The Fall of Daramir

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This is the letter Daramir received from King Eldarion after Daramir sent a report of what was happening in Pen-arduin; alas, this was left with Daramir’s corpse. Those colorful things are “potions” that I created for the players after their PCs received them as treasure last session. Some are identified and their effects described on the back. Some are not and simply contain an alphabetical key for my own reference. Two unidentified potions were dumped into Daramir’s dying body.

A player-character died this session.

It was a pre-gen of my own, and the player didn’t seem too attached to Daramir the Dunadan. Still, I know from experience, no matter what the situation, there is a bit of a sting to any PC death. The gamer has taken this as an opportunity to make a new character. I hope that results in greater system mastery and buy-in at the table.

A situation like this also has me re-evaluating my role as GM. During player setbacks like this one, I conduct some post-session analysis, re-crunch the numbers and consider parallel possibilities. In this case I wonder what would have happened if I had employed either of two different game mechanics in a cleaner way.

  1. I keep forgetting the NPC defensive bonuses! Of course, remembering them every time would make it more difficult for the PCs to strike their foes. Still, being able to hit sometimes and not being able to hit other times makes it difficult for players to accurately judge the actual level of danger in a conflict.
  2. At one point it looked like the PCs were going to convince a group of bandits to lay down their arms and join the Royal Gondorian Navy or Army. The PCs’ offer was very, very convincing — at least to me, the GM, it was. But instead of having the bandits accept it outright, I made an NPC reaction roll. I’ve constructed an open-ended chart based on some fairly common Monster Reaction Tables for any OSR game. I rolled pretty high — a 96, I believe it was, which necessitated another roll to add to it, resulting in a value well into the hundreds. This translated more or less into “Fight to the Death!” “Down with Gondor!” the bandits cried, and so Daramir received an arrow wound through both lungs and died in six rounds. That’s MERP, for you!

But it occurred to me later that it might have been better to have Daramir’s player — and it was Daramir who was giving the offer for conscription — roll on the Static Maneuver Chart concerning “Influence and Interaction.” I doubt the outcome would have been much different. I did factor in Daramir’s +5 to Presence to my NPC reaction roll, for what good it did, and this piddly sum, in all likelihood, would have been likewise ineffective in a player roll. But the player might have rolled a 96 or more, as I did. And whatever the outcome, it would have rolled from the player’s hand, not the GM’s.

A third option would have been to just accept the PC arguments for surrender, but in cases like these I prefer some level of variability to influence my rulings. Nonetheless, after this gamer comes to the table with his new character, I’m going to have him make an “Influence and Interaction” roll. If it comes out high, I’m going to let him have the full xp amount that Daramir had (I might let him have it anyway). And I’m going to try to keep those NPC defensive bonuses in mind!

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Where Precisely Is the “Game” in MERP/Rolemaster?

6B3EB40E-E292-4204-90C6-D980A37168BBA player quitting my MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) campaign has caused me to think really carefully about the Rolemaster system. Because my lost gamer so very much enjoyed Yggdrasill, I have consequently framed my thoughts by comparing Rolemaster to that Vikings fantasy rules set. I’m seeking to understand what my gamer might have liked about Yggdrasill and therefore perhaps what he doesn’t like about MERP.

First, some broad strokes: Despite its reputation for complexity (or perhaps because of it!), I identify MERP as solidly an “old school” game. I shall elaborate on this in a moment. Yggdrasill, on the other hand, though evincing some indisputably old school qualities, clearly is informed by rpg innovations that began in, let’s say, the 90s. I shall elaborate on this in a moment.

What qualifies as an “old school” game? Well, Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming definitely helps us here, and in my forthcoming comments I shall be making observations specific to MERP/Rolemaster that Finch makes for old school gaming in general. And I think it is helpful for us to immediately throw out the oft-made assumption that an old school game is inherently “simpler” than the new school. I consider Champions old school (and I am surprised at how much I’ve been hearing lately about how “crunchy” people consider my beloved Hero System). When I took a photo for my own Grognard Gaming Group, I included Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as one of our three representative games (the other two being AD&D1e and MERP). It’s been a while since I’ve played, but my recollections are that there was a bit much to TMNT, specifically in character creation. The fact is that the multitude of OSR iterations of what basically is D&D are people’s house ruled versions of the d20 system. Some of these rulings, for sure, might be “simpler” or more elegant ways of resolving game mechanics, but some obviously are more complicated. At any rate, what the OSR provides outside of reprinted Basic and Holmes is “more.”

Returning to MERP, I was surprised to learn recently that this is what Rolemaster was (is?) as well: a highly detailed and optional modular rules set that was designed to be plugged into any D&D or FRP (fantasy roleplaying) game (and this is why I can easily convert monsters from my voluminous Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder bestiaries!). But after Pete Fenlon had completed publishing all of his optional D&D rules, he had his own game.

But what does this have to do with my topic? Well, I think I have arrived at my first definition for old school (and this is not news at all to most people interested in the OSR): the rules are optional. Now, of course there have to be some rules. Otherwise there might not be a game. But the rules shall be what make most sense for the participants at the gaming table. Ideally, they should be amicably agreed upon by all present. If necessary, the GM has the final say — this is why she is the “Referee.”

