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. This is not one of those.
After the success of Shadowrun, FASA tried their hand at a fantasy RPG - and 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 uses 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 eight and a half foot tall Sky Pirates in flying stone longboats. The obsidimen are over seven 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. RedBrick worked on a D&D-compatible edition for a while, but the project was ultimately shelved and nothing came out of it. Then FASA was revived and RedBrick gave the Earthdawn license back to them. FASA published a revised edition of the game that was nevertheless completely compatible with RedBrick's 3rd edition. As you can see, this game's meta-history is rather complicated.
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 - including d20 and Savage Worlds which have seen the conversions of Earthdawn recently.
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
- Adjective Animal Alehouse
- The main rules had a picture of the signboard of an inn called "The Gilded Toad".
- Path of Deception adventure. In the small city of Haven near the ruins of Parlainth can be found the Restless Troll inn.
- ''Sky Point & Vivane' boxed set, Book 2 "Theran Vivane". The Theran section of Vivane has a tavern called the Blackguard Duck. It's a regular meeting place for the t'skrang who work in the Vivane boat yard.
- The Ageless: Both dragons and elves have this as a racial trait.
- Artistic License – Statistics: 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 dice. (you still got the 6, 8, 10 and 12 ones. Enjoy your bag of dice.) The main problem being exploding dice on the highest value (step 3/1D4 has a 25% to reach 5, so is a theorical step 11/1D20, in practice, step 11 is 1D8+1D6).
- 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 Legend 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).
- Banishing Ritual: ''Terror in the Skies". A Horror tricks the Player Characters into retrieving a book of rituals that can send Horrors back to their own plane of existence, then steals it from them. If the PCs can regain the book, they can use one of the rituals to banish the Horror.
- Berserk Button: An ork's gahad, which can cause berserk rage and violence.
- Blood Magic: Blood charms are used to seal Blood Oaths and gain magical benefits. They usually last A Year and a Day.
- 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?").
- Critical Failure: Rolling all ones in a pass/fail "Action Test" triggers this, termed in-game as a "pathetic result".
- Critical Hit: Works very differently to Critical Failure. Any die that rolls maximum gets a bonus roll, repeating as needed, with all the rolls adding up to the final total. Through this, it is always possible (with enough luck) to make a difficult Action Test even with a low Step.
- Damage Over Time: The nethermancer spell "Pain" inflicts minor damage to the target each round it's in effect.
- Dash Attack: Ground creatures perform a Charging Attack, flying creatures make Swooping Attacks against ground targets.
- Dark Is Not Evil: To other Name Givers 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. The truth is that they actually just... practical, the Death plane being just another netherworld.
- Dungeon-Based Economy: In the adventure Parlainth: The Forgotten City. The town of Haven was carved out of the ruined city of Parlainth. It is dedicated to servicing and supporting the adventurers who explore the rest of Parlainth.
- Earth All Along: As a consequence of being a prequel to Shadowrun.
- Eldritch Abomination: The Horrors are horrific monstrosities that live in astral space, and are the worst major enemy the players will ever face.
- The Empire: Thera. Also could be Atlantis.
- 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. Even rarer are Leafers (plant people), Jackalmen, half-Horror Ulkmen and genie-like Jabrq.
- 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.
- The same could be said for Horror Stalkers, a new discipline (class) introduced in the Horror source book, who specialize in combating the Horrors, their influence, and their corruption.
- To be fair, anyone who makes a habit of seeking out and/or confronting Horrors is kind of asking for it. Even an accidental encounter with a Horror or minions created by a Horror (called Horror Constructs in game) could lead to permanent injury, corruption, or both.
- Hostile Weather: The Gamemaster is encouraged to use bad weather against the PCs, everything from strong thunderstorms to extreme heat and cold.
- 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...
- Averted in-universe, where dwarves, not humans are the dominant race in Barsaive.
- 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.
- I Know Your True Name: Played with. Namegiver races (ie, PC ones) can do this...and Horrors do not naturally have names. By cajoling a Namegiver into naming them, they gain the weaknesses of having a true name...and individuality, and with that, strength.
- Inertial Impalement: In the combat chapter, one of the techniques in the Mounted Combat section is "Setting Against A Charge". If a character knows a Charging Attack is coming and has a spear or lance available, he can make a Melee Weapons Test. If he succeeds, he hits the charging opponent and does damage before the opponent can attack. If he succeeds really well he can knock the opponent off his steed.
