Maps, 5e, and a campaign on life support

I was putting the finishing touches on issue 50 of the fanzine today and I just uploaded a zip file with the maps for this issue.

There seem to be two aspects to maps. The first is having the talent to come up with a really cool idea for the map in the first place. The second is having the talent make it look good once you have had the idea.

I fail on both counts.

What I have hit upon is grabbing some of the Dyson Logos maps, and using them to ‘trace’ over using Dungeondraft.

This is the original map.

https://dysonlogos.blog/2020/05/09/the-old-fort-ruins-dungeon/

and this is my take on it.

I think it looks half decent!

The actual image is 1800px x 1800px so you can add your own grid in your favourite VTT in hexes of squares, whichever you prefer.

I recreated the underground area as well and that looks pretty cool as well.

To 5e or not to 5e?

I have been playing in a 5e campaign recently. We are up to 4th level and about half way to 5th.

We have three players, two of us have played D&D before and one is new, having only played Rolemaster/Spacemaster before.

Last night, the new to D&D player declared that he didn’t want to play D&D any more. It wasn’t the same as Rolemaster, and he just didn’t like the system.

Where this leaves our 5e game, I don’t know. He is chatting with the DM today. I dislike games that die without warning. I find it very dissatisfying.

I am still running my RMC game. The map above is from on of the locations in that game. I am running an open sandbox where the players can do what they want. Now they have their healer, they are getting a bit braver.

I am also playing in Shadow World where I have a 3rd level Druid.

So, I am not without a game or two, but I still think it is a pity if the game ends, which is what I expect to happen. It is a no win situation. If the game carries on with just the two players, we risk losing the excluded player, but the only other alternative is to end the game.

I do feel for the DM, he has spent a lot of money buying the 5e Fantasy Ground rules, an ultimate license for FG, and the adventure path.

The 5e rules seemed OK to me. 5e is a bit gung-ho, with everyone being some kind of spell user, or near magic abilities, and healing being two a penny. Is it a bad thing? Well, killing stuff is generally fun, sitting around unable to do anything because you are all down to 1hp is not so fun.

One suggested solution seems to be that we play Call of Cthulhu instead. With these players I cannot see that turning out too well. The other two players are real power gamers who have been known to sulk if there characters take a kicking. In CoC, you are always going to take a kicking, and it never ends well.

I should find out on Tuesday what the fall out is going to be.

Should players have an entourage? Using followers in your Rolemaster game.

One of the features of early AD&D was the use of various types of “followers” that the PCs could obtain. Most are defined by the level of loyalty they have to the PC character; ranging from a mere hired helper to a devoted sidekick. These NPCs are often interchangeably termed as followers, hirelings, retainers and henchmen, and their use can have significant impact on gameplay. As a primer, I would suggest reading this post from the OSR perspective.

It is notable to me that early Rolemaster rules (Character Law or Campaign Law) didn’t address PC followers of any type: even the cost of hirelings is absent the early charts in Character Law and Campaign Law (did any of the Companions delve into this?)

Looking back on the 1st ED. DMG, you can find a number of pages that cover these types of NPCs:

Page 16. “Followers for Upper Level Player Characters”.

This section alludes to a powerful characters obtaining followers of one sort or another. The mechanism isn’t addressed, except for the reference to “reaching a certain level” or “building a stronghold”. So while there is no real rules around the “how”, there are certainly a lot of charts about the “what”! For instance, Clerics can obtain up to 200 men-at-arms, ranging from light infantry to heavy cavalry. Fighters will obtain a military commander/leader between 5th and 7th lvl and a company of soldiers. Rangers have one of the more interesting follower charts, and can get humans, demi-human classes, animals, mounts and special creatures including were-beasts, giants or even a copper Dragon! Thieves and Assassins will attract a dozen or so followers upon reaching “Guildmaster” status and of course the Paladin will receive a special warhorse. And that’s just the start to the topic of “followers” in the DMG!

Page 26. “Hirelings”.

This section delineates between normal Hirelings and Expert Hirelings. All are various NPCs that provide labor, low-skilled services or specialty or niche abilities but are differentiated from henchmen by being “employees”. There is extensive material on various hirelings: soldiers, mercenaries, sages, engineers and beyond; the section starts on page 26 and runs onto 3/4 of the way through page 34.

