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Get a bag. Throw in a copy of Lord of the Rings and some dice. Season with Moorcock and Vance to taste. Shake well. Pour it out on a table. For a while that seemed to be how most FRPGs got made.
After the success of Shadowrun, FASA tried their hand at a fantasy RPG. They consciously set out to turn the stereotypes on their heads. In the province of Barsaive, humans don't run the world, the dwarves do. Elves aren't carefree forest denizens, the thorns in their skin cause constant pain, and their forest drips blood. There are no all-powerful gods, only passions, and some of them are crazy. Everyone use magic, not just spellcasters.
Fantasy not enough? How about some cosmic horror? Magic ebbs and flows over the millennia, you see. When it increases, the walls between the worlds grow thin, and monsters come through. They are known as Horrors, the ensuing time of darkness as the Scourge. The people built kaers, underground cities with powerful wards, and hid in them for centuries. The level of magic began to drop--but then it got stuck. The people emerged from the kaers into a new dawn on a new Earth (Earth-dawn, get it?).
In some kaers, though, the Horrors broke through the wards. Inside you may find treasure and lore, but you may find a Horror. It can mark you without your even noticing, and then it can track you and try to influence you. The only way to remove the mark is to kill the Horror. If that's not bad enough, someone can attract a Horror's attention by casting a spell the wrong way or even by thinking about a Horror. Going into astral space? fugeddaboutit.
Wait, there's more. The humans run the Theran Empire, they use blood magic, they enslave other races, and they make war in flying castles. The trolls are SkyPirates in flying stone longboats. The obsidimen are nine feet tall and made of rock. The windlings are tiny flying people. The t'skrang are Lizardmen who run boats on the many rivers. The orks have been enslaved by almost everybody and are trying to establish their own nation. All these races are called Name-Givers, on the assumption that naming a thing gives it a magical identity, a pattern that can be manipulated.
How about conspiracies? Everywhere you go there are secret societies, Theran spies, imperial spies, intrigues.
And Parlainth, the Lost City? Don't get me started. There's a whole boxed set about it.
Of course there are dragons. In fact, they are behind many of the conspiracies. If you know Shadowrun, you may even recognize some of them ... but that means ... it is Earth All Along! Yes, you may recognize Thera as the name of a Greek island--it may have inspired the myths about Atlantis when it exploded thousands of years ago. Yes, the magic level eventually goes back down to nothing, only to go back up in our time for Shadowrun. A cosmic case of history repeating itself.
Then FASA went out of business. Living Room Games brought out a second edition. Then LRG went out of business. RedBrick brought out two virtual editions, a third and an alternate second. There's talk that RedBrick is working on a D&D-compatible edition as well.
Wait, you want to play Earthdawn? That's a different thing altogether. To use a skill, you have to work out your step number, which is your skill level plus modifiers. Now refer to your Step Table, which tells you how many dice of which types to roll. That's right, using the same skill, you may roll different types of dice from one use to the next. It beats using calculus to simulate swinging on a rope, but there are simpler systems.
This has recently been solved, as an Earthdawn fan asked himself "I'm living in the Future, why aren't I Gaming like it?" and coded a Virtual Tabletop System for Earthdawn: MapTool Earthdawn Framework
This game contains examples of:
- The Ageless: Both dragons and elves have this as a racial trait.
- Awesome but Impractical: One of the artifacts included in the first edition main book, Nioku's Bow, was a legendary bow of a famous archer that would glow like the moon if it was ever brought to full power. Doing so required the expenditure of millions of points as well as going on multiple quests, each one of which would be legendary in its own right. The net result of all this is a bow that can do almost as much damage as the third circle Archer talent Flame Arrow. Flame Arrow involves no special quests and a fraction of the points.
- Second Edition slashed the prices for the bow's effects by a massive degree, upped its effects (to the point you're doing about quadruple your damage per shot at the maximum), and requires exactly one epic-level quest along the way to empower it (most of its requirements amount to uncovering the bow's story).
- Creative Sterility: An effect of Horror corruption, and why most of the people in Barsaive take up the arts as a hobby ("I'm not corrupted! Take a look at this beautiful cross-stitch! Could I do that if the Horrors had me?").
