Originally written December 2003
Gamemaster Screens are an almost ubiquitous part of any RPG system, often one of the first “supplements” released after the core book has come out. Earthdawn’s Second Edition (released by Living Room Games in June 2001) is no exception, with this screen released in 2002. As is the case with any new edition (especially one published by a new developer), comparisons with the original are inevitable. These differences will not be my sole focus here, but I will point out where differences improve (or detract) from FASA’s first edition.
The Screen: Player’s Side
The screen itself is a 3-panel affair, made of heavy cardstock with an attractive, glossy finish. It is the heaviest screen I’ve personally encountered, and will probably stand up to many years of service.
The player side has a 2-panel painting by Patrick Keith of three airships over a wilderness landscape at sundown… at least I assume it’s sundown because of the overall light quality in the painting. It could just as easily be early morning (to tie into the name of the game), but it just doesn’t have the “feel” of morning.
Compared to the art on the original screen, the new edition is a huge improvement. The original felt very monochromatic, with a heavy emphasis on red. It wasn’t especially attractive, and I much prefer the new artwork.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles with the new version, though. The UPC barcode is pretty much right in the middle of the landscape at the bottom — it doesn’t obscure any details, but its location is a little bit annoying.
The third panel on the player’s side (the leftmost panel as you look at it) reproduces two tables from the rulebook; the Racial Modifiers Table, which lists that attribute adjustments for all the PC races, and the Attribute Table, from which many PC attributes are drawn. These tables are used primarily during character creation. While adjustments to your attributes in-game may require you to determine these new statistics, it happens rarely enough that I question the need to have these tables printed on the screen — especially when they’re basically illegible from the other end of the table. A GM may have more need to refer to these tables (especially when creating an NPC on the fly), but their location makes them virtually useless for that purpose as well.
Still, if you need to fill a third “player panel” on an Earthdawn screen, these tables aren’t really a bad choice — I can’t think of any tables from the game players need to refer to on a regular basis, except perhaps the Step/Action Dice Table, which is printed on the official character sheet (as well as on every homebrew sheet you can download off the net).
I give the player’s side of the screen a thumbs up.
The Screen: Gamemaster’s Side
The GM’s side of the screen has (as expected) a collection of useful charts and tables for easy reference. The first thing I have to point out (because it’s kind of a big deal) is the Step/Action Dice Table. Three of the dice steps listed are wrong. Errata available on the Living Room Games website indicates that steps 26 through 28 are incorrect, and gives the corrected dice.
The Step/Action Dice Table is the single most important table in the game. Having an error in it is shameful, especially on the GM screen, where it will see a whole lot of use. The error will be corrected in the second printing, but until the first sells out… you need to correct the mistake yourself.
The rest of the tables presented aren’t anything spectacular — here’s a comparison between the content on the old screen and the new.
Step/Action Dice Table
Step/Action Dice Table
Raw Magic Table
* The original Magic Table listed Learn/Dispel, Sensing, and Disbelief difficulty numbers. The new table just lists the difficulty of Dispel Tests.
There are some trade-offs between the new and old screens, as you can see in the comparison above. The new screen includes some useful new tables, but removes a couple of useful ones as well. The layout has also changed, some for the better, and some for the worse. The Step/Action Dice Table is now on the far left panel, instead of the center one. I’m not crazy about this, because, as I mentioned before, this is the single most important (and most referenced) table in the game. I think it should be in the center (along with the Success Level Table, which is still on the center panel).
One of my biggest complaints with the original screen was how much space was taken up by the weapon and armor tables — fully one and a half panels worth. I personally felt that this was mostly wasted space; while it can be good to have some of this information available on the fly, I personally never found much use for it.
The new screen keeps these tables, but condenses them down to a single panel. This leaves room for the more useful (at least, in my mind) Perception Difficulty and Perception Modifier tables. Unfortunately, they lose the Difficulty Number Table, a great tool for on-the-fly gamemastering.
So overall, while the style and visual presentation has been improved, the overall functionality of the screen is pretty much the same. The error in the Step/Action Dice Table is annoying, but the corrections are available, and changing the numbers on the screen itself involves a bit of minor “surgery” with white-out and a razor-tipped pen.
Like most screens, this one also comes with some supplemental materials. In this case, a 16-page insert with an adventure and three appendices.
I’ll talk about the appendices first. Appendix One is a reprint of information originally available in Creatures of Barsaive, FASA’s creature book for Earthdawn. It talks about how to create original creatures for your own game, giving advice on how to assign statistics and target numbers to reflect the nature of the creature. It also gives guidelines on assigning creatures a legend point value. This material is useful, and reprinting it in the screen is a good idea.
