Category Archives: Earthdawn

GenCon After Action Report (Part 2)

In my prior post I talked quite a bit about scenario and character design when it comes to convention games. This time around, I want to talk about time management. There are two aspects of time management. This first is pre-game preparation, the second is in-game pacing.

While I think the variety of the scenarios I came up with was a good idea for a couple of different reasons, it resulted in extra work to get ready for the con. I was smart enough to have two of the adventures use the same set of pre-generated characters, which saved some prep time, but three different four-hour scenarios is a lot of work.

I also outsourced some of the character creation. This didn’t save me as much time as I expected for a couple of reasons. First, I had to go over the characters and make sure they were all built the same way on the same number of points. Second, I had to take the Second Circle characters and boost them up to Fourth Circle.

All of that stuff falls under your standard time management umbrella, though, and not really the main thing I want to focus on. You obviously want to give yourself enough time to getting everything prepared in advance. I was making notes and finishing things up the Tuesday before we left for the convention. If I had to do it over again I would procrastinate less.

What I want to really talk about is pacing. At a convention game, you have a fixed amount of time (traditionally four hours) and unless you are intentionally running a multi-stage campaign you need to fit the entire scenario into that window while also allowing time for introductions, selecting or assigning characters, and any other special stuff you need to cover before the adventure proper gets under way. It’s also not a bad idea to shoot for an early wrap-up, giving players a bit of time to pick up their stuff, chat, or head on to their next scheduled event. Conventions can be very busy, and people often appreciate being given a little bit of breathing room.

This means you are better off shooting for a three (maybe three and a half) hour adventure with a clearly defined goal (or set of goals). The path to that goal may not itself be clear-cut, but the players should have a good idea of what they need to accomplish. When I was preparing my scenarios I came up with four scenes that defined the arc of the story, trying to go for a mix of combat, role-playing, and investigation/exploration.

I was… moderately successful when it came to pacing.  Two Houses, Alike in Dignity suffered the most when it came to pacing, because it was a very much a role-playing scenario, and for the most part I find it a bit harder to… play with time (for lack of a better term) in a role-playing scene. Let me give an example by way of contrast.

The opening scene to Two Houses is a straight-up fight, not connected to the main plot at all. It serves mainly as a way to bring the PCs to the attention of the NPC hiring them for the job, and a way to toss some combat into what is otherwise a pretty non-violent scenario. Some fool has brought a pregnant genhis into the marketplace, and the animal gives birth.

(For those who don’t know, the genhis is a placid herd animal in Earthdawn that gives birth to a brood of dozens of voracious little beasties that try to devour anything and everything nearby.)

Because of the number of potential enemies, and the location, I found it easy to pace the scene. If the fight is going easily, I can bring in more genhis. If it’s not going so well, I can have an NPC adept come in to help out, have the genhis turn against each other (vicious little things that they are), or have an injured one flee. In short, there are different variables that I can tweak in the moment to adjust the level of challenge and how long it is taking to resolve the scene. It’s also relatively easy to determine when the scene is done because the combat is over.

Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, tend to have fewer variables to play with. There are fewer things that can easily and seamlessly extend a scene that is resolving quickly, or resolve a scene that is not going well. This is where some of that pre-game preparation can really come into play. For any given scene (whether role-playing, combat, or exploration) you need to have a goal in mind, and you want to come up with multiple ways the scene could play out, including different ways you can resolve the scene. This should play in to the abilities your player characters have, so that there is a good chance of having multiple “outs” for any given scene in your scenario.

(See, it’s all fundamentally interrelated!)

That will do it for now. I think my next post on this topic will address the role of success and failure in a convention game, both on a scene and scenario level.

GenCon After Action Report (Part 1)

This is going to be a multi-part post. At GenCon 2013, I ran three different games two times each. It was my first time running games at a con that I wrote myself, and only the second time I had run games at a con. I ran three sessions of Journey to Lang at Origins in 2005, which was a pre-made demo adventure from around the time of the original FASA release of Earthdawn.

In general, the games went well. They were all sold out, but I had several no-shows so I didn’t actually have full tables the whole weekend. Despite this, I had positive feedback and I learned quite a bit about designing and running effective con games. One of the more surprising lessons resulted from the stylistic spread of the games that I ran. I had an introductory scenario (Pilgrimage), a more traditional kaer dive (Into the Deeps) and a role-play heavy, more light hearted romp (Two Houses, Alike in Dignity).

