A land rich and strange, revisited in this Third Edition with the expected revisions and improvements to the rule mechanics while keeping the flavour of the game. Earthdawn is, of course, equally about setting as it is about the ruleset used to play there; and the central focus remains on Barsaive, the rules being merely to make the game work while you're in that alternate reality.
The work opens with a Prologue, a short story called 'Inheritance' that recounts a party's adventures during which a notable axe was found, bringing a flavour of traditional fantasy with a specific twist: not any old fantasy but one set in Barsaive! Next is Chapter 1: Introduction, which lays out what is indeed so special about Barsaive. Once a flourishing, pleasant place to dwell it was spoiled by the arrival of the Horrors which brought darkness and ravaged the world whilst those who had lived in peace hid under the very earth. Hid for some 400 years until it was safe to return to the surface, but a surface much changed, and far more dangerous. From this, the discussion moves on to an explanation of what a role-playing game is, and explains that this book and the Gamemaster's Guide are all you really need for years of adventure... although naturally supplementary material is available to further enhance your game!
Chapter 2: Game Concepts explains the core game mechanic and underlying ideas and terminology used in this game. It's a magic-rich world, and even those who are not overt spellcasters are likely to have at least some contact with it. Player-characters are called Adepts, and may train and develop within a number of Disciplines gaining specific talents to aid in their adventuring careers. As characters develop, their rating within their Discipline increases, the ranks being known as Circles. The explanation of how you decide what dice to roll for task resolution is somewhat confusing: persevere and it does become clear... and once you have created a character and worked it out once for him, you're sorted (until he advances to the next Circle!). For those special occasions when you really want to succeed, you can spend Karma to roll additional dice. Naturally, any attempt at task resolution is subject to modifiers depending on circumstances and equipment, as determined by the GM. After a discussion of time, distances and weights, there is a passing mention of Passions, embodiment of the hopes and fears of the people of Barsaive - a single paragraph that really doesn't tell you anything with the frustrating comment that more information is contained in the Gamemaster's Companion.
Next comes a look at how magic works on Barsaive. Much power is held in the name of an object, a place or a person; and the act of giving a name, if done properly, grants power over and a link to that item. There are planes other than that on which you live, there is blood magic, there are legends... all of these and more weave together to form the rich cultural heritage of Barsaive, backdrop to your adventures. The chapter ends with general details about the Horrors, at the level a man-in-the-street might know.
Next, Chapter 3: Namegiver Races looks at the various races which you can play. 'Namegivers' because they are the ones capable of the ritual giving of names, with the magical effects discussed earlier. The available races are humans, orks, dwarves, elves, trolls, obsidimen, windlings, and t'skrang; and here are full details of what they look like, how they view each other and the game mechanics that depend on which race you pick on for your character. The obsidimen have strong connections to rock, even looking as though they were made from it although they are actually flesh and blood creatures. The t'skrang are reptilian while windlings are tiny winged beings. The more familiar fantasy races are much as you'd expect, although orks and trolls are fully civilised and accepted members of society rather than the 'monsters' that they are in many fantasy worlds.
Races described, next comes Chapter 4: Character Creation, which covers the process in detail. The whole process is detailed in a logical manner, with each step clearly defined. It's recommended that you study the next three chapters - which cover Disciplines, Talents and Skills - first, so as to be able to make informed choices for your character. Your character's Attributes start from a stated racial base, with a point-buy system to enable you to customise them according to your concept. Naturally, different Attributes are inportant depending on the Discipline you intend to follow as well as the way in which you perceive your character - strong, tough, smart, observant or whatever. Next there's a fair bit of calculation of various derived statistics - this is not a five-minute job but a process that should be considered as you create a character worthy of the setting. Next the character needs magical Talents - based on his Discipline - and Skills, both again purchased via a point-buy system; and if you have chosen a spellcasting Discipline you need to choose your spells. Round out the character with some equipment, describe him in terms of appearance and personality and you're done, ready for adventure.
