Also, Against the Darkmaster: The Classic Game of Fantasy Adventure… A New/Old Game for the New Year
If I have any long time regular readers (or if readers, for whatever reason, choose to view my old entries), those people will remember how, in a fit of nostalgia, I started running 1987’s Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) for my bi-weekly home group about this time last year. That game very quickly became the “full” Rolemaster rules from circa 1987, then a paring down to “Original” Dungeons & Dragons as articulated in Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry–with the parts of RM I still liked ported in. I spent the remainder of last year very much making the game my own, and a very good game it is (if I say so myself!).
As an active member of the OSR (Old School Revival) community during that time, I encountered a dragon’s hoard of resources for making gaming the best it can be. Most iterations of Dungeons & Dragons offer various tools for DM/GM/Referee rulings and narrative/mechanical resolutions, as well as leaving open the possibility for many “mini-games” of the Ref’s own devising. The main tools (and my own interpretation and categorization of them) are as follows:
Ability scores – OSR characters are defined through six raw attributes. These numbers most often are calculated through rolls of 3d6 (sometimes 4d6, drop the lowest). Depending on the type of game, sometimes the player can arrange the resulting values across their six abilities, sometimes the gamer must abide by the order rolled, corresponding to the list of abilities.
My own translation to Rolemaster is as follows: players roll 3d6 and arrange as one likes. One number (usually the lowest value) can be turned into a 15 but this value must be assigned to a prime attribute (an ability most important for the specific kind of character as defined by “Class” or “Profession”).
Note: Why wouldn’t a player choose to translate a 15 to a prime attribute? For two reasons. The player might have rolled ridiculously high values (unlikely), or the gamer might want to play a magic type. In my Rolemaster version of OD&D, characters get a “bonus spell” with a prime attribute of 16 or more.
In the OSR community, Ability scores can be used for task resolution, usually through the player attempting to roll under the most relevant ability score with a d20 or a collection of d6s based on “difficulty.” The latest versions of D&D translated these Attributes to modifiers that are added to a single d20 roll that attempts to beat a Difficulty Number/Value/Class. Often, Skill values (see below) might be added to this roll.
In my game, I found myself not using Attributes at all (outside of the determination of derived abilities such as picking locks and opening doors). Instead most task resolution relied on common sense in terms of the fiction. If ever an outcome was uncertain, I used a Skill roll (see below).
Skill rolls–Well, since I’ve had cause to mention them twice, let’s just get to it. The derived and class abilities in old school games usually rely on a d6 roll (Check for Secret Doors) or a percentage (Disarm Traps). Most of the d6 rolls are successful on a roll of 1 or 2. Consequently, I used the same probability and die roll whenever a task resolution was in doubt (a 1 being an unqualified success, a 2 perhaps causing a complication). A particularly proficient character might succeed on a roll of 1-3.
This had some consonance with my translation from Rolemaster. In MERP, a frequent Background Option is 5 Ranks in a Secondary Skill. Without factoring the additional bonus that an Attribute might award the character in a Skill attempt, 5 Ranks roughly equals a 25% chance of succeeding at the Skill attempt. Similarly, the probability of a roll of 1-2 on a d6 is 33.3%.
Saving throws–In the mini-games of some published adventure modules I have seen this used as a method for Skill resolution, but I began to think of d6 Skill rolls or Ability checks as something to be used every time the character willfully attempts something, whereas a Saving throw should be used exclusively when a character reacts to something. Saving throws most often are used to survive poison one just ate, to dodge the dart suddenly springing out of the wall or to resist the mind control being attempted by the sorcerer. To further distinguish Saves from Skill rolls, a Save might be employed to prevent drowning when a character unexpectedly falls into the river while dressed in armor, whereas a Skill roll or an Ability check might be used after a character determines to attempt swimming over a fast-moving channel.
This is my game–or what had been my game–in a nutshell. Other features of Rolemaster that I retained were, of course, the gory Critical Hit Tables. A roll of a natural 20, as in most home ruled D&D games, was a critical hit. A second roll of d20 would determine the severity of the critical according to Rolemaster (severity A-E). Fighter-type characters might enjoy bonuses to this second roll, whereas other Classes and weapon types might have limitations.
