Musings on High Elves in Shadow World


I’m not a fan of Elves, but I am a fan of Shadow World. Can those two feelings co-exist? Fiction has exposed us to many portrayals of Elves but one constant is that Elves are very long lived or immortal. In a past RMU discussion, the immortal “trait” was discussed: how do you subscribe a value to a trait like immortality when it has little impact on gameplay?

From a world-building viewpoint, immortality has had a significant impact on the role of Elves. Reading through the Master Atlas, Emer and the other major SW core books, Elves make up the majority of the powerful characters in Kulthea. How could they not? These immortal NPC’s have had THOUSANDS of years to gain experience, level up and accumulate wealth and power. A general summary:

Priest Arnak: 100% Dyar

The Silver Dawn: 100% Erlin

Steel Rain: 75% Erlin

Golden Eye: 100% Loar

Loremasters: 60% Elvish

The Secret Circle: 100% (mostly Iylar)

Navigators: 30% Elvish

So we are left with a disconnect between the negligible impact of immortality on gameplay and its significant effect on the world order. How do these immortal creatures dominate the powerful roles they have in Kulthea. I have a few theories to explain this:

  1. Theory of Inevitability. Only immortality can provide the time needed to achieve higher levels, power and wealth. However if this is correct than mortal PC’s couldn’t possibly achieve higher levels. This obviously “breaks the game”.
  2. Theory of Racial Superiority. Something about Elves gives them a competitive advantage for resources or their natural abilities are superior to mortal races. However, if this theory is correct than there is an inherent advantage to Elves that favor them over other races. From a gameplay standpoint what could this be?
  3. Theory of Environment. SW is not really all that dangerous, allowing these beings to grow in power without threat or harm until the PC’s show up. However if this theory is correct than the PC’s are some sort of historical aberration: a gang of Elf killing, murderhobos. Like #2 this is a bit of a “game breaker”.

The only theory that really works is #2: Elves are superior to mortals. This superiority is not just immortality but some inherent ability or quality that allows them to surpass other races. So I’m reluctant to allow PC’s to play “High Elves” (Iylar and Linoeri) due to their appearance and implied superiority. Do they even fit as a PC in a low level adventure?

Anyway just a few thoughts–what’s yours?

It is not the critical but the special effects that count!

I am building an NPC and this one is a going to have a few unique spells. I am not one that goes looking for work to do so I am more than happy to take an existing spell, change the special effects and see how far that gets me. Now want I wanted was a spell that tearst he world apart and hurls it at the players, so nothing too spectacular.

What is the easiest way to do this?

At first glance this seemed to be an extremely powerful version of the Hurling spell from the Telekinsis/Essence Hand lists. These pick up cobblestone sized lumps of rock and throw them at the target. If I wanted hundreds of bits of rock then this is a big step up.

I then thought about making it area of effect and that then made me think of Stun Cloud on the magicians Wind Law list.

4. Stun Cloud I – Creates a 5’’R cloud of
charged gas particles: delivers a ‘C’ Electricity
critical on first and second rounds, a ‘B’
on rounds 3 and 4, and a ‘A’ on rounds 5
and 6. It drifts with the wind and affects all
in radius. The cloud takes one round to
form, so anyone in the radius when it is cast
may make a maneuver to move out of the
radius without taking a critical; however,
after that anyone within the radius at
anytime in the round takes the critical
indicated (a maximum of one per round).

So if I turn the Electricity criticals into Krush criticals and the cloud is a vortex of flying stones, rocks, earth and debris would that fit the bill? I think it does. It is no more powerful than the Stun Cloud original but because the special effect is so different It is hardly recognisable in play when it is cast.

Now that is a cool special effect
Now that is a cool special effect

My players are so experienced that when we were playing in Shadow World the Mage’s player could identify spells and deduce professions and levels pretty quickly. They find it harder in my game for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I only describe the special effects and not the give the spell name. They were the target of a Shock Bolt recently and I described the caster touching the floor and white energy arcing along the cracks between the flagstones as it raced towards the character being targetted. As it happens the player said they made sure they were not standing on any cracks on the pavement and as it happens the shock bolt missed and now they think they would only be effected if you stand on the cracks. This was not a new spell, it was just a different description of a shock bolt.

