Originally written January 2004
A Little History Lesson
In the late 1990s FASA’s Earthdawn was in the midst of a well-developed storyline that would have changed the face of Barsaive, the core setting of the game. The culmination of this storyline was due in 1998; first in line was Dragons of Barsaive, to be followed by the epic adventure Barsaive at War.
Then FASA announced that they were dropping Earthdawn as an active line (in fact, they completely closed their doors). Since Dragons was in the late stages of layout, FASA released it as a free PDF. It was a rough cut, but the obvious quality of the book came through. (I actually reviewed Dragons when it was released this way — if you’re interested, check it out here.)
This release — rough as it was — only whet the appetite of the fans. It was a dramatic cliffhanger, and as the stages of mourning made their way through the online fan base, speculation ran rampant about what would have happened during the Second Theran War.
A couple of years later, a new company was granted a license to produce Earthdawn material. Living Room Games announced that one of their first supplements would be Barsaive at War. Finally, fans would learn what was intended for Barsaive — even if it was going to be LRG’s version, and not FASA’s.
A quick disclaimer before I get into this review. I am an active member of the online Earthdawn community, and through “inside connections” know some of the original plans for this supplement (as it would have been produced under FASA). I’ll try to keep that knowledge from affecting this review too much, but it does affect my opinion of the product in some respects.
Barsaive at War is a 161-page, soft cover book with a cover price of $18.00. The page count is a little misleading, as the last half-dozen pages are completely blank. The cover art is a moderately cartoonish drawing of a massed army, with several airships in the sky overhead. I’m not crazy about the cover art, but it certainly conveys a certain degree of the scale of this epic.
The interior art is split about 50-50 between new pieces, and pieces recycled from older Earthdawn sourcebooks. Sadly, most of the new art falls in the lower half of the quality scale, and the contrast between what Earthdawn was, and what it has become in the hands of its new developers, is noticeable. There is a certain amateurish quality to the bulk of the new art, and it pales in comparison to pieces by Jeff Laubenstein, Liz Danforth, and Joel Biske.
For the most part, this feel does not carry over into the text and layout itself. There does seem to be quite a bit of white space, and the layout is entirely in the same font — even the headers. This adds to the amateur feel, though in its favor the layout is very clean and easy to read.
Lest it sound like I’m being too critical, this was the second book Living Room Games published for Earthdawn — the first was the adventure Path of Deception. Quality art is expensive, and when you’re a new company operating on a small budget, certain concessions must be made. Visually this book is more appealing than some of the Dungeons & Dragons compatible products tossed out on the market by new companies interested in cashing in. I much prefer a clean layout to a cluttered mess. For a new company with little experience under their belt, it is a nice effort. Still, fans of Earthdawn may wonder what happened.
After a brief preface from Lou Prosperi (the former line developer) and the table of contents, we have an introduction that gives us a general overview of what the book covers, and various ways the events described can be used in an Earthdawn game. Much like the previous epic, Prelude to War, this book has a number of chapters that describe the major events over several months of game time. A general overview of past events is given, as is the “official” timeline of events.
Then we get the events themselves, each presented in a chapter of its own. The Background leading up to the event is given, capsule descriptions of the Important Characters in the event, Adventure Frameworks and Other Adventure Ideas provide ways for player characters to get involved in the event, and Loose Ends discusses the fallout of the event, and what it may (or may not) lead to in the future.
There are good and bad points to this structure, which follows the same general pattern used by FASA in Prelude to War. On the plus side, each adventure framework is a general outline of events. This allows the gamemaster to tailor and develop the details of the adventure to suit the needs of his game and the strengths of his player character group. On the bad side, this means that there is still a bit of prep work to be done — unless the GM is exceptionally good at flying by the seat of his pants. This is not a “pick up and play” adventure by any stretch of the imagination.
Another troublesome aspect of all this flexibility is that there are, practically speaking, no NPC stats to speak of. Virtually all of the characters presented in the text have only their attribute steps listed, as well as their Discipline and circle. This, once again, increases the prep time for a gamemaster. Still, the NPCs are (in general) given good personality and motivational write-ups, which is more useful. Anybody can come up with game stats, creating a variety of different personalities takes more work.
