Tuesday, March 8, 2022

(Earthdawn 2e) The Book of Dragons

 I was not disappointed with this book. It sounds like a noncommittal, milquetoast thing to say, but it's actually high praise. My expectations were through the roof.

So why not just directly compliment the book? Why not just say it was fascinating or satisfying or excellent or something like that? Why waste time being so backhanded? It's because my expectations were not merely high, they were also of a particular type, and I was not disappointed.

So let's talk about my expectations. What it comes down to is the "metaplot-heavy" theory of game design, where each book doles out information with the promise of future payoffs, and it can be super fun to follow along, but a new book always requires a new emotional investment, and is also a wager that the line won't go defunct before the payoff arrives.

The Book of Dragons has a damned good payoff ratio, so much so that it might even compromise its utility as an rpg book.

The best part of this 125 page book is the 55 page middle chapter where it discusses the personalities, powers, and agendas of a dozen different dragons . . . and fuck you if you ever want to fight one. Don't get me wrong, you can oppose their schemes. You may even survive their wrath. But a spellcasting step number of 37 is "fuck you" territory and physical defense scores of 25 aren't much better. Remember, the theory here is that an action's step number is the average result it rolls on the die. For adepts (PCs) with relentlessly optimized attributes, operating at max level, the maximum step is 24 (before factoring in magic and equipment bonuses, so it's possible that there might be some really effective build that makes this more reasonable). You could justify these stats as an endgame, high epic-tier fight, like the god stats from OD&D - something to challenge your party of 7 circle-15 characters, and that's definitely a valid niche, but it's also only going to come up in 1% of games, tops. What The Book of Dragons is really good for is hot gossip.

Oh, I suppose you can write an entire campaign around the gossip. What's Mountainshadow interested in? How are his agents involved in this scheme or that? What are his enemies willing to do to stop him? Player characters are often mercenaries who travel to distant and dangerous places on the promise of payment, and here are a dozen major characters, each of which has a literal ton of cash, so there's plenty of useful stuff here, even if the titular dragons are basically just plot devices.

However, that's not why I was looking forward to this book. It's also largely not what I enjoyed about this book. What I wanted was secrets.

The Book of Dragons is very good about making you feel like you're reading something you're not supposed to be reading. The first couple of chapters are narrated by Vasdenjas, the blabbermouth dragon from Creatures of Barsaive, and it's bracketed by commentary from Mountainshadow about how it's unprecedented in its forthrightness and potentially telling us things the dragons would rather we didn't know. And then, the big chapter comes and it's framed as a briefing to the Denairastas about the strengths and weaknesses of Barsaive's dragons, and Mountainshadow's comments switch to admonitions that some of the material might be deliberate lies, council to be patient and consider carefully how to act on the information, and the occasional dark speculation about things the text only hits at. Plus it's all narrated by an outcast Great Dragon, who prior to the Scourge mated with a human and founded the whole Denairastas family. 

Whoa! A major shakeup to the status-quo, and something that's definitely going to have serious repercussions down the line . . . or would, if this weren't the last book FASA ever produced and the second-to-last book LRG ever published. I'm not sure which of the two companies this canon came from (my copy of the book is "Revised and Expanded" and mentions events from Barsaive in Chaos), and I'm not sure whether it's going to survive into 3rd and 4th edition, but while it's here, I'm shaken. You could argue that it weakens the Denairastas as villains to make them the products of a hidden draconic mastermind, but I like the implied dynamic in the Outcast's narration. He seems to have a lot of faith in his descendants, and it's strange how wholesome it can feel, even though the Outcast is 100% sleazy and manipulative. I'd call this vibe "proud grandpa lich." ("yes, my pretties, you're twisting mortal frailty to your own dark designs, just like Pop-pop, very good job.")