Secondly nearly ever caster has at least one spell they have researched themselves in my game. I mostly do low level spells as if this is part of the casters passage from apprentice to journeyman. If there are genuinely new spells out there then the it is hard to try and second guess the level and profession of the caster.

So coming back to my Cloud of Debris spell. It would make a useful addition to Earth Law, a list that lacks much in the way of offence anyway. It is low level at 4th and I see no reason why this variant is any more or less powerful than the Wind Law version and it gives the the leighway to create either a larger radius version or a Death Cloud version if I need it.

In my game most magicians tend to only have one or two of their base lists, it is just too hard to learn spell lists to concentrate on just your base lists and ignore all the open and closed lists. A 10th level magician would probably only have 8 lists in total. At that point they also have to choose between learning more at 1-10th or learning some at 11-20th.

Given those conditions then Essence Hand + Earth Law plus at my new spell and you have an effective villain. A Death Cloud (Cloud of Stones?) version would weigh in at 11th level and deliver a couple of rounds of E krush criticals and 10 criticals in total if anyone was stupid enough to stay in the radius.

I like this idea, I think it fits the bill and it wasn’t too much work either!

Rolemaster Diseases

Rolemaster Logo

Last week I visited a church built shortly before the plague of the 17th century hit Switzerland. This got me thinking about rolemaster diseases. What I have below is a house rule I have not yet had the chance to play or test. It has just been rolling around in my head for the best part of a week,

I apologise for having missed my last two posts , Friday and Monday, but as you can now guess I have been traveling. I spend most of my time in Switzerland but also went into the black forest region of Germany for my ‘Grimm Sword‘ project. But enough excuses, here is my idea about disease.

The current rules base the severity on the level of resistance roll failure. Fail by 01-25 and you get a mild form of the disease, 26-50 is moderate, 51-100 is serious and 101+ is extreme and normally terminal.

My House Rule

Recently I had a cold or similar virus, it seemed to rush though a day of headaches, a day of sore throat, a day of aching joints and then weeks of a running nose. There were days when I felt almost well again but then at least a week were I was too ill to go running. The point is that my health was not linear. I had ups and downs.

It doesn’t add much complexity, and none to the players side, to modify diseases slightly so they get three additional parameters.

  • Minimum severity
  • Maximum severity
  • Time period

  A ‘touch’ of Rabies

The minimum severity would specify that if the resistance roll is failed then rather than possibly just being mild (fail by 01-25) the minimum effect can be controlled. The idea is that it would stop someone just having a touch of Rabies but they will be fine tomorrow.

The maximum severity just specifies the maximum starting severity. I put this in place because of the nature of open ended rolls. The school I went to as a teen ager had 1200 pupils. Baring in mind that 1 in 20 rolls are open ended down and one in 400 are double open ended downwards you don’t want the common cold killing 3 students on average every time a virus went around the school. Put simply not every disease is fatal.

The final parameter is Time period. So a 24hr virus would have a time period of 1 day. Every day you get to roll a new resistance roll. If you make it you get one severity less ill and if you fail you get one severity worse.

Other diseases may have much longer time periods so you are saving every two or three days. This means that people can recover, have relapses, worsen and die and so on.

It makes sense that if the sufferer has lots of rest and food then they will get a plus to their resistance roll. Those that are physically active get a penalty. Characters may well choose to battle on though a minor illness. If they start to get worse and the penalties and symptoms are getting worse then they may think again.

Players quest

Every GM at some point has a players quest where they have to find some ingredient for a cure. Now the longer that quest takes to complete the worse the consequences are going to be.

What I think the real benefit is when the characters have the disease and the potential for them to get worse over time. I am going to apply the penalties they suffer from the condition, as specified in Character Law, to the future resistance rolls. So without help all but the strongest characters are more likely to slowly get worse, not better. All I need now is a magical disease that will infect those smug elves!

The only elves in my games right now are an elf and a half elf in my face to face game. I will not be able to test this is play until the spring. There is a definite plot in here somewhere!

Game Master talk: “Murder Hobos”



def. The typical protagonist of a fantasy role-playing game, who is a homeless guy who goes around killing people and taking their stuff.

Due to the holidays I only have time for a quick blog, but thought I would delve into this a bit–especially since Thanksgiving is really the “Last Supper” before we went all Murder Hobo on the native Americans!

