Where Precisely Is the “Game” in MERP/Rolemaster?

6B3EB40E-E292-4204-90C6-D980A37168BBA player quitting my MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) campaign has caused me to think really carefully about the Rolemaster system. Because my lost gamer so very much enjoyed Yggdrasill, I have consequently framed my thoughts by comparing Rolemaster to that Vikings fantasy rules set. I’m seeking to understand what my gamer might have liked about Yggdrasill and therefore perhaps what he doesn’t like about MERP.

First, some broad strokes: Despite its reputation for complexity (or perhaps because of it!), I identify MERP as solidly an “old school” game. I shall elaborate on this in a moment. Yggdrasill, on the other hand, though evincing some indisputably old school qualities, clearly is informed by rpg innovations that began in, let’s say, the 90s. I shall elaborate on this in a moment.

What qualifies as an “old school” game? Well, Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming definitely helps us here, and in my forthcoming comments I shall be making observations specific to MERP/Rolemaster that Finch makes for old school gaming in general. And I think it is helpful for us to immediately throw out the oft-made assumption that an old school game is inherently “simpler” than the new school. I consider Champions old school (and I am surprised at how much I’ve been hearing lately about how “crunchy” people consider my beloved Hero System). When I took a photo for my own Grognard Gaming Group, I included Palladium’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as one of our three representative games (the other two being AD&D1e and MERP). It’s been a while since I’ve played, but my recollections are that there was a bit much to TMNT, specifically in character creation. The fact is that the multitude of OSR iterations of what basically is D&D are people’s house ruled versions of the d20 system. Some of these rulings, for sure, might be “simpler” or more elegant ways of resolving game mechanics, but some obviously are more complicated. At any rate, what the OSR provides outside of reprinted Basic and Holmes is “more.”

Returning to MERP, I was surprised to learn recently that this is what Rolemaster was (is?) as well: a highly detailed and optional modular rules set that was designed to be plugged into any D&D or FRP (fantasy roleplaying) game (and this is why I can easily convert monsters from my voluminous Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder bestiaries!). But after Pete Fenlon had completed publishing all of his optional D&D rules, he had his own game.

But what does this have to do with my topic? Well, I think I have arrived at my first definition for old school (and this is not news at all to most people interested in the OSR): the rules are optional. Now, of course there have to be some rules. Otherwise there might not be a game. But the rules shall be what make most sense for the participants at the gaming table. Ideally, they should be amicably agreed upon by all present. If necessary, the GM has the final say — this is why she is the “Referee.”

Now, the second defining feature of old school gaming that I’m about to propose is much, much more tenuous. I’m going to attempt to make some observations on player choices and player resources. I propose that the choices and resources are (speaking entirely in generalities, of course) different between old school and new school gaming.

To begin with player choices, we can reduce these into two distinct kinds of choices present at a tabletop rpg: narrative choice and systemic/mechanical choice. In an old school game, narrative choice is the much more prevalent form of player choice. Mechanical choice (and here I would like to speak specifically about old school D&D and Rolemaster, not other old school games such as the Hero System and others), if one has it at all, seems to be entirely baked into character creation.

In old school D&D, a player has virtually no systemic/mechanical choice. The DM/Referee will let you know if you even get to choose where to assign your ability rolls! Magic-users sort of choose spells (pick which ones you want to roll your percentage-to-know for first). Finally, players choose equipment, and off you go.

This last choice, though it has some mechanical aspect (particularly with weapons), I think better suited to the category of narrative choice. And this is because of the Dungeon. Matt Finch told me at one of his games at Gamehole Con, “If it’s on your character sheet, you have it. If it’s not, you don’t.” Sometimes, in narrative play, it becomes paramountly important whether you have a bit of chalk, an empty vial, or more oil for your lamp that happened to leak after that fall into that 10’ hole. In fact, narrative choice becomes most of the old school form of playing. How do you look for that trap? What do you say to the king? How do you imagine you are sneaking up behind the ogre? Ultimately, this comes down to whether the party in the dungeon chooses to go down the left corridor or the right (and this is why I believe that, in OSR gaming, having the same thing down either corridor is plain old cheating!).

Now, in MERP/Rolemaster (and later iterations of D&D), gamers have a lot more choices and options at character creation. And I’m going to argue that, at least in the case with MERP, just about every systemic/mechanical choice is made at character creation. Players choose their cultures and professions, decide which weapons they are going to be good at, divide other points amongst whatever they’re going to privilege in adventuring skills, roll percentages to see if they get their desired Spell Lists, and they’re off. Those choices at character creation are consequently locked into the widely variable d100 rolls during gameplay.