- Language of Magic: Supplement Dragons. Dragonspeech is a form of telepathy that allows dragons to communicate with other creatures without speaking. The great dragon Vasdenjas says that dragonspeech can be used to communicate with the Universe itself and cause any pattern desired to be expressed in astral space, thus casting a spell.
- Luck Manipulation Mechanic: The Horror power of "Cursed Luck" and the dragon power of "Disrupt Fate." Also, Karma - especially for Windlings.
- MacGuffin Delivery Service: Adventure ''Terror in the Skies". The Tome of Banishment is a collection of rituals that can send Horrors back to their own plane of existence. A Horror tricks the player characters into retrieving it, then steals it from them. If the PCs can regain it, they can use one of the rituals to banish the Horror.
- Magic Knight: Everyone. All PCs are magicians - Adepts. Wizards could have some kind of basic martial capability, Warriors had their share of elemental magic, and Weaponsmiths at very very high levels learned how to cast Elementalist spells.
- Mass Teleportation: The city of Parlainth was completely removed from Barsaive before the Scourge, along with all memories of it, to protect it from the Horrors. The plan of the elaborate magic ritual was to take it to another plane of existence until the Scourge was over, and then to return to Barsaive. When it finally did return, the inhabitants were gone and the city was infested with all kinds of creatures, its ruined streets and buildings waiting to be explored by adventurers in search of Parlainth's legendary treasures.
- Multiarmed And Dangerous: The Horror named Hate has twelve arms and can make three attacks per combat round.
- Mundane Utility
- Some of the spells in this game are useful in ordinary life; 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.
- A wide range of items and equipment also fall into this category: enchanted wood/air elevators, self-cleaning wardrobes, hats that self-adapt to your head (convenient with horns and crests), and flying/rocking chairs built for any race—large enough for trolls or small enough for dwarfs or even windlings. In pretty much every village you could find magical lighting crystals, and most middle class families would own a self-heating pot.
- No Campaign for the Wicked: Earthdawn Gamemaster Pack, "Gamemastering Earthdawn" booklet. It is specifically stated that no Player Character may ever learn or use sacrificial Blood Magic (where an unwilling victim is harmed or killed to gain magical benefit). This is because sacrificial Blood Magic is only used by evil Non Player Characters, such as those corrupted by the Horrors. It further states that FASA will not publish any rules for using such magic.
- Orichalcum: in this game, there are five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. You get the golden metal orichalcum by combining all five.
- Poison Is Corrosive: Supplement Dragons. A dragon's venom is corrosive and can cause damage to living targets. It can possibly even cause blindness if spat into a creature's eye.
- 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.
- Rainbow Motif: A creature using Heat Sight sees the difference between background temperature and an object's temperature as a color. As the difference increases, the color goes up the ROYGBIV scale (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
- Remote Yet Vulnerable: When a Beastmaster uses the Animal Possession talent to put their spirit in the body of an animal, their own body falls into a coma until they return. During that time, their body can be damaged normally. If their body is killed while they're away, their spirit dies too.
- Sliding Scale of Gameplay and Story Integration: Deliberate, approaching Perfect; every element was specifically designed to justify traditional fantasy role playing tropes. Earthdawn is perhaps the only setting where you can talk about your "Class" and "Level" without breaking character in the least. "I'm a Sixth Circle Thief," for example, simply means "I'm a magician who practices a school of magic specialized in hiding and freeing others from the burden of ownership, and I have undergone five advancement rituals."
- Dungeon-Based Economy: Why are there dungeons filled with monsters and treasure lying around everywhere? They are kaers that are breached.
- Character Level: 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.
- Experience Points: 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.
- Spare a Messenger: Whenever the monsters known as Bog Gobs attack sapient creatures, they will always leave some survivors. They do this because they enjoy the tales spread about them among the Namegiver races.
- Summon to Hand: The Call Arrow talent of Archer adepts.
- Super Spit: Supplement Dragons. A dragon with the power of Venom may have the Power Knack of Spit Venom. This allows the dragon to spit its corrosive venom at a target and cause it to suffer damage and possibly be blinded.
- 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.
- Weakened by the Light: In full sunlight or the equivalent, ghoul Attack and Damage steps are at -2.
- A Year and a Day: A number of effects last a year and a day, such as Blood Magic (both the effects and damage caused by it), Horror powers, certain Talents, certain Pattern Item effects, the damage caused by casting a Horror Call spell and the duration of a dragon's Lair Mark.