Saturday, April 30, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e)Elven Nations

 So, Elven Nations took me 11 days to read. Now, about 75 percent of this delay can be blamed on Warframe. I recently got sucked back into it, and O . . . M . . . G, so much grind. And I mean that as a good thing (believe it or not, but I, the man who is systematically reading a giant list of books, meticulously assembled over the span of decades, am fairly susceptible to grind-based gameplay loops).

However, despite spending close to 90 (! - I shouldn't have looked it up!) hours in the past two weeks playing a video game, I do think a full 25% of the blame for me dragging my feet can be attributed to the fact that the first half of this book is more or less a reprint of 1st edition's Blood Wood. I went back and checked. The organization is different. Some sections got trimmed down while others were expanded. But substantial portions of the text were identical.

I don't really have a problem with this, in the abstract. What am I going to do, yell at the youngsters, "hey, if you want to know about the Blood Wood in your fancy, modern edition of Earthdawn, you should do what I did and find a copy of a book that's been out of print for 25 years." No, a new era requires a new supplement, fair enough. And if 4th edition has been so conservative with the existing lore that the old sourcebook can be used with few changes, then that's no great fault either.

However, it did make the question of whether I wanted to work on the blog or play more Warframe a bit more fraught than it otherwise might have been. Seriously, nine of the past eleven days were spent "reading" the first half of this book and then I read the second half in two days (while still playing an admittedly unhealthy amount of Warframe). Is it really too much to ask that every rpg supplement be written to satisfy my jaded craving for endless amounts of novelty? Apparently.

Okay, okay, enough about me. What about the book? I do think that the Blood Wood section benefits from being shorter. I didn't do a page-by-page comparison or anything, but it feels like less of a fortress now. Still isolationist. Still dangerous. But I suspect that a lot of the cut material was the stuff that made it feel impenetrable to outsiders. Plus, the adventurer-friendly section about the Heart of the Forest (the group who wants to cure the Blood Wood of its whole . . . situation) had been expanded. It's overall a better introduction to the area than the 1st edition supplement.

And then we get the expanded lore. Two new locations that were merely mentioned in the old books - the Western Kingdoms and Shoshara. They are well-drawn locations, with some great personalities, intriguing occult mysteries, and a fascinating political dynamic where they try to navigate the fallout from the growing schism in the elvish religion. However, they also suffer from the downside of Earthdawn's humanistic worldbuilding - the new societies feel a lot like humans. I mean, they're bickering about a culturally and religiously significant tree and forming factions based both on theology and on economic and political considerations, where it's hard to say which priority undermines the other, and it's all very mature and thoughtful, but also nothing that you couldn't do with a nature-based religion in an all-human setting.

Which brings us to the sticky question of . . .elves? Why are they? This is actually something Earthdawn has struggled with. It inherits from Shadowrun the idea that dwarfs and elves and trolls, et al, are simply humans who have transformed into fantasy creatures due to a high background magic level, and as a result its go-to move has been to give their demihumans the full range of human motivations and foibles. It's resulted in some electric worldbuilding, but, well, Earthdawn is not Shadowrun, and lacunae that are playful or mysterious in a futuristic cyberpunk setting can feel like simple gaps in a traditional fantasy world.

Like, in the year 2065, it's not surprising when a dwarf doesn't act like a Dwarf. In fact, you'd probably get punched in the mouth for even mentioning it. That's because they're humans who have been transformed. That's the history of their people. Likewise, when the elves start acting like Elves, that's weird. There's probably a mystery there. Where are they getting all this from? Who said Elves were a thing?

However, in 8000 BCE, these are not questions that are going to come up. Nobody even remembers the time when the metahumans were just humans. There is such a thing as "Elf culture" and people take for granted that this makes sense. But in Earthdawn, the words "elf" and "dwarf" are doing a lot of heavy lifting. The books never actually establish that it means something to be an elf or a dwarf (even 1e's Denizens of Earthdawn really just described things in terms of Throalic or Wyrm Wood cultures, rather than some truly non-human mentality), but instead rely on 20 years of vanilla fantasy baggage to set people's expectations. Dwarves live underground and elves live in the woods, and there's no need to question it.

Except, Elven Nations describes a new society of seafaring elves and now the questions we didn't ask start to come back to bite us in the ass. What is it about seafaring that alienates the Shosharans from the community of elvishness? What is it about being an elf that sets Shoshara apart from the nearby human seafarers of Khistova?

The book struggles to find an answer and to the extent that there is one at all, it seems to be "racism." As in, the thing that ties elves together is that they are racist against non-elves. The reason Shoshara was Separated by decree of the Queen in Wyrm Wood is because they weren't quite racist enough. They actually learned something (the art of building seaworthy ships) from non-elves, and it is completely unacceptable to even admit that non-elves might have something to teach.