Now, I argue that, this being an old school game, narrative choices still are quite powerful. How a player chooses to do something helps the GM decide what difficulty the Maneuver is going to be at. The gamer can manipulate his character within the tactical game space to try to get those combat bonuses from flanking. A new player at my table, after all, told me after his first session how surprised he was at how much talking vs. rolling there was at my game. I suspect there was a considerable amount of rolling more than he realized, because all the talking probably helped me determine the difficulty of the Maneuver to be resolved with a single d100 roll. But the point remains that the choices about hard numbers are made at character creation.

So what does that mean for a game like my current one in which the players didn’t actually generate their characters? In fact, one of my gamers went back and created his own character, and that was the one who quit! So clearly he didn’t find enough “game” there to enjoy his experience in actual gametime. At this point I find it useful to ask myself if I would offer a MERP game at a convention. There are a number of reasons why one would play this in a public “one-shot” context: just to experience the system and to enjoy a Middle-earth story are two of them. But I don’t think a gamer would enjoy herself if she were looking for a good, tactical roleplaying experience. Unless I were to allow him to build her character before gameplay, which would take an unjustifiable amount of time (Rolemaster isn’t denigrated as “CharacterGen” for nothing!), his choices in mechanical tactics would be reduced to if she were achieving that flanking bonus or not.

Before I move on to a discussion of Yggdrasill, which I’m describing as “new school,” and which I would offer (and have offered) for convention play, allow me to clarify this discussion of old school play. In old school play the rules are guidelines, not hard rules. The most meaningful player choices are narrative choices, not necessarily mechanical choices. A last observation I must make is the sense of “power” or competency that an old school character has. Overall, OD&D and Rolemaster characters are pretty powerless. At least this is the way they begin. Recently, in the MERP Facebook Group and on the Rolemaster boards, it has been clarified for me that a level one character pretty much is someone in his or her adolescence. A character can be older than that, but it should be assumed that this character hasn’t done much with his life — hasn’t garnered enough “life experiences” to be truly competent at much of anything. As a result, the “game” — at least in the first chapters of a campaign — is to go out and get that experience without dying. Again narrative choice seems to enter chiefly into the gameplay: seek out experiences, but not experiences that are too tough. Do just enough to get by. Fight when you think you have a fair chance of winning, but know when to run away. And a lot of this comes down to plain old luck. In many ways, there is no better emulation of “real life.”

Now, Yggdrasill and many other modern roleplaying games differ from or develop these core considerations in a few ways. First, to start with the last point first, players are a bit more powerful from the outset. In speculating why my gamer quit MERP, another player of mine considered how it might be a bit jarring to move from playing a Viking character who can kill anything to a peon who, in most cases, can’t even hit its target. This increased power ratio gives an idea of a difference in gameplay and design between old and new school. Whereas in the old school formulation, an aspect of the game simply is to “survive,” the beginning power level of new school games suggest that the “game” is in something else. And I propose that, in large part, it’s in the tactical rules and mechanical resources.

Yggdrasill, like many “modern” games with foundations in old school rules sets (I’m not going to address the so-called “story games” at all here), has a deceptively simple core mechanic: roll pools of d10s, pick two, add any hard skill points that apply, beat 14 for success. In actual play, however, it gets a lot more complicated. To hit someone in combat, one must beat 14 plus the target’s Physical Defence score. In addition, the attacker must choose the kind of attack she is using. Depending on the choice here, modifiers are applied to the attack roll and (in some cases) the resolution of the roll. Wait, there could be more. There could be environmental modifiers (high ground, flank attack, etc.) and conditions (such as the attacker or the defender being Wounded). Wait, there’s more. The attacker might want to use a special Feat, in which case more modifiers are applied to the roll. Simply choosing whether or not to use a Feat is a mini-game of its own, because the player must decide if the penalties on the attack roll (which could result in bonuses to damage with a successful hit) are worth the special result that a successful Feat would entail. Wait, there’s more. The player could decide to use Furor to add an extra d10 to the roll. This is kept outside of the pool and added on top of the resulting value. If a Gift or (in some cases) a Fate Rune applies to the situation, these too can be added to the pool but, in these cases, still only two d10s must be kept after the roll. Wait, there’s more. Any retained results of ten “explode.” More d10s can be rolled (also with the potential of exploding), and these results add to the resolution. But wait, that’s right, we were walking through a specific attack on one person. If the attack is a success, the amount by which the attack succeeded is added to a static damage value of the weapon used, this sometimes modified by other game mechanics. Even then we are not done, because the total damage has to be subtracted by the target’s Armour Value. And even after this you might not be done, because the target can elect to Parry this attack. Remember the number you just resolved, because now that is the target number for the defender’s Parry test likewise possibly attendant on a number of modifiers and variables. Even if the Parry fails, if it is higher than the original target number, it becomes the new target and therefore a new damage value must be calculated from the success threshold. This is just one example. There are further complications based on the type of character one happens to be playing in combat.

