Get a bag. Throw in a copy of The 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 Lovecraftian Gribblies 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 that wasn't liked. 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.
This complicated licensing history has also affected Earthdawn's relationship with its parent game, Shadowrun. After FASA's initial closure, a number of its employees funded WizKids, which retained the rights to Shadworun. WizKids was eventually bought by Topps, who licensed the game's publishing out to Catalyst Game Labs, where it remains. As the two games are now managed and published by entirely different companies, all links between them have been officially severed.
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 1st Edition main rules has 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).
- Atlantis: The Theran Empire is heavily suggested to have been the inspiration for Atlantis In-Universe. In no small part because in the real world Thera is the caldera of a supervolcano in the Mediterranean sea whose eruption roughly 2600 years ago wiped out the Minoan civilization, and is a popular Atlantis hypothesis.
- Attack Its Weak Point: Supplement Earthdawn Companion. The Show Armor Flaw talent causes flaws in a target's armor to glow so that opponents can attack the weak spot(s) with a better chance of inflicting an Armor-Defeating hit.
- Attack Reflector: When a spell is cast at a person holding the magical Silvered Shield, the Shield can send the spell back against the spell's caster.
- 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.
- Brown Note: Just reading about Horrors can do a number to those exposed to the information. The person who uncovered the Names of the Books of Harrow was driven to tear his own eyes out and died violently - and he hadn't even read the actual books.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dash Attack
- Land animals (such as Thundra beasts) can perform Charging Attacks at opponents, and flying creatures like espagra, gargoyles and griffins can use Swooping Attacks against targets on the ground.
- Earthdawn Companion supplement. The Rushing Attack talent allows the user to move their Full Movement toward an opponent while making an attack.
- Deadly Force Field: The Circle 8 Wizard spell Compression Bubble forms around an opponent and contracts, causing damage to the opponent.
- Disciplines of Magic: a Prequel in the Lost Age to Shadowrun in which all PCs are Adepts following "Disciplines" that fill in for the standard Fantasy Character Classes.
- Doppelgänger Spin: In Arcane Mysteries of Barsaive, the Phantom Warrior spell causes the appearance of three images that look identical to the target of the spell. They distract the target's enemies and give the target defensive and offensive bonuses.
- 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.
- Dying Curse: A possible use for Blood Magic allows a character to curse a person, place or object at the cost of their life. Naturally usually used when one is about to die anyway.
- Earth All Along: As a consequence of being a prequel to Shadowrun, Earthdawn is supposed to take place in the very distant past of our world — the Fourth World to real life's Fifth and Shadowrun's Sixth — before magic faded away into the current mana-less period. This is borne out by the setting's geography — the map of Barsaive shows what are clearly the outlines of the Black and Caspian seas to its south, placing it in European Russia and Eastern Europe, and The Empire of Thera exists in modern-day Greece.
- 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, an expansionistic and human-centric empire.
- 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.
- 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.
- Intimidation Demonstration: Supplement Earthdawn Companion. The Impressive Shot talent allows the user to fire a missile close to an opponent (through their sleeve, hit close to them, knock something out of their hand, etc.) in order to impress them with the user's archery abilities.
- 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.
- The Magic Goes Away: The world of Earthdawn is subject to cycles where magic ebbs and flows. The time period the game's set in is early into the one of the ebb periods. Magic is slowly decreasing, and as it does, the Horrors lose their foothold in this reality. During the Scourge, this fact was used to construct an impromptu clock to determine when it would be safe to leave the caers - a ball of True Earth was placed over a dish of True Water; once the True Earth touched the True Water, magic was gone and the Horrors with it. (Oddly, the "clocks" stalled partway through, and nobody's sure why.)
- 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.
- Meaningful Rename: Magic is tied to names to the point of names defining a person, place or thing, so changing a name erases all magical properties and allows new ones to take their place in time. This is heavily emphasised in-setting by the word "Name-Giver" being used instead of "people" to refer to sentient beings capable of bestowing names and thus defining other beings, places or things.
- 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
- In the Earthdawn Gamemaster Pack's "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.
- Earthdawn Companion. Questors of the Mad Passions tend to act in an evil manner and would be disruptive to group play, so gamemasters are advised to not let players have such characters.
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: There's literally a god of these, the Mad Passion Dis. All of Dis's rituals involve truly staggering amounts of meaningless paperwork.
- Orichalcum: The game has the five True Elements: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. You get the golden metal orichalcum by combining all five.
- Our Hydras Are Different: Hydras were created when a human sorcerer stole a clutch of dragon eggs and fused the hatchlings into a single, many-headed monsters. They've been breeding on their own since then, but dragons view them as abominations and believe they should be wiped out.
- 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 magical Devastator Spear will return to its owner after being thrown.
- The Hawk Hatchet has a kernal of True Air forged into it that causes it to return to the thrower's hand.
- Prequel in the Lost Age: Earthdawn is set in the Fourth World and is a prequel to Shadowrun, which is set in the Sixth 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.
- Earthdawn Companion. A nethermancer can use the Netherwalk talent to separate their spirit from their body to explore astral space. While the spirit is away from the body, bad things can happen to the body, such as being attacked or killed.
- 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.
- Standard Fantasy 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.
- Staring Down Cthulhu: The Confront Horror talent forces the user and the horror into using only talents and abilities related to domination, resistance to domination, or ones defended with Social Defense. Success lets them prevent the horror from ever returning so long as they live. It is specifically noted to have more stories than documented cases.
- 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.
- Take That!: In-universe. In the The Adept's Way splatbook, the adept who wrote the section on Archers was coerced into writing it by a clerk in Throal's Hall of Records in exchange for information they wanted; They use their complaints with the situation as a means of describing the Archer philosophy.
- 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 the damage caused by it), Horror powers, certain Talents, certain Pattern Item effects, the effects of some spells and the duration of a dragon's Lair Mark.
- Your Heart's Desire: supplement Earthdawn Companion. Questors of the Mad Passion Vestrial have the ability to learn a target's greatest desire, allowing them to manipulate the target by granting their desire. They have another ability that allows them to implant a desire in a target that becomes the target's greatest desire.