Now, the second defining feature of old school gaming that I’m about to propose is much, much more tenuous. I’m going to attempt to make some observations on player choices and player resources. I propose that the choices and resources are (speaking entirely in generalities, of course) different between old school and new school gaming.

To begin with player choices, we can reduce these into two distinct kinds of choices present at a tabletop rpg: narrative choice and systemic/mechanical choice. In an old school game, narrative choice is the much more prevalent form of player choice. Mechanical choice (and here I would like to speak specifically about old school D&D and Rolemaster, not other old school games such as the Hero System and others), if one has it at all, seems to be entirely baked into character creation.

In old school D&D, a player has virtually no systemic/mechanical choice. The DM/Referee will let you know if you even get to choose where to assign your ability rolls! Magic-users sort of choose spells (pick which ones you want to roll your percentage-to-know for first). Finally, players choose equipment, and off you go.

This last choice, though it has some mechanical aspect (particularly with weapons), I think better suited to the category of narrative choice. And this is because of the Dungeon. Matt Finch told me at one of his games at Gamehole Con, “If it’s on your character sheet, you have it. If it’s not, you don’t.” Sometimes, in narrative play, it becomes paramountly important whether you have a bit of chalk, an empty vial, or more oil for your lamp that happened to leak after that fall into that 10’ hole. In fact, narrative choice becomes most of the old school form of playing. How do you look for that trap? What do you say to the king? How do you imagine you are sneaking up behind the ogre? Ultimately, this comes down to whether the party in the dungeon chooses to go down the left corridor or the right (and this is why I believe that, in OSR gaming, having the same thing down either corridor is plain old cheating!).

Now, in MERP/Rolemaster (and later iterations of D&D), gamers have a lot more choices and options at character creation. And I’m going to argue that, at least in the case with MERP, just about every systemic/mechanical choice is made at character creation. Players choose their cultures and professions, decide which weapons they are going to be good at, divide other points amongst whatever they’re going to privilege in adventuring skills, roll percentages to see if they get their desired Spell Lists, and they’re off. Those choices at character creation are consequently locked into the widely variable d100 rolls during gameplay.

Now, I argue that, this being an old school game, narrative choices still are quite powerful. How a player chooses to do something helps the GM decide what difficulty the Maneuver is going to be at. The gamer can manipulate his character within the tactical game space to try to get those combat bonuses from flanking. A new player at my table, after all, told me after his first session how surprised he was at how much talking vs. rolling there was at my game. I suspect there was a considerable amount of rolling more than he realized, because all the talking probably helped me determine the difficulty of the Maneuver to be resolved with a single d100 roll. But the point remains that the choices about hard numbers are made at character creation.

So what does that mean for a game like my current one in which the players didn’t actually generate their characters? In fact, one of my gamers went back and created his own character, and that was the one who quit! So clearly he didn’t find enough “game” there to enjoy his experience in actual gametime. At this point I find it useful to ask myself if I would offer a MERP game at a convention. There are a number of reasons why one would play this in a public “one-shot” context: just to experience the system and to enjoy a Middle-earth story are two of them. But I don’t think a gamer would enjoy herself if she were looking for a good, tactical roleplaying experience. Unless I were to allow him to build her character before gameplay, which would take an unjustifiable amount of time (Rolemaster isn’t denigrated as “CharacterGen” for nothing!), his choices in mechanical tactics would be reduced to if she were achieving that flanking bonus or not.

Before I move on to a discussion of Yggdrasill, which I’m describing as “new school,” and which I would offer (and have offered) for convention play, allow me to clarify this discussion of old school play. In old school play the rules are guidelines, not hard rules. The most meaningful player choices are narrative choices, not necessarily mechanical choices. A last observation I must make is the sense of “power” or competency that an old school character has. Overall, OD&D and Rolemaster characters are pretty powerless. At least this is the way they begin. Recently, in the MERP Facebook Group and on the Rolemaster boards, it has been clarified for me that a level one character pretty much is someone in his or her adolescence. A character can be older than that, but it should be assumed that this character hasn’t done much with his life — hasn’t garnered enough “life experiences” to be truly competent at much of anything. As a result, the “game” — at least in the first chapters of a campaign — is to go out and get that experience without dying. Again narrative choice seems to enter chiefly into the gameplay: seek out experiences, but not experiences that are too tough. Do just enough to get by. Fight when you think you have a fair chance of winning, but know when to run away. And a lot of this comes down to plain old luck. In many ways, there is no better emulation of “real life.”

Now, Yggdrasill and many other modern roleplaying games differ from or develop these core considerations in a few ways. First, to start with the last point first, players are a bit more powerful from the outset. In speculating why my gamer quit MERP, another player of mine considered how it might be a bit jarring to move from playing a Viking character who can kill anything to a peon who, in most cases, can’t even hit its target. This increased power ratio gives an idea of a difference in gameplay and design between old and new school. Whereas in the old school formulation, an aspect of the game simply is to “survive,” the beginning power level of new school games suggest that the “game” is in something else. And I propose that, in large part, it’s in the tactical rules and mechanical resources.