There are a lot of pieces that go into setting the framework for a good con game, especially one where you are going to be providing pre-generated characters. You want to make sure you have a variety of character types to choose from, and more choices is better than fewer. You don’t want to have too many choices, though, because then you can run into choice paralysis when it comes time for the players to choose what role they will play in the story. I think a good number is half again as many character choices as slots you intend to have available (for example, 9 choices for a 6-player game).

Before you make your pre-generated characters, you should have a good idea of what your adventure is going to be about, and what kind of challenges the characters are going to face. Each character should have something that can contribute to the progress of the story in one manner or another. Each encounter should potentially have more than one path to resolution, and the possible resolutions should be spread across your characters (preferably with some overlap). This isn’t as critical with straight-up combat encounters, because most traditional RPGs (Earthdawn included) have a pretty strong emphasis on combat mechanics, and almost all characters have a way to contribute to combat.

Puzzle and role-playing encounters, on the other hand, require a bit more flexibility when it comes to adventure design. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, you can’t guarantee that a specific skill or ability will be available to the player character group. Second, you can’t guarantee that the players will take a specific action or direction to solve the problem. Thus, you should have in mind two or three different possible solutions to a puzzle, and have helpful skills available to multiple characters. This makes it more likely that the group will be able to find some way to progress without getting roadblocked.

That will just about do it for now. I’ll provide some more specific examples later on, when I break down the individual scenarios. Next up, though, a few words on time management. Stay tuned!

Gencon 2013 — Day 1

I am sitting back at the house, relaxing after the first day of Gencon. I started by getting up at the crack of dawn so that I could get my stuff together and get over to the ICC for the early admission. Since I’m officially working the con under an exhibitor’s badge, this gave me a chance to do a quick visit to a couple of the booths before I had to head over to run my games for the day.

I scored the one thing I wanted to grab at the convention — a copy of Shadowrun, Fifth Edition. I did not drop the extra cash to get the special ($100) or deluxe ($200) editions. I’m a fan of the game, but can’t justify spending that kind of money on a game that isn’t going to do more than sit on my shelf.

Then it was over to the RPG room in the ICC where I had two sessions to run. First up was Into the Deeps, where I had 5 players, a couple of which had never played Earthdawn before. I think it was a successful session, though I think it is a little exposition heavy at one point. If I had done a bit more prep, I would probably look at having handouts or something a bit more tangible.

The other session was Two Houses, Alike  In Dignity. Only two registered players showed up (despite the game being sold out). My wife happened to stop by very early on, and sat in to provide a third. I think the game was successful, though it ran short (it was scheduled until 6, and we wrapped up around 4).

I think I will do a bit more in-depth after-action report of the different scenarios after the con is over. This will give me a chance to see if tweaks I make for the second time I run the game makes a difference, and give a little bit of analysis on what makes a good con game (at least from my point of view and experience).

The Campaign: First Session

Last night was my first night running a tabletop game in… three years? It has all faded into the B.C. mists — the time “Before Children”.

Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. I did try running a D&D (third edition) game at one point, and we didn’t get more than a session or two into it.

This was my first time running Earthdawn in about three years.

Boy was I rusty.

I think the session went well, all things considered. I kicked things off with a group of ork bandits attacking an inn which the PCs had to defend. Nobody died (well, none of the player characters… maybe I’m losing my touch), though it was a tough fight and the two melee heavy-hitters came away with a bunch of damage and a wound each.

I am reminded, however, how I do not like brand new characters in the Earthdawn system. The mechanics with low steps can get kind of frustrating if the dice happen to be going against you. This is made even tougher in the first session, when players do not have much karma to help offset the low average numbers. Armor is also pretty powerful at low circles, because armor defeating hits are rare, and the average damage can have a hard time getting through chain mail and shield — even the troll Swordmaster with his two-handed axe was having trouble doing significant damage.

Still, we had fun, and it is good to be behind the screen again.

Legend Points are not real!

One of my pet peeves when it comes to the Earthdawn system is the idea that Legend Points (Earthdawn’s equivalent of Experience Points) are real within the context of the game setting. This is, I believe, largely the result of so many other abstract concepts from other RPGs (like levels, classes, and so forth) given in-game reality (Circles, Disciplines, etc), as well as a system called “Legendary Status” that uses a character’s Legend Point total as a measure of how famous (or infamous) they are.

