One of the more interesting, complex, and puzzling aspects of the Earthdawn game–whether from a GM or player standpoint–is the implementation of pattern magic. This is the mechanic by which Barsaive’s adepts unlock the power of ancient magical items, allowing them to perform legendary feats. In a way, this brings to mind tales from the past where a hero’s weapons are as important as the hero themselves.
One thing that many legendary items from the past share is a Name. Excalibur. Mjolnir. Sting. This carries over to Earthdawn in a fundamental way: for all thread items* the first thing a character must learn in order to unlock its power is the item’s Name.
* As with nearly all discussions of magic in Earthdawn there can be exceptions. We’re not going to address those here.
But what, exactly, is a Name? What does it really mean for a character to learn an item’s Name?
At its most basic, a thread item’s Name summarizes and encapsulates everything about that item. It is unique. No two thread items can share the same Name–even so-called common/basic “thread swords” each have their own, unique Name (and it’s not “thread sword”). They might not be particularly complex, but they each have their own.
Even if two items use the same word (or words) as their Name, there is context and subtext that defines which item you’re referring to at an unspoken, fundamental level. There’s a meaning behind (or inherent in) the Name that means you’re talking about this sword, and not that one. In one sense, a Name is but a crude linguistic approximation summing up everything about a particular True Pattern.
To be perfectly frank, I’m having trouble expressing the idea I’m trying to convey. I keep trying to come up with a metaphor or analogy comparing items to people–where even though you might know somebody called Dave, there’s so much more that defines a person, and so much unspoken baggage that we carry along and convey in our speech. It’s amazing, in a sense, how much significance goes along with language, and names in particular.
When a character talks about Nioku’s Bow, packaged up with that reference is a connection to a long and storied history. You might not know the whole tale–one of Earthdawn’s joys can be exploring and learning the history of a powerful item–but even without necessarily having that conscious knowledge, knowing it’s Nioku’s Bow gives it a certain weight.
There is only one Purifier. Even if you find another sword called “Purifier”–even if it’s another magical sword–it’s not… you know… Purifier.
I hope this bit of mystical philosophy has shed some light on this subject for you. If you have any questions about magical theory, or want to further the discussion, you can visit our forums, Discord channel, or poke us on social media. I like talking about this stuff–because I can claim I’m still working on Earthdawn stuff (even if it’s not the precise Earthdawn stuff I should be working on).
Until next time!