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.

Advertisements

Session One: The Dark Call of Herumor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table Talk

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

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

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

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

Time to start dreaming for Session Two.

The Sub- Sub- Subcreation of Middle-Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping and Populating a Middle-Earth Sandbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing for Adventures in Middle-Earth

560CC18F-3B2E-44D0-934B-DBC533D6CF0CI appear to have received my Christmas wish and am scheduled to run a MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) adventure on New Year’s Day! I have been diligently preparing, and I thought that the player’s accessory I devised might be of interest to more than just my players. This is because it shows a little of what I intend to do with MERP. It also delivers some of my thoughts on the game system and what it means in terms of tactical play and the context of gaming in Middle-Earth.

***

It is the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, one hundred years after the passing of Elessar (1641 F.A., to be precise), Ringbearer’s Companion, Warden of the North. Now Elessar’s son Eldarion is King of Gondor, reigning from Minas Tirith.

The Peoples of Middle-Earth

Dwarves have retreated deep within their mountain fastnesses. They are more reserved and belligerent than ever. Their hues have taken on a rock-like, dusky temperament. Their beards bristle like wire or sparkle like quartzite. They now are affected by sunlight much as Orcs are.

All the High Elves (Noldor) have departed for the Western Shores. The Sindar Elves (those who never dwelt in Aman) remain in secret redoubts, here and there, reticent to leave the only land they ever have known. Along with the Silvan Elves, who reside within the deepest forests, they are fading and diminishing, both in stature and in temperment. The Silvan Elves, in particular, have become cruel and capricious in their intolerance for humans.

Hobbits populate the vast majority of Western Middle-Earth, over which they have unbroken jurisdiction, though the men of the South, in these later years since the expiration with the King’s Peace following Elessar’s passing, are pushing at their borders. Hobbits have grown larger over the generations and, in some cases, are hardly distinguishable from their Southern brethren.

All manner of Men flourish in the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, though Woses have become increasingly rare, now that, in the years following King Elessar’s passing, they have been hunted almost to extinction.

Orcs and Trolls have become very rare, retreating, like the Dwarves, deep into the hidden places of the earth. Some Orcs, however, have begun to pass as normal men in some of the larger, more cosmopolitan populations. There also are rumors of great Orc migrations traveling by night, leaving their caves and fortresses around Mordor and the Misty Mountains and traveling, sometimes with the secret aid of evil Men, into the deserts of the Haradwaith.

Initial Location and Situation

Month: Hithui (Fall). Weather: Windy (normal rain). Location: Pen-arduin, banks of the Anduin, feet of the Emyn Arnen.

The PCs are inhabitants or vagabonds among the rural homes Pen-arduin, hill country southeast of Minas Tirith and along the banks of the Anduin. Over the last few days, the PCs have heard whispered mention of Herumor (see “The New Shadow” in The Peoples of Middle-Earth) and “the Call.” While gathering in the common room of The Merchant’s Scythe (Tiviel the “merchant’s” original scythe, with which he began his hay business, hangs rusting above the door), the PCs, one way or another, have been told that on this night someone all in black is going to come for them and invite them to a meeting. If they choose to accept “The Call,” they are to dress in black themselves and join this person and others on a pilgrimage into the hills, the Emyn Arnen.

The Player Characters

Dunadan Warrior. Long have you served in King Eldarion’s Royal Guard, but of late you have heard troubling rumors of a conspiracy undoubtedly led by the Fellowship of Blood. To ease your mind, you went on leave to visit family in the Emyn Arnen area, only to encounter the same sorts of rumors. Weapons: Broadsword, Short Bow (20); Armor: Shield, Chain; Items: Ring of Healing (1d10 4/day), 2 gp.

Sinda Elf Mage. You are a member of a dwindling species. Many of your kin have retreated deep into quiet contemplation within the forests of Middle-Earth, where it is said they become one with root and branch or dwindle into diminutive spirits. Others have set forth across the waters of Endor in search of new stimuli. You, on the banks of the Anduin, are contemplating doing exactly this, yourself. Weapons: Broadsword, Long Bow (20); Armor: None; Items: Ring of Invisibility (1/day), 2 gp.

Wose (Druadan) Ranger. For all you know you are the last of your kind. Recently you buried your mother and your father in a cave in Dunland before journeying to Minas Tirith, the center of civilization, seeking knowledge of your culture and, failing that, perhaps new purpose in life. Unsuccessful in your quest to learn of more of your kind, you nonetheless have befriended one or more of the other PCs. Weapons: Spear, Handaxe; Armor: Soft Leather, Shield; Items: Onyx stone of shade on a leather thong (3/day), 2 gp.