Here is an example from RPGnet:

And all of this ties (sorry for the pun) directly to how fame and XP are interconnected. A famous weapon (like Nioku’s Bow) is powerful because it’s famous. And it’s famous because Nioku was famous, and did legendary things with her bow. You tieing your personal pattern (via threads) to the pattern of a famous weapon make both of you more potent via the fact that both of you have fame. As you make legends with an item both you and it become more potent.

Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite things about Earthdawn is how it gives in-game reasons for a lot of the common fantasy RPG tropes. But the idea that a character’s power is the result of his fame is putting the cart before the horse.

If you think about the idea of Legend Points as an in-game thing, it leads to some interesting (and problematic) places. If you can earn ‘experience’ by telling stories, does that mean an individual can become a great swordsman by telling stories about being a great swordsman?  If an adept kills a horror in the forest, and he doesn’t tell anybody, does he earn the Legend Points? Neither of these really make any sense.

Take a look at the Awarding Legend Points section of the Earthdawn Gamemaster’s Guide (it starts on page 97). There are several elements that result in Legend Awards for characters:

  • Completing goals (session and adventure)
  • Conflicts
  • Gathering Magical Treasure
  • Individual Deeds
  • Roleplaying

In other words, a character earns a Legend Award for doing stuff. Telling tales (aka ‘building your legend’) certainly qualifies as doing something, but it doesn’t have its own category (depending on your play style, it could be counted as either an individual deed or roleplaying).

Legend Points are a character advancement mechanic. They are a way to model a character’s experience, placing that in a mechanical framework. They are not “real” in the setting of Earthdawn. A character may talk about their ‘legend’ but there is no in-game quantification of this — unlike “Third Circle” or “Warrior Discipline” which do have an in-game reality.

If an adept kills a horror in the forest, he has an experience that teaches him something that allows him to advance in the practice of his Discipline. It doesn’t matter if he tells anybody or not he still has the experience and would, in game mechanical terms, earn Legend Points.

Legend has a thematic importance to Earthdawn because of the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting, highlighting the importance of discovering that which was lost, it is a real thing — the history and oral traditions of the setting. Legend Points are not a quantifiable thing to the people of Barsaive, and these two things should not be conflated.

Nioku’s bow is famous because it has a lot of magical power. It doesn’t have a lot of magical power because it is famous. The last line in the post I quoted is true — as you make legends with an item both you and the item become more potent but that power is because you are doing things and those things you have done lead to legends.


Campaign Design: Wonderful players

Preparation continues for my upcoming Earthdawn campaign. Tonight my players came over and we made characters. I’m a GM that likes to have some idea of what characters I am going to have, because then I can tailor particular aspects of the game to suit them. This leads me to a subject near and dear to my twisted gamemaster heart — a player who is willing to give me rope to (potentially) hoist him in the air, twisting in the wind. At my table, this player is Doug. Every game should have a Doug.

As I’ve mentioned in my past entries about this game, I am going to be setting it (at least initially) in the area around Landis, Cara Fahd, and the Twilight Peaks. Doug handed me a gift by making an ork Sky Raider.

I’ll take that intake of breath as a sign you know what that means. Still, for those of you not as familiar with how this character is a gift, Cara Fahd is the newly (re-)formed ork nation in the southwestern corner of Barsaive. Having an ork means that I have an interesting “in” for any kind of stories I may want to pursue relating to politics relating to the ork nation. The nearby Twilight Peaks are home to a large concentration of troll Sky Raiders — who have a tradition of capturing individuals on their raids and having them serve in their clanholds.

What is wonderful is that Doug — like all wonderful players — is willing to write me a blank check, and go along with my ideas. He likes his characters, but doesn’t feel overly protective of them. He likes to have interesting things happen, and he trusts that I am not going to deliberately screw him over to give that to him. Part of this trust is the result of having played games with him for more than a decade — he is actually one of my oldest gaming buddies, and has been a part of almost every tabletop game I have run since I’ve known him.

The game is really starting to take shape at this point. The group has four characters: T’skrang Archer, Obsidiman Wizard, Human Warrior, and Ork Sky Raider. Our first play session is in two weeks, my next objective is to put together the framework for the first adventure, and start thinking about the larger pieces of my game and how I can tie these PCs together.


Canon (n) – a list of writings, esp sacred writings, officially recognized as genuine.

The issue of canon is one that can come up when fans get together (whether in person or online) and talk about their shared passion. It takes an interesting twist when applied to role-playing games. The main reason for this is because a role-playing game is really just a framework on which the group hangs their own stories and adventures — a kind of fan-fiction, if you will. There is nothing wrong with this, because that it the point of a role-playing game.