A lot of GM’s pride themselves on running games that focus on other narrative elements than just combat; but let’s be honest, players love combat and Rolemaster’s critical charts makes combat more immersive and ultimately rewarding. RPG’s reward MurderHobo behavior! Video games have further reinforced this style. Digital games, limited in part by the defined experience and finite sandbox, also tend to focus on conflict and combat as the primary mechanism for player gains and advancement.

Despite mechanisms like “Alignments”, religious constraints and the good v. evil meme, many PC groups default to “kill whatever you encounter and take their stuff”. We certainly played like that when we were younger and in almost every game session since there has been at least one group member that opts for combat before anything else. In a game system that has terrible monsters, cruel creatures and real evil, their needs to be little rationalization: bad monsters should be killed!

I tend to a more grayscale approach to morality in gaming and Shadow World lends itself well to that. Most encounters are with other humanoids and while many of them may be selfish, greedy or dangerous they are probably not evil in the purest sense. Generally, people act in self-interest.

So while a GM can design an adventure that focuses on non-combat elements, that doesn’t mean the players will stay on script. So, how can you build some constraints into your gaming group?

  1. Actions have consequences. Combat results in criticals, and criticals can result in serious or permanent damage. At lower levels PC’s may not have the resources to regenerate a limb. Certain injuries could cause stat loss (temp and permanent). Scars can reduce Ap. Healing costs $$$!
  2. There are fates worth than death. Even if they triumph over the PC’s, opponents may still be seriously injured and will need to seek refuge and healing. They may not necessarily delivery a “coup de grace” on the players, but they could certainly loot them and take their valuable stuff!
  3. One size DOES NOT fit all. I’m not a believer that magic armor, bracers, rings etc have inherent magical “resizing” ability. In fact, that sounds like a fairly high level ability to enchant into an object. My players don’t expect to simple loot and put in opponents armor and have it fit or work effectively. This reduces some of their impulse to kill anything with nice stuff.
  4. What’s in a name? Horses have brands, armor may have insignia or religious symbols, “named” weapons may have a reputation. Flaunting your opponents marked equipment may be problematic—PC’s could be considered thieves or looters!

Hey, I like combat as much as anyone but when you really think about it, the “murderhobo” concept defines PC’s. What are your thoughts?



To continue with the subject of skill consolidation, I want to move on to our meta-skill “Social”. From a GM perspective social skills have always been a problem to me. Used as a blanket mechanism in the game the social skill roll can replace any real attempt at ‘role-playing’. But relying on pure role-playing can create tension between the player and GM (NPC) and force arbitrary game results.

RMU tackles a wide variety of social skills: persuasion, leadership, torture, interrogation etc. and once again I’m convinced that only 1 meta skill is really necessary here. This is the one skill that relies heavily (Ap/Ap/Pr) on the “Appearance” stat.

While persuasion could rely on innate charm, any salesperson knows that social skills can be learned and trained.  Our meta Social skill includes the ability to “read” people (lie detection), inspire them, charm them, haggle and negotiate as well as reading social normative cues through body language, posture, dress, deference etc. This includes the “skill as lore” aspect of understanding social customs and rituals.

Arguments against a single social skill is that it conflates negative social skills with positive ones. For example, a torturer would have high positive social skills along with the torture skill. This doesn’t fit the “professional meme” associated with a torturer. Keep in mind that psychopaths are most often have highly functional social skills, are manipulative and charming! I don’t see charisma as being the same as a developed social skill. A PC could have a very low presence and physical appearance and still be inspiring, convincing or manipulative. Likewise, the character with a high presence and appearance may be naive or socially inept.

As a GM, the social skill often provides an excuse to the player to rely on a skill roll rather than role playing–that can be an issue. However, when a random outcome is needed or I can quickly fill in 500 years of intricate social rules for a random society encountered by the players than the social skill works well.



I was going to go back to my long simmering Shadow World Spin Cycle blog topic, but since there is so much discussion around “meta-skills” I thought I would continue with rolemaster skill consolidation.

