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.


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.


Too Much Material for Just Twice a Month!

IMG_0049I offered four tables at Coulee Con, and three “fired” (as I learned one says about a game that has enough people show up to actually run). Attendance at my first two Swords & Wizardry games was pretty good. I especially enjoyed the second one. This probably was because, after running so much Yggdrasill in my home game, a first session had got me back into the rhythm of refereeing an OSR game. This also was because the second game was attended by two brand new players who seemed really receptive to the experience.

Yggdrasill went very well. Only one gamer showed, precisely. But I also count another attendee who arrived an hour late, just in time for the actual game. It had taken this long to get to the session because the early player was interested in simply hearing about the game system. The actual session, because of time, involved only the Grendel encounter. The players tried some innovative tactics. Not all of them worked. I had fun using Grendel to throw characters across the hall. The gamers enjoyed the system well enough that when the second player learned I was scheduled for more Swords & Wizardry the following day, he asked if I would run Yggdrasill instead!

Therefore I’m emboldened to offer a full schedule of Yggdrasill next year. I had offered Swords & Wizardry for the newbies and families, but with the exception of the couple that I already mentioned, those who played my Swords & Wizardry games were playing just because they were looking for Dungeons & Dragons. And so it was: nothing really new or interesting, just low-level characters encountering your usual orcs or goblins in a mini-dungeon. Let me re-approach my point: most of my gamers regularly played D&D. They were playing my game not for the experience of the system or for the particular adventure I was offering but because they were most interested in playing D&D at the moment, and, at a small con with a limited number of rpg offerings, I happened to be offering it then.

So I’m back from Coulee Con and intent in my purpose. It should be interesting to see what content I manage to generate over the upcoming year. As I’ve already said, I intend to run the Yggdrasill Official Campaign. But judging by my players’ gaming styles, it’s unlikely they’ll cleave that tightly to the “plan.” I also have amassed a wealth of Norse-themed gaming material over the years (and all sorts of gaming accessories not necessarily Norse-themed, as well, but more of that in a moment), both rpg systems and accessories and adventures. Being such a Swords & Wizardry supporter, I had purchased the big book The Northlands Saga Complete from the Frog God Games booth at Gamehole Con last year. I’ve been steadily reading through it. I likewise have The Nine Worlds Saga from Troll Lord Games, designed to be played with its Codex Nordica accessory to Norse-themed gaming with a traditional game set. I just read through “Beyond the Ice-Fall” from Raven God Games, an adventure I should be able to slip in just about anywhere, and there are two full scenarios that I need to read in Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland. I intend to read through and adapt all of this to Yggdrasill, and playing through it should be an epic undertaking spanning multiple years.

As readers have heard from me before, at the same time, though, I have all these other games and accessories. There are three, maybe four, game systems that I really would like time to explore. These are Yggdrasill (obviously), Modiphius’s Conan, The One Ring, and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

And here’s what else: I own SO MUCH material for high fantasy and OSR games, all of which should fit neatly into Hyperborea, that I would love, also, in addition to Yggdrasill and its “unity of Norse vision,” to run an epic OSR campaign as a huge sandbox containing all of my materials. Hyperborea could be a good campaign world, the chassis for all the other supplements.

And here’s a most ambitious idea: what if my Yggdrasill PCs undertake a long adventure in Alfheim? When they reenter Midgard, time naturally has sped far into the future (or am I getting that backwards?). Talanian’s world of Hyperborea is set in the far future. What if I ran a crazy OSR sandbox using the Yggdrasill game system? No one would know what to expect!

And if it’s going to take years to get through all my proper Norse material…


Beowulf Playtest Complete!

IMG_0037Well, I completed my playtest for the Beowulf game using the Yggdrasill system. A quick note: since Cubicle 7 has let go of the license on this game, and since the game now is officially out of print, I see the price of the hardcover has been gouged on Amazon from around $50 to $250. I hope those sellers don’t get what they’re asking! I hope that Le 7eme Cercle republishes the game, perhaps with a new translation, and that those who missed out on it this time around are able to enjoy yet a better edition. One unfortunate gamer reported on the Cubicle 7 forums that his/her Yggdrasill record in his/her DriveThruRPG wishlist suddenly vanished. Now this person would be willing to purchase the entire line if only given the chance. I myself have wished that I hadn’t bought the entire line at full price but had been lucky enough to find this game while the Humble Bundle drive was going on! Argh! Oh, well. I guess I was able to directly support the game while it lasted.

Not unexpectedly, the Beowulf playtest was a bit wonky, but overall I think it worked out alright. This “wonkiness” was the reason why I initially had given up using Yggdrasill to make a con game and instead had devised my own Old Norse Old School Roleplaying system. It was much easier to grasp the power structures of the simulation using the lingua franca of the gaming community. But as you might recall, being perfectly satisfied with a D&D game being run by a friend of mine, I didn’t want to run yet more D&D with my home group, so instead went back to Yggdrasill when it came time to retell Beowulf. (Aside: my group has interest in playing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea when I get the hardcopy of the second edition expected to ship this October; perhaps that game is sufficiently different enough from D&D — at least in setting — to justify two of those games being run.)

