Sunday, January 9, 2022

(Earthdawn 1e) Throal Adventures

 Let's start this post out with an embarrassing confession. As I was reading the plot synopsis for the third adventure in this book, my thought was, "whoa, this is the third adventure in a row that takes place completely underground. Why is this book so gloomy?"

Throal is the dwarf kingdom. In the interest of preserving at least some of my mystique as a critic, I will refrain from telling you how long it took me to put those two facts together.

It's fair to say that one thing that Throal Adventures definitely gets right about adventuring in the dwarf kingdom is that it largely involves venturing into tunnels and looking for the Thing That Shouldn't Be In The Tunnel. We get three variations of that and they all just work. They are repetitive in a way that would make them hard to play back-to-back, but over the course of a full career a single group could experience all three and come away satisfied. FASA has been getting better at making adventure books over the years, and it's a shame that this is the second-to-last one.

The first adventure is called "Purloined Provisions" and it's about a group of Pale Ones (the underground variant of the T'skrang - i.e. lizardfolk) whose river mysteriously dried up and have been forced to steal food from Throal's Grand Bazaar. You start out trying to track down the thieves, who are operating out of another dwarf adventure staple - The Tunnel That Shouldn't Be There - but end up beating up the elementalist who diverted the river to better harvest motes of True Water, thereby saving the village and ensuring that the villagers no longer need to steal to survive.

The strongest part of this adventure is the way that it acts as a moral test for the PCs. What is the nature of justice? How can you punish those who are merely trying to survive? And so on.

The weakest part of the adventure is the fact that it doesn't seem to realize that the moral dilemma is its strongest part. It ends with the Pale Ones thanking you kindly for your help and then going back to living their lives, with no effort made to offer restitution for all the shit they stole . . . unless the PCs insist, in which case "The lahala will reluctantly agree to this." I guess all that angst in the opening fiction about how they must swallow their pride and dishonor themselves to survive was just posturing, then?

No, I'm being unfair. I'm sure the main component of the lahala's reluctance is the fact that restitution also comes with the obligation to turn over the raiders who slew a couple of the Bazaar guards in the adventure's first encounter. It wasn't the Pale Ones' intent to murder anyone, but they were interrupted mid-robbery and things went south. Throal justice requires that the murderers face trial, but they committed the crime while acting under orders from their own government, and thus to punish them exclusively threatens to make them into scapegoats for the village's collective decision. It's a complex moral, political, and diplomatic conundrum of the sort that PCs just love to try and clumsily "solve" and it really could anchor a whole adventure by itself . . . which makes it a damned shame that it's such an afterthought. I think the presumed arc here is that the PCs start off doing mercenary work for a bunch of merchants, but discover in the course of their investigation a community in genuine need, and then decide that the heroic thing is to solve the real problem instead of the immediate problem they were hired to solve. By the time they're in any position to demand that the murderers return to Throal to face trial, they've probably been through so many thrilling encounters with monsters and mages that they've forgotten why they got involved in the first place.

I think there's a chance that things will just naturally shake out that way, but it's much likelier that the whole thing will completely derail the first time the PCs are told "no." "What do you mean we can't take the murderers with us - they killed two people! You can't just opt out of justice." Honestly, the way I'd do it is make the Pale Ones' village the final stop in the adventure, with the diversion of the river being something the PCs knew about in an unrelated context before they even went down there. Maybe they've heard talk in the Bazaar about a recent earthquake or Horror attack, or, if you want to go really deep into the moral quagmire, about Throal's recent success at diverting a river for their mining operations. That'll cut nice and deep - does Throal have the right to judge the actions of people it has impoverished?

The second adventure is "Deep Trouble" and it could be the most straight-forward of the three. There's a Horror That Shouldn't Be In The Tunnel and the PCs have to Get It Out Of The Tunnel. Where it strays from pure straightforwardness is in the fact that the PCs' mission is meant to be secret. The tunnel in question happens to be near the city of Hustane, which Throal is building speculatively, in hopes of attracting immigration from the surface and relieving overcrowding amongst the urban poor. These aims might be jeopardized if people were to find out there's a giant beetle digging around the city's foundations, attempting to collapse the chamber and kill thousands.

