GHR: Earthdawn

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

In RPGs, adaptations only ever seem to work in one direction

The way things usually work is that someone falls in love with a novel, a film, a TV series, or a comic. They then try to adapt the text by reconstructing it in the form of an RPG. This process of adaptive reconstruction can be more or less direct ranging from having people play characters from the original text all the way to stories involving all new people and places that happen to be inspired by the aesthetics and genre tropes of the source material.

While some people will adapt a text by creating a whole new RPG to model its quirks, tropes and aesthetics, a lot of people will simply browse their RPG collections and pick out the game that seems like the best fit. People then try their best to model the source material in-play, paying as little attention as possible to the times when the RPG fails to behave like the source material. I describe this process as one directional as it seems like people are more comfortable using RPGs to emulate other texts than they are thinking about RPGs as texts in their own right.

This is partly a question of artistic legitimacy and the way that some forms are positioned as being naturally junior to others. For example, people are forever criticising video games for their failure to produce a Citizen Kane. Conversely, when every single cinematic adaptation of a video game turns out to be awful, people are more eager to chalk it down to weaknesses in the source material rather than they are to acknowledge that trying to capture what is special about Super Mario Bros in the form of a Hollywood blockbuster is a bit like trying to capture the magic of your favourite sandwich in the form of a Klingon Opera.

Even setting aside the huge technical challenges involved in taking elements from one form and trying to recreate them in another, the fact that we tend to view RPGs as means of emulating texts rather than texts themselves means that we often overlook the stories and ideas that emerge organically from existing RPGs.

For example, while Dungeons & Dragons may have started off as an attempt to partially emulate the material listed in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, the imperfect nature of the emulation combined with the way that groups of gamers tended to react in play resulted in a style of Fantasy storytelling that is not only an aesthetic in its own right, but an aesthetic that is arguably far more influential on contemporary SFF than anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Long before genre publishers were turning murder hobos into literary anti-heroes, the Chicago-based RPG publisher FASA was experimenting with adapting one RPG into the form of another.

The 1990s were not great years for Dungeons & Dragons, the first generation of gamers was getting a bit older and D&D itself was starting to get a bit long in the tooth. While a lot of people moved on to other games or left the hobby, many people just wanted to play a version of D&D that actually worked. This phenomenon would return a little over a decade later when disenchantment with the 4th edition of D&D briefly led to Pathfinder becoming the most popular anglo-saxon RPG.

FASA went after the disaffected D&D players on the early 1990s by producing a game that turned the process of adaptation upside down. Rather than trying to make a game that was more D&D than AD&D Second Edition, or which was better than D&D at emulating the genre tropes of Fantasy novels, produced an entirely new game with an entirely new ruleset and setting that aimed to model the genre tropes of D&D itself. That game was Earthdawn.

The first set of tropes that FASA emulated was the way that all D&D settings appear to be post-apocalyptic in so far as their landscapes are littered with an endless succession of ruins and abandoned underground bunkers. In an effort to have this make some sort of in-world sense, Earthdawn was set in the aftermath of a magical cataclysm that had forced the entire population underground into a series of elaborate fallout shelter-like bunkers. Disconnected from each other for decades on end, these bunkers were under sustained magical assault from entities known as horrors. In some cases, the bunkers managed to remain intact and their populations emerged and started rebuilding their civilisation. In other cases, the horrors managed to infiltrate the bunkers and kill their inhabitants leaving behind enough resources to support hundreds of people for decades on end. Earthdawn player characters are the lucky survivors of bunkers that remained intact; the dungeons they crawl are the bunkers whose populations were not quite so lucky.

The second set of tropes that Earthdawn internalised was the way that D&D settings tend to be populated with zero-level NPCs who are objectively inferior to even first or second level PCs. Earthdawn encoded this trope by suggesting that adventurers are inherently magical beings who hit people, fire arrows, and pick locks in ways that are qualitatively different to the way that regular people undertake those tasks. Anyone can learn to pick a lock, but only a PC can have the power that causes magical lock-picking tendrils to grow from their fingertips.