Yggdrasill, like many “modern” games with foundations in old school rules sets (I’m not going to address the so-called “story games” at all here), has a deceptively simple core mechanic: roll pools of d10s, pick two, add any hard skill points that apply, beat 14 for success. In actual play, however, it gets a lot more complicated. To hit someone in combat, one must beat 14 plus the target’s Physical Defence score. In addition, the attacker must choose the kind of attack she is using. Depending on the choice here, modifiers are applied to the attack roll and (in some cases) the resolution of the roll. Wait, there could be more. There could be environmental modifiers (high ground, flank attack, etc.) and conditions (such as the attacker or the defender being Wounded). Wait, there’s more. The attacker might want to use a special Feat, in which case more modifiers are applied to the roll. Simply choosing whether or not to use a Feat is a mini-game of its own, because the player must decide if the penalties on the attack roll (which could result in bonuses to damage with a successful hit) are worth the special result that a successful Feat would entail. Wait, there’s more. The player could decide to use Furor to add an extra d10 to the roll. This is kept outside of the pool and added on top of the resulting value. If a Gift or (in some cases) a Fate Rune applies to the situation, these too can be added to the pool but, in these cases, still only two d10s must be kept after the roll. Wait, there’s more. Any retained results of ten “explode.” More d10s can be rolled (also with the potential of exploding), and these results add to the resolution. But wait, that’s right, we were walking through a specific attack on one person. If the attack is a success, the amount by which the attack succeeded is added to a static damage value of the weapon used, this sometimes modified by other game mechanics. Even then we are not done, because the total damage has to be subtracted by the target’s Armour Value. And even after this you might not be done, because the target can elect to Parry this attack. Remember the number you just resolved, because now that is the target number for the defender’s Parry test likewise possibly attendant on a number of modifiers and variables. Even if the Parry fails, if it is higher than the original target number, it becomes the new target and therefore a new damage value must be calculated from the success threshold. This is just one example. There are further complications based on the type of character one happens to be playing in combat.

Now, compared to this, where is the legendary complexity in MERP, perhaps even Rolemaster? Build a character. Sure, this part takes some time, perhaps more time than it does in Yggdrasill. But then, when it comes to adventuring, roll d100, add your skill, apply any modifiers (sometimes environmental, conditional, weapon-specific and defensive bonus), consult a chart. Depending on that result, you might have to roll again, make a simple sum, and consult another chart. Sure, after that you might have some conditions to keep track of (bleeding, stunning, etc.), but overall I’m calling Yggdrasill, at least during gameplay, the more complicated of the two (and consequently slower-paced).

Here’s the thing, though. While considering what I’d rather offer for convention play, Yggdrasill is the game! By now I hope the reasons for this will be evident. For MERP, all the choices are made during character creation and level advancement. After that, it’s more or less left up to the narrative choices and the luck (or unluck) of the dice rolls. For Yggdrasill, gamers have more meaningful choices for the tactical arena of gameplay. Should they use Furor on a roll? Should they hoard it? Might they try a Feat for a special effect, or is it too much of a risk considering the negative modifier required?

In some ways, new school games like Yggdrasill (I’d put the current Conan 2d20 into this camp, as well) seem really focused on tactical combat choice and less on narrative choice. In fact, these games (and MERP can be considered guilty of this, as well, with such things as “Secondary Skills”) seem to make even those narrative choices tactical through skills involving social encounters and information gathering, which, whatever their original intentions, seem to reduce those aspects of roleplaying likewise to die rolls. Don’t get me wrong. This is not “bad fun.” It’s great fun, just a different kind of fun from another kind of great fun that, albeit, clearly isn’t fun for everyone.

The Alchemist’s Task

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Borlas’s answer to Edmond’s note to him last session. Nerds might notice that I used the Shire Reckoning. Totally a mistake on my part. But I can justify it! Borlas is considerately writing to his Hobbit friend.

This session my PCs grabbed the very first adventure hook! Before even stopping in at their rooms in The Merchant’s Scythe (or the more alliterative Tiviel’s Tavern that’s been ringing so much more naturally from my lips), they went by the alchemist Dorthang to do something about Siegmeyer the Ranger’s missing eye. Dorthang took awhile about getting to the door, told the PCs to scram because certain elements in the town didn’t want her associating with them, then got interested in spite of herself. She said she had a little something for Siegmeyer’s wound, but she wanted a favor in return. You see, her mentor had vanished awhile back, and he had this laboratory out in the hills…

 
This is where I introduced The Alchemist’s Task, a mini-dungeon and, in this context, obvious “side quest” from Creation’s Edge Games. Overall I was pleased with how it performed. It wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but it was a side quest, after all. And I think my players, in later sessions, are going to appreciate more what this adventure means. I mean, they have a lot of potions now.

 
Table Talk

 
What? Already? Yeah, if you want to know what happened, go ahead and read the adventure. It’s only a buck. Not much for me to say other than I scaled down some of the encounters. (Hm, maybe it would have been more exciting if I had left them as is. Lots and lots of die rolls = lots and lots of opportunities for critical strikes on PCs.) I lightly adapted and “reskinned” it for play in Middle-earth specifically, with some interesting results! In other words, in the future, you might again be hearing about this place and some of what might have happened here. Or you might not. That’s a sandbox game for you!

 
One of my gamers asked me how I was enjoying running MERP. I answered him at length, the day after the session, with the following message.

