Skills Systems and a Creative Crisis

About a year ago I posted on the I.C.E. forums about what a “skill-less” Rolemaster might look like. Was it an idle topic? Not for me! But it puzzled the community. If I remember it right (and I suppose this can be confirmed on the forum) one person said that Rolemaster is skills. Another person asked me what problem I was trying to solve. I thought these were worthwhile responses, so I let the matter drop, even though I already had created something that I considered calling a skill-less Rolemaster. But I played MERP. I added RM2 to it. I kept playing.

But after the nostalgic exuberance began to fade away, I recognized that something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t pleased as a GM. More and more I began to approach my game night with trepidation. Preparation was anxiety-laden. GMing began to feel more and more like “work.” It reminded me, in fact, of my time running Pathfinder and, after that, the limitations I had begun to find with the Yggdrasill system.

And then I started running Swords & Wizardry for a crowd on Discord and I remembered why once I had been pursuing a skill-less system. The skills (and weapon charts) in Rolemaster that looked beautiful from a design standpoint were strangling me as a GM. The pace of my games annoyed me — though I learned it didn’t necessarily annoy my friends. In Swords & Wizardry I made fast rulings — “Okay, roll 4d6 under your Dexterity. No good? Okay” — whereas in Rolemaster I puzzled from one chart to the next — “You got an 89? On Armor Type 19? That’s… 4 hits. Okay, I’ll deduct 4 from this meat sack of a Wyvern.” At the end of this latter session I tossed away my dice and said, “I’m sorry, friends, but I’m done.” I was ready for a sabbatical. I even had arranged for another member of the group to run something in the interim.

But they wanted to keep playing. They understood my frustration. They perhaps even felt some of it themselves. But they were immersed in the story. They were engrossed in Middle-earth. They were invested in their characters. They wanted to keep developing them. And then I remembered.

“Well,” I said, taking Swords & Wizardry down from the shelf. “We could convert these characters over to D&D.”

Except not entirely to just D&D. I have read a number of testimonials from old school gamers who started with AD&D. They added Arms Law & Claw Law. Then they added Spell Law. And then they started playing Rolemaster and never went back to that “simpler” system from which Rolemaster had evolved. But I looked again at Rolemaster’s origin as modular options for AD&D and I started pulling out the things I didn’t like. Then I took what remained and plugged it back into an old school d20 chassis. How does it run? Well, I’ll be happy to give reports after a few sessions.

The wonderful thesis of Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry is that anything not covered in the core rules (which are reduced to elemental compounds) is for the game group to work out on its own. This, in fact, is the attitude of the entire OSR — that the original rules is a template to be stretched and pulled and modified and compounded to result in startling new simulations and emulations. Similarly, Rolemaster designer Coleman Charlton, often in the face of surprising RM edition wars, emphatically states that RM is and always has been a gamer’s toolkit for groups to modify or nullify however they see fit.

So I present now, for interested readers with an understanding of both Original D&D and Rolemaster, my own old school revival of modular D&D/RM2. Well, you might notice some home innovations as well. This has yet to be taken out for a spin, but I’m looking forward to it!

MERP Modifications for Swords & Wizardry


Roll 3d6 6x. Lowest value may become 15 but must be applied to a Prime Attribute.


Power Points based on Int, Wis or Cha. 13-15 1, 16-17 2, 18-19 3, 20+ 4.

PCs enjoy chance to learn spell lists according to Race. Magic-users 5 ranks/lvl. Druids 5. Clerics 3. Rangers 1.

Modifiers to spell preparation – 4 rds 0, 3 rds +1, 2 rds +2, 1 rd +3, 0 rds +4.

Base Casting – Casters 3d6 under Attribute. Secondary 4d6. Others 5d6.

Combat Casting – Casters roll on Fighters table. Secondary on Cleric table. Others on Thief.


Fighters, Rangers and Paladins enjoy +1 to attacks from the back.

Critical hits. On a natural 20, a second roll is made for the degree of the critical. 1-4 A, 5-8 B, 9-12 C, 13-16 D, 17-20 E. Fighters (and subclasses) add attribute and item bonuses to this roll. Fighters may increase or decrease critical roll by level + attribute + item.


0 hp = unconscious, -Con = death. Heal 1 hp/hr resting, 1 per 3 hrs not resting.


Determine “level of effect.” Roll 4d6 – lvl under Wisdom +2/effect level. Other factors (location, climate, etc.) might apply.