Appendices Two and Three are, respectively, errata and rules clarifications from ED2. Much of these are available online from Living Room Games, but including them in the screen — a supplement most groups (at least in theory) will pick up — is a good idea as well.
Now for the adventure, Into the Breach. This is a relatively pedestrian adventure, plagued by a couple of strange assumptions and a bit of a railroading problem. Here’s the general outline; a bandit leader has decided to prey on inexperienced adventuring groups. He leads these groups into a trap with a bogus artifact and map to a forgotten kaer. There he ambushes them, and takes their gear. The PCs are the latest targets of this ruse, and in the process of escaping find themselves trapped inside the abandoned kaer. They explore the kaer, find another way out, and take care of the bandit problem.
It isn’t really a bad adventure, but it does have a few poor assumptions. First of all, the fake relic that falls into the PCs hands has a warning inscribed on it — a warning against breaking it:
Guard me closely
Always hold me dear
For when I break
Then danger appears.
But unless the tablet is broken, the PCs won’t get the map that leads them into the trap. The suggestions given in the adventure basically state that if the PCs don’t break the tablet themselves (why they might actually want to isn’t really addressed — does it assume that PC curiosity will overrule common sense?), the GM should arrange for a convenient accident. Then, when the ambush is sprung, the only apparent way out of the trap is to collapse the entrance to the kaer, trapping themselves inside it. If the PCs seem reluctant to do this (and again, why wouldn’t they be), the GM is again advised to manipulate events to trap the PCs inside.
In essence, the GM is advised to railroad the PCs — certainly not a favorable characteristic of the adventure.
There are a couple of positive aspects of the adventure. First of all, there are three suggestions on how the PCs can obtain the fake relic. (I’ll comment on one of those in a moment.) Secondly, if the PCs go charging blindly into the final conflict with the bandits, they’re likely to be cut down, as they are vastly outnumbered. Reconnaissance and planning are needed to take down the leader of this group and stop his plans to loot poor adventurers.
I’m always in favor of giving GMs choices and options in their adventure planning, and I like it when adventures place some emphasis on reconnaissance, planning, and smart play over the “wade in and hack” style; these are points in the adventure’s favor. However, the blatant railroading early on — especially when the GM forces the players into situations any reasonably seasoned gamer would avoid like the plague — drags this adventure into the dirt.
A couple of final notes here on the adventure. One of the suggested hooks is to have the bandit’s agent pose as a merchant who claims his caravan was attacked by bandits. He hires the PCs to head back to the site of the attack (which is staged), and promises them whatever goods can be salvaged are theirs. The only item left is the clay tablet, which the “merchant” is reluctant to part with, but a promise is a promise.
I tried playtesting this adventure, and used this option to kick it off. The players would not give up on the bandits that supposedly attacked this merchant’s caravan. They spent several days tromping around the woods looking for evidence of their work, leaving the map and abandoned kaer on the back burner. They still haven’t followed up on that, and I’ve more or less given up on trying to get them back on track. The other options seem to have a bit less chance of sending PCs wildly astray, so if you decide to run this adventure, keep that in mind.
Finally, there is a low circle Wizard talent that can blow this whole adventure hook right out of the water — Evidence Analysis (available to Wizards at Second Circle) can learn the truth about the artifact with little difficulty. If a PC has access to this talent, the adventure may be completely short circuited.
My suggestion is to scavenge the adventure for ideas, using the NPCs presented and adjusting the storyline to make a better overall adventure. As is, Into the Breach is barely worth the effort.
One final thing should be said about this product; it’s expensive. You get a pretty, durable GM screen that’s moderately useful (once you correct the error in the Step Table) and a 16-page supplement dominated by an adventure of dubious quality.
All of this for twenty dollars.
That’s right. This GM screen costs as much as most full blown game supplements. Frankly, the cost to value ratio is way off here. Fifteen dollars I could live with because the screen looks good and will stand up to a lot of use. But the errors and flaws severely hamper this product, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it. You’d be much better served making your own screen, or tracking down an old first edition screen with its 64 page booklet.
Style actually gets high marks because it is a good looking product with no obvious typos, and a pretty clean presentation overall. I have a couple of personal bugaboos with the choice of layout on the GM side of the screen, but that’s mostly personal preference — I have to admit it still looks good, regardless of where I might have put the various tables. 4 out of 5.
What it has in style, however, it severely lacks in substance. An error in the most important table in the game and a mediocre adventure (at best) are big flaws. The reprinted creature creation information is useful, as are the errata and clarifications. In the end, though, the high price point for what you end up with is the final nail in the coffin. 1 out of 5. Had I paid for it (this was a comp copy) I would have felt as though I wasted my money.
I finally finished the adventure included in the screen. It isn’t pretty. Read on for the playtest report…