Page 34. “Henchmen”

Retainers, like Hirelings, are also employed and paid, but they function along a system of loyalty based on many modifiers. It’s also inferred that henchmen act as a secondary PC, and can be used in place of the main character.

Page 103. “Hiring NPCs to cast spells or use devices”.

Finally, later in the Guide is a section on cost of hiring specialists to cast specific spells . This should have been included under the “Hirelings” section; but as it’s been noted by many others, the original DMG is an organization wreck.

Returning to Rolemaster, there are certainly times when the group will need to hire specialists, spell-users to cast spells or pay for magical healing, but there is not real attention paid to building a posse or retinue of hirelings or loyal henchmen and retainers. Is this an important angle overlooked by Rolemaster? Do you use followers in your campaign? I’ve written about a similar situation on this blog regarding familiars–I think they are pain in the ass and a constant source of abuse by the players. But perhaps there are other reasons:

  1. RM character development allows a broader skill set among the party compared to the structured approach of D&D. There is less need to add specialists to fill ability gaps.
  2. Complexity. If every PC had a retainer, you would effectively double the party size and add a considerable work load onto the GM. Even if you allowed the player to develop the retainers personality, the GM would still need to control or direct the NPC to some degree.
  3. D&D’s foundation in wargaming was the impetus for followers and henchmen. Rolemaster doesn’t have that pedigree and thus ignored it. Alternatively, RM was influenced by LoTR and that setting had less of a medieval approach to social organization?

I’m not a lazy GM, but since I already run a human-centric (or at least an anthropomorphic) game, I’m already managing a number of NPCs. I don’t need too, or want too, keep any eye on the use of a handful of retainers or henchmen. (I can handle hirelings). But I am intrigued by the concept being built into the game system. Certainly Shadow World’s emphasis on organizations implies the need for guild like systems: mentors, trainees, followers, squires etc. It’s seems natural to have higher level characters access human resources of the organization in some form or another–whether it be a trainee or a devoted believer.

Certainly this issue might be setting specific, but it might be cool to add some follower tables for use in Rolemaster. What are your thoughts?

Centaurs

There was a discussion on the ICE discord this week about using Centaurs as playable characters.

I happens that my players have a Centaur NPC healer. Most of there adventures have so far been above ground, or short forays into caves, but nothing that has proved to be a problem for the centaur.

Until last session….

We had reached the big fight, the characters had constructed a barricade to stem the numbers of creatures coming at them and it was a last stand.

One of the characters took a critical that broke their weapon arm, and the odds suddenly swung massively in the bad guys favour. Not only had the character a broken arm, but it was also all the other penalties that went with it. penalties to action and being stunned. This left a big hole in the characters defensive line.

The healer, known as Seth, was already low on power points, and pretty beaten up. He took the decision to transfer the broken arm to himself, and all the hits that the character had sustained.

The benefit of getting the character back in the action was worth the risk. Casting the spell put Seth unconscious.

Roll forward a few rounds and the battle was won. (hurrah!) But Seth had been so low on power points that he was not able to heal himself. At this point he had two broken limbs, a foreleg and an arm, he was on negative hits and had a damaged hip. He was in a bad way, but not bleeding.

The players first reaction was to try and jury rig a stretcher and get out of there, because they knew that there were more beasties in the cave waiting to come out.

The problem was that Seth weighs over 900lbs, is about 7′ long and isn’t very ‘stretcher shaped’.

As it is, the players have decided to make a stand here and hope that Seth can heal himself before anything else happens.

We will see what happens in the next game session.

In an upcoming adventure I am going to give these characters some choices. Things like they may have a climb a rope to get to the next part of the adventure, or to get the rewards for their efforts. Or, squeeze through a really tight gap. The objective is to see if they will press on without their healer, who cannot climb ropes or squeeze through small gaps.

These are the risk averse guys, who have been a bit braver now they have healing support. Given the choice between having that healer and turning their back on the final challenge and the rewards, or staying safe, which will they choose?

Battlemaps!

I am putting the final touches on the May issue of the Rolemaster Blog Fanzine.

If you have not been following it, I have taken a regional map created by Dyson Logos and I am detailing each location with either encounters or adventures, and I am introducing a plot running through them.

The intention is to end up with a map where you could not throw a stone and not hit a potential adventure.

As a side project, I have been saying for ages that I wanted to start getting the old issues of the Rolemaster Blog Fanzine uploaded as Kindle editions.