Each session worth an average of 200 xp each player. Creature points divided. Hp lost. Travel points. Idea points. Spell points (spell lvl x 10). Critical (A – 10, B – 20, C – 30, D – 40, E – 50). Expenses (detailed below).

Assassin – poisons or assassination preparations

Cleric – charity

Druid – nature preservation

Fighter – training

Magic-user – research

Monk – charity

Paladin – charity

Ranger – value of herbs foraged (effect lvl x 10)

Thief – gold “liberated” or stolen (including from lairs)

Hobbits – gold spent on food, drink and smoke

Gold and Equipment a Swords & Wizardry economy


Gamist Narrativist Simulationist Theory and “Cost” in My MERP/RM Game

D44987AD-2FDD-4FA8-9A56-26DA0458E9B3Last session, my players told me, marked session 10 in the MERP campaign. This is an important number now that I have implemented house rules for xp. Each player receives 1,000 xp per session played, so, for all players who have participated in every session, any new characters that must be generated due to character death begin at level two.

I will organize this post around some thoughts inspired by Ken over at the Rolemaster Blog, who has posted another fascinating entry in his series deconstructing and criticizing the RM system and game design in general. His topic this time was “Cost.” What he means, I think, by Cost in gaming is how much time and energy is subsumed in resolving and tracking game mechanics. Ken spent his time analyzing RM character generation and combat charts. The cost of character generation, at my table, doesn’t figure much. The characters already are generated, most of them built by me, and they are MERP characters, easier to generate than true RM characters. And I have an obvious algorithm (maximize, if possible, one or more favored Weapon Skills of the culture; maximize Body Development; in all other cases put at least one rank into a skill to avoid the -25 penalty). The cost of the charts and roll resolutions were more present in my mind, however, particularly when I heard one player mention, “And now Gabe is over there playing his own private game while we wait to see what happened.” What he was referring to, of course, was how I was consulting a weapon chart, taking into consideration the attacker’s Offensive Bonus, situational modifiers, and the defender’s Defensive Bonus, finding my entry, something like “12AP,” in which case flipping to another chart and asking for another roll from the player, perhaps trying to keep in mind how much Bleeding or rounds of Stun might be going on, etc. My players don’t really mind this high Cost to my game environment: half of the group are old skoolers and dedicated gamers, period, and the other half are newbs who, at this point in their enculturation, kind of appreciate most of the “debt” being lifted from them, waiting patiently or chatting with other players while the GM figures things out. If action might appear slow from an individual player’s perspective, the GM’s head is a welter of activity, inhabited by an evolving tactical environment in which heroes and antagonists square off, one against the other, both parties often unaware of other possibilities emerging from corners or just “off screen.”

So it seems to me that, depending on the player role at the table, the Cost varies in terms of burden of responsibility and perception. Cost can be increased, of course, depending on the level of experience of the player (not character, though that could mean something too — higher level characters often are higher maintenance). As I mentioned, Ken, for now, focused on Cost in terms of character generation and combat resolution. But it occurred to me, last session, that Cost is interesting to apply to all three prongs of GNS theory. Cost might be Gamist in terms of range of choices to the player, how long it takes to explain and retain the weights and implications of these choices. Cost might be Narrativist, usually in regards to the GM, in how many story strands and environmental details (which may or may not translate into mechanical costs) the GM has to maintain, track and prepare for. Cost might be Simulationist, that which Ken focused on, in terms of how much time and energy it takes to mechanically resolve the Gamist and Narrativist choices made by players and GM. Last session, I had occasion to reflect on all three of these aspects.

To begin with the Gamist considerations, at this time, in my own game, there isn’t much. As I said, the characters are made, so, for the most part, players are consigned to a narrative choice, as I have explained sufficiently, or to the rolling of a d100. Their bonuses are predetermined; environmental and situational modifiers often result from narrative choices, and some real Gamist choices originate from resource management. This last session, largely because a character finally was able to identify some of them, a player started making use of his potions to (mostly) good effect.

Something new was revealed to me, however. My players began to shake their heads and wonder at all the misses they were making on some unarmored Weak Orcs. At the same time, these Orcs were doing consistent damage on some of their own armored characters. It occurred to me that the players didn’t have the combat charts. An essential element of the game is how armor and weapons interact with one another. For example, because a character is more agile without armor, it’s more difficult to land a blow on an unarmored character rather than an armored one. And some weapons are better suited than others to this attempt. The players should be made cognizant of these choices. Therefore, next session I’m going to have a few extra copies of the most relevant weapon attack tables. Players can even look up their own results, if they want. I think this will benefit the game.

