Shadowrun / Earthdawn Prehistory

   Here’s the Shadowrun Prehistory Timeline, including a quick summary of the Earthdawn period. It’s generally compatible with real-world history, but it certainly isn’t common knowlege. In fact, most of it isn’t known to anyone at this point. There are some indications though: minor traces of some of the later “ages” – principally the Earthdawn Age (circa 13,000 BC) and Metahuman Age (circa 18,000 BC) – are available. In the light of modern knowledge of magic, Archeologists have re-interpreted these discoveries; the fact that there were previous ages of magic, which supported their own civilizations, has been amply confirmed since Dunkelzahn’s discussion of the magic cycle on WyrmTalk. There are even ominous hints that the human race was forced to hide in caves and magical fortresses during the high points of the magic cycle, but little is known on the subject – although speculation is rife.

   For those who need names of some sort, we have the “Golden Age” (circa 39,000 BC), the “Dragon Age” (circa 29,000 BC), the “Metahuman Age” (Circa 18,000 BC), the “Earthdawn Age” (circa 13,000 BC), and the “Shadowrun Age” (2011 AD).

Shadowrun-Earthdawn Prehistory:

   65,589 BC: The usual minor geological disturbances as the magic level drops below zero triggers the Toba Catastrophe – a supervolcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia that reduces the homid population in Africa to somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 breeding pairs. The environmental changes, genetic drift, and the sudden need for improved pattern-recognition and communication abilities, push several recessive gene combinations into prominence. Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and modern linguistic capabilities, are born.

   60,389 BC: Magic returns to the world. Homo Sapiens Sapiens discovers that the ability to form complex linguistic constructs and abstractions can also be used to form mental constructs for channeling mana. With that level of flexibility, modern man spreads out across the world, easily exterminating the other branches of homid evolution.

   55,189 BC: Magic drops below zero again. For Homo Neanderthalis and the other relatives of the primary Homo Sapiens Sapiens line it is far too late. Modern Humans now dominate to the point where the last homid rivals are readily exterminated. Absorbed in wandering, settling, and taking over now-vacant ecological slots, humans do not develop much of any civilization this time around.

   49,989 BC: Magic returns once again. Now competing against each other, human magicians seek deeper magical secrets, eventually discovering both Initiation and the Metaplanes. Unfortunately, accessing the Metaplanes breaches the natural precambrian astral barrier left over from the sterile epochs before life erose on earth, allowing the creatures of the metaplanes access to the planet. Fortunately, the development comes too late in the magic cycle for any to actually do so.

   44,789 BC: The overall magic level drops below zero. Human civilization reverts to reliance on trivial personal magics and links with those few power-sites which have been directly linked to the stable energies of the metaplanes. Technology remains virtually non-existent.

   39,589 BC: The general magic level rises to useful levels once again. Used to working with only a trickle of magic, human magicians exploit this new resource with great enthusiasm. Magical settlements and constructs arise, in a period that will enter later mythologies as a golden age – a comfortable hunter-gatherer paradise augmented with easy magic. The good times draw to an end in approximately

   37,489 through 36,489 BC: The first scourge. The magic level becomes high enough for the Insect Spirits – and, roughly a hundred years later, the true Horrors – to exploit the disruption of the precambrian astral barrier and manifest themselves on earth. Early attempts at protection against the Insect Spirits result in the creation of the Shapeshifters, as well as several types of magical guardbeasts. None of the experiments are truly effective against the Horrors. As the most intelligent, and thus most vulnerable, species, humans survive in scattered groups and in a few heavily-protected areas. Civilization will partially rebuild afterwards, but – in the waning of magic – does not reach it’s original heights again. Overall, the Scourge lasts for almost a thousand years, although the first and last hundred are pretty much restricted to being harassed by insect spirits.

   34,389 BC: Magic fails once again, save for the megalithic power-sites set up during the waning days of the age of magic. Humans finish repopulating the globe, but continue to rely on what little magic is still possible rather than technological innovations.

   29,189 BC: Magic returns, and another magical civilization rises, weaving homes from trees, air, and magic, storing knowledge in chunks of crystal, and bringing bounty to the earth. Sadly, the feral descendants of the ancient guardbeasts join the other dangers of the awakened world to make things more difficult than they used to be. With the rise of the Horrors, a new solution is attempted: the most powerful mages of the world reach back into the depths of the memory of the earth to call forth the forms of the most terrible warrior-beasts that have ever lived (now known as dinosaurs), weave those forms from magic, will, imagination, and not a little creative license, and transmigrate their souls into them. The first Great Dragons – while forgetful of much of their true origin – rise to war with the Horrors. Unfortunately, even the Dragons are not a match for the Horrors, although they do allow the survival of considerably greater numbers of humans.