We’ve been using the RMU fatigue rules for several years now and before that used a simplified version of the optional fatigue points rules. As I’ve mentioned before, I think fatigue is a critical component of our campaign and a major narrative point in fantasy literature. (Frodo’s walk towards Mt. Doom as the penultimate example). Given that we had included “Endurance” as an important, primary skill. At first, the skill bonus was used for fatigue points and then later using the RMU beta the skill bonus was used for fatigue checks (rather than body development). I saw endurance/cardio fitness as distinct from body development and wanted to separate the two to allow for non-fighter types to have good endurance without the automatic benefit of more hit points.

In the past year we’ve further consolidated skills and rolled the “Endurance” skill into a meta-skill: Athletics.  We refer to this as the “Bruce Jenner” skill–think ancient Greek athletes and the decathalon. Athletics includes cardio endurance, hand/eye coordination, throwing (for distance not necessarily accuracy), jumping, running, hiking and even feats of strength.

While it could be argued that many of these subskills should use varying stat bonuses, I generally use Str/Ag/Co. The meta-skill is meant to be a broad indicator of general athleticism and physical games. Certainly a few of these lose some “realism” by not having more specific stat bonus assignments but for this one, simplicity wins out!

Meta Skills

Rolemaster Unified Character Law Cover

Brian and I both share the same philosophy when it comes to skills, less is more. Meta skills are a way of having less skills that enable your characters do more.

More is less

The more skills you have in your game the less capable the characters are. If there are only 40 skills and a character can afford to buy 10 plus some body development, weapons and perception then they have 25% of all the skill bases covered.

If you have 100 skills in your game and they can afford to buy 10 skills then the character has only 10% of all the bases covered.

If you have 200 skills then 10 skills covers just 5% of skills.

As you up the total skill count one option is to increase the number of development points each character has. This was introduced with the firs set of secondary skills in Character Law. They added 45 secondary skills and recommended adding 25% more development points. So by the time you get to 200 skills you need to be giving the characters double development points just to stand still.

I can agree that if you have more skills you should give the characters more development points to compensate but this brings with it its own problems. If your character starts off with relatively few DPs because he or she has lowish temp stats (but decent potentials) then your fellow characters are going to be able to do more than you in more situations. This is already a  problem but now the effect has been quadrupled (it was doubled by doubling the demand on the limited DPs and then exacerbated by doubling the difference between a character with high stats and one with low stats). Your fellow characters have more opportunities to earn experience so they level up faster and get more DPs and so the problem gets worse. What you have is a vicious circle.

The other option is Meta Skills. Brian has a Survival skill but does not have Foraging or Region Lore or tracking. If you hae a full set of survival skills for a particular region then that includes where to find food, water, the lie of the land. You can also build a fire and probably tie knots covered by rope mastery.

RMU shows some of its strengths

This is where RMU shows some of its strengths. Firstly you get a fixed number of DPs per level, the default is 50 so having great stats or poor is no handicap but also it has the Vocational Skill.

Vocational is the ultimate meta skill

Vocational is the ultimate meta skill. If you take Vocation:Knight then you gain all the minor day to day skills that a knight would know from recognizing the devices and standard of other noble families to etiquette to handling hunting dogs and birds of prey. A character can have multiple Vocation skills so you could have Vocation:Squire and Vocation:Knight if your character came up through the ranks, so to speak. You can pretty much define your characters back story skills in terms of Vocational Skills. Vocation does not supersede any specific named skills, you cannot use Vocation:Knight in place of Riding:Horse by claiming that riding is a knightly pursuit.

This is how I think all skills should work. I don’t use the Survival skill but I do have Foraging and Tracking. Brian and I have identified the same problem arrived at the same answer but we started from different places. In my gaming group my players love the Tracking skill so it was not on the cards to remove it. It would have been missed too badly to take it away. On the other hand no one bought the survival skill, in those survival moments the players turned to foraging for food or tracking game (animals have to drink so follow the tracks and you will find water).

In both cases, Brian’s Shadow World campaign and my Forgotten Realms game we have both arrived at a total skill count of about 45 skills. The characters are going on similar adventures, facing similar challenges and coming to similar solutions I assume as people the world over are all the same. As long as the game and skill system gives the players the levers they want to pull the players are happy.

The reduced skill count actually makes the players happier as their characters are more capable and more of their ideas are successful ‘on the round’ as the characters are able to put the plans into action. It reduces the need for quite so many NPCs and so on.