Oh, and speaking of juicy secrets, we now have virtually bulletproof confirmation about what's up with Earthdawn's wyverns. To refresh your memory, every time they've come up prior to this, some dragon or another was always, "Hell no, they aren't related to us. You're letting a superficial similarity mislead you. And I'll kill you if you ever do it again." You know, just being really weird about it, to a suspicious degree.

Well, the Outcast casually spills the beans on the mystery:

The Liaj jungle is known to be the home to many wyverns, the first progeny of Usun since the Scourge to near maturity. Life in the jungle forces the wyverns to be tough, strong and cunning in order to survive. The dragons who Emerge to Name themselves will be warriors and hunters like their guardian.

Mountainshadow objects, but only to the implication later in the paragraph that the new dragons will be unquestioningly loyal to their mentor. Since Mountainshadow's notes are ostensibly meant for his fellow dragons, if this were misleading info about the dragon life cycle, he would not have felt the need to emphasize the independent streak of dragonkind.

This is the good stuff, the reason I can read 38 Earthdawn books over approximately a year and still get excited about this one. Because the mystery is solved, but now there's a whole new avenue of speculation - why are the dragons always so weird about this. As a strategy for keeping dragon-hunters from targeting their young, it honestly seems like a wash. Some people might kill more wyverns, knowing they are immature dragons, but others might take pains not to kill them, for the exact same reason. Possibly, there are those who would seek to systematically destroy all dragons, who might overlook wyverns as being merely dragon-like, but honestly that always struck me as a weak bluff. "Oh, these creatures that look exactly like adolescent dragons who adult dragons are constantly being cagey about and have no observed reproductive cycle? They can safely be ignored."

Ooh, so . . . much. . .canon. You get in the habit of reading rpg books like they're fiction, and then one comes along that's almost pure fiction and it feels really good. While I'm still riding this high, let's talk about Shadowrun.

That's the other big source of anticipation for this book. At least for awhile (it's no longer current and I'm not sure whether it was the same c. 2004, when my copy of the book was printed), Earthdawn and Shadowrun shared a universe. The connections were never deep, but you would occasionally get immortal characters making cryptic comments about a previous age of magic, and chief among these cryptic immortals are the dragons. The Book of Dragons knows what it's about, and if you want to play the game where you speculate about who in this book survives until the 2060s, you can. 

Mountain Shadow is probably Dunkelzahn, and if so, it's kind of fascinating to get this extra characterization. Dunkelzahn had a public image of being very meta-human friendly, to the degree that he sought and won election to the presidency of the United Canadian and American States. Mountain Shadow is unique in the degree to which he uses Name-Givers as pawns, and operates out of the shadows, always playing the long game, even if he seems generally benevolent. He's also the son of a renowned first-generation dragon and the closest thing these notably individualist creatures have to a scion of royalty.

And once we start pulling that thread, we can then conclude that Ghostwalker, dragon tyrant of Denver, is actually Icewing, Mountainshadow's younger brother and second-most prestigious of Barsaive's dragons. It's not a bulletproof connection, because Ghostwalker is "ivory with blue highlights" (I went back to Dragons of the Sixth World to check) and Icewing is "silvery-blue," but 8000 years is a long time. Maybe dragons can go grey, especially if they're nethermancers (as both Ghostwalker and Icewing are). I like to think it's true, because it amuses me to think of Ghostwalker emerging from that astral rift a couple of decades late and discovering that his older brother has once again risen the bar unattainably high and he'll always be known as "the brother of that dragon who became president."

I could go on with this speculation (no, seriously, I could), but I trust I've made my point. The Book of Dragons was like catnip to a nerd like me, and I fell completely under its spell.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of cool dragons here, but I'm going to go with the Outcast, who founded a clan of sorcerer-princes. I don't care much for royalty, but I do like it when royal families trace their lineage back to some improbable mythological figure. "We deserve to rule this land because 1000 years ago our great-great-great-etc grandmother made it with a dragon." It doesn't make a damned bit of sense, but it's tough to argue with.

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