Earthdawn (1993)

Earthdawn (1993) is FASA’s great fantasy RPG. As rulebooks go, this is as sumptuous as they get, thanks to its beautiful artwork (in particular: Rick Berry, Jeff Laubenstein and Janet Aulisio). Set in an era of recovery after destruction at the hands of the Horrors – powerful nightmares in the vein of Lovecraft – Earthdawn is a world rich in wonders and ripe for rediscovery, destined to become the fictional Earth of the Shadowrun campaign setting (plot twist!).

There are a lot of great things in Earthdawn, particularly its cyclical approach to magic and its unique mechanics for magic items. I’ll get to those in time (I have a lot of Earthdawn to share in the coming months. Years?). For now, I want to focus on Earthdawn’s worldbuilding.

You will recognize a lot flipping through the rulebook. There are elves and trolls and other stuff fantasy RPGs are required to have by law. It all comes together differently, though, and I suspect that is because of the designers’ deep awareness of RPG history.

DNA from settings like Glorantha, Jorune and Talislanta are all present, as well as elements of TSR’s aesthetic-focused design work in Dark Sun (the principles, if not the look). While most RPGs try to instill a sense of adventure, the majority of Earthdawn focuses on conveying a sense of place and culture.

Most of the illustrations are portraits. None of them seem generic. As I look at them, I can’t help but start to build my own narratives around them. (The troll illusionist and the obsidiman merchant are among my favorite RPG illustrations.)

The hardest thing to do in a fantastic setting is convey that setting. That’s the appeal of games set in the modern world – as a DM I don’t have to do the legwork because my players already live here. The world design of Earthdawn, through its careful presentation in both art and words, is the closest I’ve seen a fantasy RPG come to making a world of wonders come to life as easily as a game set in the real world.

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