As I get older I find I can retain the definition of 40-50 skills easily enough but on the other hand trying to remember 200 skills when about half of them ‘break the rules’ (things like the way that stunned maneuver works, or iai strike that have unique rules for just one skill). I am never going to retain that many skills and rules and I don’t think new players will either.

I kind of hope that RMU resists the urge to bolt on more and more skills a the system matures. There is no need to repeat the mistakes of the past when there are so many new ones we can all make!

Rolemaster Skill Consolidation. Pt. 3: TRICKERY


Welcome to Pt. 3 of my blog on Rolemaster Skill Consolidation. In this blog series we explore the creation of “meta-skills”—broader skills that roll up lesser or secondary skills to reduce skill bloat and better skill equality across the board. You can see Pt. 1 Channeling and Pt. 2 Survival here. Both “meta-skills” and “skills as lore” allow for PCs to act within the game rules and me to focus on the narrative flow without resorting to highly technical refereeing calls. As Pete discussed in an earlier blog, I prefer meta-skills for the balance between “rolling it” (via skill bonus) and “role-playing it” via the broad scope of meta-skills.

Today I want to focus on our meta-skill “Trickery”. I’ve played around with a number of names for this skill including “Subterfuge” and “Mummery”, but right now I’m sticking to Trickery although it lacks a certain gravitas. Our trickery skill was inspired by “The Lies of Locke Lamora”—a fantasy book about a group of thieves. The story includes great details on the thieving profession from a simple cut-purse to the skilled “long-con”. The book really inspired me to think about urban adventures, adventure narrative and mystery/detective style adventures.

The Trickery skill rolls up a number of interesting and useful secondary skills into one more comprehensive skill: pick-pockets, sleight of hand, mimicry, ventriloquism, forgery, disguise, hand-signals, and misdirection. While each of those sub-skills are cool with great potential for game play, I don’t think they stand up on their own as a primary skill. Rolling it into a meta-skill really gives it some punch and allows for creative use by the PC. Rather than having a “rule-lawyer” argument about a questionable application of the pick-pocket skill, the PCs action will fall under the broader skill subject to their skill rank and my ruling on difficulty.

Rolemaster and multiclass characters

I am spending the day travelling today. I was up at the crack of dawn to get the train to London and right now I am sat in Caffè Nero at Heathrow terminal 5 waiting for my flight to Switzerland. Initially I thought I may end up missing my Friday article this week. One the Iron Crown forum there is a discussion going on about allowing a character to change professions.

Professions are so ‘loaded’ in Rolemaster that I knew this would turn into one of those rambling threads.

Changing or having multiple character classes is so integral to D&D that I am surprised that this question doesn’t come up more often. D&D, as I remember it, has  two options, you can start out with two or more classes and your experience is split evenly between each or you choose to change from one to another and once your new level catches up with your old one you can start to use features of both classes. For a game with many hundreds of classes the need to create new combinations us a little odd but who am I to criticise, there are millions of D&D players and they all seem happy enough to me.

Rolemaster professions are not character classes. A Rolemaster profession is intended to be an entire way of life and represents the characters entire world view, their education and sets their aptitudes for their entire life. The are not something that you can change at gheeta drop of a hat.

In my Rolemaster Classic (Rules as written) game  the party met and have been adventuring for just 22 days but they are already on the verge of achieving 5th level. In the forum thread the character wanting to change profession is just 4th level. That is a pretty short window in which to shift ones entire world view. Of course the character in the thread may have been adventuring for years, we don’t know.

So in Rolemaster there are few if any hard limits on what a character can learn to do. Fighters can cast spells if they invest the points into spell lists and makes can wear armour if they are prepared to take the rusks of spell failure. These soft caps were meant to remove the need for multi classing to changing profession.

The fact is  that a fighter with a spell list is not a mage. Going against the professional archetype will never be the same as adopting the new archetype and that is what the player wants to do in the forum thread.

HARP does allow multi classes and is balanced to take these into account so it is possible but the RMC/RM2/RMSS/RMFRP development point system of individual skill costs mean that multiple professions will always be over powered. It will much more viable in RMU as the professions are much more like HARP professions, remember that HARP is a much younger system than RM and has the benefit of a lot of hindsight in its design.