That makes the adventure's stakes really weird. Because your main opposition, aside from the giant Horror, is a bunch of people who don't know what's going on and are trying to be (what they think are) the first people to find out. If they actually knew what you were up to, they would support you completely, but then the nobles who sponsored them have their own reasons for embarrassing or blackmailing the king and maybe that's something you want to prevent. Can you successfully keep the public in the dark? Would you kill to keep the secret? Do you even care?

Well, if you didn't care, you wouldn't have gotten the job, though the adventure fails to anticipate that most people probably won't care ("Don't you see, we have to preserve the status quo of the monarchy! None of the commoners would consent to live in the new city if they were informed of the dangers of possible Horror attack!") Maybe that's just me projecting my own politics onto the text, though. "We have to conceal this danger from the public, lest we start a panic," is a pretty common trope in disaster fiction. I don't like it. I think it's infantilizing and authoritarian. But Throal Adventures didn't invent it.

So, with the caveat that if you've got a player like me at the table, they won't care about this specific premise, it is actually kind of an interesting premise for an adventure to do "this should be a completely uncontroversial monster hunt, but everyone's acting really weird about it." My advice if you run this adventure - make it more complicated. Just throw in an absolutely overwhelming number of agendas. You'll know when you've reached a point where they stop making sense and have to rely on ridiculous leaps of logic and deliberate ignorance . . . that you should make one or two more, just to be safe.

(Sorry, recent times have replenished my store of cynicism).

The last adventure involves a shady nobleman who wants to open up an old smuggling tunnel so that he can secretly move resources and personnel without gaining the notice of the crown, but he only has half the map, so he needs a group of adventurers to go in and plot the route from the halfway point to the surface. Conveniently, along the way, you run into Something That Should Not Be In The Tunnel, specifically a fort belonging to a bunch of pirates and mercenaries that Thera is sponsoring to raid and enslave the peaceful communities of the Pale Ones. It's not part of your mission, but if you free the slaves and route the raiders, the locals will be happy to share their knowledge of the tunnels with you, dramatically reducing the amount of work you need to do to finish your job. But you have to be careful, because the Theran stooges don't actually know that there's a secret passage into the heart of Throal, and if they found out, that would lead to major trouble for the dwarf kingdom (and even its corrupt nobles).

It's a fine adventure. There's a bit of colonialist subtext in the way the Pale Ones are depicted. Their leader wears a large, elaborate feathered headdress, despite living a hundred miles away from the nearest entrance to the surface ("Hey, you know those weird creatures that drown in the river and wash up down here? Their skin would make a nice hat"), but they're on the side of the heroes and have valuable information, so they're probably okay (I will, however, dig my heels in and refuse to use broken English to represent your bilingual guide. Real shady, FASA.)

Overall, I think this is a pretty successful adventure book. The best part of Throal's setting book was the complex and petty palace politics, and those only peripherally factor into these adventures, but they are here, and you can dial up their influence, if desired. I'm not sure how I feel about this format where the three adventures are completely unconnected, even by a theme. It might have made the book stronger if the adventures were not just unconnected, but deliberately diverse - one adventure that shows Throal the liberal haven, one that shows Throal the cultural imperialist, and one adventure that shows Throal the unstable transitioning monarchy, to really highlight the contradictions of the place. However, my issues with curation are ultimately pretty minor. These are solid adventures. Provided Prelude to War doesn't totally whiff it, the first edition of Earthdawn is looking to finish on a strong note.

Ukss Contribution: My choice here is actually a spell from the core book, but it gets called out specifically here, in a really memorable way. 

"If the group includes a nethermancer who wishes to use the Experience Death spell . . .the spell will only reveal the survivor's slow death without giving the nethermancer any information about the nature of the menace below the city."

Now, this is really just a description of how the spell normally works. It allows you to relive the last 5-10 minutes of a dead person's life, and the reason the quote is talking about a "survivor" is because she "survived" the monster attack long enough to get back and report to headquarters before succumbing to her wounds. So there's no reason for a PC to even think that casting it would help, but I like to think that this bit, instead of being a passive-aggressive swipe at players who don't read their powers, is just how nethermancers normally operate. 

"Why are you trying to relive the last moments of the victim's life? They died of slow-acting poison. The killer was probably miles away when it happened."

"I know, but we nethermancers believe every death is a lesson."

Creepy. Ukss' "Experience Death" spell will be used rarely by investigators and frequently by a bunch of voyeuristic weirdos.


  1. Great use of the spell. "I use this to meditate and grow as a person."


    1. Yeah, it's going to be really easy to build a religion around it.