Now, compared to this, where is the legendary complexity in MERP, perhaps even Rolemaster? Build a character. Sure, this part takes some time, perhaps more time than it does in Yggdrasill. But then, when it comes to adventuring, roll d100, add your skill, apply any modifiers (sometimes environmental, conditional, weapon-specific and defensive bonus), consult a chart. Depending on that result, you might have to roll again, make a simple sum, and consult another chart. Sure, after that you might have some conditions to keep track of (bleeding, stunning, etc.), but overall I’m calling Yggdrasill, at least during gameplay, the more complicated of the two (and consequently slower-paced).

Here’s the thing, though. While considering what I’d rather offer for convention play, Yggdrasill is the game! By now I hope the reasons for this will be evident. For MERP, all the choices are made during character creation and level advancement. After that, it’s more or less left up to the narrative choices and the luck (or unluck) of the dice rolls. For Yggdrasill, gamers have more meaningful choices for the tactical arena of gameplay. Should they use Furor on a roll? Should they hoard it? Might they try a Feat for a special effect, or is it too much of a risk considering the negative modifier required?

In some ways, new school games like Yggdrasill (I’d put the current Conan 2d20 into this camp, as well) seem really focused on tactical combat choice and less on narrative choice. In fact, these games (and MERP can be considered guilty of this, as well, with such things as “Secondary Skills”) seem to make even those narrative choices tactical through skills involving social encounters and information gathering, which, whatever their original intentions, seem to reduce those aspects of roleplaying likewise to die rolls. Don’t get me wrong. This is not “bad fun.” It’s great fun, just a different kind of fun from another kind of great fun that, albeit, clearly isn’t fun for everyone.


Wishing for a Grognard Group this Christmas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Yggdrasill Invades Keltia

KeltiaSometime ago I participated in a Bundle of Holding drive concerning Cubicle 7’s translated game products. I went in for the first tier alone, because the majority of the Bonus Collection contained the entirety of the Yggdrasill line which I already owned. I was interested in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, however, because of an idea I had to run Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a game. What I missed out on by avoiding the Bonus Collection was the only existing English-language supplement to Keltia, Avalon. For some reason, it wasn’t till recently when I sat down with Keltia and read it in its entirety.

Of immediate use to Yggdrasill gamers is what Keltia has to say about its relation to its progenitor. Keltia shares the Yggdrasill game system, with some modifications that it details in an appendix. But I sense that there might be even more changes than what are specified therein. The Yggdrasill player benefits from a close reading of the entire text, including the rules section. Perhaps because of the fresh format, rules seem clarified. And I believe that there are some additions (a bonus to damage from a head butt as given in the weapons chart, for example, or weather modifications on movement).

This might be an error, but I noticed there still are some copies for sale on Amazon. I’m testing the waters and fishing for one: I ordered a copy, just to have a second physical rules manual at the table. And it of course would be more thematically appropriate to have available to the group if I ever were to run that Gawain game. But it has been a few days now and the book has not shipped. I suspect that Amazon will learn that they need to update their files, that they might no longer have the authority to sell such a thing.

The campaign material is a pleasure to read, in tone and content reminding me very much of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. As with the “nations” of Yggdrasill, the well-known knights and nobles of legend have been rearranged and occluded so that GMs and players should feel empowered to explore and create their own Arthurian canons. Granted, I would have found most of this entirely unnecessary if I hadn’t recently experienced myself using the campaign materials in Yggdrasill as background for even my Beowulf campaign! One would think Beowulf would provide all that is required. I guess it does, but I appreciated what the backdrop of Halfdan, Frodi and jarl Regin did as far as deepening the story–at least for campaign play.

