Hello, everyone! It’s your friendly neighborhood Karol back again, head full of ideas after the whirlwind that was GenCon. With our team scattered across the United States, it’s always a great opportunity to reunite with colleagues, realign our ideas for the future, and replenish our inspiration by trading all the cool new things we’ve experienced, all at the best four days in gaming. With the benefit of a couple of weeks of processing time, I can confidently say that inspiration has turned into a new crop of cool ideas, and I’m even more excited to see what our team’s got in the works.
My time at GenCon has traditionally allowed for in-depth talks about game design (from one-offs to whole campaigns), and this con was no exception. This year in particular, I had some very interesting discussions with FASA staff and Earthdawn fans alike. One theme that came up more than once for me during the convention was high-Circle play. With our team nearing the halfway point for the current season of Legends of Barsaive, some very good questions came up about campaigns that get to higher circles. These concerns are certainly valid for any game, but I’d like to tackle some thoughts that pertain specifically to Barsaive and the Earthdawn world in general.
How do we craft compelling adventures for characters who reach higher Circles? And how do we do so in narratives that go beyond hunting bigger and badder monsters? It’s a fine story structure but sometimes players and GMs want to do more–and with Earthdawn, as you advance in circle the opportunities for a variety of experiences grow quickly.
At lower circles, the narrative scope of the game world can be a pretty tightly focused one. It’s partly a function of a character’s power level; throwing fresh First Circle adepts into a battle against a Horror is rarely going to go well. But it’s also a matter of giving the players at your table more focused, digestible challenges to help those characters develop. A player will remember a difficult, meaningful decision made under pressure just as surely as a set-piece battle against a challenging foe. And those decisions help shape who they are, creating more investment in the character and the plot. Big moments can come from something as simple as dropping a detail about an enemy, humanizing them in an unexpected way.
As they make their way through this tightly-focused world filled with hooks and clues, players also show their own preferences, providing instant feedback to the GM on what a player wants to see. This signals plenty of plot follow-up, even early in a character’s career. Thread items are an excellent example: not just as magic items, but as plot drivers for the characters. Paths and Questor ranks can signal play styles or themes a player would like to explore as well. Just by asking about advancement in those, an Earthdawn player can signal quite a bit to their GM.
With those seeds sown, charting a course for Journeyman adepts (and beyond) opens up a lot of options. Higher-Circle play becomes more than just throwing bigger challenges at your characters, a key aspect becomes engaging with who they’ve become and where they fit into the game world. Earthdawn’s world is a rich one, after all, and by the time your characters have reached the Fifth Circle, they should have relationships with all manner of factions and settlements across Barsaive, and plenty of hooks leading into deeper mysteries.
The list of options can seem daunting, but there’s an easy way to narrow them down: your players themselves. In a very real way, the act of spending Legend Points is a vote or a plan for the plot development a player would like to see. It’s also a good ice breaker for these kinds of conversations around the table, and the game encourages those talks. Earthdawn is mechanically robust, but narrative significance is also baked into those mechanics, from the work required to advance in one’s Discipline with a mentor, to the very name of the currency of advancement in the game.
After all, the heroes of Earthdawn don’t simply gain experience–they build legends.