Friday, February 18, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e)Barsaive in Chaos

 How much leeway should I give to a book that's mostly okay, save for one terrible betrayal? I can just decanonize the part I don't like, right? The book says it's going to be canon for all the Earthdawn products going forward, but I happen to know, thanks to it being twenty years after the fact, that Living Room Games only made three more books after this, and thus it's unlikely to even come up. So, really, on the scale of grognardish refusal to accept new lore, it's actually pretty mild for me to bury my head in the sand and pretend that Barsaive in Chaos never said, "Twiceborn is a puppet for a group of Horrors known as the Gharmheks (see the Parlainth Box Set, p.76) The Gharmeks control her every decision, action, and impulse."

It was, perhaps, a little petty of me to go back to the Parlainth Box Set to check the reference and make note that rather than being terrible creatures who fed of anguish and fear, they were the pathetic bottom-feeders of the Horror world, who create cadaver men to feed off "revulsion and disgust," and that they exchanged their powers for Twiceborn's protection. Far from being shadowy masterminds, they were scatological doofuses who "display an unpleasant preoccupation with decomposition and other biological processes usually avoided in polite society."

I'm not sure what motivated their promotion to sinister puppetmasters, but fortunately, that whole plot is really easy to ignore, even in its chapter of origin. Twiceborn's write-up says, "If a sentence says 'Twiceborn does something,' what it really means is that 'The Gharmheks command Twiceborn to do something,'" but that one little disclaimer is all we see of that dynamic. Most of Twiceborn's actions and motives are attributed to Twicesborn herself. The terrible character assassination of a writeup is forgotten almost immediately. ("Twiceborn has lived for lifetimes, growing more cunning with each passing decade. . ." don't you mean, "With each passing decade, the Gharmheks have commanded Twiceborn to become more cunning.")

I probably shouldn't invest so much ire into such a small thing, but Twiceborn's kingdom really stood out to me as representative of Earthdawn's best quality - its habit of bringing humanistic nuance to its fantasy inventions. Twiceborn's kingdom was dangerous, to be sure. They'd absolutely turn you into an undead creature without your consent. But they weren't monsters. They generally wouldn't kill you unless you did something to provoke them. Hell, there's a whole 1st edition adventure that revolves around them interacting peacefully with the town of Haven and having a legal due process to handle a guy wagering his life (and eventual undead-ification) on a game of cards.

I wouldn't say that "The March of the Undead" chapter is entirely without merit, but it's jarring to move from a nuanced characterization to a much more conventional fantasy presentation. The chapter opens with Parlainth's Kingdom of the Cadaver Men peacefully migrating across Barsaive to settle in the ruins of Vivane, (for reasons that are never adequately explained) and along the way King Neden dispatches Throal's airship fleet to slaughter them, and this perked me up. "Oh, the cadaver men have been established as essentially a Name-Giver society, so this is setting up something poignant about the human capacity for cruelty." But then, Vivane's Horror Cloud moves in to stop the attack and the real theme seems to be "Horrors gotta stick together."

There's a really strong campaign in that chapter - the conflict between an undead kingdom that can peacefully coexist with the living and one that can't, and the difficulty the living have in knowing who (and how) to trust, but it's framed nonsensically. My first note, upon hearing about Twiceborn abandoning an established kingdom for a new and uncertain one all the way across Barsaive was, "maybe they don't need infrastructure." 

I think the way to make the scenario work is to kill off the Gharmheks. According the the Parlainth Box Set - they were either Twiceborn's subdued captives, obeying her orders under threat of death, or they were pretending to be under her thumb to fool the masses (because they feared being slain by would-be heroes) and had a mercenary relationship with the Queen. Either way, they were in a precarious position and bought their lives by being indispensable to the kingdom's reproductive processes. If they were to be slain, say by a group of 6-8 Adepts, then the demographic doom of Twiceborn's kingdom would be inevitable. It may not be immediate, but it would be a disaster great enough to warrant uprooting the entire nation and marching it hundreds of miles across hostile territory to start again from scratch. Then you still get the great undead civil war stuff, but the battle lines are between a faction that wants to use the Horrors as a tool for survival and one that wants to use them as a vehicle for revenge.

Anyway, that's one chapter down (and really, only like, two paragraphs of that chapter), so what about the other five? They're mostly okay. I prefer the ones that are more like campaign setups ("The Horror Stalker Crusade" and "To Strain Against the Shackles") to the ones that focus on specific events ("The Death of a Denairastas" and "There Must Be Chaos,") but they're all much better than previous metaplot books about leaving room for the PCs. The stories have canon endings, but there isn't the same emphasis on insuring the canon ending. As a GM, you can take your thumb off the scales and let them just play out. I think the book has largely stumbled on the formula - have the setting-defining stuff happen off-screen and then have the PCs adventure in the aftermath. They can still have a major effect (up to and including the life and death of major NPCs like King Neden of Throal), but there's much less danger of PCs missing out on the interesting stuff by being too effective (which I suspect is the main motive for all the most railroady GM advice in previous volumes).

Overall, I'd say this is a pretty decent book. Ironically, my favorite chapter was also the one I complained most about, but that may just be a personal pattern I should look into. It will probably require more work from the GM than previous Earthdawn adventures, but it makes up for it by giving GMs more scope to work with. 

Ukss Contribution: I really like the Dust Men. They're a form of undead obsidimen (semi-organic rock people) who died by pulverization. It's just a neat concept that this species with an unusual biology also has a unique enough way to die that they merit a special category of ghost. They also have a cool signature move where the animate pile of dust can cling to the exterior of a victim and move them around like a puppet. I may have to stretch a little to adapt the imagery (or perhaps just add obsidimen as a 2-for-1 deal), but I think they'd make a great encounter.


  1. While I won't object to you adding obsidimen, I think it's no great stretch to have some ghosts or spirits manifesting as clouds of dust and puppet-walking their victims, even without an obsidimen origin.


    1. I was thinking of the ashes of people who died by fire.