With the most recent issues of the fanzine I have bundled some battlemaps. These are made with Dungeondraft. I am not very good with the software, but I am improving over time.

This is going to cause a problem when we get to the kind versions. You cannot bundle battle maps with a kindle book.

To fix that problem, I am uploading them here, and including an address where the map can be downloaded from.

This one is pretty simple, it is a druidic site on the edge of a lake. The arc on the left are an amphitheatre-like set of grass terraces. The scale is 50 pixels per 5′, and should work with most VTTs if you want to use it.

I am hoping that my skills with Dungeondraft improve over time. I won’t share every map on here as some will spoil the adventures in the fanzine. This one is not exactly secret.

My Risk Averse Players (again)

Just for fun, I thought I would test my players’ memories. When I set up some encounters on Fantasy Grounds, I changed the unidentified names, and the identified names of the creatures. I then picked out two words that were both descriptive and evocative.

I had two types of creature, the weaker “Grotesques” and slightly tougher “Fouls”. I looked at the descriptions in C&T and picked out the words I liked the best and set up the encounters.

The scenario was simple enough, the characters were heading to a fortified house on the edge of dangerous wilderness. This was to be their jumping off point for some wilderness adventures, and a place where they could dump loot and heal if needed.

When they arrived it was under attack, so they were to be the cavalry and save the day. To add a bit of time pressure on them, the attacking Grotesques and Fouls were using burning torches to try and force the defenders out of their protection.

The characters did engage the creatures, this was good, but not until the defenders were already dead.

They also didn’t bother trying to put out the fires, so by the end of the evening the safehouse was a burnt our shell.

Most of the creatures fled and took shelter in a cave nearby.

The characters then started to investigate the caves, until they came across a grotesque, they let it flee and raise the alarm, so the characters retreated.

Eventually, they were in a position where the characters fighters were two abreast in a tunnel and could bottle up the grotesques coming at them. If they retreated further the cave opened up and they could be surrounded.

It was then just a meat grinder to slay their way though the mass.

A grotesques was a 0th level, 15 hits, AT1, 10DB orc non-combatant. 20PB with its bite.

The characters are in heavy chain armour, big shields and typically have 60-80OB and 40-60DB

It was a case of one hit, one kill.

But still the characters, or the players, were too worried to really engage.

Even the tougher Fouls, really Orc commanders, 5th level 60OB but armed with Cat’o’nine tails, but still AT1 and no significant DB were designed to be no real threat.

To the characters, the Fouls were using their whips to drive on the grotesques, trapping them between angry Fouls, behind and the invading characters ahead.

Listening to the chatter amongst players, because they did not recognise the name or description, they didn’t know what they were facing, so they were not prepared to fight something they didn’t know.

In an amusing meta-gaming moment, one player didn’t want to take the fight to the creatures because they died too easily, if the fight was this easy it had to be a trap.

In the last big campaign we ran, the characters were 18th to 23rd level. Obviously, it took years to get to that level. I am wondering if the players are still used to having huge OB/DB combinations, always succeeding at typical skill tests, and having a magical solution to most problems. At 2nd and 3rd level they are a lot squishier and have to get used to failing, and failing often.

I am going to continue throwing these players and characters into different situations until they start to act like heroes, or they die trying.

Those Risk Averse Heroes

Since my group has finally dragged itself into the 21st century and adopted VTT for games, we are playing more often than ever, possibly since school.

Something that I had noticed about my group when we used to play less frequently was that they were extremely risk averse. Their characters were far more calculated and even positively cowardly compared to anything I had seen before in any other group.

Now we are playing more often, and the Fantasy Grounds RMC ruleset makes creating characters incredibly easy, and a lot faster, I was curious if they would start to act more heroic.

The answer was no.

They are extremely mercenary, practical, strategic, but adventure and heroism is not on their CV/resume.

We recently started a 5e game. I don’t have much experience of 5e but I do know that once you get to about 3rd level it becomes quite hard to accidentally kill a party. Healing is common, even fighters get ‘second wind’ that heals a d10 or so hit points. You can die, the dice can always go against you and for the enemy, but characters have a lot of options to get out of a bad situation.

In this 5e game, I decided to be more gung-ho than should strictly be good for my health. I am playing a Cleric (War Domain) so I am far from inept.

At the first sign of something potentially dangerous I am in there with a cry of “Smite the Devil Spawn!” and flame strikes raining down from upon high.

