Thoughts on Earthdawn

Earthdawn (Wikipedia) is a 1993 table-top RPG that took the clichés of its genre and built a foundation beneath them.

I was a player in an Earthdawn campaign from 2004 to 2007, led by Robert Pettersson. I played a surly little dwarven smith named Kuirbuz, a deliberate corruption of cuir bouilli. He was a bit too serious for the tone of the campaign at higher levels, so in the last year I switched to a more colourful character: a beast-riding lancer and airhead. She was inspired by the likes of Gall Force (1986); quite embarrassing in retrospect, and no less of a tonal mismatch.

It wasn't a great game, but there is something basically sympathetic about Earthdawn. It's a good example of top-down worldbuilding: The authors wanted something like D&D but more coherent, so they took the superficial elements of a typical, flavourless D&D setting and thought up quite thorough explanations for them. For instance, the dungeons in Earthdawn are left-over bunkers from the end of the old world.

In the event of a cataclysm that forces Tolkien's races to cower under the earth for 400 years, which race is going to come out more populous? That's right: dwarves. They're dominant in the players' region of Barsaive. See how clever that is: It follows logically from something exciting (apocalypse, source of monsters), it eliminates the need for players to know that history (old world's almost gone), it pushes humans aside (still a bold move today), and it leaves the players to explore a lot of wilderness. Quite elegantly, you get a world similar and dissimilar enough to a bunch of best-selling fantasy to draw in a wide range of players. It's casual, but smarter than the median effort in the genre.

In memory of my time in Barsaive, here is a character sheet I designed for the group at the time. It's not pretty, but it served us well.