As mentioned above, the next few chapters contain further detail on your options for Discipline, Talents and Skills. Firstly, Chapter 5: Disciplines explains that your Discipline is much more than a career choice, it's part of what makes you who you are, an adept able to use magic to power Talents (even if you are not actually chucking spells around). Hence this chapter begins with a discourse on what becoming an adept and initiate in your chosen Discipline is all about. There are fifteen core Disciplines presented here. It is possible, but hard, to learn more than one of them - indeed it's hard enough to learn one! So spend some time thinking about how the character approaches his Discipline, his underlying philosophy, how he trained and with whom... such reflection will but enhance your role-playing. (If this depth doesn't appeal, find another fantasy game to play!) Chapter 6: Talents provides details of the Talents available, which were listed but not described under each Discipline that gives access to them. Many Talents are available to practitioners of more than one Discipline.
Skills, the subject of Chapter 7, are the mundane equivalent of Talents. You don't need to be an adept to learn them, but adepts find them as useful as the next person. There are four types of skill: artisan, general, knowledge and language. The artisan ones are particularly interesting: as the sort of craft they represent require focus and attention to detail they are impossible for anyone tainted by the Horrors to perform, or so it is believed, and so many people learn at least a little of an artisan skill just to prove themselves free of taint. Knowledge skills put facts and information at your character's fingertips, while general ones cover actions that your character can perform and language skills allow characters to speak, read and write languages other than their own (and the Dwarf tongue, which serves as a common language and is usually the first one you learn to read and write, even if you are not a dwarf).
Chapter 8: The Workings of Magic delves deeper into this topic, the heart of the Earthdawn game. It looks at how magic came to the world and how it works, and explores astral space - a parallel realm that is the source of magical power. While beneficial in the most part, magic is also the path whereby the Horrors came to the world, and can be used by them and their minions in their destructive mission just as easily as it can be used for good. While the mainstream theory is that the level of magic in the world is cyclical, with the possibility of incursion by alien threats at its peak, it is not falling off as would be expected but has held stable even though the main disruption, the Scourge, has now ended. A fine in-character discourse explains how magic works through patterns, naming and threads. Most characters will be aware of this, at least in general, but those who are actual magicians will have studied this in detail during their training for their chosen Disciplines (especially those who follow the Wizard's path). Much of this chapter discusses theory rather than use (although you do learn various aspects of spell use relating to astral space) but is well worth reading to get the underpinning flavour of the setting.
This is followed by Chapter 9: Thread Magic, which continues where the previous chapter left off, looking at this particular aspect of magic which is used to provide linkages between items and to draw magical energy forth when it is needed. Again it's a rich and heady mix of magical theory and the game mechanics required when this magic is used. In similar theme, next is Chapter 10: Blood Magic. This discusses the use of blood - the spellcaster's own or that of a sacrifice - to empower the magic being done, or enhance a Talent at time of need. One significant role of this magic is in the swearing of oaths, and it is also used in rituals involved in gaining a familiar. However it is worth noting that many ordinary folk (i.e. non-adepts) view blood magic somewhat askance, as it has evil as well as good applications.
While the above chapters on magic are of use to a greater or lesser extent to all adepts, Chapter 11: Spell Magic is of more relevance to those adepts who follow Disciplines that train in the actual casting of spells. The current most common method of casting spells is through a 'spell matrix' as casting them 'raw' makes rather a lot of astral noise that can attract harm to the caster. Magicians need to learn how to form and mould spell matrices in order to cast the spells that they learn through their Discipline, from other casters or from a book. Magicians tend to keep grimoires, a personal record far more than just the spells known but a log of the individual's progress and thoughts, a reflective journal of his growth in his craft. The actual casting of a spell involves the gathering of the caster's will and astral power to weave into the pattern that is the spell to be cast, and then actually casting it. Most of this takes place in astral space so only those using Astral Sight can make much sense of the gestures and incantations most magicians use! Once you have the hang of the mechanics of spellcasting, on to Chapter 12: Spells for a massive list from which to choose, for all four spellcasting Disciplines up to the Eighth Circle. And if that's not enough magic, Chapter 13: Summoning explains the use of the Summoning talent, which in the main is used to summon a spirit to do your bidding.