   23,989 BC: The magic level drops to zero again, forcing the surviving Dragons into hibernation. Humans are tolerably well prepared for the low-magic period this time, once again using various methods of keeping limited amounts of magic working. In addition, the notion of alternative methods of doing things has taken firm root: basic “technologies”, such as ceramics and similar simple developments, make life a little easier.

   18,789 BC: Magic – and the Dragons – return to the world. As the scourge approaches, the wiser Dragons and human magicians attempt other routes – reawakening some of the ancient magical channels which once granted inherent abilities to various members of the pre-human homid lines. Among other variants, Orks, Trolls, Elves, Dwarves, Obsidiman, Windlings, and their “Physical Adept” variants are created. The Adepts, at least, are moderately successful against the Horrors. Various techniques for building refuges and fortifications are, however, at least as useful; civilization is badly damaged and there are numerous casualties, but it could have been a lot worse. Towards the end of the age, certain dragons also sire Dragonkin and T’Skrang on various humans and variant humans. A very few elven crossbreeds seem to inherit undistorted forms and natural draconic near-immortality, the first of the “Immortal Elves” (there are other, but difficult, routes to near-immortality).

   13,589 BC: Magic again drops below the zero point. The surviving dragons and their progeny enter hibernation. Without magic to power their innate channels and enhancements, metahuman children begin to be born as normal humans. Nevertheless, persistent – if uninformed – selective breeding has now resulted in the reliable domestication of various animals. An assortment of non-magical weapons, basic hide armor, and various other simple technologies, are in common use. Even so, however, technology is no match for the magic which can be kept working, and is never seriously developed.

   8389 BC: Magic once again reaches usable levels. The Dragons re-awaken – but with the last of the original dragons long gone, the younger lesser dragons soon begin to chafe under the domination of their elders. This results in the Dragonwars – a conflict between the elder dragons and their younger progeny (with the Dragonkin mostly siding with the younger dragons). This isn’t good for anyone, and eats up a good deal of the time and resources that might have been used to prepare against the return of the Horrors. Several of the surviving Immortal Elves, however, create the “Books of Harrow” and begin to prepare to exploit the arrival of the Horrors for their own ends – collecting vast amounts of orichalcum, turning Thera / Atlantis into a magical fortress, exaggerating the dangers of the Scourge, and arranging for everyone else to seal themselves away in magical fortresses to be opened when the magic level dropped below the point that would force the Horrors back into the metaplanes. They then used their orichalcum reserves to construct a magic-focusing network designed to stabilize magic on a global scale, allowing them to emerge and take over enormous territories while everyone else was still in hiding. Thanks to this meddling, some minor Horrors are able to remain in residence until the end of the age when the scourge proper normally would only have lasted from 6369-5369 BC. The Dragons decide that the Immortal Elves are a bigger pain than they’re worth, forbid the siring of Dragonkin, and start creating Drakes to serve their purposes instead.

   3189 BC: The magic level hits zero again – and the Theran planetary magical amplifier overloads and explodes. Thera is destroyed. Across the world, the magic level drops from a level high enough to sustain an advanced magical civilization to zero within hours. Without time to prepare, without metaplanar power sites primed, and without decades of adaption to using tiny personal magics, all magic save that of a few of the greatest masters (who still have some minor tricks to call upon) abruptly ceases to work. Unprepared magical beings, including some foolish young dragons, and most of the Obsidiman and T’Skrang, die. The Windlings – unable to remain sentient at their brain size without magic – are deprived of the time needed to gradually grow larger as magic fades, and become near-extinct save for a few recessive genes. Civilization undergoes an unparalleled collapse.


   With the complete collapse of magic, technological innovation begins in earnest. Over the next few millennia, history takes a familiar course – culminating in modern human civilization.

   2011 AD: The Awakening.

   There are some major problems with the Earthdawn-Shadowrun history: the human lineage goes back a long way in the fossil record, there’s no explanation of why Shapeshifters all take human form, there’s no way at all in which Dragons can be made to fit into the evolutionary tree of vertebrate life, there’s no way in which a prior technological civilization would not have left obvious traces all over the world, and so on. This version doesn’t match up with the draconic creation myth – but few actual histories match up with ANYONE’s creation myth. On the other hand, it does account for most of the known details of human history tolerably well, as well as most of the definite items from Earthdawns history.

11 Responses

  1. Nice encapsulation of the time line.I am starting a new Shadowrun game and as usual I will be working in some Earthdawn era items into the flow of it.

  2. Integrating the fossil record into the cycle of magic is really a clever idea – and it’s very much in the chrome-and-spells spirit of Shadowrun. I came to Shadowrun very late but have been really interested in the backstory and its connects with Earthdawn. It’s unfortunate that we’ll probably never see a comprehensive unified backstory for ED/SR – not only do different companies own the franchises, but since the Awakening is scheduled for next year, newcomers might feel weird about playing a game set in a near-future that seems less probable.

