EarthDawn Doesn't Suck

Sure, it's the prequel to ShadowRun, uses multiple sorts of dice, has character classes and levels, and gives out experience points for treasure found in dungeons. But it's okay. Really.


Background

Once upon a time, there was a great and flourishing civilization based on magic, and not only were their grad students churning out newer and better spells all the time, but magic itself was getting stronger. So everything looked fine until the magic level got high enough that Cthulhu and his minions were freed to stalk the land. Or maybe more like the Dark from the Hambly books. Anyway, the people built citadels shielded with piles of stone and piles of magical wards, or hid in deep caves, ditto, and cowered for four hundred years until the Horrors went away. Now they've slunk out to try to rebuild their civilization, which is not helped by the few Horrors still hanging around the ruins of the citadels they ate during the Scourge.

Some nice elaborations on the basic history, like the evil empire that conquered the world by trading people the secrets of anti-Horror wards for complete domination over their countries in the years before the Scourge, and dwarves being the most populous species. (Guess they got peeved at no one playing dwarves in ShadowRun.)

The magic level isn't as high as it was during the Scourge (obviously) but is still plenty high, enough that magic is still a viable basis for a civilization. A lot of people (including all PCs) have magical talents that make learned skills look pretty lame (more on this later) and of course there are artificers and actual spell-casters and so forth.

Eight PC races: humans, dwarves, elves, trolls, orks (all much like in ShadowRun), t'skrang (lizard spuds), obsidimen (rock spuds), and windlings (pixies). About a dozen Disciplines (ie, character classes; more on this later too). Piles and piles and piles of Talents, some of them generically useful, some of them just weird, some weird and useful.

Mechanics

The usual six stats, slightly renamed from either ShadowRun or D&D. But the stat values aren't used directly in the mechanics. After they're bought/rolled and have racial mods applied, they get divided by three (actually it's ((stat-1) div 3) +2) to produce what are variously called Ranks or Steps, which are the basic numbers for the mechanics. The unique bit of the mechanics is that instead of rolling some dice and adding the rank to compare against a target number, each rank has an associated die or dice which you roll against the target number. The dice for each rank are such that the average roll (with rerolls taken into account) is just the rank number. So, for example, rank 7 is 1d12, rank 8 is 2d6, and rank 9 is 1d8+1d6. This is kind of confusing, but at least they do provide space to write the dice on the character sheet, so you don't have to look them up all the time.

Piles of figured attributes, but most of them don't change much over time, and only a few of them are used in combat, so it's not too bad. Lots of table lookup during character generation, though, since some of the figured stats are based off the actual numbers for your primary stats, instead of the Ranks.

Since all PCs are innately magical, skills don't play a big role. Everyone gets one artistic skill (people possessed by a Horror can't do anything creative, so having a nicely decorated horse can mean a lot when riding into town), and two knowledge skills which they are encouraged to make up.

The assortment of Disciplines is okay, although not particularly novel. The usual combat monsters, spell-casters, thieves, and bards. But at least they have some meaning within the game. They're not really guilds, more like, hm. Martial arts styles, maybe, each defined by their own guiding philosophy/worldview. There isn't necessarily any sort of central control or hierarchy, but each Discipline is a distinct institution, deserving of capitalization. Anyway, each Discipline has a set of allowed Talents, so they're reasonably distinct in ability without being inflexibly so; a lot of Talents (eg, Melee Weapons, Winning Smile, Mimic Voices) can be duplicated as learned skills. (But skills take a long time to learn, and are generally much more annoying to improve than Talents).

The causal relationship between higher levels and increased studliness is just the reverse of what it is in D&D: after you've spent enough exp on your Talents, you become a member of the next higher Circle, which then allows you to begin spending exp on newer and possibly studlier powers. And it's pretty easy to learn new Disciplines, and gets easier as you get better at your previous ones.

They even have a good explanation of experience points (which they call Legend Points). They map pretty well to Pendragon Glory, or maybe to mana in the pre-gaming definition, since part of the theory of magic is that great deeds produce magic, so of course people who do great deeds get stronger Talents. And you can get Legend Points for treasure, but only if it's Treasure, not mere loot. No one cares if you loot the corpses of the troll sky raiders after you defeat them, but bringing out a legendary artifact from the ruins where a Horror lairs is worth Legend Points.

Combat is pretty simple, and reasonably fast (at least, without the optional rules): roll dice for your Dex rank+appropriate Talent/skill and compare to opponent's Physical Defense to see if you hit, if so then roll dice for your Str rank+weapon damage rank for damage. Damage is basically hit points, but it's got Wound Threshhold, Knockdown, and Unconsciousness Threshhold like Pendragon. (I think the designers played a lot of Pendragon.) Various Talents have various effects, but all the ones we used in our sample brawl against generic NPCs were pretty straight-forward. We haven't tried the spell system yet, but it looks it should be pretty playable if you remember to write down all the spell stats on your character sheet.

I think this game would really do well if ported to Hero to get rid of the Talent and spell menus. I actually think throwing out the Disciplines would be a mistake, though. If I were GMing EarthDawn Hero, I'd probably make all the players write up both roleplaying and mechanics info for their Disciplines, instead of letting their player-designed Disciplines stretch to fortuitously include whatever they felt like spending exp on that week.


Overall Rating

Out of the Box: Well, I dunno if I'd buy it myself, but since Bryant already bought it, I'll certainly play it.
Ported to Hero: Yes Yes Yes!