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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

Just Say Yes? GM Improv in Campaign Play vs. One-Shot Play

IMG_0033Some background before this post: Coulee Con is coming up, and I recklessly took the plunge and submitted two games to GM at the end of August. The first submission is Beowulf using the Yggdrasill system. The second is a Conan game called “Blood in Their Wakes” using the brand new 2d20 Modiphius system for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

I call these submissions “reckless” because the last time I submitted a game, “The Boon of Barrow-Isle” for the Yggdrasill system at Gamehole Con 2016, I belatedly realized that I was nowhere near prepared enough to run it. Therefore it was a mixture of disappointment and relief when absolutely no one signed up to play. Now, for Coulee Con, I feel prepared enough to run an Yggdrasill game, having run a campaign of it off and on now for almost a year. But Conan puts me in a situation similar to where I was last year with Yggdrasill. I am enamoured with the material and the system and really want to be an ambassador for it. Therefore I committed myself to it by submitting a game, and with my home group I’m fairly anxious to familiarize myself with the crunchy 2d20 system.

So I have to get to the “Beowulf” content in my Yggdrasill campaign to provide myself with plenty of time for the Conan rules set. And this haste and anxiety led to the thoughts that I have for this post. Last session I made good on my resolution to resort more to the runes as a game mechanic, but I did something else that, during post-game analysis, I regretted. If I could go back to our last session I would act differently in response to a player’s question. This falls under the topic of “Just say yes” during improv play.

Some time ago I listened to a recorded seminar from Paizo Con. One of the panelists was a noted GM and practitioner of improv theatre. He had two major pieces of advice for GMs: 1. Let the players shine and 2. Just say yes. Really, he was teaching the improv rule of “yes and.” An example of this:

GM: So the oaf has you down with your back on the table. His massive mitts are around your throat, slowly squeezing the life out of you. What do you do?

Player: I look around. Is there something nearby that I can grab and hit him with?

GM: Yes, in your periphery there appears to be a kettle. Made out of iron, maybe, and you sense heat emanating from it. Perhaps it is full of hot water?

I have presented the “Yes and” principle here at the microcosmic level, and this would be perfectly acceptable in one-shot convention play. Giving the player something to hit her antagonist with, and adding to the request the detail that it is full of hot — maybe even boiling — water isn’t going to drastically derail the track the GM has prepared for a satisfying arc that hopefully fits neatly into four hours of play (unless it’s going to, but that’s up to the judgment of the GM).

But the “Yes and” moment I encountered last session had greater implications. Instead of saying yes, I said no, and I know why I did at the time. After thinking about it, though, I wish I had said yes, and the answer is because of this: I said no because I was impatient to get to the microcosmic “one-shot” aspect of my campaign. But I should have recognized that I wasn’t playing a one-shot but a campaign. As such, I should have said yes.

I’m doing something potentially problematic with my regular group. I designed a Beowulf campaign for convention play, and I want to playtest it with my group in the midst of an ongoing campaign. As a result, some edges of Beowulf need to be rounded and trimmed and sharpened. There are many campaigns, I know, that operate this way. That’s why people buy published adventures, after all! But not everything is a full adventure path. The GM has to determine how to incorporate his “second-party” material into his wider campaign arc — and the campaign arc, I’m convinced, should be a collaborative experience between the GM and her players. This is why in general I have such difficulty with published adventure materials. Often I have to modify them to the point where it would be much more efficient for me to just build my own content from the ground up. Also, when running a game like Yggdrasill (in contradistinction to OSR games), my “sandbox” style of play is less a hexmap of “hidden encounters” that the PCs uncover or reveal as they explore… Okay, to follow the “sandbox” analogy further, it’s less of a series of sand castles that somehow are hidden from the players, but more of a wide expanse of unshaped sand that the players and I together will form into a story.