Narrativist considerations are deceptively a non-issue in determinations of Cost. Players simply make their choices (though sometimes they need to be hurried along if they start micro-strategizing in the midst of combat, or if they fall into analysis paralysis). I find the most potential for cost, in the Narrativist regard, in the GM’s camp, however. Last session my players, as usual, went a much different path than I had expected. So instead of paging through combat charts I found myself paging through old maps and locales. What was going on at the alchemist’s cave? What would the PCs find? I had had a few ideas — they might even have been written down somewhere — but that was sessions ago! Sometimes Narrativist choices result in Simulationist choices. I love to consult the weather tables (which I forgot to do last session). PCs get xp for miles traveled. Instead of calculating it, I ballparked it.

The lesson I have been learning most clearly as this campaign progresses, however, is that, simply put, the more choices the GM offers his players the more narrative work, or Cost, it is for the GM. It seems like the very best advice a GM can heed when starting a sandbox campaign is to make just three hexes of adventure locations. And maybe stop there. As old skoolers have learned from generations of megadungeons, the location is always changing and repopulating anyway, always worth a second or third or fourth visit. Also, sandbox design encourages emergent storytelling. Two sessions ago, my PCs released a Shadow into the world. Their intention is track it down and end it. So the Shadow had to be somewhere, and an adventure location was required. But it wasn’t used — at least not yet. My PCs’ choices resulted in them going back to some other locations, and the story careened down a much different route than otherwise expected. What I’m saying is that, after three initial adventure locations as choices, the GM best uses her time designing new ones as the narrative demands them, not because he simply has some more on hand and has a new, cool idea.

To reduce Cost on the GM’s narrative end, I have been trying to fit all necessary information into a single map on a single page. In the margins I try to consolidate all Monster and NPC stats and Treasure descriptions. I use colored pencils, as much as possible, to give me visual cues of what rooms contain and possible light sources.

After an adventure, it should become necessary to update these maps and descriptions. I will try to keep them current and organized in a binder. Perhaps I’ll take some time this week redoing a lot of this work, streamlining and cleaning it.

Simulationism has the highest Cost, of course, and here choices in efficiency often have a detrimental result on realism and my own enjoyment of the game. Again and again I consider new Gamist elements or simplifications. Again and again I reject them in favor of just progressing on with the rules we have and moving one step closer towards that elusive chimera, System Mastery. The problem with introducing an innovation for a questionable need is that a new rule, no matter how ingenious, is an just one more thing to keep cognizant of, a potential for yet one more error. Sharing combat charts should help. Personal study and fine-tuning of my screen and binder should have similar benefit.

Anyway, I again have reaped benefit from Ken’s new Rolemaster series. I expect to improve my game with these thoughts. I look forward to more analysis of RM game design.

Simulation, Emulation, and an “Appendix N” for Rolemaster

E89436C2-2811-442C-9F31-971D085E83C5Naturally, I frequent the Rolemaster Blog. And it has become quite interesting lately with a new contributor’s system analysis of Rolemaster’s central feature. In the midst of this discussion, the term “simulationist” has come up a number of times as a description of the type of game that Rolemaster is.

For some time, I had been using this term to describe Rolemaster simply because I knew the meaning of the word; I meant it to mean that the Rolemaster rules seeks to “simulate,” as accurately as possible, the “real world.” Now, there are two reasons to put “real world” in quotations. The first is because Rolemaster — and most simulationist roleplaying games — are fantasy roleplaying games. Fantasy is not real (as if you needed to be told). The second reason is because, in my reading of simulationism in roleplaying games, I find simulationist used as a synonym for “emulationist.”

This is yet another word that I had been employing in conversations about roleplaying games, but I wasn’t applying the term to Rolemaster. Instead, I would say, for example, “Many argue that Rolemaster, being a derivative of D&D, isn’t very good at emulating Tolkien. Some people say The One Ring does this exponentially better.” But I believe that Rolemaster is simulationist because I see, in its aims, an attempt to simulate what one particular weapon would do against a specific type of armor. It seeks to move away from damage as articulated as only abstract hit points and brings breaking bones, bleeding arteries, stunned bodies, nerveless arms, organ and limb loss, and even instant death through its critical hit tables. Through this it seeks to emulate the “real world.” So, the other reason for quoting “real” is because of the postmodernist conceit that there is little agreement in what comprises the “real.”