Next, Chapter 14: Combat looks at the mechanics necessary for those situations when talking has failed and violence ensues. It's designed to be a relatively speedy process, in which participants declare their actions, determine initiative, resolve their actions... and repeat the process until someone's won the fight. Declaring actions is quite general - attack, cast spell, etc.: you get into detail once it's your turn and you resolve that action. It all sounds more complex than it really is, provided particpants know how their various capabilities work mechanically and do not have to keep looking things up. A common result of a brawl is injury, so the next part looks at wounds and healing (with non-violent damage such as disease included for good measure. And of course there are lots of more complicated options that can be used to make combat more exciting and detailed - called shots, getting inside a shield, jumping around, attempts to knock your opponent down or stun him rather than do actual harm...
Chapter 15: Building Your Legend explores how characters develop and grow during play. Starting as raw newly-qualified novices in their chosen Discipline, it is by adventuring and other exploits that they progress from First Circle to... well, if they survive long enough, once they get to Thirteenth Circle they are regarded as Masters in whatever it is that they do. By adventuring, achieving goals, winning conflicts, amassing magical treasure and doing great deeds, characters earn Legend Points which can be used to advance the character. Some other actions also require a character to spend Legend Points, and so two totals need to be kept: the current tally (which will go up and down) and a grand total of all Legend Points earned. Characters can spend Legend Points at any suitable opportunity to improve Abilities or Talents, learn new spells and more. To actually advance in Circle Rank, a character must not only achieve targets for his Discipline Talents, he also needs training from a more senior practitioner in the Discipline, neatly tying both game mechanics and role-playing into the advancement. This chapter also looks at what's needed to learn entirely new Disciplines as well as matters like renown and reputation and the formation of formal adventuring groups.
This is followed by Chapter 16: Goods and Services, which covers just about everything the well-equipped adventurer might need. We're reminded that everything in this world is hand-crafted and unique... and sometimes it's getting on for an adventure in itself to find the item you want. There's useful information on currency and encumberance, and a comprehensive list of weapons. Likewise armour and shields are covered in detail; along with information on damage and repair. Some quite fascinating armour materials are described as well as the conventional leather and metal armours common to fantasy worlds. Protect yourself with fernweave or living crystal armour with a brightly-coloured espagra-scale cloak! Various 'blood charms' are listed which all give you some advantage, usually at a price - and not just in coin, either. Other magical items are less spectacular in effect but often very useful, even a one-size hat that fits any head or a traveller's mug that fills with fresh cool water once a day. Healing aids, adventuring gear, services, mounts and even clothing round out the chapter.
All dressed up, Chapter 17: Barsaive gives you somewhere to go - it's a detailed description of the provice of Barsaive, where the game is set. Vast, with a variety of terrains from mountain to jungle and rivers to suit all tastes, settlements and swamps to visit. Cities and political groups are described, everything you need to know in preparation for your visit. And, to round off the book, several pre-generated First Circle adepts of various races and Disciplines so you can get going at once, a character sheet if you'd rather prepare your own and a big map so that you do not get lost!
As you can see, there's a lot here. It well repays study however, if you are to get the most out of this rich and unique game, where setting and mechanics go hand-in-hand to empower you to create epic stories of legendary adventure. Mechanically, this is - although complex in places - a solid system which works well to engender the feel of a truly unique alternate reality, and shows the benefit of maturity, a tried and tested set of rules now in its third edition. About the only quibble is that I still need to read at least the Gamemaster's Guide (and preferably more) to get the full benefit... and that's hardly a complaint, I am enjoy it so far!