- Damage Over Time: The nethermancer spell "Pain" inflicts minor damage to the target each round it's in effect.
- Dark Is Not Evil: The Nethermancers are incredibly creepy, part of a magical tradition focused on death. They can be incredibly nasty...but they also have both the best magical healing abilities as well as powerful spells designed to fight the Horrors.
- They are seen has creepy. They are just... practical. The Death plane being just another netherworld.
- The Empire: Thera.
- Famed in Story: The general goal of the players. Experience Points are called Legend Points, and generate a value of how well known the deeds of the character are.
- Five Races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Trolls dominate the setting. There are also three other races (T'Skrang, Windlings, and Obsidimen), but these are supposed to be very rare.
- He Who Fights Monsters: The Nethermancers have an extensive knowledge of Horrors and spells based on Horror abilities. These allow the Nethermancers to be incredibly effective at fighting the Horrors, but also means that they are more vulnerable to Horror-corruption.
- Humans Are Special: The human racial ability, Versatility, allows humans to learn magical abilities from disciplines other than their own. It is arguably the most powerful ability in the game, to the point where some power gamers will argue that there is no point to playing any other race. And Passions help any Game Master foolish enough to allow the human racial discipline, the Journeyman, into his game...
- It Is Not Your Time: Go figure. There are no gods, but there is a guy named Death, who lives under Death's Sea, which is fire not water.
- Justified Trope: Many aspects of the setting seemed designed to justify the traditional fantasy role playing tropes. Why are there dungeons filled with monsters and treasure lying around everywhere? They are kaers that are breached. Why do characters have discrete levels where they get better at things? Because each discipline (aka character class) is tapping into the "true pattern" of that discipline, and your level represents how well you have learned to do this. Why is that fighting monsters gives you points that you can then spend to get better at, for example, foreign language? Because all abilities are magical, and the greater your legend, the stronger your magical power grows. There is no question that they are all justified by the nature of the setting.
- Luck Manipulation Mechanic: The Horror power of "Cursed Luck."
- Mundane Utility: Some of the spells in this game are this; examples include Heat Food, Boil Water and Insect Repellant.
- To a certain extent, pretty much everything that adepts do. In this system, the use of magic isn't restricted to casting spells; talents such as "Speak Language" and "Book Memory" use magic just as much as spellcasting.
- Talk about enchanted wood/air elevator, self-cleaning wardrobe, flying/rocking chair that fit troll and dwarf, hat that self adapt to your head (conveniant with horn and crest)...
- Orichalcum: in this game, there are five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. You get the golden metal orichalcum by combining all five.
- Power Crystal: The trolls make armor out of living crystal, which fuses with their skin.
- Precision-Guided Boomerang: The Devastator Spear and Hawk Hatchet both have this property.
- Prequel in the Lost Age: Earthdawn is a prequel to Shadowrun, set in the Fourth World.
- Summon to Hand: The Call Arrow talent of Archer adepts.
- Title Drop: When the Kingdom of Throal believed that the Scourge might be over, they sent out an airship to explore the new world and see what was out there. The name of that ship? The Earthdawn.
- A Year and a Day: Blood Magic allows the sacrifice of blood for extra magic bonus. Damage from the price and duration of the bonus often last a year and a day.
- You Fail Statistics Forever: Part of the problem with the dice mechanics. At each "step", the step number is supposed to represent an average roll, so if you are at Step 15, for example, the average roll should be a 15. This was supposed to make it easy for the Game Master to determine target numbers based on how likely he wants it to be for the character to succeed. Unfortunately, no one explained to the designers about score distributions, and some of the steps have distributions that are very strange. The net result is that for certain target numbers, characters with a lower score in a talent are more likely to succeed than those with higher numbers.
- Third edition partly fixed that by removing 4-sided and 20-sided dices. (you still got the 6,8,10 and 12 ones. Enjoy your bag of dices.) The main problem being exploding dice on the the highest value (step 3/1D4 has a 25% to reach 5, so is a theorical step 11/1D20, in pratice, step 11 is 1D8+1D6).