The other option is to use the No Profession. This is my preferred solution. You cannot have multiples or change things you don’t have. It gets rid of some much ‘baggage’ that this forum thread has reinforced my view that No Profession is the right way to go for Rolemaster. It is one of the best things about this modular system that No Profession was available as a built in option right from the beginning.

An Interview with Terry K. Amthor. Author of Shadow World and I.C.E. Founder.


Anyone reading this RolemasterBlog should be familiar with Terry K. Amthor. One of the founding members of Iron Crown Enterprises and author of Court of Ardor, Lorien and Thieves of Tharbad (to name just a few). Terry is now the principal of Eidolon Studios where he continues to publish fantastic Shadow World material. There have been detailed accounts written about I.C.E. and their history and the epic battle for M.E. licensing, so I thought it would be enjoyable to get a more personal perspective from Terry himself.

BH: Terry, there have been several comprehensive articles about ICE and in depth interviews with I.C.E. founders but relatively few interviews with you. Anecdotally, there are few designers and authors that have survived on one setting or rule-set as long as you. Shadow World was introduced in 1989 and you’ve been the master architect for all of that time. Do you have thoughts or perceptions on your own role or influence on RPG’s?

TKA: Well, to be honest, I think what limited notoriety or influence I have had was my role in Middle-earth Role Playing, as the editor and author of several books. MERP was one of the biggest selling RPGs of all time after D&D. And I was happy to stand in Pete Fenlon‘s shadow; he’s kind of larger-than-life. But I’m also proud of my role in the creation of Rolemaster. Olivia Johnston and I basically invented the Mentalism realm, and many of those critical hits and spell lists were written by me. Now of course I look at RM and think that it is rather daunting. Ha! Regarding Shadow World, I was honored and excited that it was agreed that I would be the world creator. I built heavily on our work in Iron Wind and went from there.

‘Queer as a Three-sided Die’

And in a somewhat unrelated topic, I got a little fame for my article ‘Queer as a Three-sided Die’ in White Wolf Magazine back in 1994, about feeling isolated as the only gay gamer (besides one other guy in the industry) that I knew of. The WW guys said it got a tremendous response. The last few years at GenCon now they hold a seminar with that name.

BH: As you mentioned, your 1994 article in White Wolf “Queer as a Three-sided Die” helped motivate a recurring seminar at Gen-Con of the same name. You’ve included both gays and women in Shadow World: the Sarnak amazons and the Komaren Cluster “Sherikaan” (SW term for gays). There seems to be an emphasis on “minorities”, can you elaborate on that and its importance to you in your creative process

TKA: I dunno, it just seemed natural to me. I knew I was taking a risk of offending people including an entire gay culture in SW, but that was when I was writing SW unsupervised for the first time and thought, what the hell. (The main protagonist in my SW novel is also gay). I never got any negative feedback, and even got a few letters and emails praising it.

As far as women and other races, it just seemed natural to me, especially after Middle-earth, which is totally dominated by men, (except for Galadriel), and the only people of color were savages from Harad who served Sauron. Back in the 80’s the gaming world was overwhelmingly white and str8. Fortunately it has changed quite a bit, along with popular culture.

BH: Your background in architectural design must have played a role in your work. Is your creative process driven by physical design or does narrative drive the form factor?

‘but how does that work, really?’

TKA: Ha! Though in many ways I think my architecture experience helped, sometimes I think it has held me back from creating really exotic building designs. Pete would design these beautiful but totally impractical structures, and in the back of my mind I was always wondering. ‘but how does that work, really?’ I’ve gotten a little better at letting go over the years, I hope.

BH: One of your earlier SW products, Jaiman, had the Dragonlord fortress–that was pretty fantastical! 

TKA: Heh, yes that was kind of wild. But to be honest, I can’t remember if my design came first, or if I had to retro-design it after the artist’s work. I think the latter.

BH: Many of us are in our 40’s or 50’s and consumers of early RPG’s in the heady days of the 80’s RPG industry. Early business successes are often attributed to “lightning in a bottle”–a mixture of right time, right place and right team. Charlottesville is a special place and UVA is an amazing institution. Certainly I.C.E. benefited from a confluence of factors: a start-up industry, Fenlon’s maps and the original ME campaign, your layouts and design aesthetic and a solid publishing team. I.C.E published A LOT of quality material in a short period of time, 1980-1990. What is your perspective of that time and the factors for success?

