Overall, 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.
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.