Dorwinadan Bard. Restless, always seeking adventure, you accompanied a merchant bearing Dorwinion wine to Minas Tirith. Once there, you decided you would stay awhile and perhaps see the ocean. It is for this reason that you are refreshing yourself at a common house on the banks of the Anduin. Weapons: Mace, Longbow (20); Armor: Shield; Items: Crystal of light mirage on a silver chain (2/day), pet weasel, 2 gp.

Urban Animist. Recently you have decided to set up shop and offer your services in Emyn Arnen, the suburbs of Minas Tirith. Weapons: Short Sword, Crossbow (20); Armor: Soft Leather; Items: Ring of Calm II (3/day), 2 gp.

Hobbit Scout. You believe you are of distant Brandybuck lineage and have traveled to Minas Tirith to learn more about the great Meriadoc’s last days. Your researches indicate that Merry might have stayed for a time in a cottage in Pen-arduin. You found no further leads, but you did find passable ale in The Merchant’s Scythe! Weapons: Short Bow (20), Sling (20); Armor: Shield; Items: +10 lockpick, 2 gp.

Comments on Game System

Some have criticized Middle-Earth Role Playing as not being a proper emulation of Tolkien’s ethos. The main criticism for this has been the observation that the game system used in MERP is Rolemaster, which is a fairly generic fantasy rpg ruleset more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than Tolkien’s specific vision. A secondary criticism might be that Iron Crown Enterprises introduced non-canonical campaign material. In my own view, both of these features are benefits to gamers who would like to explore experiences of their own devising within the winds of Tolkien’s inspiration.

Many believe that MERP is “not Tolkien enough” since almost any character has the potential of, at some point, gaining magical ability. In addition to this, many of the higher level spells are “spectacular” along the lines of D&D, not nuanced and innate like those of the Maiar or Elves in Tolkien’s work. If a character has any magical ability, then that character knows at least one Spell List, and this means that the character automatically will know more spells to cast from that list as that character ascends in profession levels. Characters have a better chance of successfully casting spells and spell effectiveness if they prepare them for a number of rounds before casting.

Part of the Rolemaster project was to develop a “realistic” or simulationist system for combat. As such, MERP can be pretty lethal. This is because of the numerous Critical Hit Tables upon which even relatively unexceptional rolls might score. For some of these results, the only hope for survival or avoidance of maiming is to have suitable armor in the areas so struck: helm, leg or arm greaves. Be warned.

These critical hit tables often cause damage outside of hit point loss, and this is where Rolemaster introduces a feature that is serendipitously in line with Tolkien’s vision: herbs. MERP provides lists and prices of unique flora that can be used to treat bone, muscle, and circulatory damage.

Another feature of Rolemaster is its experience point system. Just about everything that a character does — or has done to oneself — is worthy of experience! Criticals scored, hits taken on self, enemies slain, ideas had, miles traveled. It seems like, in an attempt to distinguish itself from or comment on D&D, the only thing that doesn’t generate experience points in MERP, rules as written, is gold. In my game, though, it does! For every game session, I will have organized charts available so that players can keep track of all of their characters’ feats. This also will help keep track of damage and conditions (since, as noted, these, too, award experience points), though I, as the GM, will try to be keeping a record of this myself.

I hope that MERP proves to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, and I appreciate everyone willing to take time away from Yggdrasill to give this a go. As a demonstration of my gratitude, and in hopes of you experiencing a longer MERP campaign, I will be doubling all xp gained till Level 3. This reflects your commitment and investment in the Yggdrasill game as I ask you to patronize me in our exploration of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age.

 

Wishing for a Grognard Group this Christmas!

D762F103-AC13-4C97-B13E-C76BE66EEF64It might be the season, heady with its atmosphere of nostalgia and traditions, that recently has me thinking a lot about MERP, which is an acronym for Middle-Earth Role Playing. This was the first roleplaying game I ever ran. Surprised, now, to find a 1986 publication date on the edition I am so familiar with, I must have saved up my modest allowance and purchased this thing at Waldenbooks in the Eden Prairie Center not much more than a year after publication!

I bought MERP, of course, because I was absolutely obsessed with Tolkien’s creation and had been looking for a way to escape, as much as possible, into his fantasy world. I was aware of Dungeons & Dragons, but for some reason I wasn’t interested in it. I wanted the “real deal,” and MERP represented that for me.