When you interact with other fans of the game, and players from other groups, having a “canon” for the game can be critical because it forms the starting point for discussion about the game. That canon, generally speaking, is the material released by the publisher — rule books, setting books, adventures, etc. But things can get thorny when you get a game that has multiple editions, sometimes with different publishers — like Earthdawn, or Dungeons & Dragons (which has had some radical changes over the years).

In preparing for my new game, I need to decide on how much of the published material is going to apply. I have an advantage in my situation — I am the most familiar with the setting. My players’ knowledge of the setting is largely drawn from their prior experience with the game, they aren’t the sort who read every book and obsessively pore over the details. It will be a lot easier for me to stray from the official setting canon because they don’t have any expectations or knowledge that I will need to take into account.

The bulk of the information about Landis is in the Cara Fahd sourcebook. There is some information on its history (mostly in relation to Cara Fahd and the conflicts between those nations before the Scourge) and a little bit of current geographic information (including references to several kaers and citadels). Outside of geography, Landis is largely a blank slate — which suits my purposes well enough.

One final thought on canon as it pertains to an individual campaign. How do you incorporate developments from later releases into an existing game? It is hard to know how easy it will be to handle this sort of thing. Here is an example from my own past experience to illustrate.

In one of the earliest Earthdawn games I ran (back in the earliest days of the game), the player characters were based out of a town I created called Riverfork. I plopped Riverfork down at the intersection of the Serpent and Caucavic rivers, and developed it as a major trading hub for the area. At the time I was running the game, this area was undeveloped in official supplements.

Then the Serpent River sourcebook was released, and a conflict appeared. According to the new sourcebook, the Cliff City of House Syrtis was a stone’s throw downriver from where I had placed Riverfork, set in the walls of the Lalai Gorge — a rather significant geographic feature that I had never mentioned in my game (since I wasn’t aware of its existence). I suddenly found the center of a major t’skrang trading house less than a day’s travel from my significant trading port — without having established any kind of significant t’skrang present there. This had the potential to cause a lot of problems.

So I ignored it. I brought some of the information from Serpent River over into that game, but it was more important that I maintain my game’s internal consistency than suddenly overthrow what I had previously established.

This taught me an important lesson when it comes to canon in a role-playing game. Each campaign develops its own canon. Once the dice come out, concerns about “official” become secondary. Recognize that there will inevitably be differences between the published material and your own game, and try not to stress about it.

That said, since my game is going to involve Landis to a fairly heavy degree, I am very curious what the upcoming Lost Dynasty supplement from RedBrick has to say about the area.

Brainstorming and preliminary planning

So I take out the map. At this point, I’m largely just brainstorming — letting my mind wander and see what bubbles up. In this particular case, I’m also mentally reviewing what I’ve done in the past, and trying to find a fresh location or approach. In my opinion, one of the more important things a gamemaster needs to do as he prepares for a new game is find something interesting to him. If he doesn’t, the game will suffer.

I’ve done a lot of stuff in the heart of Barsaive — my first long-term game was very heavily centered on Throal with the characters becoming agents for the crown and becoming involved with some of the major events from the old Prelude to War epic. My second long-term game started on the eastern edge of the province, and I recall that a bunch of the action happened along the Coil River between Urupa and Throal.

With central and eastern Barsaive covered, I look to the west. I’ve dabbled in this region a little bit — an adventure here and there — but nothing really focused or based in the region. I look over the map, thinking about the different areas and what they inspire. Iopos? There are certainly some interesting options there, but mostly as a source of antagonists. I’m not sure how I would approach characters from that area — though the idea of a game where the characters are agents of the Denairastas clan is intriguing, it’s a little bit removed from “traditional” Earthdawn I add that one to my mental list of “dream games” and move on.

Moving south, the next stop is Jerris. The City of Ash has a couple of really interesting features — the Wastes to the west and the Poison Forest to the east. The Wastes offer a lot of opportunity for classic kaer-delving and treasure hunting. The Poison Forest is a little harder to handle — it always struck me as an interesting area but only in limited doses. Great for mood, but a little bit tougher in the long-term… unless you’re running a game focused on finding the source of the Forest’s corruption. Actually a bit of a thematic link to the Wastes, and the Badlands, and other corrupted lands.