I am so happy to be running MERP for the following reasons:

*I like the system. Perhaps I’m realizing I’m just an old grognard, but it feels supremely comfortable. I feel like, with Rolemaster, I have a full set of tools.

*I like the world. I love Middle-earth. It again is a tool set. I can tell the stories that speak to me without fearing that they will go gonzo D&D, being (with the Rolemaster engine) gritty and simulationist enough for a low magic setting (without denying the future possibility of high magic).

*I can use ALL of my resources. As I demonstrated last night, I can take any old OSR thing that I’ve spent (in some cases) lots of money on and adapt them for M-e with sometimes startlingly cool worldbuilding results (Sauronic alchemical pits).

*I see a full campaign in front of me. I love Yggdrasill. I love Vikings. But I couldn’t figure out how to make a sandbox out of it. I didn’t want to roleplay village raids or even full scale war. I had started designing a secondary world, but again found only Vikings and select northern monsters in that palette. And if I had to create another, secondary fantasy setting… well, why not reach for a pre-existing one?

On another note, I had a gamer quit the game. I guess not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Or maybe I need some perspective on what it means to play Rolemaster, not just run it as GM. I have been casually scouting the play-by-post sites, looking for an opportunity. I’ve been thinking about running something of my own, too, by pbp. But that would just be getting more “game” in my life, not necessarily experiencing what it’s like to be a player.

 
And on yet another note, I had a new player sit in last session. He asked to continue! You lose some, you win some.

Those Nasty Orcs!

AA793BD0-789A-4413-B601-B0F4547A9E30A new player joined this session: his character is Aelin, a Corsair smuggler who, having differences with her captain while hauling wine from Umbar to Minas Tirith, dropped overboard at the beginning of the game session with a lifted cask of that same wine to fence to Tiviel at The Merchant’s Scythe. At the door of The Scythe Aelin encountered two folks — a Hobbit and an Elf — dragging in an unconscious Dunadan with one leg absolutely gory with bloody bandages. The Wose Ranger was no longer with the party. This is because the Wose’s player had made his own character — an Umli Ranger named Siegmeyer — and this new character was inside the inn warming himself by the fire.

Downtime dragged a bit, partly because I was so “prepared” that I had forgotten how I had prepped. At last — but not before I had to make up a new name for my so-carefully-prepared herbalist NPC — I came across my index cards. After that, things progressed more efficiently, excepting the one occasion in which I neglected to consult them after the PCs had returned to the adventure site for more information (and sacks of loot they suddenly realized they had left there last session). In this instance I had to “go back” and revise the description of the room within which a Haradan survivor last session had bolted himself, the door now open. In the “new” description, I described a pedestal, some Haradraic scrawled on the wall (which Aelin was able to interpret, fluently, Herumor is the rightful Lord of Gondor, Heed the Dark Call) and a black snake — real or constructed — on top of that pedestal. The PCs assumed it was real — it was — and attacked it, utterly destroying it because I forgot to calculate its defensive bonus. I would not forget that for enemies later this session.

The PCs discovered that the areas where the tents and camp beds were, the same area in which they had forgotten the loot (surely in their haste to get their friend Daramir back to a soft bed in Pen-arduin), was fouled by something that not only had trampled and shredded and strewn everything about but had urinated and defecated on it, as well. Edmond the Hobbit almost wept to see all that aromatic Southron pipeweed ruined.

Finding nothing of value, the PCs explored the right hand passage, one obviously little used since it was oppressively draped with cobwebs inhabited by many tiny black spiders. It came to a Y-branch, the left-hand side of which terminated in a cave-in and a sinkhole descending about twenty feet to sluggishly moving water. Nope, the PCs decided, not going to mess around with that. So they went down the right-hand passage which terminated at an ancient wooden door without keyhole or handle, apparently barred from the other side. Perhaps we should come back with an axe, Ioreth suggested, his player also mentioning the time how, in another game, her character had burned down a door using flammable oil. During this session, Ioreth happened to be carrying two flasks of oil, but everyone decided to leave that door alone, for now. Besides, it seemed sort of spooky. The spiders didn’t weave webs down here. And an unnatural cold seemed to emanate from the cavern walls.

So the PCs tried the other main passage. At the end of this one they encountered a large room of four Orcs who were in the process of cooking up the dead bodies whom, conveniently, had been left elsewhere in the site by the PCs last session. They also had the forgotten loot. It was an exciting fight, as I’m happily realizing/remembering fights tend to be in MERP with its Critical Hit charts. Daramir was a hero as usual, and this time he remembered to use his Ring of Healing while he fought the Orcs: the ancient work of an Elvish wright flashed from his finger with bright, holy light in the shadows of the flickering flames. When the Umli Ranger Siegmeyer lost an eye to an unlucky hit from an Orc scimitar beneath his helm, Ioreth remembered his spells. The remaining two Orcs failed their Resistance Rolls versus Sleep. One died where he stood, becoming already the victim of massive Critical Hits. Daramir, without hesitation, dispatched the other snoozing enemy.

This time the party remembered to carry their loot back to Pen-arduin.