I am to be forgiven, and I know my players will forgive me, for being impatient to get to the actual “Beowulf” component of our Yggdrasill campaign so that I can test it and move on to the Conan game “Blood in Their Wakes”, but what I want to remind myself here is that my players are not first and foremost my playtesters but instead first and foremost my regular group of campaign players. This has been preamble enough to what exactly went down.

A few posts ago I introduced Yggdrasill to Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. I generated a table of possible adventure hooks for if the PCs decided to go snooping about the shoreline during their trip to Hleidra. For whatever reason, I entirely ignored that table last session. Instead, I drew runes and improvised on the spot, which also is entirely acceptable. But drawing the runes perhaps would have been more effective if I had coupled them with my table. Nonetheless, I had plenty going on: despite the warnings of the PC Lydia, who is a Volva, the Sjaellings had looted the Barrow-Isle of cursed gold. As such, they were becoming paranoid Smeagol-ish people, thinking everyone else was after their shares of the loot. This quickly became a problem when the Sjaellings began to mingle in the fishing village of Klepp which was crowded with three longships of trading Geats! After some antics ensued, Lydia asked me if there were any Volva nearby. I consulted a rune and determined no, there were not, being unable to connect the rune directly to Lydia’s request.

But lets look at the table I devised and chose, in the moment, not to consult at all:

Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.

And:

It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.

Really, the rune I consulted should have determined which of these Volva were nearby, not whether there were Volva at all. During gameplay I was happy to skip this information and a possible time-eating excursion, thereby forestalling yet again the playtest. But the detour would have been richer overall for the campaign. And it would have rewarded a player for excellent gameplay. And it also potentially could have better prepared the Volva for what is going to be no easy encounter with Grendel!

So really my point here is that there are two types of games: campaigns and one-shots. There are two types of players: campaigners and dabblers. There therefore are two types of ways to say “Yes and”: yes, there is this possibility of an adventure that we will build right now out of the amorphous sand and yes, there is that particular item for sale right now in this fletcher’s hut. In campaign play, a GM’s first responsibility is for his campaigners, and she never should lose sight of that larger narrative structure in deference for the smaller. The campaign is an epic, the one-shot is a tightly-driven short story.

Yggdrasill Meets Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design

IMG_0027Elsewhere I have expressed my admiration for Matt Finch’s writing, especially for his work on Swords & Wizardry and his Tome of Adventure Design. I’m about to get back into the GM driver’s seat this coming Monday, and I decided it was time to generate some ideas — some adventure hooks and possibilities in case I needed something quick if the action were to grow stale. So I reached for my Tome of Adventure Design (rather, I opened up iBooks) and drew a handful of dice out of my dicebag.

What I’m running next Monday is Yggdrasill. Yes, the plan had been to playtest ONOSR for the Beowulf campaign, but no matter how much you modify Swords & Wizardry — as I did to create ONOSR — it really is a form of D&D. And my group is playing a very fine D&D game on alternating Mondays. I myself am “polygamerous”: I simply didn’t feel like running yet another D&D game. I also sensed that my players were missing Yggdrasill, so…

I originally designed the Beowulf campaign for Yggdrasill. The trouble occurred when I began to imagine possibilities for broadcasting my work beyond the confines of my blog and my home game. I’m guessing Yggdrasill is a fairly protected intellectual property, so I felt creatively challenged in the event that I were to invest considerable time and energy into it. Swords & Wizardry, alternatively, as I’m sure no one need be reminded, is within the wide umbrella of the Open Game License. I also found Swords & Wizardry attractive when I started to scale the power structures of, say, PCs versus Monsters like Grendel. Thus ONOSR was born.

Nonetheless, Yggdrasill is a very fine system. It was my first love when it comes to Norse-themed rpgs, and it remains my favorite, so I decided to, after all, try to run the Beowulf campaign as originally conceived. We’ll see how these Yggdrasill characters do against Grendel, his Mother, and, perhaps eventually a Dragon!

