizard from a distant age." I love it when fantasy goes big.

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