I’ve had a pretty long-running Earthdawn campaign with a rather erratic schedule, and I absolutely adore it. I also kind of hate it. I’m going to run you through why.
I love Earthdawn because of the setting. It messes up the standard D&D style fantasy formula, plays with metaphysics and the idea of power behind Names. It has a world filled to the brim with possible adventure, dungeons that make a lot of sense to be everywhere and lots and lots of variety. But it is also filled with intrigue, as the nations of Barsaive compete and cooperate, with spies in every city, and conspiracies all over the place. It has politics, with every nation having just a slightly different view on how to tackle the threat of the encroaching Theran Empire. And it is high, HIGH magic, with every Discipline having access to magical powers, justifying high power from even the “mundane” classes.
I also love Earthdawn because of the rules system, and primarily because it connects the setting with the rules themselves, one of the things I most often hear praised about the game. As characters weave mechanical threads to magic items, they also weave metaphysical threads with magic, binding them to that item, and with a need to discover the item’s history and sometimes even performing legendary deeds to ascend to a higher level, magical items themselves seed adventures.
But there are many more things that I love about Earthdawn’s systems – For instance, the way Talents and Spells have specific ways they interact magically with the fiction, but also have loads of flavour. They also lead to some quite interesting dynamics as you progress through a campaign – our group, which is at Circle 5 (out of 15) are already so far beyond the powers of regular people that it requires other Adepts to match their influence. When the Illusionist tricks an entire village, having another Illusionist with the True Sight talent is usually the only thing capable of dispelling the illusion…
The campaign I’ve run has been quite a mixed bag, with a bunch of characters and players switching in and out, mostly due to one problem: The setting, while one of my favourite fantasy settings in fiction, suffers from being without any reference point in other types of fiction, so really it has to experienced for a while before you really “get it”. Some things are easy to explain: Names have magical power, Legends build that power, there was a magical apocalypse which made everyone hide in Kaers sort of like a fantasy Fallout, all of that is easy, but there are so many races and concepts that exist in good old D&D, but which is different in ways that can turn any walk through a city into a one-hour loredump (Case in point: There are Orks, but they have a matriarchal society, they have short lifespan, and their ancestors were pretty much all slaves, and all of this have an impact on their culture…). This means that once the players got used to the setting, they no longer wanted to play the character they made at the beginning, and the group became a kind of Theseus’ Ship of an adventuring party.
Most egregious, and more of a personal taste thing, are all of the systems which I just don’t care about. The combat system I think is tedious, but you can’t just dump it, because then combat doesn’t work, especially in the lower circles. I am not sure if I really need so many different types of weapons, with slightly differing abilities hidden the the item description, and using “thread items”, the standard magical items of the game, is not worth it compared to the fun injected by the various magical treasures you can otherwise insert into the game. Maybe I’m just getting old and angry at large rulebooks, but I feel like the rules/content ratio of the core books is just too skewed.
I love Earthdawn, so much that I am starting to write an alternate system that you could use, with less hassle. The campaign I’m running now I think has great potential, as it now focuses on three spellcasters and their magical investigations for the City of Urupa, with all the weirdness that entails. The Adepts are also getting to a level of power where they get to have a very real influence on politics and larger events, which I think is very exciting.