It so happens that just recently — I’m not sure why now, perhaps the changing seasons? — my reading has moved away from Gygaxian Appendix N stuff into nonfiction, though the texts still bear on my gaming, particularly on Rolemaster’s Middle-earth. I just finished The Worst Journey in the World — dubbed adventure writing — and this certainly is why specific references to dogsleds and “finnekso” are in my current play-by-post campaign. I’m reading Weapons through the Ages, studying Old Norse, and recently opened up what essentially amounts to a botanical textbook called Flora of Middle-Earth. All of these have corollaries in Peter Fenlon’s original reading list in Rolemaster, even the MERP reading list.

Gygax’s Appendix N is composed entirely of fantasy and science fiction that D&D is designed to emulate. The Rolemaster recommended reading list, in comparison, is almost entirely nonfiction, and thus the two lists demonstrate my own developing distinction of a simulationist versus emulationist in game systems.

Many online discussions appear to designate simulationist roleplaying games as older rules sets whose popularity was greatest during the 80s and 90s. Today, now (to generalize), the vogue appears to be “rules lite” and emulationist games that evoke specific source material or intellectual properties — though, naturally, this emulationist project began in the 80s and 90s. A personal favorite game of mine is West End Games’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game, an emulationist game that is, in my opinion, superior to the current Fantasy Flight version. And the d6 system that West End uses for the property is “lighter” than Fantasy Flight’s, and this contributes to a fast pace more conducive to the frenetic action of Star Wars movies. The major criticism I’ve heard for these rules is that Jedi characters are overpowered or “broken” after long advancement. But this, in my view, contributes all the more to the emulation — have you seen how powerful Jedi are in the movies? Moreover, this system might have been the first to formalize emulation by giving the GM direct advice about the kinds of stories and narratives that are essential features for (in this case) a Star Wars adventure. According to WEG, the Star Wars adventure formula is as follows: every adventure must contain at least one episode solved with combat, one involving ship-to-ship combat, one involving a chase, and one requiring interaction with NPCs.

Early in the history of rpgs, a genre that began to be emulated was the superhero milieu. But, as I discovered one commenter detailing on the forums, does a specific rules set seek to allow a player to be Spider-man as if he is in the “real world” or Spider-man as if he is in a comic book? In short, the observation posits that various genres contain different tonal and narrative “rules” that might not be present in “reality.”

To bring these musings back to Rolemaster, I imagine that The One Ring plays out as if one is in Tolkien’s epics, whereas MERP plays as if one is in the world as visioned through Tolkien’s epics. For this reason many have criticized MERP as an emulation of Tolkien’s world. And it certainly doesn’t give advice to the GM about how to tell stories as Tolkien does!

Nonetheless, might Rolemaster also contain an emulationist aspect, perhaps one that is buried? The answer here is difficult because RM is derived directly from D&D. So one would expect its pedigree to be similar to the one evolved from Appendix N. But I don’t think so. I already have pointed to notable differences in RM’s recommended reading, and I find even more differences in RM’s Creatures & Treasures versus D&D’s Monster Manuals. Many Appendix N readers find direct analogs from Appendix N to D&D monsters. What’s curious is that, between RM and D&D, even the same name of a monster does not necessitate a similar character.

A first evidence of this can be found on the ICE boards. One gamer was puzzled by a description of the Goblin in RM’s Creatures & Treasures: “Goblins possess greenish, yellow skin and tender, toeless feet. To protect these sensitive appendages from hurt (and, perhaps, to hide their lack of toes … ), Goblins wear clumsy, stone clogs. When particularly enraged, they attempt to denude a scapegoat of his clogs and stamp with laughter upon the exposed limbs.” As has been pointed out on the forum, the antecedent for this description does not come from a Monster Manual but from George MacDonald’s fairy tale classic The Princess and the Goblin. Is MacDonald included in Gygax’s Appendix N? It appears not.

Another obvious monster to look at is the Troll. The D&D troll, with its regenerative properties that can be halted only by acid or fire, clearly is drawn from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. The RM trolls, naturally, are derived from Tolkien, who himself derived them from Norse Mythology. Most notable with RM trolls is their relationship to sunlight: Stone Trolls, in daylight, are turned to stone.

Gnomes also are interesting. For a long time in manuscript forms, Tolkien’s Elves were named Gnomes rather than Elves. This probably is because of the name’s association with wisdom (see the adjective “gnomic” or even the Oxford Dictionary entry for “gnome”). How do RM’s Gnomes compare to D&D’s? Well, for starters, they are not short. They also seem more regal, not the tricksters and tinkerers of D&D: “Bald, wizened men who usually live in shallow caves, long-lived Gnomes gather knowledge and lore as a hobby. Ancient tomes and rare scrolls litter their crowded libraries, precious chambers that usually fall to ruin with a Gnome’s death.” It’s clear that RM has fastened on the association with “wisdom.” But it’s not so clear how much, at the writing of C&T, the contributors knew about Tolkien’s early use of the appellation.