The instant I start that all bar one of the other players steps up a gear and they start behaving like you would expect the main characters in a sword and sorcery tale should act.

I am beginning to think that they are not actually risk averse mercenaries after all. What they are is too worried about being the one to let the side down.

This brings me to another curious thing about these players highlighted by the difference in rule system. For a bunch of guys that don’t seem to want to get into danger, they are all optimised for one thing. They all have huge OBs.

Spend maximum DPs on your weapons skills, and plough your background options into Skill At Arms and your highest stats in ST and AG.

If there are any DPs left then some Body Dev, Perception and Moving in Armour, and possibly some stalk and hide.

The only reason anyone has any secondary skills is because we have 25% of our DPs restricted to only secondary skills, and that is mostly going on Herb Lore, reverse strike, IA strike, two weapon combo… you get the picture.

In the last session, there was a 70pt difference between the highest OB and the lowest amongst 3rd level characters.

In 5e everyone went for a standard array of stats, and beyond that, there are very few options to customise your character. All first level rangers are pretty much the same, all first level clerics are pretty much the same, and so on.

Because they are not allowed to optimise just one aspect of their characters, they are more capable all round.

So when I go ‘once more into the breech’ whatever today’s breech may be, they feel more capable of following. The exception to this is one player who is consistently hiding behind a meat shield of NPCs.

A regular tactic in the Rolemaster games is to parry with everything, to avoid being hurt, while one someone tries to get a positional advantage and attack with flank or rear, as if having 111 OB at 3rd level isn’t enough, you need that +15 for flank as well. When we are out numbered we are frequently in serious trouble.

I think I am going to add an NPC into my Rolemaster group and make them an ‘up and at ’em’ kind of character. What I am half expecting is that the players would happily let the NPC rush in and die, rather than take the initiative. What I am hoping that they do is find their get up and go.

Players ‘eh, can’t live with them, can’t live without them!

Rolemaster Fanzine #48

The Rolemaster Fanzine is now 4 years old.

Worryingly, I cannot remember what was in most of them.

What is funny, but not funny haha, is that right from the first issue, I was expecting the imminent release of RMu. It looks like that never happened!

This issue is the fourth in a series building up to a mini campaign. I am trying to hit just about every style of adventure there is. So far we have had a Greek themed village, an encounter with the undead, a wilderness encounter with werebears, an investigation into a missing child, and this month we have a dungeon crawl and a run in with a coven of nasty spell users in a swamp. There is also a sting in the tail encounter at the lakeside.

I mention in this issue that over the summer I am going to get every issue of the fanzine into Kindle format. I am also looking at getting them back into print. This was brought into sharp focus last night when the Guild Companion website went down.

At the time of writing, the site is still unavailable.

If this is gone for good, it will be terribly sad. I knew that the articles had dried up, but it has completed its journey from printed book to online to vanished. This is not the way that things should go.

What the RM community needs is for more exposure, more resources and more ways for people to find their way to Rolemaster.

I sincerely hope that the GC is only sleeping, and that it will be back. If it isn’t, we always welcome contributors to the blog, and to the fanzine. I will do my best to get the fanzine out to the widest audience.

Yes, that does look suspiciously like a dragon, no that is not a mistake.

Games: played or not played?

So I thought I would branch out into non-Rolemaster territory; mostly because I’ve been reading a lot other blogs and I have been thinking about my early years of roleplaying.

Like many rolemaster players in their late 40s or 50s I started with D&D and worked my way through other games and systems in the heyday of the gold/silver age of roleplaying. From middle school to halfway through highschool we were open to experimenting with other games and genres but unlike other players I’ve talked to, I ended up sticking to Rolemaster from high school to now with brief times playing Castles & Crusades with my brother.

Today I wanted to talk about 2 games, one I played and the other I didn’t but was intrigued with.

Game I played:

Ringworld (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

First, I should mention that I never actually received my physical high school diploma (I graduated) due to 2 overdue, never returned library books: Ringworld and the Dirty Dozen. If you have read Ringworld you might have realized that it would make a great campaign setting. Per the wiki entry:

The game is intended to be set on the Ringworld itself, an enormous single world discovered at the far reaches of Known Space, a ring around a sun at approximately the orbit of the Earth. It is 997,000 miles wide, about 125 Earth-diameters. The total inner surface of the ring is equal to that of 3 million Earths. The ring is spun at a speed to provide 0.992G of gravity on the innerside, while 20 giant shadow squares at about the orbit of Mercury occlude the Sun to provide night. It was constructed by the Pak Protectors, now mostly extinct, who had a common origin with humans. The Ringworld is home to some 30 trillion sentient inhabitants from up to 2000 hominid species.