Table Talk

This time we chatted about some of the wonkiness in the combat system. We are comfortable with declaring actions before the round. We are fine with the order in which particular actions are resolved. We are fine with the simultaneity of congruent actions. But what we don’t understand is how it takes a full round (ten seconds) to reload a bow, two rounds (twenty seconds) for a crossbow. We also understand that, as with D&D out of which Rolemaster developed, “actions” within this ten-second round should be “abstracted,” that the attacker makes many attempts to hit her target, and the actual roll is a determination of if any of these attempts land. But this doesn’t “grok” with missile attacks, which clearly are one single attack. Even the understanding that a PC can load and shoot in a single round but with a penalty to his offensive bonus doesn’t quite satisfy. And I’m hesitant, for now, to house rule something different because of two benefits users of missile weapons enjoy. First, if they place themselves carefully, they should be relatively safe from combat while still being able to mete out damage. Second, a cursory examination of the critical hit charts for Puncture reveals that arrows are particularly deadly (also, our Hobbit crushed an Orc’s skull with his sling). In consideration of these observations, it seems fair that PCs should trade out these benefits for limitations to their missile attacks.

Here’s another thing about tactical combat: movement. Daramir quite naturally wanted to charge and attack one of the Orcs. Okay, I said, simple, what’s your Movement. Okay, you can get to him, but… Right, I see, you can only move ten feet and attack, and that’s not enough. Oh, you want to run and attack? Right, you can double your movement with a successful moving maneuver. So let’s do that, let’s say that, if you succeed at this, then you can get there and attack. Oh, but that kind of is a work-around for the rule. Well, whatever, roll. Okay, you accomplished forty percent of your action. Well, that means you got there… but you can’t attack this round. (And, yes, I know, another use of the maneuver tables is to roll under that percentage to achieve the action, but I had had enough.)

Daramir’s player also asked about arm and leg greaves. This is because finally the players began to heed my constant abjurations that this is a lethal game, that not having the necessary protection might result in an instant kill (as Edmond’s sling bullet to the head did to an Orc). But Daramir asked what might be the tactical difference of leather versus metal greaves. I didn’t know. I was sure that such a choice would be reflected in the critical hit charts. But, later, a glance at these did not answer this. I think I need to consult Arms Law & Claw Law for answers to both this and the charging into combat question.

With tactical advantages in mind, I also implemented a house rule that linked increased hp recovery to how much PCs spend on food and accommodations. Essentially, I’m thinking a bonus hp in healing for a normal meal, the same for average lodging, two bonus hp for a heavy meal and good lodging (though of course the players told me that someone who lost a lot of blood is not going to want to eat a heavy meal; okay, fine, better ingredients, then!). I also decided an absolutely perfect house rule is that the Hobbit in my party gets xp for every gold he spends on food, drink and pipeweed.

Session One: The Dark Call of Herumor

6AC4E9E8-E7CC-4F7C-A9FA-973E06E456CBOverall, I think session one was a success. My four players chose the following characters: Sinda Elf Mage (named Ioreth), Hobbit Scout (named Edmund), Dunadan Warrior (named Daramir), and Wose Ranger (as yet unnamed).

Anyone reading my blog should know the starting situation: in the village of Pen-arduin in suburban Minas Tirith the PCs have learned, one way or another, that that very evening they are going to hear “The Call.” A person dressed all in black is going to come to whatever door they happen to be near and invite them into the hills of Emyn Arnen for a secret tryst.

The scene opens with my PCs sitting by the fire — which seems to grow cheerier and livelier as the evening darkens outside — in the common room of The Merchant’s Scythe. For a moment there I thought the scenario I had planned might go terribly awry. This is because, obviously, none of the PCs were keen to don the black robes that seemed conveniently set out for them beside the door and join a dark pilgrimage to a meeting, even if doing so would mean finding out information about a growing cult that might be a threat to King Eldarion in Minas Tirith. The GM never wants to lead the players, but, after someone said, “Well, if we don’t go, there is no adventure,” I had to resist the urge to say, “Well, you don’t have to do exactly what they want you to do. You could track the pilgrimage at a distance. You could wait till tomorrow and explore the countryside. You could go straight to Minas Tirith with this information.”

Instead, at this point, I think I gave my thoughts on the experience point aspect of the Rolemaster system, which rewards characters for doing things, for doing almost anything. In this game, I explained, if you want to advance your character, you have to act. There is, of course, through this avenue, threat to your character, but you never will advance otherwise. In Rolemaster, every character gains a level after 10,000 xp. In original Dungeons & Dragons different classes advance at different xp totals. Most house rules for D&D divide all xp after a session and share it out equally to the players. In Rolemaster, advancement can be wildly various. For example, after this first session, my most active player earned more than 2,000 xp; my most inactive gained merely 45 xp.

Well, my PCs donned the cloaks and joined a group of about forty villagers for a four-mile walk through a cold, moonlit night into the hills. I described a tunnel in one hill that opened into a narrow gorge. Old, decaying wooden structures were evidence that this once had been a fort or outpost of some kind. Rough stairs of stone climbed one hill flank about fifty feet before crossing to a cave opening in another hill. The PCs filed with the villagers through here, passed a guard who nodded indifferently at them. They proceeded down a 10’ by 20’ chamber (with two murder holes and a raised portcullis above) into a wide chamber.