These are examples that have come to me randomly, as I have returned to the game of my youth and expanded my game options with C&T. I’m sure that I will encounter many more curiosities as I continue with my preferred game. And I want to share one last one, mostly because of how linguistically interesting it is: the Gnoll.

Because I finally began playing D&D at 3e I now know what a Gnoll is: those hyena-like humanoids of fields and plains. But I had heard this term as a designation of a kind of being well before 3e, and in my own mind had made of it something quite different: a short, green skinned, perhaps warty humanoid that lives in a hill. This last idea was probably suggested by the Gnoll’s close association with the word knoll, which of course is a type of hill. I also might have had in mind the cutified Norwegian trolls of the mounds, the “hill-folk,” the “underground people,” shortish beings with cow tails who herd reindeer. These are the ideas and associations that composed a picture, for me, independent of the Monster Manual. I would be interested in where the contributor for Gnoll in C&T got his or her ideas, for these Gnolls likewise are not hyena-men, but “small, wrinkled men with grey skin and little hair.” They live in caverns and grottos and typically wear “sober, earth-toned clothing.” I think that my young imagination and C&T is more in agreement about this fellow than D&D’s Monster Manual, but what is the “real” or literary antecedent for the being? I can’t find one. There isn’t even an entry in the Oxford Dictionary.

I think that I have begun to reveal something interesting about Rolemaster. It’s rules system quite clearly is derived from D&D with an aim towards more “real world” simulationism, but in terms of literary inspiration (and therefore emulation) it is almost entirely on a parallel track of imaginative storytelling. I would love to understand exactly what the original designers of RM might have had in mind, because at this point I’m willing to predict an alternative “Appendix N” for Rolemaster, one that might not share most of its literary influences. It might look something like this:

Alexander, Lloyd; The Book of Three and others

Arabian Nights 


Eddison, E.R.; The Worm Ouroboros, The Mezentian Gate Trilogy

Dunsany; Complete Works

The Faerie Queene

Hodgson, William Hope; Complete Works


Le Guin, Ursula; A Wizard of Earthsea and others

L’engle, Madeline; A Wrinkle in Time and others

Lewis, C.S.; Complete Works

Lindsay, David; A Voyage to Arcturus

MacDonald, George; Complete Fantasies

Morris, William; Complete Fantasies

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained

Peake, Mervyn; The Gormenghast Trilogy

Tolkien; Complete Works

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Stewart, Mary; The Crystal Cave and others

White, T.H.; The Once and Future King

Interestingly, the only books in common between this and Appendix N appear to be Lord Dunsany and Tolkien. The works on this list also seem to be more “English” in nationality. The writers also seem to be more often “theistically minded.” What do you think should be included in this “Appendix RM”? Did I miss anything obvious?

A Local Con and an Ongoing Campaign

50B4CEB9-2B6A-4F01-9FF2-D9A99E832FFAMy games are submitted for Coulee Con, an annual gaming convention in my area.

A month ago I had been telling folks that I was going to be running Monolith’s Conan board game, all day, every day. This was because time constraints made most offerings—even rpg offerings—smaller, tactical scenarios, and Monolith Conan is 100% this kind of experience anyway. I also was going to run it because I just really like the game, and, since I privilege long rpg campaigns in my Monday night home game, I never get a chance to play it.

But when it came right down to submitting events, I realized that I feel more comfortable offering what grows directly out of what has been occupying me creatively lately, and so here is what I submitted to TableTop:

Middle-Earth Role Playing: Shadows Under Amon Muina
Long before The One Ring, there was Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP). This adventure, using Iron Crown Enterprises’s original 1986 game, is based on Tolkien’s aborted sequel “The New Shadow” and involves PCs investigating a Fourth Age secret cult within the suburbs of Minas Tirith.

Rolemaster: Grendel’s Lair
Play out the first part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf using Iron Crown Enterprises’s Rolemaster system. This scenario was offered last Coulee Con but with a different rpg system.

Rolemaster: The Green Wight
Explore the Green Howe for a deadly date with the Green Wight! This scenario uses Iron Crown Enterprises’s Rolemaster system to reimagine and retell the ultimate events of the epic Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

(If you wish to see any of these adventures in detail, please visit my Middle-Earth Role Playing/Rolemaster page on this site. Home gamers, this does not mean you!)