I bought the box set, a companion and I think a supplement on tech and equipment. While much of the game system is vague now, the setting is still compelling and a bit like Shadow World. I mix of fantasy and sci-fi, technology that can easily be confused with magic, and a mix of cultures. I can’t recall if we played a lot of Ringworld, but we certainly immersed ourselves in the game system and the “rulefication” of a popular book. For many of us, the challenge to adapt a ruleset to a literary setting, or design new rules to accommodate a setting was, and is still, a favorite topic.

Game I didn’t play.

Twilight: 2000 and its amazing hook – Yore

Maybe it was the ads in Dragon magazine, or maybe it was my deep interest in WWII history, but I was fixated and curious about this game. Plus I was reading Axler’s Deathlands series and felt this might have some similarity to it.

But, I never bought it and don’t think I played it with anyone else. To be honest, once I tried Rolemaster in ’83, I was overly critical of simplistic combat rules. From what I read about the game, I was skeptical about the game mechanics.

It’s my understanding that the game has undergone new editions (maybe to reflect the different historical results of 2000AD and beyond?). Has anyone tried this game?

What I’m reading.

There are many ways to get my creative juices flowing, but perhaps the most fundamental is just reading: fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, historical novels. I tend to read in clusters of topics and since I’m reading quite a bit of fantasy and catching up on authors and series that I left languish during COVID, I thought I’d blog about several of them.

I’m not sure if I ever read Vance “back in the day”, but I thought it worth exploring given various blog posts I read that reference Tales of the Dying Earth and Appendix N. The D&D DNA is certainly there; especially in the magic system and I found the stories enjoyable. I also enjoy the vague references to ancient, technologically advanced societies. One of the reason’s I enjoy Shadow World.

I’ve mentioned Adrian Selby’s first work, Snakewood. His setting is low magic with only a handful of Magic-Users. Instead, the world is driven by mercenaries and fighters that use “Brews”; basically a potion that enhances strength, speed and senses like a supercharged dose of steroids. I’ve already started working on a SW version of this which combines alchemy and herbs since I’m not a fan of “magic potions”.

I read Liavek and it’s sequel back in the 80’s and apparently there has been many more books in the series over the following decade. Setting anthologies were popular in the 80’s, the most well-known being Thieves World. I wanted to revisit Liavek as part of my process writing Nontataku–a city module for Shadow World. Anyway, these are light but fun reading. Will Shetterly, the editor has also written one of my old favorites: Witch Blood.

What are you reading?

Shadow World & Monsters

I am playing a (now) 3rd level Druid in a Shadow World game. We started out in Haalkitaine and then traveled southwards towards a place called Swink.

So far, excluding the humanoid races, giant rats, harpies, goblins, and we are on the hunt for trolls.

The humanoids that have fallen to the fighters’ blades have been dwarves, elves, and humans.

We have experienced one essence storm, from a distance, but at the moment, absolutely nothing has jumped out at me, literally or figuratively, to tell me what is special about Shadow World.

In my own game, I have been homebrewing a world on the hoof, as we play. I decided that the world doesn’t have cows, the niche as common farm animal for food, milk, and leather is filled by something called an Ootan. They are rather like a buffalo or bison but without the horns. It is a tiny change, but it makes creates a significant difference. You do not want to stampede a herd of Ootan, even less than you would want to stampede cattle. Barns are bigger as well, and you get really big steaks.

Chickens have been replaced by Duka, they are your typical farmyard poultry but they mimic like parrots.

So far, in Shadow World, I am not getting anything that is making me think the world is any more special than Greyhawk.

I have played one previous campaign in SW and eventually we came across some high tech, in an underground wizards compound, we also eventually encountered Navigators, but these things came very late in the game.

I am assuming that they are not common? They certainly haven’t been in my explorations so far.

I think the biggest disappointment has been the monsters. Harpies, Goblins and Trolls are just standard fantasy fayre. Surely, SW has something that is uniquely SW and at the same time a viable challenge for a party of 3rd and 4th level characters?

What makes players fall in love with Shadow World?