TKA: I have to say that I have often thought how different my life would be if I had not allowed myself to be talked into going to my first D&D session by a friend, way back in 1976 when I was first year in college. I loved LotR, but the game idea sounded silly to me. We went and I joined Pete’s early quest to destroy the Iron crown and I was hooked. Most of the people who would go on to found ICE were there. We had many all-nighter gaming sessions.

After ICE was established, we often joked that we were probably the only RPG company run by committee, for better or worse. All the other major companies of the time seemed to be run by one man. Pete was the driving force, but all of us founders had a voice. And yes we had an enormous pool of talent! Most of us were UVa grads, but we managed to get some great freelance artists and writers. It was an exciting time, especially the early 80’s. We all put in long hours, and often were down in shipping, collating and packing games.

“gold standard”

BH: MERP is considered a “gold standard” for M.E. reference material. Anecdotally I’ve heard that Peter Jackson used I.C.E. material in the LOTR production. Had you heard that?

TKA: Yes, that was amazing that Pete managed to secure the rights. And yes I heard that as well. And looking at the cover of ‘Lorien’ by Angus McBride (which I art directed), its hard not to think that he was inspired by some of our art and materials. I prefer to be flattered about that. However, how the license holders treated ICE when the movies were about to come out and they smelled big money, that was inexcusable.

BH: Many of the larger ME books are as much reference material as a gaming product. Were you all Tolkien scholars? With all the other product lines you were working on, how did the company manage the output and product quality? I can’t imagine many companies taking on the challenge of mapping Moria!

TKA: Pete and I both prided ourselves on being Tolkien ‘scholars’ and we researched what was available. I learned how to write Elven script, learned a lot of vocabulary, and got deep into the lineage of the Eldar, especially Galadriel and her history. It was an obsession of mine back then. Of course, sadly, most of that is gone from my brain-cells.

As far as quality, I don’t know, but we wanted to get it right when dealing with Middle-earth history, but make an exciting game. Meanwhile at ICE I moved from editor to production manager to art director, so it was a crazy time for a guy in his 20’s. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even the office moves, the hiring, the buying new technology and being the go-to Mac geek (while we had Coleman the PhD in Computer Science, who was above that crap).

I was so excited to bring Kevin Barrett on with Space Master. (I actually drove up to Toronto with a monstrous KAYPRO computer to meet Kevin, and we spent a weekend working out Space Master. The whole thing started as a random mailed-in submission that Coleman and I both liked (that was rare!!!)

BH: How do you see Shadow World in the ecosystem of RPG settings?

TKA: I am pleased that it has survived and remains profitable, but these days it is kind of a niche setting, along with many others. Long gone are the huge print runs and massive distributor networks of the 80’s and 90’s. And from the beginning, SW suffered from some unfortunate compromises in the early days. I had to include Fantasy HERO stats, which took up a lot of space, and from what we could tell, there was very little interest from the FH players. I was also ‘encouraged’ to accept some less than high-quality modules that had little to do with my idea of SW. A couple of the other ICE principals strongly wanted SW to be very a generic, plug-and-play world, which I was strongly against.

I was grateful that, when I left ICE in 1992 and moved to Northern Virginia, Pete allowed me to take SW, and licensed RM to me for a minimal fee. That’s when I founded Eidolon Studio and began self-publishing. Then I could do whatever I wanted. SW did also maybe suffer because it got the reputation of being a high-powered world. I think that was possibly unfair; there were high-powered NPCs, but plenty of low-level adventure possibilities. It may have also suffered because it was tied so closely to Rolemaster, which had a rep as a complex high-powered system. SW is definitely a very narrow kind of setting. It is high fantasy with sci-fi elements (which people love or hate), and a very detailed history, with major plots going on that the PCs might never know about. Like Rolemaster, it might seem daunting to a GM just starting out, but I hear about people jumping in to SW all the time.

BH: MERP had the benefit of Tolkien’s world-building and history. Did that later influence your work on the extensive SW timeline? Not many settings have 110,000 year+ of back history!