As I might have mentioned in a previous post, my Yggdrasill players are interested in exploring the official campaign, and I’m willing to run this for them. However, as was pointed out in my favorite review, large portions of at least the introductory adventure seem really boring, particularly the second movement, which appears to be entirely subsumed in investigation and politicking that is unlikely to interest any player. A new experience for me will be the experience of adapting this material for use at my particular table.

If I anticipate the need to revise this Yggdrasill material, I expect it will be downright essential were I ever to run the introductory “adventure” as presented in Keltia. I imagine that the game designers test out their material on someone, and if the Keltia play test was well received, I would value the opportunity to get a sense of the culture of that gaming group. The reason is because the adventure appears to ignore many pieces of advice or guidelines that GMs have received over the years.

The pieces of advice that most prominently spring to mind are three: players tend to enjoy physical conflicts, ideally in the form of combats; players aren’t very good at internalizing or comprehending a large amount of information; and players need to be the heroes — or the main point — of the story or adventure. The problems with the Keltia scenario are 1. There are only two conflicts, maybe just one. There are some bandits that need to be chased away from a princess at the beginning of the adventure. And there are some guards or spies that perhaps must be engaged at the end of the adventure (ideally, though, the PCs and the one whom they have in their charge at that time should sneak by these people. 2. There is a lot of information in this adventure, and it’s difficult to determine how any of it really is relevant. The heart of the adventure is a council in which Arthur is proclaimed the new High King of Ynys Prydein. The adventure goes to great length to explain just where a multitude of noble characters are seated, who they are, to whom they are related, what their interests are, and just what their seating says about their power and positions. Exhausting! I’m not sure what player can comprehend it all — especially after getting through the already formidable obstacle of the Gaelic/Welsh names — much less care! To add to this, the adventure provides a chart of Perception STs and what PCs will recognize about the NPCs based on NPC reactions to a number of things that are said at the council. And this brings up a tangential and foregone objection: this scene is very much railroaded. The PCs aren’t at the council to do anything. They are there as spectators only. Arthur is going to be proclaimed High King, and some nobles are going to be angry about it. That’s it. 3. This third point has already been begun. The PCs are not the point of the adventure: Arthur is. The PCs have no further role other than to witness Arthur’s ascension to High King and then to protect him and smuggle him out of the Caer and away from his enemies. The adventure is open about how this is a “railroad” and that players must either “buy in” or be tricked into this scenario or that there is no adventure; the campaign is already over. This is at odds with the only way I know how to run a game: set up the scenario, the environment, the factors, the powers at play, and see what happens. Because, as many GMs other than me have said, you never can predict what a player will do.

So, even though I’m not going to be running this official Keltia adventure anytime soon, I am encountering similar formulations in the proposed Yggdrasill material. The experiment for me will be to adapt the “adventures” into “starting scenarios” and “see what happens.” Anyone familiar with the Yggdrasill official campaign might be interested in what I discover.

The Surprising Tenacity of Yggdrasill

Some time ago I wrote for Blackgate magazine that GMs must be very careful about what games they introduce to new rpg players, because (and I especially liked this image) players will chew into a system and live there like termites. I expressed this because of all the other games that I was buying and wanted to play while my players remained perfectly (and perhaps stubbornly) content with Yggdrasill. And lately I’ve come to wonder if I, too, need not run anything else for a long, long time.

I ran Swords & Wizardry for a few murderous sessions, then was perfectly happy to let a friend run an AD&D 1e game instead. I alternate, week by week, my Yggdrasill game with his. I belatedly helped Kickstart Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of and backed Jeffrey Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (as of this date expected to ship in October). And, after reflecting on how deeply meaningful Tolkien has been for my entire life, and remembering how formative MERP was on my younger gaming self, I ordered the hardback of The One Ring. I’ve been reading reams of stuff that Modiphius has been loading into my backerkit during this First Wave of Conan merchandise, and slowly I have moved from anticipation for running the 2d20 system, from envy for those who are already playing it, to casual indifference as I turn, again and again, to this somewhat odd, now-out-of-print game called Yggdrasill.