A lot of Rolemaster there, yep. I think, if things continue along these lines, I might have to join the Order of the Iron Crown.

The “Rolemaster” I’m offering is sort of an interesting experiment for con play, too. I have devised my own character sheets for both MERP and RM2 that use the NPC tables for quick generation of the only stats that should matter for con play. I will allow players to customize their characters, however, by using Background Points to increase adventuring skills, buy Secondary Skills, or roll on item tables. I’m also innovating an additional resource that allows players to reroll one or more of the percentile dice by spending Power Points (a resource usually reserved solely for spell-casting). If this “con rule” works out, I might consider offering it at home.

The Weeping Lady Barcorodon

Last session was a “beard party,” as a gamer who wasn’t able to attend called it. This meant that the only ones present were myself and two other gamers, those of us who have sizable enough beards.

For being just a party of two, these two gamers did quite well. They were rolling fantastically and so quite easily dispatching a number of Walking Dead, mostly by allowing them out of their niches (the poor things had been scratching and pushing at their cupboard doors for some time) and hacking at them or burning them as they tried to get out.

This session was the first “evolution” to the full RM2 attack and critical tables, and since I had them all “cut out” (the previous owner had done a lot of that cutting for me), put into plastic and affixed with easily identifiable tabs in a binder, it went pretty smoothly. I think the one thing I forgot was that critical effects are supposed to be one step lower on Walking Dead, and I’m still forgetting to consult all relevant weapon stats while rolling on the attack tables. I heard someone on a podcast recently refer to what, back in the day, he and his friends began to call “Volo’s Law.” As many know, Volo is an unreliable researcher, a fictional character developed for one of D&D’s properties — Forgotten Realms, I think. Whenever this player’s group realized, belatedly, that they had forgotten something in the game, they simply said, “Oh, well, that’s Volo’s Law,” which was to mean that sometimes things just don’t go the way they are “supposed to,” an accurate enough reflection of reality itself, I believe, and so I’m using this sentiment also to shrug away seeming inconsistencies in my simulationist game, as well.

This last session got most interesting when the players encountered the statue of the Weeping Lady of Barcorodon. Now, I had no idea this was her name until the Hobbit Scout character, with the Lore Secondary Skill that he uses a lot, rolled really quite well on a Static Maneuver. I allowed that he hadn’t come across anything in Dunadan records, but he did remember, from somewhere in his subconscious, a Shire song called “The Ballad of Berry Salt-Tears.” In the midst of the adventure I was able to improv the basic sketch of the folk tale, and I since then I have written the ballad itself.

The Ballad of Berry Salt-Tears
A Shire Song

Berry Salt-tears wept beside
The ocean’s splashing strand.
Her lover, sailing on, had gone
From out the warded land.

For many years he had been lost
In Ulmo’s crashing seas,
Not one long night in all that time
Had Berry’s weeping ceased.

Her tears fell from the ocean’s edge
Into the churning waves,
And, mingled with Uinen’s blood,
Flowed through abyssal caves.

Until it reached yon lover’s soul
Where long he had abode
In mansions built of glowing coral
Where deepest waters flowed.

And so his soul was called across
The fathoms to his love,
And from the surf he told his tale
To where she wept above.

He had been wrecked at stormy sea
So many years ago;
Two porpoises his lifeless corse
Bore fathoms deep below.

To Ulmo’s land beneath the sea
Where elves eternal dwell,
And given form of watery mien
Maintain a ceaseless revel.

And Berry Salt-tear too may go
And live beneath the sea
If love for him she had enough,
Her home to ever flee.

But Berry Salt-tear balked a beat
At that uncanny offer,
And in that time the moon broke free
From wispy gray cloud cover.

No more within the sucking tide
Against the sea-spray rocks
Did suitor float with loving gaze
And seafoam streaming locks.

And Berry Salt-tear rose from where
She’d wept for her lost man,
And ever since that day, they say,
She never cried again.

Whence this Barcorodon/Berry Salt-tears? Well, it’s origin, much like the statue of Kardakion (feet on the backs of two porpoises, at the entrance to the crypt) comes from the box text of the adventure Crypts of Kardak from Creation’s Edge Games (though the box text statue is two twining snakes and nothing at all like I devised), this one, much more directly, comes from a description of what the adventure calls the “Weeping Maiden.” Again, as with some of the dungeon elements that I described last post, there is magical light and non-natural “explanations” for things, so I happily reskinned the statue here. There was supernal light, though mine came from the shallow basin in her hands into which the statue wept. The adventure descibes the tears falling into a basin at her feet. And the tears themselves? I made them natural cave-flow formations that dripped down from the ceiling, becoming one with her hair and trailing down around her shoulders. There was some magic here — undoubtedly MERP’s “Channeling” magic — but only in the tears that collected in the basin. The rest formed more rock flows, like candle wax, that dripped down over the sides of this shallow glowing bowl.