As for the events themselves, here’s a general timeline, with some comments.
Declaration of Separation and War: King Neden of Throal declares that Barsaive is an independent land, free of Theran rule. Unless the Therans leave Barsaive, there will be war. Copies of this declaration are sent to all the major powers of Barsaive, asking for their support in this endeavor.
My biggest complaint with this event is the declaration itself. It is modeled on the Declaration of Independence, and certain sections are quoted almost verbatim (“…these Nations of Barsaive are, and of right out to be free and independent…”). While I will not deny the power and eloquence of Thomas Jefferson’s words, their use here comes across as hackneyed and cliche. Still, there must be an event that kicks the storyline into action, and a major declaration like this is a good way to do it. Player characters can get involved by acting as couriers, carrying copies of the document to various places.
The Return of Aardelea: The young woman Aardelea, captured by the Therans in Prelude to War is rescued by agents of the Great Dragons. These agents are, of course, pursued by agents of Thera and Iopos — both of whom want the girl for their own purposes. When the weary and battle worn group comes across the player characters, they beg them to get Aardelea to safety.
This event is pretty solid, if rather combat heavy. From the time the PCs get involved, they are attacked by several teams of adepts. There is the potential for some nice roleplaying, as Aardelea discovers more of her unusual powers. For players who have been involved in other aspects of the Aardelea storyline (which began in Infected), this is a nice continuation. For players who haven’t encountered Aardelea before, this can serve as a nice way to introduce them to the “behind the scenes” struggle between the Dragons, Thera, and Iopos, as well as how innocents can get caught up in that struggle.
Preparations for War: This chapter describes the plans and preparations made by the Barsaivian Alliance. Stage one of the war is a siege on the Theran fortress of Triumph. Plans are put into action on all three fronts — land, sea, and air. There is ample opportunity for player characters to get involved in any number of covert activities.
It is a nice chapter, even if there is a lot of ground covered. My only quibble is there are a few too many moments where the story requires the timely arrival of allies; the sort of thing that makes for a great scene in a book or movie, but results in a deus ex machina feeling; the player characters are more along for the ride than influencing events itself. Still, the scale of the war endeavor is well presented, and the various descriptions cover the distribution of troops on both sides.
Theft of the Everliving Flower: This chapter describes how the Blood Elf forces are brought into the war. Agents of the Great Dragons steal the Everliving Flower from Queen Alachia’s palace, and frame the Therans for the crime. In retaliation for this offense, Alachia sends troops to support the siege on the Triumph.
The Siege of the Triumph: Describes the first major battle of the War, and the capture of the Theran fortress. Player characters can get involved in this chapter by taking part in a daring mission that ultimately determines the success or failure of the battle. The groundwork for this covert mission was laid during chapter four, and the adventure framework here is a nice follow-up to those events.
The most notable aspect of this chapter is one the player characters have no control over. As the fortress falls, the remaining Therans flee for Vivane. As they pass nearby Willow’s Grove, a large troop of Blood Elves emerges and slaughters them all — men, women, and children. The elves then turn and march for the Blood Wood, vengeance paid for the Everliving Flower’s theft. This event is shocking, and should be.
The Taking of Jerris: While Throal and the Barsaivian Alliance is busy with the war, Iopos makes its move. They offer magical assistance to the city of Jerris, promising to help solve the mystery of the ash that blows into the city from the Horror-ravaged Wastes to the west. When a troop of marines is sent to aid in the siege of Triumph, Iopos offers to supplement the city’s reduced garrison with their own troops. It isn’t long before Iopos has taken over the city.
There isn’t anything player characters can do to prevent this event — the groundwork takes place long before anyone can act to prevent it, and the critical decisions are made by the leaders of Jerris. This event serves as a reminder that while Thera is the focal enemy right now, Iopos is just waiting for an opportunity to strike.
The Fall of Vivane: This chapter describes a desperate ritual by the Great Dragons to cut Sky Point off from the city of Vivane. The Barsaivian forces have no hope of defeating both places, so the Dragons perform a ritual to create a dome of True Air over the city, preventing any from leaving it. Unfortunately, the power of the ritual draws the attention of Stormhead, a Horror that has been lurking nearby for decades. For the first time on record, Stormhead moves towards Vivane, destroying anything (and everything) in its path. The player characters are dispatched to get people out of the storm’s way, while the dragons work to find a solution.