    Have you considered sending this to FASA or Redbrick? This might provide material for the cryptic hints in the source material – perhaps Humanis hires some runners to protect an archaeological dig, while immortal elves and dragons keep trying to interrupt it, because the results can be skewed into suggest (as Humanis does) that metahumans are aberrations in the evolutionary process? But the information gets leaked to the immortal “players” – Harlequin, the dragons, the Tirs – and even they get chastened?

    • Sadly, the Shadowrun line started to quietly shove those connections out of sight some time ago. To be blunt, they weren’t well received by most gamers – mostly because the writers insisted on treating the elder dragons and immortal elves and horrors as plot devices which the player characters could never have much effect on – ignoring the fact that people tend to stop improving after they hit the point of diminishing returns and stop being challenged. In fact, a lot of the time they get rusty; you can only maintain so many skills.

      Fundamentally, it’s always a bad idea to push the players out of the spotlight during the actual session. It was bad for sales.

      The sour taste has lingered to some extent, and helped push the jump futurewards to Shadowrun IV – where the Horrors are generally presumed stopped, the character power level is generally too low for immortal elves and dragons to get involved with, and the entire set of Earthdawn links can safely be ignored. That decision extended to dropping major chunks of completed material. I have a players guide preview PDF in the old files which listed statistics for most of the Earthdawn races – all of which were dropped from the eventual published version.

      That is kind of disappointing of course. I like a well-developed background.

      There’s a lot more material over on the Shadowrun page of course. If you’re interested in a Shadowrun-Earthdawn crossover, there’s the Dust of Ages subcampaign (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Mapping Interlude, Part IX, Part X, and Part XI – Aftermath.

      There’s a somewhat-updated timeline HERE.

      It is amusing to note that the first edition writers knew their technology – but their grasp of things like the role of the US Supreme Court and Diplomatic Immunity were pretty shaky. The current writers are a bit shaky on a lot of things…

      • Well, do you mind if I send the link to Catalyst or the owners of Earthdawn? It’d be interesting to see the idea of a dragon cover-up and see how the shared humanity of all the races – even dragons – could play out in a society still struggling with prejudice ;)

      • Sorry about the delay here: this month I mostly haven’t even gotten to look at the blog – but if you want to send a link, you’re entirely welcome. It would indeed be interesting to look at how a the world of Shadowrun might develop under those conditions!

  3. Excellent job! It’s a really nice alternate view on things, that really seems to explain, why everybody is so protective about the past. Especially dragons!

    I believe I’m entitled to judge that because I’ve invested quite some thought into the crossovers myself, as I’m playing one historical SR-campaign centred around immortal players and ‘sometimes’ use Earthdawn stuff as campaign background in the 2060s-campaign.

    • Another one I missed while ill… sorry about that.

      I think that it is always more fun to have a coherent background that’s still having consequences; it adds a lot more depth to things – and makes it easier to manage when the players go haring off in some random direction on you.

  4. What is the most profound sourcebook in ed for the previous ages? Dragons? Thanks

    • Profound? Most of them don’t contain anything even slightly profound; they’re game sourcebooks. The most “profound” bit I can think of for Earthdawn was the bit about Slavery always being theft because you were stealing the body from the control of the soul that owned it – and no, I don’t remember which book it was in.

      Now, the biggest constraint on Earthdawn/Shadowrun as a setting is the conceit that the history of the last 5000 years or so matches the history of the real world precisely enough to have matching people and names up until magic rose. Every reference to the names of countries, their systems of government, and more tells us THAT.

      That also tells us that we have a matching fossil history of life on earth covering millions of years, that the earth is indeed billions of years old, that continents drift, that the universe is immense, and so on – because matching histories calls for many millions of matching observations and facts to keep history on track. Any “origin story” that can be taken seriously in the setting has to account for the rest of the universe, for that fossil history, for radioactive decay rates, and for all the rest of those observations.

      Against those thousands of stated facts in various sourcebooks the Dragons book presents a couple of pages of origin myth, provided by one “Talespeaker” in a stated attempt to manipulate the other namegiver races by presenting them with selected information. The tale itself provides no references and no supporting evidence. That story – not too surprisingly – stresses the unique nature of dragons, their rightful place at the top of the hierarchy of races, and their “perfection”.

      On the other hand, it also states that “In the beginning, when the world was young and dragons first flew in the skies… we were without the culture we have today. Dragons were little more than savages, more like mindless adolescents that civilized adults”.

      In other words, dragons were savages at one point – and weren’t focusing on preserving lore. Even if their origin story was relayed accurately to the scribe, there’s no reason to believe that it’s any more accurate than any other origin myth.

      Thus, when you have tremendous amounts of objective, out-of-character material stating one thing, and a single, in-character, source telling a story that says something else… I’ll stick with the out-of-character material. That’s not particularly profound, but I think it’s fairly practical.

  5. […] where you can see various connections such as listed here or here and there is a great detailed historical timeline, so you can see how maybe your world could have times where things were fantastical and then they […]

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