The session was a success. The Hobbit Scout had much more difficulty with a Crypt Rat than either he or the Dunadan Ranger had had with the Walking Dead. He was reduced below 0 hp but brought back with a Ring of Healing. They are ready to recommence exploring the Crypt next session, hopefully with some new recruits (other gamers).

I also have struck on a great idea for campaign xp. Every session, PCs gain 1,000 xp in addition to the regular calculated xp per the tables in MERP and in RM. Should these characters die, new characters can be created with xp equal to 1,000 per session in which the gamer has participated. All other xp, specific to those particular deceased characters, are lost though.


Daramir’s Funeral

BEE99797-CC5A-4226-B451-268C75A609FDThis journal entry comprises two game sessions. In the first session, the PCs returned to the dungeon in which Daramir had met his end. They were surprised to find the area vacated by the bandits from the session previous. It turned out that a resident Large Alligator had feasted on the carnage the PCs (and bandits) had left behind. The PCs battled this Large Alligator, slew it, and wrapped Daramir’s legless corpse in its hide.

For Daramir’s funeral, I described Dunadan burial customs as depicted in ICE’s Minas Tirith. What was left of Daramir’s body was displayed on a bier. Flowers — a costly expense this time of year — were strewn about the remains, particularly mounded around his absent legs: they had been devoured by the Alligator who had difficulty piercing and digesting Daramir’s chain shirt. Then the Porters and Doorwardens Fellowship drew the body through the streets of Minas Tirith and over the two miles to the foot of Mindolluin. Here I described a sprawling necropolis of modest above-ground vaults, grottos, and mausoleums from the single story to the very elaborate, carved into the mountain for as far as the eye could see.

At Daramir’s family plot, I had Daramir’s father read a passage from The Silmarillion. It culminated in the following:

But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope. Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainu; whereas Iluvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World’s end, and Melkor has not discovered it.

After this, Daramir’s father turned to his kin Lanamir, asking, “Will you read in honor of your cousin?”

“Of course,” said Lanamir, and was handed these relevant verses from the Lay of Leithian:

Long are the paths, of shadow made
Where no foot’s print is ever laid,
Over the hills, across the seas!
Far, far away are the Lands of Ease,
But the land of the lost is further yet,
Where the Dead wait, while ye forget.
No moon is there, no voice, no sound
Of beating heart; a sigh profound
Once in each age as each age dies
Alone is heard. Far, far it lies,
The Land of Waiting where the Dead sit,
In their thought’s shadow, by no moon lit.

And then the adventure: I described one of the Porters, whom the PCs later learned was named Tamalon, not wanting the disrespect the occasion but still trying to get their attention. After the service he approached the PCs and explained that recently the Doorwardens had had some trouble with the Walking Dead. The Dead appeared to have been trying to get into the ancient Crypts of Kardakion. The PCs looked like doughty folk, and Tamalon wondered if they might help him out: it was the responsibility of the Doorwardens to inter their dead, not necessarily deal with them if they got back out, though they had dismembered and burned the Dead who were trying to get into the Crypt.

The PCs did some investigating, poring through cemetery records to find connections between the recently Walking and Kardakion. Then they inspected the two graves that the Doorwardens had identified as being desecrated. And at last they approached the Crypts of Kardakion, high in the graveyard at the summit of two mountain shoulders forming a steep valley.

Table Talk

I’ve decided to blend the proper campaign journal here with some design observations. A player asked me if this was another purchased adventure, to which I said yes. Specifically, I was using the Crypts of Kardak from Creations Edge.

But this overall scenario, actually, is one that I designed when I first conceived of this campaign, when I thought of three “monster types” or encounters keyed to specific landscapes. By the time it became clear, in my campaign, that the PCs were going to have some reason to be in the graveyard, I rethought my original notes and instead, out of curiosity, spent the whole $1.50 (that’s a facetious tone here, folks) to see what Creations Edge had in mind for a low-level encounter in a tomb.

Really, I was spending my $1.50 on the map of the crypt. Anything of further interest was a bonus.

And there were items of further interest, but, as with The Alchemist’s Task, this one had to be “reskinned” for MERP. In fact, I felt the need to alter it even more than I had with Alchemist’s, probably for the reason that the tombs of Minas Tirith are such a notable place.

