When you ask a fan about what draws them to Barsaive again and again, many will talk about the magical patterns that swirled around their group and the epic battles where they tipped the scales. I’ve always felt the best Earthdawn products across all editions had a unique feel and explored themes in a way that no other product line really did for me. And now that I have the unique pleasure of expanding on the world I love, I have often asked myself, “What makes Earthdawn… Earthdawn?”
There is no easy answer that is also complete. I don’t think this subject can be easily summed up in a single blog post. However, if we rip directly from the back of the Player’s or Gamemaster’s Guides we get an interesting summation:
“An age of magic once existed in our world. Lost to history, this time is remembered in the echoes of myth and legend. Humans lived alongside the other Namegiver races. Dwarf and elf, troll and ork, windling, t’skrang, and obsidiman. The wild places of the world were home to griffins, shadowmants, and other fantastic beasts.
The land was once besieged by the Horrors, foul creatures from the depths of astral space that sought to feed upon and destroy all that was living and good. Their time, the time of the Scourge, has passed and the people have returned to the surface, reclaiming the lands that were once their home.
Brave heroes band together to explore the land of Barsaive, fighting the Horrors that remain and protecting their homes and families from those that would enslave them.”
The first paragraph talks about how Earthdawn’s world is our world, but only in its barest echoes. The 4th World isn’t the Dark Ages or the classical era; it is something much older. Its people have the same thoughts and motivations as ours, but their situations are unlike things we might ever know. Our ancient myths and legends bear a passing resemblance to the world in which these characters live, and perhaps our clichés are an explainable fact of their world.
The second paragraph brings the Horrors into the equation. Cosmic and unknowable entities with motivations entirely alien to us. It was these creatures that destroyed the world and shattered the order to which so many Namegivers had become accustomed. These magical alien entities are in direct opposition to the more understandable and relatable motivations of the common Namegiver. In a way they evoke the power of Cthulhu and the Old Ones. Yet, where most stories featuring cosmic horror depict an ever-looming dread, these Horrors have already shot their shot. Their power wanes–though the world has suffered greatly at their hands (and they are not quite done yet).
The third paragraph discusses that this is a world of brave heroes. It is a time to fight for your beliefs and rediscover the world that has long been lost. These heroes commit acts that were never possible before and have the unique ability to chart a course for civilization that may have never been considered in times past. They embark on grand adventures of high magic and the insurmountable foes that they face challenge not only the player characters themselves, but their entire world.
At its core, Earthdawn is a world that pits larger-than-life adventurers against equally insurmountable foes. Adepts quickly outstrip the power of the common man and so too does the scope of their problems. These adepts run into villainous members of their kind, working toward understandable, if terrible, goals. They might pursue greed, power, control, or anything that you could see in our daily life. Yet, lingering in the shadows beyond all of it, are the horrors who seek to destroy it all simply because they can.
All three of these themes are on full display in our Legends of Barsaive campaign. In Masks of Fear (included in the Character Creation Packet), the players are just beginning their travels. It is the senior adepts that are expected to accomplish grandiose feats, but when they go missing the players are thrust into their own role as heroes. They encounter cultists who lust for power out in the wilds, seeking to control the region and raid passing caravans. But these cultists use mysterious masks and pursue goals that only reach them in their dreams. They mean to summon the Betrayer, and that Horror wishes nothing beyond destruction and heartache.
There is so much more to the 4th World, especially to the province of Barsaive, that must be considered when trying to create something with that proper Earthdawn “feel”. But I think these three points form a good basis for any product: what understandable villain stands in the way, what alien evil stands to benefit, and how our heroes can save the day.
About the Blogger:
Kyle Pritchard is a second-generation tabletop gamer who has been slinging dice since before he was crawling. He’s been working with FASA Games since 2014 and has been a member of Earthdawn Team since 2018.