I know that Rolemaster initially was developed as modular options for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, so I was surprised I couldn’t translate the spell system to my satisfaction. I think this is because many of the low level spells on the Rolemaster spell lists are fairly mundane. This is exacerbated because other aspects of D&D seem predicated on a fairly specific “spell economy” and tactical balance of magic. In other words, it seemed essential that my characters (and monsters) have early access to such powerful spells such as Sleep and Cure Light Wounds. Also, for being a modular rules set, Spell Law spells are surprisingly keyed to Arms Law effects–things like “Remove Stun” and many of the healing spells specific to breaks and bleeding conditions, situations unlikely to occur in my game now that the frequency of critical hits had been reduced.
To review, this game worked very well. In fact, I think this is now “my” D&D, the homebrew I expect to run any time I offer D&D at home or at conventions. When I first undertook this translation, various people on the Rolemaster forums and on this blog asked me what “problems” I was attempting to solve. The “solution,” presented here, perhaps reveals the source of my dissatisfaction, but I’ll try to be more specific with some general observations and my final “trigger” experience.
With MERP as written, two things chronically slowed down my gameplay: the mental calculation required to factor in a character’s Defensive Bonus during combat (which I admit is entirely a “personal problem”) and Weapon Stats, which I’m afraid were in many cases ignored, thereby leaving the narrative “veracity” often in doubt. Rolemaster provided an apparent remedy to this last struggle. It has a combat chart for every specific weapon. This negates the need to keep calculations in mind (+10 against Chain armor, -5 Plate, etc.). This created a new problem, though: a booklet of combat charts. No matter how well-tabbed my binder was, minutes of gameplay were lost because of page-flipping. Finally, the overall system began to bog me down. Six units of currency? Why? Treasure troves of 10,000 brass pieces? A short sword that was 15% lighter than others? Were we really supposed to be tracking Encumbrance with that much granularity?
Finally, combat conditions: 4 hits of Bleeding per round, now you’re at -10 to Activity, now add another-15, Stunned 4 rounds… Stun. My PCs randomly encountered a Wyvern. Somehow they kept landing blows to “stun-lock” the monster: stunned 4 rounds, stunned 6 rounds, ad infinitum.
It became clear to me that, were I to continue to enjoy gaming in a Middle-earth, I was going to have to adjust the system. Rather than hack Rolemaster itself, I delved deeper, back to even Rolemaster’s origins.
Already I have said that I am satisfied with the result. Many have described the d20 system as the lingua franca of the gaming community. For my gamers, my version of D&D felt comfy and familiar and sometimes surprising with local color.
Well, this was true for two of three of my gamers. The first two gamers are seasoned; they understand the language. The third is new, and suddenly the terms were bewildering to him: “Wait, I want to roll low this time? I don’t get it. Which one is the d20 again?” When we had been playing MERP, even if he didn’t understand all of the modifiers that contributed to a result, at least he knew that he would be rolling d100 and that he wanted to roll high.
I began to understand that the OSR toolbox was a great resource for me, the Referee, that it was grokable for my legacy gamers, but that it might be arcane for new players. The point is that every game mechanic tends to operate in terms of probabilities, so I understand the tendency (now) to find one (or two) vehicle(s) for expressing those probabilities and stick to it (or those).
There is, however, an argument for using a variety of methods for resolving probabilities. The first is that all of those polyhedral dice are simply cool. I have them, so I want to roll them. The second is that systems can be designed to make all those surfaces a necessity. Systems that require dice pools (such as the Genesys system) are particularly convincing.
But all these tools, I recognized, weren’t exactly necessary for old school D&D. At about the same time, I began to desire a change. Perhaps something more simulationist. Perhaps something that incentivized a specific narrative genre. Perhaps something heroic.
The Rolemaster Blog had alerted me to an upcoming game (with a playtest) that I had looked at with interest but, happy with my D&D homebrew, hadn’t fully explored. With new understanding, I approached it again… and was charmed. The designers appeared to have had an experience with MERP that was similar to my own. When the designers learned that their beloved game hadn’t aged in quite the way that they had, they tinkered with it until they were satisfied.
I’m not sure yet if I’m satisfied with what they have done (the designers probably aren’t, either), but I don’t have to be. This is a new product, exhibiting much of what I had been wishing for, into which I can write my own content. Moreover, it might be that my own ideas or preferences will have some influence on the final product, since now I’ll be interacting with the playtest. But it doesn’t matter. Every GM at every table makes the game his or her own anyway.
In conclusion, my quest for the Holy Grail of Gaming carries on. It will end, almost certainly, with me writing my own. Just how much I will use from an established system remains to be seen, and it also is certain that this Holy Grail will proliferate, depending on what, specifically, I’m seeking to emulate at the time. For now, though, Against the Darkmaster has a lot for me to like.