But, as I said at the beginning of this post, I needed some ideas for what might occur to the PCs on their way to Hleidra, wherein is the Golden Hall cursed with Grendel. So, as I said, I reached for the Tome of Adventure Design.

The Tome clearly is most particularly designed for traditional fantasy rpgs such as D&D, but my recent experience with it showed that it can, to a considerable degree, be “system agnostic.” The Scandian world of Yggdrasill departs from traditional frpgs through its particularly naturalistic tone. It is what can be termed a “low magic setting.” Yet some of the tables in the Tome suggest towers of high wizardry and entire nations of bizarre creatures living right next door to the humans. Nonetheless, what follows is a list of what I generated using Finch’s adventure idea tables and then how I interpreted my results in consideration of the Scandian setting.

Skeleton-Cairn
Location – Stage raid upon Docks
Individual – Guard/protect Messenger
Puzzle-Tomb
Living Asylum of the Gluttonous Horde
Below ground Fane of the Master Wasps
Contaminated Mill of the Carnal Father
Fossilized Pyramid of the Vampiric Demon
Spider-Garden
Storm-Harbor
Event – Escape from Duel (Addict-Music)
Location – Capture and hold Docks for Ambassador

I crossed out “Puzzle-Tomb” and “Capture and hold Docks” because of redundancy, preferring, for my purposes, “Skeleton-Cairn” and “Stage raid upon Docks.” This also brought my results to a neat ten, a simple ten-sided roll if I wanted a random result. Of course, there is no reason I couldn’t roll a d12, but I liked the sense of appropriateness, Yggdrasill being a game that uses almost exclusively d10s. Then came my favorite part of being a GM and writer — the “dreaming.” Yes, what I rolled are, in essence, “writing prompts,” but what is most exciting about these is that I might actually get to use them rather than scribbling about them in my garret of an indifferent world. Here’s what they became:
1
The PCs are told of a “Dvergr Haug.” It might contain dwarf weapons. (It does not, just the smallish bones of a man and a woman in garments of desiccated hides. Beside them are bone and horn weapons and utensils.)
2
In Klepp, someone approaches the PCs inviting them into a raid on some ships loaded with local timber. The aim is to steal the ships and drive off any pursuit. “It’s not right that all of that costly timber should be leaving the area to build a foolhardy hall on some bit of rock of an island!” Will pay in silver.
3
An individual wants to be protected from a family who does not want him to bring word to a new wife’s family that she is being mistreated. Husband doesn’t want to lose the dowry. Messenger has been followed into town.
4
In one of the towns, more and more people are being infected with gluttony. It is a curse that is spreading into the town because someone shot a stag out of the nearby Alfwood. Some human sacrifices need to be hanged in the wood for propitiation.
5
Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.
6
A mill (and the grain it grinds) has been cursed, because the miller had relations with his own daughter. All the grain makes people sick with morbid hallucinations. An evil spirit needs to be driven out of the mill.
7
In the center of a forest is an ancient, petrified ash tree. In its hollow core lives a troll that is said to flap out at night and suck the blood from sleeping people.
8
It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.
9
It is said that a hammer fell out of the sky one night and broke a hole in a longship returning from a raid. The ship was loaded with silver, but divers have not been able to find it (nor the hammer — or the meteorite — that punctured the hull of the ship).
0
A young man who absolutely loves poetry and music asks the PCs to help him sneak away from a duel. He offended, in his drunkenness, a massive Viking who believes his own verses are the best ever. In the young man’s drunkenness, he agreed to holmgang, but now he admits he is a coward and will pay anything to be helped away.

This experience caused me to ponder just how far the Tome can be stretched into radically different genres. So far I’m certain it can be, because the results of course are about what the entries might evoke rather than the literal interpretation of the readings. If I ever create my “Diver” campaign for the Traveller system, it will be fun to use the Tome’s location and Dungeon Design tables to generate abandoned spacecraft. I’m certain the entries will translate beautifully.

