Denizens of Earthdawn 1 & 2
Denizens of Earthdawn Vols. 1 & 2 are not only sourcebooks for the eight Name-giver races of the land of Barsaive in Earthdawn, but are also two of the best sourcebooks for fantasy races I have ever read. I will attempt to review both their usefulness in an Earthdawn campaign and as general role-playing supplements. These books provide the needed background to generate realistic fantasy races. If you want to add details such as creation myths, attitudes towards art and craft, and basic outlooks on life to your fantasy races, you won't go wrong with these books.
Each book is 128 pages long, with the first 100 covering general information about the races and the last 28 including game specific information. The general information is conveyed in the manner of the other Earthdawn supplements: as a book written in character by a person from Barsaive. Each race's subsection is "written" by a different person, frequently a member of a different race. Each author has an obvious bias about the race that they are discussing, and there are numerous comments by other "scholars" interspersed throughout the books to clarify or theorize on certain passages. This format gives you a better idea about the views that the races hold towards each other and makes the process of learning about the races seem like you are truly in the world, learning about your fellow races. Best of all, each book includes a full index so you can look up any obscure reference that lingers in your mind after reading these books.
The art is quite good. Nearly all the pages have at least one illustration. Best of all, each race has richly illustrated color plates that aim to capture the essence of the race in four beautiful pages. Put together, the text and the art creates a tapestry that will allow the GM to breathe life into these races.
Meat and Substance
One of the greatest features of Earthdawn is its detailed and well-thought out world. The level of detail is evident in the Denizens books. Each book covers four races: Human, Elf, Windling (a.k.a. pixie), and T'skrang (a.k.a. lizardmen) in the first and Dwarf, Ork, Troll, and Obsidimen (a.k.a. stonemen) in the second. Orks with their love of both life and battle, Trolls with their fierce honor and tribal structure, T'skrang with their Errol Flynn flamboyance, and Obsidimen with their mysterious beliefs and love of nature are welcome additions to the collection of fantasy races. The troubled Elves with their shameful past, the Windlings who embody entropy and chaos, the plentiful Dwarves who are Barsaive's de-facto rulers, and the Humans, who are for once in the minority, are interesting takes on some of the staples of the genre.
Each races' information contains information on the customs of the race, their basic beliefs, their language, attitudes towards the other races, and any major subgroups of the race. The subject of subgroups is primarily used in the section on humans, who are presented as disparate tribes each with their own culture, rather than as a unified race. There are no hard and fast rules or numbers in these sections; rather they are stories and texts describing the race.
The rules section, while brief, is packed with information. It includes role-playing tips for each of the races to help your players, new Disciplines for each race, new Talents, any specific race related rules, and a brief glossary of the languages. The role-playing hints and the glossary are of general interest, but the rest is of little interest to non-Earthdawn GMs. This section is by far the least interesting part of the books and I would call it serviceable, rather than exceptional.
The books are without flaws. The second book is of noticeably lesser quality than the first one, both in art and in substance. The section on the Dwarves and Orks are both painfully short, while the Obsidimen and Trolls are richly detailed. This is somewhat lessened for Earthdawn GMs by the Throal: The Dwarf Kingdom and The Ork Nation of Cara Fahd expansions which have more information on the Dwarves and Orks, but this does not help other GMs who are searching for more generic information. Nor does it help Earthdawn GM's who are looking for information about Dwarves or Orks in general, not specifically in Throal or Cara Fahd.
Further, the new Disciplines included in the rules section are of uneven quality. While some, such as the Human Journeyman are interesting, allowing the PC to choose her own skills, others, such as the new Windling Disciplines, are overpowered. Finally, the Dwarf and Elf information is heavily slanted toward the Earthdawn setting. While the history of the Elves' Blood Wood and the Dwarves' superiority complex is well developed, it is of little interest to GMs who wish to run campaigns set where Dwarves are not in the majority and where the Elves have not made a painful sacrifice to their arrogance.
Who would want to buy these books? They are indispensable for any GM of Earthdawn. Any player in an Earthdawn campaign should at least read the information on her race. Any GM of another system looking for fresh ideas for a race will also find these more than worth their money. Although they are currently out of print, there is a brisk trade in used Earthdawn books on the major web auction sites, and there are rumors that a new company may start reprinting the old Earthdawn books!
Style: 5 (Excellent!)