In regards to the wonkiness of Yggdrasill, one of my players summed up the issues with Yggdrasill perfectly. At first glance, the core mechanic of the game is quite simple. Roll pools of d10s attributed to your Characteristics for any kind of skill test, add any relevant Skill if applicable, beat a Difficulty threshold. But, once you start manipulating this core mechanic in any appreciable way, as the game does, very quickly you are dealing with large numbers and math problems complex enough to slow down the simulation. Are you performing a Feat? Well, you have to take a negative modifier to your Test based on the level of the Feat — and, while you’re at it, are you sure the Feat’s effect is worth the penalty that otherwise might be just straight damage to your target resulting from an excess value required to make your test? And some Feats and specific attacks require you subtract or add your Characteristic value. And dice explode on tens, so sometimes the rolls are wildly (and lethally) successful, and sometimes they are pathetic. And sometimes, for some game applications, tens just don’t explode. And there are plenty of gaps and openings for interpretation for this rules set, either by design, by overlooked omission, or through ambiguities in the language translation to make this game (as I have described it in a different place) “old school” in flavor (as long as we focus on a definition of the old school that few groups of gamers played the same game the same way).

Anyway, thanks to this playtest I think I have the Beowulf game reduced to manageable parameters. Contrary to what I told Gaming and BS, I have generated pregens. The pregens might be a bit statistically powerful, whereas the characters in my homegame had a number of toys to aid them (i.e., buckets of healing unguents). When I initially drafted the adventure, I included a number of encounters and possibilities that simply have to be cut for a time allotment of 4-6 hours, and I believe this benefits the game, because it reduces the action and story down to (just about) the central elements in the poem. I think the session will be good fun, should anyone sign up, even if it might not make more game adherents–an ideal one-shot experience for a con. And potential consumers no longer are able to buy the game anyway (for anything less than $250, that is!).

Epilogue to a TPK: What Happens to the Hireling?

For the third time that night, still standing upright, Dollen jerked awake. The donkey again was stamping its hooves and emitting that low, unearthly whine. That sound made Dollen’s beard stand out like a weather rod. The night had grown yet colder, and now flurries were melting on Dollen’s cheeks. “There there,” the dwarf said, placing an attempt at a soothing hand on the donkey’s flank. “Your owners will be back soon, and then we’ll be out for a mite to drink.”

Yes, a drink. At this time on any other night Dollen would be in Rok’s Tavern hoping for beer charity from the more prosperous denizens of Black Rock. He had hoped tonight to be paying back his friends and making new ones with the fifteen gold this odd band of adventurers had promised him for one night’s service — yes, the onerous service of watching the cart and donkey. Cart Watcher, they had called him, and left him here with a new mace that they had purchased for no other reason than that he had said he wanted it and because he was expected to die while protecting the cart and donkey. But now the work wasn’t feeling as posh as it first had seemed. The valley below him was dark, so dark he believed he could see heat traces in whatever forest animals might now be hunting within those branches. It seemed unlikely, now, that the band would be making the trip back to Black Rock this night, once his employers came out of that hole.

Grunting, he went back into the old ruined Guild Hall, temporarily sheltered from the biting wind. If his employers’ absence kept up, he supposed, he should untether the animal and lead it in here. But he didn’t want to make too many decisions on his own. An odd group, they were. Scattering gold in their wakes as if they were kings. He stood at the top of the stairway again and peered down into its inky depths. Nothing. The pitch smell of his employers’ torches, by this time, had faded to the smell of a cold forge. He strained his ears. Did he hear something? Perhaps a distant cry? No, just the donkey again emitting its terror to the night. This was not how Dollen had expected to spend his night. Perhaps he should have been more specific in the terms of his agreement. It occurred to him now that he didn’t even have a contract.

He stepped back outside. “There now, Jasper. We’ll get ourselves out of this wind.” But the donkey couldn’t be settled. It seemed to want to bolt, and that would be bad with it still tethered to the cart.

The cart. He thought he heard a sound come from within it, something like the exhalation of great nostrils. They had seen a great cat earlier that day, during their climb. It made sense that cold wooden cart walls would occlude the heat signature from Dollen’s darkvision.

Poor Dollen. As his grip tightened on his brand new mace, glowing green eyes rose up from within the cart and looked down at him from behind a wide mouth of sharp, feline teeth. The donkey tried to run, the great cat leapt into the air.


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.


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.


Reading the Runes: In Praise of RPG GM Mechanics

IMG_0031If you have been following me at all, more than once you have heard me whine about all the rules crunch in games like Pathfinder. You’ve heard me complain about how some rules and too many rules tend to allow minmaxing players to ruin games. But today I’m singing a different tune. Today I’m praising game mechanics, and I’m lauding the type of game mechanics that are made available to gamemasters.

