Tuesday, April 12, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Questors

I don't know about these unreliable narrators. Questors gives us more information than we've ever had about the titular questors and their patron spirits, The Passions, but in classic Earthdawn style, it expands the lore by having the new lore come out of the mouths of people who have reason (either conscious or unconscious), to misrepresent the lore.

I can see the upside of doing it this way - you're basically getting a 2-for-1, telling us about a new thing in your fantasy setting while also building up the surrounding culture by telling us what people think of the new thin in your fantasy setting. How do followers of the Mad Passion Vestrial justify themselves? Not well, as it turns out - "Without terrible crimes, there is no purpose to law."

But it kind of leads to more questions than answers. Vestriel wasn't always a Mad Passion, and the stories from the more benevolent time still exist in Barsaive's collective mythology. So what are they? How much of that old nature still exists inside the Passion? How is it that everyone seems to know that the former Passion of good-natured trickery has now become the Passion of cruel and hateful trickery (you'd think Vestriel's skill at trickery would help keep that under wraps)? What happens if someone who was raised in isolated kaer was inspired by the pre-Scourge stories and decides to become a questor of the good version of Vestriel? After reading this book, I'm as in the dark as I ever was.

Of course, the obvious rebuttal is that questions are a good thing to have, because each question is a potential adventure. And I guess I have to concede that that's 100% correct, but I'm still going to sigh heavily because it's unlikely that I'll get to play those adventures, and thus my questions must remain forever unanswered.

Some of them are kind of interesting, though. Like, it's obvious that the questor of Dis (Passion of Bureaucracy and Slavery) is making a fatuous argument when he says that Dis likes slavery because she wants to encourage a mental and spiritual numbness that will make most people invisible to the Horrors, but also . . . What was the trauma of the Scourge? So much of what we see from this period is about the Horrors corrupting people as an attack, but what about when people corrupt themselves as a defense?

We do already have the Blood Wood for that particular question, but there is a lot of room in the setting for different variations of apocalyptic trauma. I feel like a more objective viewpoint could have explored the subject in greater depth.

At times it seemed to me like the book was trying to create the impression of depth by flipping the script on most of the Passions. Thystonius isn't just the Passion of War, he represent all struggle. Why, sometimes just getting out bed is a struggle, and when it is, Thystonius is by your side (encouraging both you and your mortal enemy to never back down from a fight). 

When this worked, it worked pretty well. When it didn't, we got the Lochost chapter. I guess the theme was "excesses of the revolution," and yeah . . . You shouldn't torture people, even if they're slave traders, so what point, exactly, is the book trying to make when it tells us that a fanatic who tortures people has gained the favor of the Passion of liberation? Oh, that abolitionist god whose followers have hitherto been shown as heroically risking their lives to oppose the slave-taking Theran empire . . . what if he had a dark side?

It's all very 1990s interesting, and I can see how you're trying to shine more light on the inhuman nature of these entities (an approach that worked well when it was revealed that the Passion of joy literally cannot understand the existence of sadness), but I guess recent years have shaken me, because this is a story I have little interest in trying to tell.

Overall, though, this is a good lore book. I'm not sure I agree with the Game Information chapter when it says "Passion worship is not really a religion," because aside from there being "no sacred texts" literally every other aspect of this activity is described in religious terms. "I'm going to stop for the night in this roadside shrine and ask for a blessing while the guy who performs miracles for the faithful tells me a traditional story with a moral lesson, but no, I don't have a religion." Maybe it's just unconscious Christian bias. A cluster of deeply ingrained cultural practices that revolve around superhuman entities that take a personal interest in the human condition isn't a religion because nobody compiled those practices into a book.

Eh, that sounded saltier than I intended. I think there's definitely room to explore the difference between secular culture and religion, in a world where the gods verifiably exist and are not always conveniently well-behaved . . . or at least there would be if so much of the book wasn't given over to unreliable narrators.

Ukss Contribution: Not all of this book was deliberately perverse. There's at least one part of the book that is incredibly on the nose. Take the story of the Keeper of the First Seed. I am going to do a 100% not sarcastic paraphrase.

Jaspree, the passion of nature had this valuable thing called the First Seed, that had something to do with protecting nature. He wanted someone to watch over it, so he looked around for a guy who was already protecting nature and asked him, "do you want to watch this thing for me, it protects nature?" And the guy was like, "yes." And so Jaspree gave him the thing and it worked out perfectly. That is the story of the first ever questor.

I had to reread the story to make sure there wasn't some hidden irony or riddle or spiritual lesson, and nope, it was just an incredibly amicable job interview. The reason it's in this section is the follow-up, when the guy was ready to die. He handed off his First-Seed-watching duties to an absolute novice, on the theory that the inexperienced questor was like a seed, and would grow into the role, given time.

I like that. I don't feel like the allegory was entirely earned by the story leading up to that point, but it's an interesting religious practice. Give an extremely important and prestigious lifetime appointment to a complete newbie as an act of faith. No reasonable person could possibly think that's a good idea, but with the god's blessing, it's always worked out so far.

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