Friday, January 21, 2022

(Earthdawn 1e) Prelude to War

The metaplot cannot be stopped! Literally. At one point, your dashing heroes are set to rescue the maiden, Aardelea (the same magical girl you rescued from fanatic witch-hunters in the Infected adventure), and you can't. The book says so directly. "Despite their best efforts, the player characters cannot rescue Aardelea from the clutches of the Therans." This can happen because the GM has just spent the last few sessions telling the players a lie they have no conceivable reason to disbelieve. 

See, the wizard who kidnapped Aardelea assumed he was going to be followed by some hero or another, so the first thing he did was hand her over to another team. Then he leads you on a wild goose chase, going from town to town, very conspicuously acting like a total dick, and having his assistant play the part of Aardelea, so that anyone asking around about him will get a very detailed account that matches exactly what they expect to see.

It's a perfect plan for thwarting a group of PCs, but if you're a person, living in the world, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It would be better to keep quiet, move inconspicuously, and avoid populated areas as much as possible. Maybe even tag along with the group that's going to "quietly smuggle the girl to the Theran behemoth at Lake Ban." Either that or have the heavily armed fleet of airships meet you closer to the village, so it doesn't matter if you're being tracked.

In the end, you capture the wizard before he can get away and you take him to the dragon Icewing, who eats him, shits out his bones, and then asks you to deliver said bones to the Therans as a message of intimidation. There's no point in objecting to any of this because "the player characters are essentially bystanders in this final encounter."

It's not all dire. There are some fruitful changes to the metaplot, which can themselves lead to exciting new adventures, but the thrill of being central to events that will change the face of Barsaive forever kind of loses its shine when your "central role" winds up being little more than having a front row seat to a series of unavoidable screw-ups. Like, if you're starting up your first session and the GM tells you that the King of Throal was recently assassinated, and his impetuous son jumped to conclusions about the perpetrators, executing an innocent family and leading a disastrous counterattack against Thera, which served only to empower his adversaries among the noble class and further the aims of a sinister family of foreign sorcerers, that's a pretty damned interesting situation to find yourselves in. 

But if you take a step back and play as the investigators who were trying to find the old King's assassin, and the way the adventure is written assumes that a successful investigation is one that puts you on the false trail set down by the Denairastas, to frame Thera for the assassination, and the end result of you succeeding at every check presented to you is that you validate the enemy narrative and point the finger at an innocent family of refugees, then that kind of sucks.

So much of this book relies on exploiting the fact that the GM is the players' sole source of information about the world in order to keep the PCs on track with the stories' pre-determined outcomes. The biggest example of this is in the middle of a tense confrontation where the Therans are trying to clear their name and disavow responsibility for the King's assassination.

At this point, grab a pair of dice, roll them, and look surprised. Then re-roll one of them, look even more surprised, and re-roll the other. Flip anxiously through this book for a moment: give the impression that a freak die roll has just thrown the printed adventure off track.  Then tell the players that Drazon has fired a crossbow bolt that pierced Ladacheln's throat and sent him plummeting to the ground far below.
It's a remarkable passage because it somehow manages to cross the nebulous line between "storytelling" and "lying," which is not really something I've spent a lot of time thinking about before now. In the course of playing a normal game, I'll say, "you see an ork coming over the hill," and that's . . . fictional. It's something I made up, because of course my friend doesn't see an ork, they're sitting right across the room from me, but it's a sort of fiction that respects a social contract. My words are interpreted through the context of the story, and in that context, they're truthfully conveying what's going on. And even when the information is technically not accurate, there are still nuances where that false information is acceptable. Maybe it's a shapeshifter instead of an ork, or maybe the character's lore rating is so low that they can't tell the difference between an ork and a troll, then what I'm telling them isn't an honest depiction of the world, but it is an honest representation of the limits of human knowledge.

But this? It's stage-directing a little pantomime for me, one designed to exploit my friends' perception of the normal functioning of the game so that they don't realize they're being railroaded. It's uncomfortable.

And also unnecessary. Drazon is the Denairastas agent who framed those people for the King's murder, and he's firing an arrow here because he recognizes that the Therans have a witness who can identify him and he hopes that wrecking the parlay will keep the long-time enemies from comparing notes. A failed attack roll is going to do that just as well. And he tries to cover for himself by immediately screaming that he saw the Therans getting ready to fire first, and that's actually a pretty plausible fog-of-war type scenario, so maybe you could just start the fight and require difficult Perception rolls from players who try to figure out what's going on while the arrows are still flying. 

But also, in the default scenario, Ladacheln isn't even the person with the info. If the PCs keep their head and manage to board the Theran ship, they're going to be able to talk to the witness anyways. In fact, the adventure assumes that they will, so even in a situation where the GM's poor dice rolls cause Drazon's plan to fail and the PCs are able to deal amicably with the Therans, the only thing lost is a thrilling action scene. I think maybe the mind games are happening for their own sake. Someone had the idea to direct GMs to lean on the fourth wall and it so amused them that they tossed it in. Certainly, the one thing that was never in danger of happening was "throwing the printed adventure off track."

So I don't know. Final verdict - Prelude to War is a fine source for campaign background and a compelling read for those of us who are treating the Earthdawn books as an ongoing fantasy series, to be read for its own sake, but I think it might be irresponsible to subject your players to it. There is virtually no room in any of the material here for the unexpected or the serendipitous, and thus the involvement of player characters in these setting-shaking events is, at best, vestigial.

Ukss Contribution: The dragon Icewing's nickname is "Doll-Maker." The text doesn't explain what it means, but considering his mystic might, the possibilities are intriguing. Ukss will also have a dragon named Doll-Maker, who will have appropriate powers, to be determined later.

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