First, the entire Crypts of Kardak backstory for why the PCs would enter the dungeon is scrapped and most of my original scenario is pasted in. Second, major architectural features are rebuilt. I described the approach to the tomb as a flight of stone steps so worn by time that, now, they are little more than a stone ramp leading up to a massive marble door beset with a single iron ring in its center. Above this door, weathered by time, are carvings that suggest two porpoises leaping into the air, their beaks almost touching as an archway for the door. This portal is opened easily, but then stairs descend into the mountain. It is about here that the Crypts of Kardak map begins.

It is also here, in the adventure proper, that the PCs are to encounter Tamil the Thief, who is attempting to pick the gate lock into the dungeon. Astute readers might notice, at this point, that Tamil, in my game, already has become Tamalon. Moreover, being a Doorwarden, Tamalon has the key to the gate, and he opens it.

Here is the adventure box text for what happens next:

Four braziers spring to life as the gate opens, each illuminates a corner of the large chamber before you. A statue of two serpents entwined dominates the center of the room. The head of one points towards a stone door to the north while the other head points to a door to the south. A portcullis bars passage to the west.

This wouldn’t work for me as a fixture in a Dunadan tomb. Instead I conceived the character of Kardakion who, centuries ago, when Minas Tirith still was better known as Minas Anor, perished at sea. Two dolphins carried his body to shore, where he later was buried in a tomb carved in his honor in Mindolluin. The statue, therefore, became that of a sleeping — or deceased — Adonis, his arms draped over the body of one porpoise, who faces one way, his knees supported by another porpoise, who faces the opposite way.

The other thing that had to be altered was the lighting. In the box text, the braziers “spring to life.” Why do they do this? Well, magic, I guess. This wasn’t good enough for me, though. In my game, when the portcullis was raised, it activated a mechanism that ignited reservoirs of oil in the basins of four stone braziers fashioned as conch shells.

At the table, my descriptions, heavily suggesting their explanations, were a good effect. I believe a sense of awe was evoked. “This is a nice place,” said one player. And I wonder if I would have achieved the same wonder and excitement had I run the adventure as written. Right now I’m tempted to believe that a physical explanation for suddenly-lighting torches was more impressive than a magical explanation. And I’m certain that the statue was more interesting and relevant to the setting.

The riddle in this room is to figure out how to open one or two of the stone doors in the wings, because (as Tamalon related to my adventurers) the last person to be interred in this tomb, Kardakion III, gave explicit instructions that the two keys required to open the portcullis gate on the other side of the statue were to be secreted in the tomb, one through either stone door. And these stone doors could be opened only through a secret method, a method the PCs discovered when they climbed up onto the statue and looked down to where the porpoises were pointing. From this vantage, they saw in the floor near the beaks of the porpoises fish shapes set into the flagstones. Getting fingers in the seams raises the noses of the fish and thereby sets off the underground, hidden mechanisms that unbar the doors on their farther sides. (Needless to say, the adventure as written method of opening these doors is quite different, more grisly and “bloody.”)

But this didn’t happen before the PCs had to deal with a strange, black, viscous substance that started creeping into this room as soon as Tamalon brought them to the far portcullis to show them the two keyholes that required the secreted keys. This is where the chemistry of the game session got very interesting: it seemed to me that most of the players were a bit unsettled by this turn of events. In Dungeon Crawl Classics fashion (though of course this technique isn’t original to that rules set) I simply described this phenomena. The substance slowly percolated into the chamber, guided by some inscrutable purpose. Moreover, it began to spread out over major portions of the floor. PCs experimented with it, touching it with fire, dousing it with flames, guiding it with vibrations, and even ruining a sword point by poking at it. This encounter is a bit of the adventure as written, though I had swapped out the Gray Ooze of the published adventure with the Caustic Slime of Creatures & Treasures. I have to go back into C&T to determine just what limits the size of “Large” given for that creature should be, for I was tempted to have this thing expand into the chamber, slowly and inexorably, more and more until it simply covered the entire area, a major impediment to investigating the riddle! But instead I limited it to taking up one half of the room, and then I had it contract its body to greater viscous heights based on the interactions resulting from the PCs.

In the end the PCs performed so much fire damage on the slime that it “fled” back into the farther chamber beyond the portcullis, giving the PCs a very good look at what lay on the other side, before it finally burnt away at the farthest extremity of the chamber hall.

And that’s where we called the session!

The Fall of Daramir

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!

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.