There is a great deal of wonder and tension in this chapter — wonder at the assembled might of the Great Dragons, and tension as the heroes race against time to save as many innocent lives as possible. In the end though, Vivane cannot be saved. The city is destroyed in a massive magical eruption, and the fallout from the Horror Storm turns Vivane into a city of the dead. Stormhead itself breaks up, and smaller Horror-tainted storm clouds begin to wander the province, creating a new hazard for everyone.
I have a couple problems with these events, driven mostly by my knowledge of what was originally intended. As presented here, the attraction of Stormhead and the resulting destruction of Vivane is presented as a miscalculation by the Great Dragons — Icewing in particular is apparently so blinded by his hatred of the Therans that he doesn’t consider the side effects the draconic ritual might have. While this short-sightedness does present an interesting situation, I find it hard to believe that these beings, who survived a previous Scourge and have a deeply innate understanding of magic, can “miscalculate” so badly. I find it hard to believe that creatures who are notorious for taking the long view act so short-sightedly.
Couple this with the original plan, where the Dragons intentionally draw Stormhead to Vivane, and a theme starts to develop in the book. Aardelea is an innocent girl who has been caught up in the plots of the Great Dragons. Many innocent Therans were slaughtered by the Blood Elves at Willow’s Grove. And here, an entire city is destroyed. The Therans are being driven from Barsaive — but at what cost? In addition, if the Dragons intentionally draw Stormhead, there is a recurring point that the Dragons are more concerned with the success of their own plans, regardless of the cost in innocent lives. The changes LRG has made here weaken that theme, in my opinion.
The Assault on Sky Point: In this, the climactic battle of the war, the Barsaivian alliance attacks the last Theran outpost in Barsaive, Sky Point. The end result is the collapse of much of the fortress, the death of a Great Dragon, and the return of the legendary airship, the Earthdawn. It is a hard fought victory, and costs many lives, but the Therans are driven from Barsaive.
There isn’t much of anything player characters can do to affect the results of this battle — everything has been leading up to this moment. This is the biggest weakness of this chapter; player characters are reduced to witnessing the battle, which is a series of major events that swing the battle one way, and then another. There are a number of significant “plot moments” that, while cool on one level, have the potential to drag the pacing of a game. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to fix this. These events happen, and the aftershocks will be rumbling throughout Barsaive for some time.
The last chapter, Aftermath, deals with the most immediate consequences of the war, dealing with each of the major powers in Barsaive. Then an Appendix provides statistics for various Disciplines at multiple circles, much like Prelude to War did. A decent index rounds out the book.
Analysis and Final Thoughts
This is a pretty solid book, all things considered. It is nice to have the final chapter of this story in print (after a two year wait), but the weaknesses in the product make me wonder what FASA — with its higher production values and greater experience — would have ended up with.
The strengths include a large number of events, and ways for player characters to get involved in those events. Also, the presentation of this epic as a general plot outline allows a high degree of flexibility and customizability, despite the added work that gives a GM.
The weaknesses include average presentation, and a few changes to the original plans that weaken what could have been a solid underlying theme. Also, a paucity of NPC stats is annoying, despite the degree of flexibility this allows.
For Style, it gets an average rating. Nothing special here, and the good points (clean layout, for example), are pretty evenly balanced by the bad (mediocre artwork).
For Substance, I have to give it a 4. Personal quibbles with some aspects of the plot aside, there is a lot of information here, and this book should keep an Earthdawn group busy for some time. While it doesn’t succeed perfectly — relying at times a little bit heavily on deus ex machina and “cool movie scenes” — it certainly deserves credit for what it does accomplish, which is tell the story of a major war, and get player characters involved in that war.
For GMs who play in Barsaive, I recommend this epic, even if you don’t intend to run the story in your own game. The events here significantly alter the face of Barsaive, and knowing the story behind those events can add color to your campaign. If you don’t play in Barsaive, this book is less useful, but it can still provide an interesting look at how a military campaign would be planned and fought in the Earthdawn universe.