The Alchemist’s Task

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.