Those of you that are long-term readers of the blog will realize that I am a massive fan of the Earthdawn game. I have been a GM of the game since first edition and viewed every form of the rules from FASA to Living Room Games, to Red Brick and now to new FASA? I even put out a short VLOG of me opening the box that contained the Player’s Guide and the Game Master Guide recently which was overwhelmingly positive in regards to the appearance and feel of the hard back books that I have been sent. You can view that here. Since that time I have been reading the Players Guide thoroughly so I could give my opinion of the book and its new incarnation here, not to mention in an effort to revitalize a campaign that I have been running for some twenty years or so now. But is this system up to it?
Since I got the books and the promotional poster I have put it up in the window (I still am looking to find it distributed in Australia so do not sell it yet) and the reaction from the role players in the area has been quite intense. They all stop and listen to my view of the game, why it is good and they all ask if a demo game is going to be run. I assure them that in time there will be and advise them to keep an eye on the website. With the real focus on story telling systems of recent times it seems that there is interest in a system that broadly has one foot set in the story telling arena and one foot in the robust system mechanics to support that. In fact I am fairly certain that I could have sold many books already (if I had them) and have certainly boosted the online sales of the rules PDF for FASA (you are welcome).
This book is very well written. It is a beautiful book with great prose and from the moment I opened it I was back in Barsaive like I have not been since FASA dropped the line in the Nineties. But that may not mean a lot to many of you so let me qualify this to say that Earthdawn is an atmospheric horror fantasy RPG unlike any other that has ever gone before. It has always been a book that has incorporated the system intricately with the storytelling involved. For example, magic is very involved in Earthdawn, reflected by a multi-round system of weaving threads to magical patterns (on the most part, some simple spells do not require this) and then a spell-casting test on the following round. This intricacy is still here in spades and it still has that feel that the game needs to be Earthdawn.
The flavour material in the stories and starts of each chapter are still spot on. I was entranced by the story of the young elf who gets adopted by an Ork scorcher tribe to learn the way of the cavalryman at the start of the book. I have read a lot of the surrounding Earthdawn novels in my time and while their stories are good, they were far from well written. This short story is possibly the story that I have enjoyed most in the fiction for Earthdawn.
It needs to be said that most editions of this game have combined the players and game master books together in one core rule-book. This edition shrugs that idea and separates these into two books. They are both very big books, the player’s guide coming in at just over 500 pages and the break from the one core book itself is subject to one of my main concerns for the system that I will mention in the next section.
Multi-discipline characters are apparently hated by the current developers. So far I have read the section three times and I still do not fully understand it. It is the most convoluted system now and very apparent that it was built on the side of the GM so they could heavily discourage cross discipline characters. Trust me when I say I am not a fan of a cross discipline character, but these rules take it to another level. it makes it very hard for it to be seamlessly incorporated.
Magic got a massive revamp in this version. There is good and bad in this but it is the thing that struck me right between the eyes when I started reading the magical classes. The first trigger was the fact that magicians now get given a free talent! Given one! Legend Points for free people – but after talking to Morgan Weeks (one of the line developers/authors) I could see the reasons behind this. Morgan’s reply (portions of which I included below – sorry Morgan!) allayed my fears and showed that there had been a lot more thought gone into the new edition than I was prepared to believe at that point in the book.
Spellcasters see to most overall changes. They were re-developed almost from the ground up. A lot of factors fed into this and the major overhaul made for a better result than any patchwork… 
The paradigm where spellcasters took considerably more legend points to increase their Circle seemed to be based on the logic spellcasters were inherently better than other adepts. In many ways, this was correct. They had a lot more options and power at their disposal… 
So, a host of solutions were implemented. Spellcasters now have the same number of talents required to advance in Circle. They get two free talents, one of which upgrades. This is roughly paid for by their reduced Durability. But their spells now officially cost legend points to learn. This is specifically because each spell is a new ability they bring to the table. Exactly like a knack. None of these things should be free.
Along with that is redeveloping every spell. And adding many new spells. The two biggest overall goals were to ensure the spells were appropriately representative for the discipline. This is in both “feel” and pushing their particular mechanical angle. Each spellcasting discipline as a different set of capabilities and competencies.
So a lot of the hard work appeared to be in the magicians roles and I have to say that after thoroughly reviewing all of those portions I have to agree. Magic has changed.
What did the magician changes give to the game?
This is a very interesting thing to consider – largely because I am just theorizing at the moment and the proof of a game is at least a month away from me. I agree with some of the sentiment from Morgan that the magicians in the fourth edition game feel much more like most any other class. There is no massive power ramp to a magician anymore and I am really not sure that this is a positive to me – It really will depend on what they are doing with the Player’s Companion and the higher circles because at the moment we have the core circles to view and it shows that magic has changed for balance in a major way.
What is it missing?
