It’s Karol, back yet again to talk Earthdawn! I’m diving into the matter of higher-circle play again, but taking a look at more setting-based material. We previously explored the relationship between player and GM and how Earthdawn helps facilitate communication that helps GMs plan adventures around their characters. But the other critical component in this equation is, of course, the setting itself, and how those players fit into it.
As the community already knows well, Earthdawn’s world is rich with plot, and a key part of the game has been providing fleshed-out (but still accessible) hooks for adventuring groups to get involved with. Some of these hooks are highly localized, hinting at or setting up larger setting-wide themes for the characters to engage with. Others (such as the metaplot-advancing products like Prelude to War) function as a more direct window into these setting-wide matters, plunging adepts directly into world-shaking events.
We talked about the scope of the stories players find themselves in, but there are other ways to consider that scope: namely, the weight of player decisions on the setting. Barsaive and the lands beyond it are a complex web of politics, warfare, and secret societies. Looking at the whole it can be hard to square away a party-scale adventure (whether skirmishes or roleplay) with the major actors in these conflicts, and the sweeping events they bring about.
Politics and intrigue might present less of a challenge in making sure players feel the appropriate raising of stakes. After all, tense diplomatic discussions, backroom wheeling and dealing, or more delicate espionage can be tuned to the skill level and roleplay comfort of your table. That’s not to say these are simple matters. Devising intricate magical protections for the Thief adept attempting to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound is a challenge for the GM, as is coming up with complex negotiating terms for the various parties in the middle of a peace talk your table’s Illusionist happens to be mediating.
Combat presents a different kind of challenge for the GM. While having your players skirmish against tougher and tougher foes is all well and good, getting them involved in setting-wide conflicts will likely lead to some sort of larger-scale fight. Whether it’s repelling boarders on the Serpent River, exchanging broadsides in your airship over Prajjor’s Field, or leading a charge of ork scorchers in a battle over the fate of Cara Fahd, the challenge for the GM is balancing personal moments of glory against the sweeping changes of the larger fight.
That balance is something many systems struggle with. How do you handle the scope of time required in a massive ground battle, and weave in the (at this point, rather impressive) arsenal of talents individual adepts can bring to bear? How do you ensure talents that work on a skirmish scale can scale properly in such a setting?
As a GM, there are many ways to handle this narratively. You can have players fast forward, placed right in the middle of the action at a critical moment (having snuck up on the enemy commander, sneaking into the besieged castle at night, or leaping aboard the enemy riverboat at the head of a charge), and largely play out things as you would at lower levels of play. In situations such as this, that larger-scale action is relegated to a narrative. To help provide players some additional agency, their skirmish-level actions can have immediate (or downstream) consequences in the battle as they rush from encounter to encounter. In a case such as this one, the consequences of their actions play out in future phases and turn each encounter into a sort of branching path.
Take a large set-piece battle such as a naval engagement between airships. While the overall engagement can be handled narratively, consider pivotal moments you can focus on: helping with a sudden maneuver to bring the vessel into position (or stop it from falling into a trap), boarding the enemy airship (or being boarded, depending on previous moments), challenging the enemy captain, or even mitigating a powerful fire cannon barrage. All of these can be tight, player-focused scenes within the larger narrative of a battle, without having to adjudicate movement distances in a 3-D field or individual attack & damage rolls by ship-to-ship weapon.
This approach (focusing on mechanics at the skirmish level while treating larger-scale conflict more narratively) might suffice, but what do you do if your players really want the hands-on approach to the larger scale? Previous editions have provided some rules for large-scale combat scenarios, but there’s just as much homebrewing and house-ruling to try and make these components jive with Earthdawn’s Step System.
With this edition of Earthdawn, we want to make sure these options are provided to players in a coherent way, and have been working on a more comprehensive way to address these kinds of large-scale fights in a way that’s consistent with the core mechanic and still gives individual players time to shine. The latter concern is critical: players, after all, are the protagonists, and Earthdawn is about building their legends. With what we’ve got in the pipeline, we’re hoping we can address that balance in a way that stays within the spirit of the game and the Fourth World we’ve all come to know and love.