In this cavern, by the sullen black light of a hooded lantern near the far end, the PCs with night vision (the Elf and Wose) descried chambers or tunnels leading to the northwest and northeast, as well as stairs leading up from the guard (who had followed them in) near a lever at the wall. These stairs presumably ascended to a chamber above containing the murder holes and mechanism for the portcullis. The rest of the characters could see nothing but the glow of the hooded lantern and had to bumble about and jostle the crowding villagers, many of whom made frightened breaths and utterances.

The guard pulled the lever at the wall. The portcullis dropped with a clang, hemming everyone inside. From the far end of the chamber two black-robed figures emerged from behind heavy black curtains. One held an urn-like object in his hands. This figure twisted some bands around it, emitting a strange, musical, whining sound. An undulating black shape rose from within the urn. The snake writhed.

At this point the villagers began to come forward, one by one, to within the dull gleam of the lamp, pledging themselves to “The Call.” I swear to the Dark Tree to heed the Call each and every time it sounds. The cultists vowed this oath with wrists exposed. The head of the snake hovered over the wrists, dripping venom onto the flesh, where it hissed and burned and left scarred marks resembling snakebites. The idea was, if the snake were to detect any hint of untruth in the speaking of this pledge, it would sink its fangs, injecting its venom, and the person would die outright.

What did the PCs do? Well, most of them backed up, with most of the near-frightened villagers, against the walls nearest the chamber through which they had entered. Some PCs whispered to each other that they must go up the stairs and see about raising the portcullis. The Hobbit did precisely this. The Wose allowed himself to be moved forward, with others, into the initiation. Just when the PCs began to wonder if there was no real threat from the snake — for all the villagers were getting through the initiation successfully — I had a frightened old man right in front of the Wose die for evidently having given an untruth: he died of snake venom.

The Wose began to explain that his being there was a mistake and that he wanted to be permitted to go. In the machine room, the Hobbit entered into combat with a guard whom he had found up there, the guard not believing that the Hobbit was a frightened and lost child. Daramir, the Dúnedain warrior, stepped forward, throwing back his cowl, and confronted the black cloaked cult leader.

And Ioreth, the Elf Mage, cast Vibration on the urn.

The vessel shattered. The large black snake fell to the chamber floor, among the shards, lashing about. The villagers panicked and pressed back against the walls, trying to shove through the chamber tunnel to the portcullis. The two black cloaked figures fled back through the heavy curtain. Daramir strode forward, pushing the curtain aside. The curtain was double hung, large, heavy, weighted with metal rings. On the other side were flaming oil lamps, a bowl of rich tobacco, a hookah, narcotic smoke and incense in the air, a number of pitched tents, and some camp beds. Also, were two Haradrim Rangers approaching Daramir with drawn scimitars. Daramir stepped into the room, letting the curtain fall behind him, and engaged the Haradrim in battle.

Meanwhile, in the room behind him, Ioreth leapt up the stairs to help Edmund the Hobbit in his battle with the guard there. An arrow from Ioreth’s bow passed through the guard’s ears, killing him instantly. After this, Edmund and Ioreth both successfully raised the portcullis and headed back down the stairs, where Edmund removed the hood from the lamp and Ioreth, learning that Daramir was beyond the curtain, rushed to his aid. The Wose was searching the floor, unsuccessfully, for the black snake. The serpent appeared to have slithered into the crowd on one side of the room, for a few black-cloaked figures fell there, evidently victims of snakebite.

In the other room, while one of the black cloaked figures prepared a spell, Daramir fought one against two. He delivered a critical on his first target, hitting the man’s weapon arm, paralyzing it and sending the scimitar clattering. This man also lost a lot of blood and was bleeding, so he effectively was out of the fight. Daramir’s second target was more difficult to hit, since it didn’t wear any armor, and Daramir’s chain armor protected him, for the most part, from critical strikes. But soon two leg wounds were bleeding profusely. The magic-user released his spell. It evidently was designed to make Daramir sleepy, but Daramir shook it off.

So this is what Ioreth saw when she stepped past the curtain. She fired an arrow. This missed the Haradan Ranger, so he managed to drop Daramir before attempting to flee, with the mage, to a shut wooden door in a far corner of the room. The acolyte who had been holding the snake urn must have gone into this farther room, and he evidently was too craven to open the door for his companions. Arrows from Ioreth and Edmund (who also now entered the room) dispatched the two Haradrim who desperately were trying to get through the door. This pretty much wrapped up the session. Ioreth and Edmund bound up Daramir’s wounds, while the Wose traded a few blows with the last living guard in the room beyond before allowing the man to flee with the rest of the villagers.

As far as loot, the PCs found a number of sacks of what I would describe as “hacksilver” — the equivalent of tin pieces, some of copper pieces. They also found a locked box of fifty gold pieces. The key to the box was around the neck of the slain mage. They gathered all this and their friend Daramir and headed back to Pen-arduin, to The Merchant’s Scythe. They asked Tiviel, their host, about healing for their friend. No healers, per se, but there is someone who makes potions.

