Monday, May 30, 2022

(Earthdawn 4e) Iopos: Lair of Deceit

 It's the lunar garbage crisis all over again. I noticed something about a fantasy world that wasn't being discussed in the text, and now all I can do is fixate over it. Earthdawn keeps showing me human families that still retain cohesion after 20 generations, and I'm like, "how are these identities being maintained."

It's not necessarily a huge inconsistency. After all, the Hapsburgs are still around. But, well, they were notoriously inbred. Compare to clan Fraser in Scotland, where it spread so far and wide that even my own half-assed spelling ("Frazer") is shared by thousands of people I'm never going to meet. Tens of thousands of people still have a name from 700 years ago, but it's still just one guy who owns the ancestral land.

What's getting me hung up is the whole thing with their kaers. A big reason I don't get a chunk of the clan Fraser inheritance is because of the Scottish diaspora. I'm on a whole other continent than the other branches of the family, so reasonably speaking, it's fair to treat "Fraser" and "Frazer" as two separate entities. It would feel weird, but there's no scientific reason I couldn't date a Fraser (although even as I say that . . . ew).

So, what's it like when you don't have the diaspora, or the population growth? When all of your ancestors come from the same city, and there are actually more of them 500 years ago than there are today? Iopos has several clans, and membership does seem to grant social and economic benefits (only official clan members are allowed to practice polygamy, for example), so how did they stop themselves from all merging into one super-clan, along with the rest of the city?

Inheritance laws might play into it. It may be a mathematical certainty that you can trace your ancestry back to the pre-Scourge clans to exactly the same degree as any other person in Iopos, but if you didn't inherit the name, you don't count. It's a puzzle, though, because some of the clans practice matrilinear inheritance (also allowing polyandry) and some practice patrilinear inheritance (plus polygyny) and I guess that could be a gap that people could fall through - a man from a matrilinear clan marries a woman from a patrilinear clan and thus the children inherit no clan identity - but it also gives family lines two bites at the apple for acquiring a clan (even before figuring in the practice of polygamy). 

Then there's the practice of child abandonment. Every year, the city throws a festival called "The Selection" where they make children undergo this absolutely brutal multi-stage obstacle course, that, among its various dangers, runs the risk of kids being thrown off the city walls (each Selection "has a number of deaths"). Children who perform well are "stolen" by the Denairastas clan and drafted into public service. Children who perform poorly are often disowned. It's unclear exactly how frequently that happens, but there are enough abandoned children that they form a long-lasting gang called The Forsaken. 

So there are ways to lose an identity. It's not unbelievable that clan membership would shrink, if there are strict inheritance requirements and high attrition (it's said that the clans were largely responsible for defending against the Horrors, until the Denairastas grew powerful enough to openly rule and retroactively steal their valor). I'm still intensely curious about their exogamy customs.

Though, I must admit, it's a ridiculous way to read an rpg book ("I want meticulous details about post-apocalyptic fantasy probate law, damnit!"). It would be even more ridiculous if Iopos: Lair of Deceit didn't invite the question.

There are two rival groups engaged in high-stakes genealogical research - the Bloodline, created by Uhl Denairastas himself to round up loose scions and bring them to the flesh forges (it's as gross as it sounds) for magical experimentation - and the Begotten, who want to stop them from doing that.

Ironically, this lineage-focused plot actually sidesteps my nitpicking, thanks to the fact that the Denairastas have so much magical nonsense surrounding them that it's impossible to say how many of them there should be. Yes, every human in Iopos is descended from all the humans that initially entered the kaer, but the Denairastas as dragon-kin with unnaturally long lifespans, so the beginning of the Scourge was in the time of Uhl Denirastas' grandfather. On the other hand, they potentially reproduce a lot faster than humans (Uhl had 12 siblings), but many of them (including Uhl) are infertile. Then again there was a dedicated breeding program to increase their numbers, but its records were sloppy enough that lost scions who demonstrate the family's characteristic mutation are still undiscovered. All you can really say is that the Denairastas population ran out of control in that historical sweet spot where it's long enough ago that genealogical records are unclear, but not so long ago that one of them is a common ancestor for all living Iopans.

This has been a fairly pointless diversion, but I think it's illuminated something for me - I wish I knew less about what Barsaive was like before the Scourge. Sometimes, this knowledge is useful, when we're talking about Thera or dragons or, to a lesser extent, long-lived people like the Denairastas and the elves, but most of what I've learned has brought me grief. Earthdawn's campaign pitch relies on the idea that the Horrors broke history, and this slow piecing together of the continuity is distracting me from the setting's strengths.

But enough of this destructive thread-pulling, what about the book as a whole? I think Iopos is a well-drawn culture. We learn about multiple facets of their lives - religion, family life, architecture, recreation - so they don't seem as one-dimensional as some locations that get a high concept and nothing else. However, there is a certain sameyness to Iopos' multiple dimension, because almost everything we learn about them is grim and pessimistic.

They have a festival where kids get the absolute shit beaten out of them and which ends in families being torn apart. But also, they are such a thoroughly brainwashed authoritarian surveillance state that almost everyone is a snitch, often against their own friends and family. But also, crime is punished with extreme severity - refusing to swear the loyalty oath is punishable by death and more typical crimes carry a penalty of slavery or mutilation. But also, the people enjoy betting on pit fighting, with certain illegal arenas hosting fights to the death. But also, the ruling family is constantly backstabbing each other. But also, their leader is performing secret and involuntary transhuman experiments to create weaponised monsters to help conquer Barsaive.

Geez, take a step back and tell me their favorite dessert, at least.

Still, it's a fun book. If you need a villain city, where even walking down the streets puts you in peril and the best the PCs can do is join a resistance group which may have had to make its own share of compromises, then Iopos: Lair of Deceit works well. Its great to expand the lore beyond the places detailed in 1st edition, and there are a lot of moving parts for players and GMs to interact with. It's a little less nuanced than I'm used to seeing in an Earthdawn book, but at least it doesn't repeat Skypoint and Vivane's mistake and read like apologetics for the characters' villainous actions. Overall, a worthy edition to the series.

Ukss Contribution: There's a plot in this book where a mine collapsed during the Scourge and the Denairastas blamed an unknown Horror, but really it was just ordinary industrial negligence and the Horror was just a cover story. But then, Raggok, Passion of revenge, came along and animated the miners as cadaver men, so they could eventually strike back. I really like the idea of proletarian undead waging class warfare on the living.

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