What got me thinking about it was my last session of Yggdrasill during my return to the GM chair (my I had missed it!), and how something I had done had felt a little bit off. I need to foreground some of the following considerations by giving some background about just how much, for a Norse-themed game such as Yggdrasill, I have made Runes a mechanical aspect of my game. Well, let’s start with how Yggdrasill, rules as written, uses the runes. At character creation, players roll three times on three tables that each contain a set of eight runes. These results are recorded on the player’s character sheet and serve two functions. The first function is for roleplaying: the runes help the player determine a background story and personality for her character. The second function is for mechanics: during gameplay, if the player ever apprehends a moment wherein a particular rune attached to his character might serve as a benefit for that character, the rune translates into a mechanical bonus to a skill test or action; likewise, the GM might invoke a negative rune as a penalty to a character’s test. That’s about it for Yggdrasill’s rules as written. I expanded this aspect by introducing a bag of actual runestones to my table. When the Seidr-using character (a type of magic-user) “throws down the bones,” she draws three runes from the bag and interprets the results in any way she wants, and, depending on her skill test roll, this might influence game narrative. For my very first adventure using the system, the adventure called “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” I decided to draw runes out of the bag, one by one, at significant “beats” during the story. If the rune Thurisaz ever was drawn, the undead giant in the cave complex would make his appearance. I decided to expand on this principle during later free-form sandbox campaign play. At the beginning of each session I drew three runes, and I “interpreted” these runes to aid me in determining what elements should be involved in that night’s session. Finally, I have incorporated the runes into random tables and even a mass combat rules system, which, for the curious, can be reviewed here.

Last session I had decided to skip the custom of drawing runes for narrative beats or elements, even as one of my players, by now habituated to the custom, offered me the bag. Perhaps that should have been a clue that I was neglecting a worthwhile ritual. Now, after the session, I think I should have been thinking about the runes more as I plunged my characters directly into the action.

Having been away from the campaign for so long, I started the adventure in media res. Thunder boomed. Lightning sizzled. The PCs were trying to rescue their jarl from being the victim of human sacrifice to a land spirit. They had to battle a necromancer who was being assisted by a fair number of hirdmen. The PCs chose, for the most part, to focus on the “Extras,” the “henchmen,” who were screening the necromancer from the PCs. This went on for a bit, and, in time, I decided that the villain should plunge his knife into the jarl’s breast.

I made my NPC make a Very Difficult Seidr test, and he succeeded. A major, recurring NPC, an ally of the PCs, was abruptly and spectacularly dead. In fact, this was the third major NPC to die during this fittingly brutal Norse campaign. But, unlike the other deaths I had impelled, something about how I had conducted this one felt “unfair,” not quite right. And it wasn’t until the calm reflection of postgame analysis that I understood why this was.

My action hadn’t been determined in any way mechanically. Now, there are many gamers in the OSR community who argue for a concept referred to as “GM trust” and that these kinds of arbitrary decisions are entirely fair. In many cases, I presume, they are. If PCs don’t manage to do something, then a consequence should result. And in this case my PCs hadn’t managed to get to the most threatening target in a suitable number of rounds. Nonetheless, it was me who had determined how many “thugs” the most dangerous NPC would have on hand to function as shields. And I hadn’t even concretely decided beforehand how many rounds this NPC would need to complete his dire ritual. My rulings all were quite arbitrary, and I wondered if I had unwittingly set up my PCs for failure, if I had in fact “railroaded” the situation.

In hindsight I realized that I had had a device — a very fitting device — for playing this scene out better: the Runes. As with the undead giant in a previous adventure, I should have begun drawing runes out of the bag and interpreting them in light of the ritual being performed and the PC actions. Yggdrasill considers many Runes indisputably negative in relation to the PCs, some positive, and others ambiguous. This would have seemed more fair, even more dynamic. Now I wish I had remembered it in time, and I’ll purpose to keep it in mind going forward.

One of the games I’m very much looking forward to running has a similar mechanic baked right into its core rules system. This is Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. In that game the GM has a resource called Doom, and these points can be used to complicate the narrative and buff NPCs. Now, the PCs also have their own resources — Momentum and Fate. Having recently run Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rpg, which is designed by the same person who crafted Modiphius’s 2d20 system, I experienced a bit of the interplay between these kinds of GM resources vs. PC resources. In the case of Star Wars, these resources were Light Side Points (for the PCs) and Dark Side Points (for the GM). As I’ve indicated above, I think I tend to enjoy these kinds of mechanics because it gives the GM some justification for bringing the hurt to the players. The dual resources are part of the game. They make the storytelling appear much less arbitrary or mean-spirited.

So next time I’m at the Yggdrasill table, I’ll be sure to be drawing more often from the rune bag. Skol!