I did my best to understand the rules, and (as with so many reminiscing about their first experiences with the much more visible D&D) chronic misunderstandings did not prevent my neighborhood friends and me from playing this game until my original paperback copy was in tatters. Even when I “grew up” midway through high school and sold off most of my comics and roleplaying games, I kept around my battered old copy of MERP, masking tape not quite holding the spine together. That copy is gone now. At some point I must have tossed it away — a shame, for, even though I now have replaced it with a used, serviceable copy, I could have savaged that other copy for the tables with which to formulate a GM screen.

During my last session of Yggdrasill I mentioned MERP and my desire to run it. The sentiment was met with — ambivalence. Part of this reaction, I’m sure, was because of the reputation that Rolemaster (the core system behind MERP) has garnered over the years. It uses a lot of charts and tables and has a fairly lengthy character creation process. But I generated six characters last night (one for each of the six possible “professions”) and it seemed to me that D&D 3/3.5 and Pathfinder borrowed a lot from the Rolemaster approach to character creation. This is doubly interesting to me since I didn’t play D&D until 3rd ed and therefore didn’t understand till recently how different the Original Game had been.

As I’ve mentioned, one in our group is running AD&D 1e, alternating on weeks with Yggdrasill. Sitting around my Yggdrasill table last Monday, thinking of my recent nostalgic enthusiasm for MERP, looking at my group, I wondered if we might try calling ourselves the Grognard Group in which each of us old timers run our favorite old school game. The games, keyed to specific GMS, would be AD&D 1e, MERP — and a third gamer voiced a desire to run Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — which I would love.

A final thing that happened at that Yggdrasill table last Monday addresses the supposed “complexity” of MERP. As we totaled and re-totaled seemingly endless numbers in skill tests and damage values in the Yggdrasill system, I glanced across the table at the only gamer who knew something about the Rolemaster system. I saw in his eyes what he was going to say. “Actually, MERP probably runs faster than this.”

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as Inspiration for Yggdrasill “Winter Nights” Gaming

136F0B9A-AEA2-4F0B-8C1B-63301801108CMy Yggdrasill campaign is underway again. It was interrupted by one session of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and by one player on hiatus (during which we played Monolith’s Conan board game). As I suggested last post, I attempted to adapt and modify traditional OSR material from Frog God Games — to demoralizing effect. I learned that OSR material (for me) doesn’t “translate” all that well to the specific vibe Yggdrasill seeks to emulate and that I’m not all that good at running adventures that I haven’t written myself.

I actually was quite ambitious. I had sent out hooks that could have taken the PCs in two different directions. One would have made use of the “official campaign” beginning in the Yggdrasill core book. The other was stuff adapted from Frog God’s Stoneheart Valley — a direction I vastly preferred the PCs take, and they did. But from there it floundered. I was experiencing the age old difficulty with any roleplaying game: my players (obviously) wanted to be in charge of their own characters’ choices and determinations. But, at the same time, as players, they are eminently happier and more entertained if I shoehorn (railroad) them into an exciting adventure.

Therefore I determined to try something specifically episodic and of my own invention. I began an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Yggdrasill.

It’s been going alright, I guess. My players talk about how much fun Beowulf was (though many experiences with rpgs become more entertaining through the recollections and retellings of past exploits). As a player pointed out to me, though, my work with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more of an “inspiration” rather than an outright “adaptation.” Add to this that I’ve added “sandboxy” elements and it is indeed a different animal.

We are mastering the system, though. I have innovated “Viking band” mechanics and then discarded them (for now) as being too complicating. I have introduced “Luck points” that any of us have yet to use. Action was slowed by a few attempts, on my part, to have players specify what happened during “downtime” that promptly became the play session. It had become difficult to wedge at least one satisfying combat encounter into a night’s session, dealing with the age old paradox of characters, obviously, seeking resolutions to problems outside of physical conflict while the players hungered for some good ol’ hack and slash.

I’ve got my players in Alfheim, now, after what felt to me like some tedium. You need your players to do things on their own, and yet, given the structure of the adventure, obviously they will find their way to Alfland. If not, there would be no adventure. So we are there now. Our berserker got royally ripped up by an alf defending a bridge, and now they have retreated to heal their wounds, regain their furor, and (this time) probably attack the alf en masse. In knightly fashion, they had initially agreed to fight the alf one at a time. The berserker went first and got destroyed.

I’m also trying to make myself better at improv. I will try to remember to draw a rune in response to any unanticipated player question. I also intend to expedite future downtime by drawing one rune per PC and narrating from there. If this rune matches one of their Fate runes, the interpretation of downtime events should be particularly interesting.