Monday, January 31, 2022

(Earthdawn LRG 1e)Barsaive At War

Barsaive At War is a big event book, but maybe, for a new licensee, it's too big? I don't know. If we're to believe the preface (and I have no reason not to), this was a book long in the pipeline, cancelled by FASA ending the Earthdawn line and resurrected by Living Room Games getting the license. So maybe it's not that weird that it feels like The Last Earthdawn Book Ever Written, despite, you know, being the first of a new era. It's just that, if I didn't have that critical bit of context, Barsaive At War would feel a lot like the new guys coming in and preemptively shutting down all the old guys' ongoing storylines.

It's an irrational feeling, to be sure. The previous big metaplot book was literally called Prelude to War. It was obviously building to something. And maybe the reason the resolution to the Aardelea plot seems so abrupt is because there was never a lot of meat on those bones. In Prelude you're trying to rescue this girl from her kidnappers, but thanks to some GM fuckery, you wind up chasing a decoy until she's far out of reach and never even see her at any point in the adventure. Then the Therans hold onto her for some indefinite length of time until you get to the adventure in this book. Some random NPCs rescue her off-screen, but mostly get killed during the pursuit, so when you stumble randomly on the scene, you have to pick up the slack and escort her for the last leg of the escape, until some dragons take her off your hands and presumably she's never heard from again. Despite being basically a were-dragon, she never really comes into her own as a character, and it's not clear that any of her adventures would have played out any differently if she were just an inanimate magic item with plot-relevant powers. It's tempting to blame the series hand-off for this, but, honestly, she never had much agency or personality.

The thing that makes this a big event book is the war against Theran imperialism, in which the various nations of Barsaive (minus those jerk Denairastas) put aside their differences to band together against the invaders, winning the day with only a few accidental atrocities along the way (well, plus the one intentional atrocity committed by the Blood Elves, but no one knew they were going to do it beforehand). It's a major shift in the setting's status quo, and I'm not sure sure if it's entirely to the game's benefit. Prelude to War, for all the inexorability of its canon, managed to leave Barsaive in a more complex and fraught political situation, whereas Barsaive at War in many ways made things simpler. Sure, you may be able to do a dungeon crawl in the ruins of Skypoint and Vivane, and there may always be Theran revanchists to deal with, but those are already types of adventures that we can have - explore ruined kaers and face more dangerous revanchists with the support of a nearby imperial power. Not to complain about plot advancement or anything, but Barsaive at War feels a lot like something you'd play at the end of your Earthdawn campaign.

Although, if you do go that route, I think it will mostly work. This book, like its predecessor, is linear and canon-driven, but most of the time, you're playing an elite commando unit who is very explicitly being sent on missions by a central command, so the bare-bones "you will have to overcome obstacles A,B, and C in order to accomplish objectives X,Y, and Z" adventure format feels very natural. You may not be able to inspire Aardelea to become a liberated woman or avert the mass death that comes to Vivane when the dragons' Air Dome spell inadvertently attracts a Horror Cloud, but the rest of the time, when you're delivering messages to people, those feel like fair challenges.

Oh, and the "Earthdawn" comes back. For those not in the loop, the game Earthdawn, is named after an important event in the setting - when Throal emerged from isolation after the Scourge to find a ruined world, it sent out an airship (called "the Earthdawn") to scout out the changes to the terrain and contact other survivors. On its third time out, it disappears. The core book says it was attacked by Horrors and floated around the skies of Barsaive as a cursed ghost hulk, but nope, it just decided to extend its mission by a few decades and the grandchildren of the original crew made the choice to come back just in time to boost the morale of the Barsaivian forces in the final battle. It's probably the least interesting possible use for the ship, but it makes a certain emotional sense if this is going to be the last Earthdawn book ever made.

In the end, I'm pretty ambivalent about this book. It's actually pretty middle of the road when it comes to its railroadiness. There's a critical path that must exist in every adventure that doesn't aspire to be a million pages long, but a lot of the adventures here offer alternate on-ramps, and the chapters usually wrap up with suggestions for related adventures that you can run for un-involved PCs. It's decent, but it doesn't really give the sense that the fate of the setting is at stake. The possibility that Thera might win is never even brought up, and so the canon ending winds up feeling pretty inevitable. What I really want from a mega-adventure like this is to put the setting into the hands of the PCs. Have them make the decision about whether to deploy the Air Dome, knowing the risks of a potential Horror Cloud. Debate the ethics of sabotaging Skypoint's support pillars enough that collapsing them feels like a strategic choice, rather than something some rogue airship pilots decided to do when the battle turned against them. Let them be the ones to steal the Everliving Flower in order to frame Thera and draw the Blood Wood into the war, instead of being the couriers who delivered it to the conspirators after the fact (or, worse, the decoys, retroactively decided if the PCs lose their package and would otherwise fail the mission).

This may just be a problem with metaplot heavy games, though. Barsaive At War isn't just a sourcebook that gives you ideas for an anti-Thera climax to your campaign, it's also a chapter in an ongoing saga, and it has to play nice both with what's gone before and what's coming after. Too much uncertainty and the line stops feeling like a coherent story. I may prefer the looser approach for my rpgs, but it's undeniable that something would be lost.

Ukss Contribution: This book plays it very safe with the setting. Almost everything we see is something we've seen before. We do get a bunch of new information about the city-state of Jerris - more than the core book and the Barsaive boxed set combined. And even though it's a fact I already knew, I did think that the constant rain of ash was a neat bit of set-dressing. So Ukss will have a city that is suffering a similar problem.

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