Next stop, the Twilight Peaks, Cara Fahd, Landis, and Ustrecht. This interests me quite a bit. My last game had some involvement with the ork migration and the founding of Cara Fahd. My players would probably be interested in following up on that. Also, Cara Fahd and the Twilight Peaks have sourcebooks dedicated to them — this can save me some valuable prep time. It also gives me a couple of areas that don’t have a whole lot of development yet — Landis and Ustrecht. I don’t want a heavily focused Cara Fahd game, because while it would give any ork characters a lot to do, it runs the risk of marginalizing other races.

Landis looks good. Very little in the way of official development has been done there so it gives me a bit of room to develop my own stuff. (I’ll get to concerns about ‘canonicity’ in a later post.) What do I know about Landis? It was a pre-Scourge kingdom, mainly human, that has bits and pieces of game lore associated with it (like the War Helm of Landis). Cara Fahd has been reborn… perhaps I could develop a story arc around the idea of doing the same with Landis?

One other thing comes to mind. I’ve been reading A Song of Ice and Fire (aka A Game of Thrones), and I think having part of the “rebirth” storyline be a bit of political conflict between different factions, each wanting their own candidate to be the first new king of Landis. This could involve attempts at influence from different other nations — Throal, Thera, Iopos, Cara Fahd. The different factions would also allow for different patrons and antagonists, driving adventures. The largely wild and untamed land could provide its own obstacles, and characters could go kaer-diving and treasure hunting to recover different lost treasures to help influence the struggle over the “crown” of Landis.

This is the most promising idea, and one I am really interested in exploring further. But before I can start fleshing out more detail, I need to do a little bit more research. I need to go over the Cara Fahd and Crystal Raider sourcebooks to see what they have to say about Landis (current or past). I also need to take some time to review other books that might have some reference to the area. At this point I’m just looking to absorb and brush up on my knowledge of the region. My primary goal is to give my mind nuggets to chew on — knowing that my subconscious will work on it and start tossing things out for consideration.

Planning a new campaign

One of the things I’m looking at this upcoming year is getting a new tabletop game started. It has been a couple of years (give or take) since my last game, and it was a short D&D 3.5 group that didn’t really get through more than a couple of sessions. A big part of the obstacles was family — I have two young children as do another couple that were part of our regular gaming group. Dealing with that aspect of things really hampered the flow — not to mention trying to work out schedules and so forth.

But time has passed, the kids are a little older (and more able to entertain themselves) so we’re looking to — as the saying goes — “get the band back together”. I think we have all been missing the (semi-) regular get togethers. World of Warcraft is fun, but it isn’t the same thing (despite what some detractors of 4th Edition D&D might say).

With a new game starting to brew, one of the first — and most important — questions is what game to play? This is best sorted out through negotiation and getting a feel for the kind of play experience everybody wants. You also need to figure out who is going to run the game, because they have a lot of prep work to do…

…or your wife can tell you that you’re running the game, and that game is going to be Earthdawn.

I think I prefer this method.

I have a decent library of games, and there are a handful of them I would love to run at some point before the heat death of the universe. However, Earthdawn is (and has been) my go-to game of choice for almost 20 years. It is a system I know very well, and I have run two very successful long-term campaigns. While I will probably need to brush up on the rules a little bit, I can focus more on setting up the story.

Here is where the problems start to appear.

I cheat. I try to recycle/reuse as much as I can.

All but one of the players in this game were in my last long-term Earthdawn game, and one of the players has been in both of my long-term games. With this being the first time back at the table in some time, I don’t want to serve leftovers.

But I also don’t want to overburden myself. I’m an adult with a full-time job, a young family, and other commitments. The days of having a bunch of free time to work on game prep are behind me. So… what to do? I need something to kick-start my brain.

I start by taking out my map.

New Front End

Happy new year! One of the changes I had in mind for this year was to combine my blog with the front page of the website. This way, I could use the blog for content updates as well as for anything else I want to add here.

I realize it’s been a while since I posted any updates. The holidays kept me pretty busy, and my work on Earthdawn Classic has been eating up a bit of time as well. It’s going along well, but as the saying goes — “90% of the work takes place during the last 10% of the project.”

To try and bring things up to date, I have added five new entries in the Valyan’s Heirs campaign journals. Two are from Kira, and three are from Thrak. Here are links for the first new entry in each character’s journal.

Kira’s Entry 13

Thrak’s Entry 4

(October 2016: These links will be updated once the material is reformatted and made available.)

The next few weeks will see updates to the Riders on the Storm journals, more specific news on the progress of Earthdawn Classic, and hopefully an image gallery. And, of course, there will be other blog entries. One of my resolutions this year is to try and maintain some kind of regular update schedule.

I hope I can keep to it.