Postscript

Incidentally, restarting my Yggdrasill campaign brought me by the Cubicle 7 forums, wherein I learned that Cubicle 7 no longer will be supporting Yggdrasill nor any of the other games it has had in English translation from Le 7eme Cercle. There is a suggestion that the Cercle might find its own means to translate its games into English and thereby continue its lines. But in the meantime it appears likely that Yggdrasill and some fantastic others (Keltia and Qin, for example) might be going the way of the Dead Games Society . Get your copies while you can!

Star Stealers: My Fantasy Flight Edge of Empire Campaign

IMG_0021The game in my youth that brought me the most pleasure (next to, I suppose, MERP and Champions) was West End Games’s d6 Star Wars system. A quick reason why this was, I suppose, is that that system emulated quite well for me the feel of that first trilogy of movies. Moreover, the GM advice section brilliantly broke down a satisfying Star Wars adventure into a formula: every adventure should contain a Chase, a Blaster fight, a Starfight, and NPC interaction. This formula made Star Wars one of the most dynamic and entertaining games in my collection.

For this reason I was eager to try out the latest system by Fantasy Flight Games, particularly since I had been hearing intriguing things about it. Therefore, when a friend asked me to run a Fantasy Flight Star Wars game, I readily agreed. The rules set most in circulation among these friends is Edge of Empire, so I agreed to that one. At session 0 my players devised a number of ruffians — one freighter pilot, one Niktos brawler, one Mandalorian bounty hunter, and one self-modding droid. The players agreed that they wanted to steal a Star Destroyer and blow up the Hutt home planet of Nal Hutta. Why? Well, because one character in particular had a grudge against the Hutts, because of slavery. That was enough for me, and to the drawing board I went.

I structured the short campaign into three episodes and said that it would take about ten sessions to complete. I think my prediction has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. We got started sometime in January of 2017 and played, roughly, every two weeks. The campaign ended last night. Here’s how the episodes broke down.

Episode 1: The PCs arrive on the volcanic mining planet of Varok on the Outer Rim. They are here because the Niktos has received word from a former contact that something fishy is going on here, and he thinks the Niktos might be interested in it. The information is that a large amount of ore is being moved to a Hutt casino moon some systems away, and the moon can’t possibly be using all that ore. When the PCs cause trouble (which of course they do), they are surprised to encounter an Imperial presence. When the Mandalorian bounty hunter spies a bounty and captures her, she is surprised to learn that this bounty is the new apprentice of her former master whom she left for personal reasons. The bounty hunter still wants to learn the secret of forging Mandalorian armor, so, while evading Varokian security ships, the entire group ends up moving to the forge of the Mandalorian Vo Kess in the heart of a volcano.

After encountering Vo Kess, the bounty hunter learns that Kess now pursues an ideal of Good in the form of the Light Side of the Force. Kess says that he is willing to teach Kida how to finish her Mandalorian armor if she and her companions will provide him transport to the Hutt casino moon: he is convinced that the Empire is using that moon as a fence to occlude the trail of that much ore from the Rebel Alliance. He thinks all the ore is being used for some diabolical Imperial project.

TIE bombers start pounding the volcano, and the PCs decide to flee in their freighter with their new allies. There is a brief starfight before the PCs make the jump to hyperspace.

Episode 2: Arriving at the Hutt casino moon, the PCs bluff security over coms that they are bringing in supplies for a prominent wedding between two Hutt families that is about to take place. This bluff ends up causing problems later on. Disembarking, the PCs enter the casino, trying to gather information. The planet is a crazy jungle planet in the midst of a Pre-Cambrian explosion, except the giant animal life is insect-based. The main structure of the casino descends to the jungle floor, which itself serves as a kind of gladiator space for the Hutts and their gambling clients. Of course the PCs eventually find themselves in it, but not before making contact with an on-leave Imperial recruit who hates his job of sending refined ore that is left hidden in the rings of the moon’s planet on course for an anomaly in spacetime that swiftly transports the ore to that system’s Oort Cloud. While escaping the jungle floor, Vo Kess (who had been captured by the Hutts) sacrifices himself to create a distraction, and the PCs are off to the space time anomaly and Episode 3 of their story.