Table Talk

Most of my players seemed happy enough with the game system. One in particular (the Elf Mage, and the one who consequently gained the most experience points) deep-dived into it. Daramir roleplayed wonderfully as a Dúnadan hero. My Hobbit Scout (as his player has demonstrated in other games) really gets into the information gathering, and established early that this person asking for “The Call” is Herumor, which is the name of a Black Numenorean who became a king of some Haradrim in league with Sauron at the end of the Second Age. With a super successful Static Maneuver, the Elf was able to explain that during the War of the Ring in the Third Age, four “arch-lichs” were in power in the south, and three of these have sometimes been identified as Herumor, Fuinur and Ardana. The Hobbit, conducting research, even made contact with Borlas, a Dunadan sage living in Pen-arduin.

The purpose of the cult is to prepare the Gondorion Dúnedain to dissolve into the Numenorean dynasty, in the south, who is going to come as a great dark wave and reestablish the sorcerous supremacy of the old, Sauron-counseled Numenoreans.

Rolemaster is sometimes derided as “chartmaster” or “character gen,” and these concepts again came up as my players looked at their character sheets and paged through the MERP rulebook. At the same time, one player expressed appreciation for how thin the rulebook is, and I explained that the game is “all in the tables.” Overall, MERP is an example of the increasing complexity of “generation 2” games immediately following D&D, but really no more complex than, say, Yggdrasill. Certainly less complex than Pathfinder. In my own view, it’s even less complex than Fantasy Flight’s Edge of Empire and certainly easier than Modiphius’s Conan 2d20. But I’ve been playing MERP longer. As I have said elsewhere, it’s my first roleplaying game. It’s how I learned to play.

As far as character generation for MERP, I said repeatedly that my gamers might try making their own characters, especially if any of their characters are slain during gameplay.

Time to start dreaming for Session Two.

The Sub- Sub- Subcreation of Middle-Earth

0F65280F-BF8B-4E55-A4BC-39F8A0E7F639I am a writer. As a gamer, I am fascinated with the narratives that arise from an interaction with an industry rpg and the players at my table. In the case of Middle-Earth Role Playing, this interaction is wide and vast. Tolkien has described his literary work as subcreation. As a theist—as, specifically, a Roman Catholic—he interacted with the created world out of which to form a sub created world, a secondary world imbued with Tolkien’s own fantastic imagination. Under license from Tolkien Enterprises, Iron Crown Enterprises “collaborated” with both Creation and Tolkien’s subcreation to provide greater detail not only to Tolkien’s subcreated world but to regions of that world in some cases not even mentioned by Tolkien! Now I take both of these properties—those produced by Tolkien and further provided by his son Christopher Tolkien and others and those from I.C.E.—and create from these my own campaign, a campaign to be presented to my players, who, through the nature of the game, naturally will add their own collaborations.

To begin with a more detailed discussion of how I am engaging with these sub creations, look at this map! If I am understanding correctly Shannon Appelcline’s Designers & Dragons: The 80s, this map was produced by Pete Fenlon originally for a home game of his set in Middle-earth. Now, Tolkien purists will notice how “non-canonical” this map is. Tolkien’s Middle-earth “proper” takes up only the extreme northwest portion of this Pangea-like landmass. Other regions on this continent received little more than a reference in Tolkien’s canonical works, and others are entire new sub creations. Now, some Tolkienians might be offended or uneasy with this additional material, but I love it!

Why? Well, why not? I want to play MERP because I want to play in Middle-earth. But, as a writer, as a sub creator, I also want to explore other times, places and stories while using Tolkien’s unique vision as a frame of reference. For this reason I am building my own campaign in the Fourth Age. I moreover am beginning my PCs’ careers in Southern Gondor in hopes that they will begin to explore regions further south and perhaps east.

My inspiration for this campaign actually comes from Tolkien. In “The New Shadow,” Tolkien’s aborted sequel to The Lord of the Rings, the only extant writing of which might be found in The Peoples of Middle-Earth, Tolkien makes mention of a new danger growing in the South. He mentions a name—Herumor (“lord-black”)—which, with some cross-referencing, can likewise be found (alongside Fuinur) in The Silmarillion, particularly in “The Rings of Power and the Third Age” chapter (thank you Robert Foster’s Tolkien‘s World from A to Z for these easy references!), as a corrupted Numenorean lieutenant of Sauron who was a lord of the Haradrim in the South.

Without access, at the time, to the tantalizing mention in “The New Shadow,” Chris Stone and Pete Fenlon developed their own “Shadow in the South” in their MERP campaign supplement with this name. For imaginative grist for my larger campaign, I am interested in their mention of “The Cult of the Dark Overlord” which is led by four “arch-Lichs.” Hmmm. The default time of the “Shadow” campaign is within the Third Age. Mine is set in the Fourth. Herumor. Fuinur. Hmmm.

Here I have sketched briefly how I am beginning to interact both with Tolkien—and his son’s furtherance of Tolkien’s work—and Fenlon’s imaginative extension of Tolkien’s ideas. From both of these sources there are many more specifics that I also am adding to what Tolkien has referred to as the “bones” from which we boil our subcreative soup. But I will save more of this for later, just in case any of my players are reading this.