I had one player run a character in Earthdawn over twenty years ago. He is one of the characters that I always point to as a highlight of the game. He was a T’skrang (think flamboyant agile lizard man) Nethermancer (spirit magician). He got to about eleventh circle and was a powerhouse. He was the epitome of flavor as a magician. When companions were close to death they would call out to him and beg him to help. He always leaped on them and had the same phrase;
I can help you, but first, I have to kill you…
And he would do exactly that and then have a myriad of options to be able to bring them back much healthier than before. This was at the heart of a Nethermancer for me and I look through the altered spells and talents and realize that this player would have the majority of these options removed. There is possibly one spell or talent that does this now and it just detracts from the Nethermancer for me. But this is not just a Nethermancer problem. It is pervasive through all of the magician disciplines.
For example, one of the magician disciplines I loved was the illusionist and in particular there was a spell (came out in the first companion from memory) called Fun With Doors. In the original text of these spells the complete idea of the spell and the fun that could be had with it was apparent. You could shift the location of doors on a whim and fool other players with this. The spell in this version is very straight forward and descriptive. There is no “Fun” in Fun With Doors anymore.
The only discipline this works for is the Wizard because they are meant to simply be those that technically study magic and work in a scientific method which is almost how these are written. They obviously only wanted to convey this stuff to the player mainly by the title. Nethermancer’s work with spirits so now they have a load of spells called stuff like Aspect of the [insert spirit name here]. It used to be a show not tell approach in Earthdawn and now it is a tell don’t show arrangement where you get the flavor from the name and just the mechanics from the text. It is the same with the Illusionist and the Elementalist and whilst I find the spells well created and (do not throw rocks) balanced – they are missing the Fun.
What really got me annoyed was…
OK, the lack of flavour in spells did annoy me but it may actually be a good thing if the spells ramp at the right rate in the companion, I can accept that. But then there was one thing that made me put the book down angry. This is something that has occurred due to the separation of one core book into two parts and it gets my blood boiling. Summoning stuff. There is a chapter in the Player’s Book that discusses summoning. Or more to the point it doesn’t. It essentially says summoning is an option for the player but in reality they should not really be allowed to know the full rules because they don’t really know what they are doing so the rules are in the Games master book. Well, you know what – that is not good enough. If summoning is an option for a player (certainly a strong part of an Elementalist or Nethermancer just FYI) then the rules for how to summon should be in the Player’s Book, inclusive of what spirits can do and how to cast them.
Then just to add insult to injury, the example of summoning in the Player’s Book is wrong as the rules are written in the Game masters book. Not to mention when I went to the GM Guide to find them I leaped straight to the index and looked for Spirits that lead me to page 418. On page 418 there is a tiny little bit of flavor text about spirits and nothing more. It took me many deep breaths to calm myself and I went for the last resort, the Table of Contents that assured me that there was in fact a full chapter devoted to spirits of 48 odd pages. The fact that this is not reflected in the index is very poor indeed.
I read that chapter (only chapter I have fully read) and found that I understood there was material in that chapter that should not be viewed by players. So why hide all of the stuff that they should be able to view? The stuff that should not be viewed is probably three to five pages but instead of giving them the rules on how to form a spirit, what services they can supply, how hard it is to call them etc. it is all instead hidden away in the GM Guide. That is in my opinion very poor form. The characters would be experienced in this sort of thing, practised even, so why can they not know what the abilities and stats of the creatures are that they can capture? It makes no sense in any way shape or form.
Make no mistake, there is material here that annoys me, a lot. But it is Earthdawn. From start to finish in the book there is the unmistakable brilliance that is Earthdawn. The hard cover books are beautiful to hold and read. It gives me the feeling I used to have when I was a lot younger than I am today and got interested in books. Lush embossed covers, thick and quality bound. They are marvelous. I am not sure if they are available general release but if they are they are going on the shelf. Lots of new art (which I was not expecting) and some very decent changes to the rules.
The lack of flavor in the spells to me is a problem, but it may not be if and when I see the companion books that expand the disciplines. Admittedly it does take the flavor from the bulk of the spell and attempt to fix that with meaningful titles, and that may be a space thing as the book is so large, but always show, do not tell. The one major disappointment to me is the summoning spirits material. Again, they may have sat down and said “Whoah, we have a whole forty pages here that we just can’t fit in the player’s guide” and so tried to justify putting it in the GM guide. It is not the right decision though. A player should be given the whole rules on a subject if their character is capable of using them. Trying to pretend there is something mysterious and therefore the players only get a tiny bit of general information is very poor form.
The world of Barsaive and Earthdawn transgresses these flaws though. It is a true game of personal horror as powerful as Call of the Cthulhu in the way that it affects the characters at a personal level. It can also handle (quite easily) a generic fantasy setting or high fantasy as long as you realize that this system is richly embroidered with the spine of story which is protected and enhanced by a system designed to mirror and promote that same story. There are years of adventure to be had with this system and it will be jumping prominently to my personal table in the near future. All I have to do now is read and review the Game Master’s Guide…