I’ve been playing (and gamemastering — mainly gamemastering) Earthdawn for about as long as it has been around. I have introduced a lot of players to the game, both at my regular campaign table, as well as demos at various conventions and game days.
The fourth edition has brought many new players into the fold. This is fantastic. A game ultimately lives or dies with its player base. As line developer, I’m a public face and point of contact for those new players who have questions. I’m realizing that, in one sense, the core books don’t do the best job of introducing the game.
With that in mind, I’m going to offer suggestions and advice geared towards those venturing into Earthdawn for the first time. Veterans may find some useful information in here as well (especially with regard to introducing new players), but this is mainly intended for novices.
First, a blanket piece of advice that applies to any gaming, not just Earthdawn. Communicate with your group. Discuss what you want, set appropriate expectations, and keep the lines of communication open. If there are problems, step back from the game and work it out.
If the entire group is new to Earthdawn (or the majority of the group is), it might be hard to nail down particulars in this “zeroth session.” The lands of Barsaive are rich, and there’s a lot of material out there to absorb. That’s fine. Don’t feel like you need to understand everything right out of the gate.
Start small, then expand.
There’s a reason the “sealed kaer” scenario is often recommended as a way to ease into the game. It gives you a small sandbox to start from. You don’t need to absorb the entire history of Barsaive, just understand the broad, important parts. The discovery of the Horrors, the construction of the kaers, and the Scourge.
With a sealed kaer, you only need to come up with a large village or small town. You can spend some time exploring that environment, give the players (and their characters) a chance to get their feet under them. Once the group is comfortable, then you can open the gates and get the involved in regional affairs. The opening of a new kaer will shift the balance of power in any area, and player character adepts can be the representatives of their community.
But a sealed kaer isn’t the only option. Any smallish community can serve, off the beaten path or in an isolated portion of the map. Don’t be afraid to borrow adventures and story ideas from other fantasy games. Some setting assumptions are unique to Earthdawn, but can be adapted without too much difficulty. (If you’ve been following the Legends of Earthdawn podcast, the “prologue” story arc is based on an old Dungeons & Dragons adventure.)
Don’t stress. There’s a lot of stuff in the books, and it can be hard to keep track of it all. This is another reason to start small, and establish good communication and expectations at the beginning. Don’t include things you don’t want to handle, and don’t feel that you need to memorize or understand everything, either mechanically or in the setting.
You are allowed to make mistakes. The basic mechanics for Earthdawn are fairly simple: you roll a step against a difficulty number, and adjudicate the results based on the result. Everything else is details. Details are important, but don’t let the game stall because you don’t have the answer right to hand. Make a call and move on.
Quick sidebar here for Earthdawn veterans: If you’re playing, offer your experience and expertise, but don’t be a jerk. Support your GM — and other players — but don’t use your knowledge of the rules or setting as a bludgeon to get your way or dominate the game.
Don’t worry about canon. Yes, it can be fun to dive into Earthdawn’s lore and setting. There are lots of fascinating people, places, and things. But you don’t need to include them all. And you can change things to suit the needs of your story. Of course, if you start small, it can be easier to incorporate existing material into your game without needing major modifications.
Another sidebar: I based one of my first Earthdawn games out of a town called Riverfork. I placed it at the confluence of the Serpent and Caucavic rivers northeast of Throal. The original map showed a valley between the Throal and Caucavic mountains that looked like a good place to base my game.
Later, the Serpent River book came out, and revealed the Cliff City of House Syrtis was located just downriver, in a massive canyon. So… that kind of changed things.
I think it’s important to give your group some early victories. Balancing encounters in Earthdawn can be tricky, especially when you’re dealing with wet-behind-the-ears novices. Err on the side of making it easy on the group, until you develop a sense of what they can handle. Make them feel like heroes.
And then, when they’re comfortable, pull the rug out.
(I’m only mostly joking. This depends on the expectations and lines of communication that have been established at your table.)
Give your players a chance to tweak, adjust, or rebuild their characters (especially early on). If they’re new, they are apt to be just as overwhelmed with options, and may find that something isn’t working out quite like they expected. Forcing a player to use a character they’re not enjoying (for whatever reason) is a good way to turn them off the game. We’d like to avoid that.
Finally, it’s supposed to be fun. Yes, there can be danger, fear, stress, and darkness, but that should apply to the characters, not the players (or the GM). Set the tone and approach that makes you comfortable, and use the tools provided in the books to make it happen.
I hope this article has been helpful. Do you have any ideas or advice for groups jumping into Eathdawn for the first time? Share them on our forums, or expand the discussion to other social media.