Mapping and Populating a Middle-Earth Sandbox

BA0CC979-963F-4D95-94EE-49DF33D17116As I have aged, my approach to gaming, in my view, has become more intricate. This does not necessarily mean that I am interested in more rules to simulate the minutiae of daily existence. Rather, I am becoming more absorbed in the way game mechanics contribute to narrativist structures in gameplay. Years back, I aspired to be a writer of high fantasy novels. Gaming, if I did it at all, was an outgrowth of that goal. For my games, I did little — if any — real preparation. I devised encounters based on whimsy or inspiration (with sometimes amazingly memorable results). Stats often were made up on the fly, based on what I believed should be the level of challenge at the moment. Now, in the beginning of my middle age, the game itself is the thing! All of my creative energies are absorbed in it, and I want my players to have the sense that this world is not only taking shape around them, as we play, but that there are real consequences to their decisions, that their actions matter, that there are places and people whom (potentially) they might never discover, all because of the choices they make. I don’t want them to feel like they are passive characters in a story. I want them to feel like, just as The Lord of the Rings feels when one is reading it for the first time, that there are no guarantees, that this world is a real place, that this world would — and does — exist without them.

The best way to simulate this is through what has been regarded as sandbox play. It also can be called a hex crawl. What it means is that there are places out in the world that are meant to be discovered, if the PCs so happen to look for them, and that, based on player choices, encounters can be almost entirely random. Often this kind of play results in another term some gamers are using these days: emergent storytelling. Sandbox play, the hex crawl and emergent storytelling often are closely associated with the OSR (Old School [fill in an “R” word]) community, who often argues that this is the style of play most commonly used by the first articulations of roleplaying games. I don’t want to get too deeply into it here, but the inverse style of play follows more of the structure of a script. PCs are expected, in some manner or other, to work through a series of scenarios, scenes more or less in a proper order, sometimes with subtle nudging from the GM, and sometimes with the illusion of choice. In other words, sometimes, in this way of play, no matter what door a player chooses to open, for the purposes of the plot, at that moment the same thing is going to be behind every single door.

This latter, script-based form of gameplay is the kind that I ended up using the most, first starting in my youth with d6 Star Wars and then just a few years back when I ran Pathfinder. But, these days, I find myself attracted to the “dungeon,” the centerpiece of OSR play. This is something, ironically enough, I wholeheartedly repelled for most of my gaming life. My antipathy for it arose from criticisms of what people call “dungeon ecology,” which often highlights the improbability of such a diverse array of bonkers monsters living in such close proximity to one another, often for multiple generations. For me, since the dungeon ecology didn’t make sense, the story, too, couldn’t make sense, and I focused on impressing my players with good narratives rather than what I deemed to be (however entertaining) nonsensical monster encounters. But by rejecting the concept of dungeon crawling entirely, I also rejected a more deeply abiding sense of place and space. My encounter-based (rather than location-based) style of gameplay often reduced the scenes of my conflicts to what felt like mere stagecraft. Many of my game interactions felt like a hastily-constructed stage-play, and I, the GM, often had forgotten to provide the key props.

Location-based play seems ideal for such a rich world setting as Middle-earth. Many, I know, have confessed themselves unable to read through the entirety of The Lord of the Rings because — get this — it’s just so descriptive. What some people consider to be a chief strength of The Lord of the Rings, what some people have described as “Middle-earth itself as a character,” others regard as a hindrance. But this is exactly what many of us gamers want in our roleplaying experiences, and this is what the OSR offers us. Instead of us rolling some dice and checking for a secret door in the wall, the OSR GM asks the player what she is looking for, how he is looking, and what she expects to find. This is an attempt to get really in there, to immerse.

Therefore, for the beginning of my MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) campaign, I decided I would need at least three clearly defined locations around a specific goal or object. Surprisingly, to this end, Matt Finch’s usually reliable Tome of Adventure Design, something so system-agnostic as to serve me well in designing material for a game so content-specific as Yggdrasill, didn’t do much for me here. This might be because Tolkien’s vision is so profound. I needed just the right kind of feel. So, instead, I focused on the environments surrounding Minas Tirith and then consulted the MERP monster chart.

Mountains, fields, and a great big river. Got it. I decided on three main adversaries which then developed into plot lines. I designed “mini-dungeons” for these big bads to inhabit and then found them places on my hex map I had been developing from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s indispensable The Atlas of Middle-Earth as a guide.

Next I needed random encounters, things that might happen as the PCs blunder about in the wilderness searching for these adventure locations. Hello, Creatures and Treasures! I don’t know how others use random encounter tables, but it seems to me that the designation “random encounter” is somewhat misleading. It suggests that the GM, in the middle of the game, is supposed to roll on this table and see what happens. This inevitably would result in improv, and often improv is the very best kind of fun. But I like to prepare for my improv just a wee bit more. My process for this campaign was to roll as many as ten times on the random encounter table, for each environment, and then write down the results. What happened was the beginning of emergent storytelling. As I reviewed all of the possible things that my PCs might encounter in the wilds, rationalizations for these situations began to emerge. Oh, I said, this thing is here because it is following this thing. And this thing over here has been looking for this, but got stopped because of this thing on the way. Now, depending on what my players choose (and roll), they might find themselves right in the middle of it all and consequently embroiled in an “emergent adventure” already slightly cooked out of the random encounter tables. Or they might avoid (or miss) all of it.

It is this, my friends, that fascinates me so much about gaming experiences. There truly is nothing quite like them, and I am so eager for this game’s first session!