Episode 3: Rather than fly to the Oort Cloud and start the tedious business in all of that space of finding the location of the drifting ore, the PCs enter the space time anomaly directly. There is a chance of this causing spacial distortions and mutations to themselves or the ship, but this doesn’t happen. They come out into a region of space that has experienced some anomaly. There is some kind of residual energy here that appears conducive to what the PCs are beginning to suspect are Imperial experiments in creating a cloaking device that could operate on something as large as a Star Destroyer, particularly when they see the hulk of a dark-colored Star Destroyer and are drawn into it by tractor beam. Inside the Star Destroyer, they fight a number of droids and make their way to the bridge, where they encounter more droids and the PC droid’s creator, an Ugnaught named Gidget. Leading up to this time, the bounty hunter, who has been growing Force sensitive, has become aware of a chaotic, dark force in the center of the ship and a fierce personality that at one point reached out to her.

The PC droid, in attempting to destroy his creator, is knocked down by a missile from one of Gidget’s Assassin Droid bodyguards. In the ensuing battle with the rest of the party, Gidget collects his prodigal son and hides himself and his charge in an elevator descending to the center of the Destroyer. The PC droid comes to while Gidget is preparing a mind wipe. The droid skewers his creator.

Meanwhile, the other PCs have discovered that Gidget, before escaping, has moved operations of the Destroyer away from the bridge to elsewhere in the ship. They decide to hunt for the med bay to heal their wounds.

A skeletal-looking protocol droid comes to their temporary base in the med bay inviting them to dinner with his master Lord Quon-tik Theiz. The PCs accompany him on a floating skiff that descends through an open construction zone to a dark singularity in the center of the Destroyer. It is here where Theiz is using his Force mastery over subatomic particles and the proximity to tachyon emissions near a black hole to cause the ferrous material to phase with more accuracy, lending it a cloaking effect. The experiment is unstable, however.

The PCs befriend Theiz and, with the PC droid as Theiz’s new assistant, begin work on a sub-atomic bomb capable of disintegrating an entire planet. The implicit understanding, though, is that the droid is to remain with Theiz. Therefore, when the PCs rig the Destroyer to collapse into its dark heart and begin their escape on their freighter, Theiz phases into the freighter’s hold and battles the PCs until, grievously wounded, he phases off ship.

After this, the PCs make their way to Nal Hutta and, well, blow up the planet. The PCs fail to operate the bomb in a manner that leaves themselves unthreatened by the blast, however, so the ship is caught in a temporal rift and crash lands on an unknown planet.

I would finish the description of my campaign with more about Quon-tik Theiz. As a type of Forsaken Jedi, I think he’s pretty cool. He has an understanding of the Force that reaches beyond the organic cellular to the subatomic. As such, he is able to halve damage and teleport through spacetime. As flavor, his lightsaber glitches in and out of existence. During the Imperial pogroms against the Jedi, Theiz cowardly hid himself in the Void, losing much of his soul to nonbeing and destruction, until the Emperor drew him out.

Impressions of Game System

It was a fast moving game. I like the Light Side/Dark Side Force mechanic, and I almost exclusively used my points to add complications and structure to the plot rather than spend them on mechanical benefits for NPC actions. “Strain” as yet a second kind of damage was annoying to keep track of and it never came into play. As GM, after the first few sessions I felt empowered to direct formidable forces against my PCs, secure that they would feel challenged but get out of the situation more or less “okay.” My job as GM was fairly easy, but for the players I feel that the game has more crunch than I prefer. If I felt the urge to tell a Star Wars story again sometime soon, I probably wouldn’t use this system (without much cajoling) but try to talk everyone into using my beloved West End d6 system. Here is a great podcast on that one, and here is a great article.

May the Force of Others Be with You!