It might work if you cast that as flaw of the Wyrm Wood culture. Some elf once found a magic tree and built a whole society around it and authentic elvish living came to mean "rigorous imitation of the lifestyle of those closest to the tree." But . . . is Barsaive meant to be the center of the universe? Wyrm Wood culture should start at the Oak Heart and then spread out from there, which means that it must have been constantly coming into contact with elves who were not part of it, outsiders who had their own ways and who had to be converted to the Elf Queen's service. And if we're talking about outsiders changing their ways, then there's no intrinsic reason why only elves can follow the ways of the Wood, so the fact that Wyrm Wood was the spiritual heart of the elvish people is actually a deliberate artifact. They recruited only elves in order to build an Elvish Identity and that's why racism is so baked into everything they do.

I'm pretty sure this was unintentional, though. You don't just put something so fucked up into your setting and then treat it as another background element. If "the purity of the elvish culture" were meant to be a dogwhistle, then we'd probably see more dogs. There is an element of this in Shoshara, where non-elves are starting to agitate for greater political rights, and that kind of looks like the book playing to a theme, but then you're forced to consider that the Western Kingdoms and Blood Wood "avoid" this issue by refusing to allow non-elves to even live inside their territory, and Shoshara starts to look unironically progressive even as it has a race-based political hierarchy.

What I think is going on is an accidental equivocation between "racist" and "fae." Elves are associated by a feeling of apartness, and that winds up defining them even in settings where that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's because the mythological antecedents of the elves, the Fair Folk and the Alfar, were these divine beings who only intermittently dealt with our world. Even Tolkien's elves are immortals who are only temporarily (by their own long-lived standards) visiting the mortal world and who, as of the events of The Lord of the Rings are starting to retreat back to their mystical homeland. So, for a mythic elf, apartness isn't a choice. Their home, their natural state of existence, is in a world where humans can't go, and thus for them to actually connect with a human, or admire the things of the human world, is to set up a tragedy. It is a kindness for them to act aloof, or, at least, it's understandable, because it represents an attempt to safely navigate an inherently dangerous relationship.

But if elves aren't otherworldly immortals, but rather just regular people with pointy ears, then the protective aloofness just makes them look like total jerks. The Blood Wood is an interesting twist, because it is sort of fae. It started out as an ordinary place inhabited by ordinary people, but through blood magic, it became otherworldly, and the people adapted to that would have trouble existing anywhere else. You've got this imagery of a rose with its thorns, beauty undergirded by danger, a whole society that is goth by birth and not by choice, and it makes sense for these people to be aloof. They may not be divine spirits in human form, but they have their own experiences that could justifiably be described as "inhuman." Their world is not ours (this is probably why the Blood Wood was so impenetrable in 1st edition, too).

Yet, Earthdawn's elves didn't start out that way. The elves of the Western Kingdoms act like they did. And the Shosharans are half-heartedly recovering from that viewpoint. But it was never earned, just like it was unearned when the Wyrm Wood started the tradition. And I'm not entirely sure what to do with that.

Ultimately, I guess I'd want to see one of two things happen - either elves become a lot stranger, enough to justify an entirely different mode of existence (perhaps, by finally putting the mystery of the "Great Elves" to bed and just making the entire species potentially immortal), or by showing us a second autochthonous elf culture, one with no ties to Barsavie or Wyrm Wood, which could then show us what elves might look like when they are being normal. Yes, the three Barsaive-centered elf cultures all revolve around different reactions to the collapse of their old religion of acting exactly like the Queen of Wyrm Wood and avoiding "cultural contamination" from all those filthy non-elves, but that's a specific dysfunction of a particular cultural tradition, and not something that is intrinsic to being an elf.

My final verdict of the book is thus - it gives us some neat locations and cultures, with enough details to significantly aid the GM's prep work, but it needs to be more precise with the use of its tropes. I especially found the beastmen attacking Shoshara's prospecting camps to be borderline Not Okay.  "Savage attacks" by creatures with "almost-Namegiver-level intelligence," seriously? If they can build a ship (and they can), they can have a culture. And if they have a culture, they have motives worth knowing. I get why it's there, but like "elves are otherworldly" being used despite the fact that Earthdawn elves are mutated humans, this "the borderlands of our fantasy realm are under assault by creatures who have no ability to negotiate" is something that was inherited and then not subject to enough scrutiny.

Overall, a decent enough book, but it could benefit from a new round of development.

Ukss Contribution: The Amethyst Spire. I just think it sounds pretty.

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