One of the more interesting knock-on effects of this particular design decision is that in addition to getting gradually better at their core skills, higher-level characters would acquire powers that augmented their basic skillset. What I mean by this is that whereas most RPGs at the time resembled Call of Cthulhu or Vampire in their use of integrated resolution mechanics with universal skill lists, Earthdawn characters looked much more like contemporary D&D characters in that their list of skills soon came to resemble collections of feats. I played in two first edition Earthdawn campaigns and I can remember a friend’s Archer character having not only a missile weapons skill but also an array of mystical aiming systems and powers that allowed them to multiply their arrows in flight. Indeed, while I may have billed Earthdawn as a game that tried to reverse-engineer D&D and produce a world where the tropes embedded in the system make some kind of in-world sense, the authors of Earthdawn were not afraid to ‘fix’ elements of D&D they considered unfortunately.

Thirdly, whereas some D&D-inspired anime series and LitRPG novels internalise the process of levelling up as something akin to the acquisition of professional qualifications, Earthdawn encoded levels as a series of mystical tiers that could only be reached through a kind of spiritual journey. The in-world rationalisation for this was that naming things made them more real; the more characters adventured, the more their names became known, the more legend a thing acquires, the more metaphysically substantial it became.

One of the areas in which Earthdawn departed from its source material was the disposability of magical items. We all know the old jokes about the guy who creates a character who is obsessed with his father’s sword only to cast said sword aside the second he finds one with a better modifier. Earthdawn tried to ‘fix’ this issue by turning magical items into things that players could progressively unlock the more powerful their characters became. Thus, a rusty old broadsword that just happens to be slightly better than your typical shop-bought sword was revealed first to be made of a magical alloy, then to have runic inscriptions, and then to have been used by a famous hero of a bygone age. The idea being that, as your character grows more substantial, you invest your metaphysical substance into the objects you possess, thereby making them more powerful in turn. As far as I can remember, all of the game’s magical items were post-apocalyptic relics that turned out to have been owned by great heroes. I can’t remember whether there were a set of rules for having regular weapons become enchanted simply by virtue of having been used by the PCs but one can also view the weapons’ backstories as fictions that accrue to mundane objects through the power of legend. In other words, had said rusty sword been found by a normie and used to chop wood then it would have remained a rusty old sword. However, because it was found by a character with metaphysical substance and used to perform heroic acts, the sword is magically retconned and imbued with a backstory that fits the character’s legend. So maybe there never was a great hero who wielded the sword in a by-gone age but people still say that about the sword and so the sword starts to behave as though it were forged in a volcano and tempered in dragon blood despite the fact that it was actually made by a drunken blacksmith in an attempt to bilk some money out of a load of adventurers who had wintered in their town.

To be honest, while I think that Earthdawn was a very clever, interesting, and influential game, I would not play it again given the opportunity…

My enduring memories of the game are of an experience system that combined with accountancy required for traditional XPs with an incredibly rigid and structured approached to points-based advancement as you effectively earned XPs and then used those XPs to buy skill points and you had to have particular numbers of points in particular numbers of skills in order to move up through the levels. I also remember that Earthdawn went out of its way to use every single type of dice as part of its resolution system and so more-powerful characters would often wind up rolling stuff like a D20, a D12, and a D8 and then having to add all of those numbers up in order to make a skill check.

A lot of people speak fondly of Barsaive as a setting but I must admit that it always left me completely cold. Once you moved past the rationalised dungeon-crawling, the setting was a somewhat bland affair involving an old empire trying to reassert its power over a load of freshly-independent city-states. While a Moorcockian take on this dynamic might have yielded battles against a fallen empire driven mad by isolation, FASA presented the Empire as a load of boring Romans. Another interesting thing that Earthdawn did was to suggest that, because the peoples of Barsaive had been living underground for countless decades, the dominant culture of Barsaive was Dwarven rather than Human. While this may have given designers a chance to break with the tendency in RPGs to treat culture and nation as things that are invariably downstream from species, Earthdawn writers really struggled to come up with ideas for post-racial fantasy nations. So what you wound up getting was loads of species-specific groups hanging out together and forming their own cultures and then a load of post-racial spaces that were basically Wild West townships that just happen to contain elves and trolls.

In truth, my real problem with Earthdawn is that while I really admire the way it set out to rationalise D&D by giving in-world explanations for quirks in D&D’s system, my problem with D&D has never been the fact that it doesn’t make sense. Sure… it’s kind of fun to level-up and go crawling through dungeons and have all of that make sense in-world but at the end of the day you are still going up levels and crawling through dungeons.

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