I think I’ve determined three reasons why Yggdrasill just won’t let me go. The first is my players. They genuinely like the game. They also like making sums out of large numbers. They don’t mind mechanical wonkiness. Yggdrasill is not the cleanest, most streamlined game out there. Read this hilarious review about the mechanical imperfections (and ignore the bit about how the game ignores the historical, cultural aspersions cast on males who practice sorcery — it doesn’t!). What is described in this review is very close to the experience we have at the table. And we like it. I’ve started to bring cheap calculators to the table, scratch pads upon which to write every number we generate just in case we need it for a secondary action or to refer to how much we exceeded a success threshold. I now hand players glass beads to keep track of weapon and armour damage. We still don’t use combat Feats all that often. And yet I like it. And I still find the mechanics inspiring and creative enough that I continue to tinker with them. I continue to write new things for this rules set.

The things I like about the game aren’t radically different from many other systems. My players like the exploding dice. Other games, of course, use exploding dice. It’s perhaps not necessary to explain what we like about this feature: most probabilities can be anticipated, unless a die explodes, and especially when an exploding die explodes (and then even explodes again?). This allows a person of nearly every power level to sometimes, unexpectedly, land a particularly vicious blow or achieve a spectacular result.

Other mechanical features seem more nuanced. Let’s start with the Characteristics. We all know these. I think the six of them in D&D typically are called Attributes. It’s slightly interesting to compare how many Characteristics, Attributes, or whatever other synonym various games use to determine what these say about the “head space” or the priorities of the game designers. What qualities are left out, for example, or what qualities are included? What is the ordering of the qualities? I happened to notice that the ordering of Attributes in D&D changed from AD&D to 3rd ed, clearly a progression from the core stats of the Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric, Thief archetypes being listed first to the privileging of all stats related to the body and then all of those related to the mind or soul.

Yggdrasill makes use of nine stats! This is the largest number of core stats that I’ve seen in a game, and I’d be curious if there is any other game out there that uses this many or more. I must emphasize that I’m talking about “core stats” and not the various derived stats that many games use — and Yggdrasill uses a fair share of these, as well. Of course, the number nine in a Norse-themed setting is poetical, a powerful number that, at the very least, stands for the Nine Worlds clustered around the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasill, which is the title of the game, after all!

These nine stats also are conveniently organized into three macro-stats — Body, Mind, and Soul. It would be tedious, I suppose, for me to elaborate on how powerfully a game’s mechanics have spoken to my meditative life — I truly believe that my absorption with this system has caused me to pray and exercise more, because I realized that I was quite developed in the Mind but heroically lacking in the Body and in the Soul. But a more relatable observation is how versatile these nine Characteristics are in gameplay.

In OSR styles of play, a lot is supposed to be contingent not so much on what a PC is doing but on how that character is doing it. This allows the player to convince the GM to allow the resolution to occur or allow, at the very least, a bonus of some kind on a roll. The nine Characteristics in Yggdrasill provides players some guidance and inspiration, allows them to play to their characters’ strengths. As an example, a character might be searching for tracks in a forest glen. The character might use her Perception, obviously, or the character might use his Instinct (to become aware of her surroundings, to guess or “feel” where a person passed recently), or the character might use his Intelligence to deduct where the creature might have walked through the glade, ideally with some knowledge of the creature. Of course, Perception is the most applicable here, but this gives some versatility and depth to different kinds of characters and how they might do things. Even in combat the game makes use of Characteristics beyond the usual contenders of Strength and Agility. These approaches to combat provide further demonstrations of this kind of application.

The third reason that I keep coming back to this game is because of its content. I keep reading Viking Age literature, and it’s no surprise that this keeps me constantly in the spirit to run this game. When I was excited for Conan, I was reading a lot of Conan and found adventure-worthy content in nearly every thing I read, including non-Conan material! Now, as I finish The Longships and Gunnar’s Daughter and A Gathering of Ravens, I’m looking for passages that I can mechanize and drop into my campaign.

My Norse-related reading is not only novels and histories but other game systems and settings. Recently, finally, Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland reduced in price during a July sale on DriveThruRPG. Now I understand why it’s one of the more expensive supplements, and I’ve been having fun pondering what elements I can steal and adapt for Yggdrasill. I still have to give Sagas of the Icelanders (a PbtA game) a closer read, and Troll Lord publishes a fairly inexpensive adventure path to accompany its Codex Nordica that should make interesting reading as soon as I feel the spirit. Even reading Modiphius’s Conan the Barbarian got me energized for Yggdrasill — it was difficult to get excited about running Conan adventures set in the Hyborian North while I’m running essentially that already! With this wealth of material and inspiration, I should be gaming with Yggdrasill for a long, long time.

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.