TKA: Absolutely. I wanted SW to have a deep history of its own with legends and epic events that most current inhabitants assume are just stories. But the gods are real. And that ancient history is infused with tech, and even in the present, a space empire is watching Shadow World from orbit. It’s all kind of fun. One of my tenants of Shadow World Is the Arthur C. Clark Law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

BH: Typeface/font choices have been an important design element for the Shadow World line. However, you made an abrupt change with the Xa’ar book. Any thoughts on that?

TKA: I had to go pull out a copy of Xa-ar to see what you meant. Back with Eidolon (before returning to the fold of the new ‘ICE’) I went a little crazy with typefaces. They can tell a story and add a lot of flavor. And the type foundry ‘P22’ came out with all these cool handwriting faces… I think I used a lot in a free downloadable file of handouts for the GM of clues.

BH: How do you think your SW writing has changed over time? The Emer box set and MA addendum had a much darker feel than the original SW box set. Eidolon had a touch of anime and steampunk. You’re now working on Wurilis; do you choose a tone first or does the tone reveal itself while you write?

TKA: To be honest, I had not noticed a change of tone. The books you refer to are 20 years back, and I was also production manager at ICE and fighting for some quiet time to write, so it’s hard to say. When I was close to a deadline on a SW book I would literally lock myself in my office, assign an assistant to run production (it was not that hard) and ask that no one disturb me for days. I don’t choose a ‘tone’ but Wuliris is an area with a lot of buried ancient tech, so that will be evident in the book. I always thought of SW as a dark place, what with Priests Arnak and evil gods, but I never wanted it to be gratuitous or gory (despite our critical hits, I guess!).

I do hope that my writing has improved through practice over the years. Practice, reading, practice!

BH: Let’s talk about your creative inspirations. You’ve mentioned your passion for Star Trek and it seems there is some anime influence as well? Any other movies, books or aesthetic that guides your work or has been an inspiration?

TKA: There’s no question that Anime has been an influence. I was totally in love with Hayao Miyazaki‘s ‘Laputa, City in the Sky.’ It was an influence for Eidolon, though of course the two are completely different cities. Miyazaki’s characters and storytelling, and his amazing steampunk settings, are really inspiring. His movies really inspired my vision of the SW steampunk Loari Elves. Watching his movies makes me feel young again.

BH: I occasionally see comments (or complaints) about the lack of new products for SW. But if you really look at the list of SW books there is easily enough material for YEARS of play. I think what people are saying is they want new material from you! That’s a good thing-right? Do you feel pressure from SW fans to “produce” or to come up with something new and original?

TKA: Well, we have built up a catalog, but obviously we are missing some key products like Emer I and II and Haalkitaine, so I am working on the revisions of those. I am a slow writer, but we also have some freelancer submissions that I am working on editing.

BH: You’ve recently moved back to Charlottesville after almost 25 years. Has that impacted your creative process–coming back to “where it all started”?

TKA: I love being back in this wonderful town; it is so unlike northern VA/DC. Part of me wishes I had never left, but water under the bridge. I am still getting fully settled and hope to meet up with more of my old friends again who are still here. I have a nice condo with a beautiful view out of my home office.

BH: Media companies often look for ways to monetize content they already own in different ways. For example, Disney is masterful about taking a brand and developing it through multiple channels: movies, books, games, toys etc. You’re doing that now with your Shadow World novel but have you thought about other opportunities? Certainly a d20 conversion of existing SW material could potentially open up a huge player market for you. Is there demand for licensing a SW creatures line to a miniatures company? That Eidolon map you had printed on canvas was fantastic (and a great gift item). I think someone did a SW comic book concept. Just throwing out ideas but wondering if you’ve explored anything.

TKA: A D20 version of the Atlas was started but several editors dropped the ball. It fell on my lap, but my knowledge of D20 was insufficient to do the system charts, so it once again fell by the wayside. As far as miniatures, that is outside of my arena. The current ICE owners could better answer.

BH: Given the size of the timeline, the number of Master Atlas editions there have been miscellaneous errata and inconsistencies in the SW books. Putting that aside, is there any earlier material you’d like to retcon to better fit your current view of Shadow World or something significant you’d change or delete?

TKA: Yes there are inconsistencies. SW needs a content editor. I’d really like someone to redo the Jaiman book as an atlas of the continent without all the dungeons.

BH: Imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery. Have you looked at any of the Numenera products? Multiple past ages, high tech, the “Iron Wind”, strange constructs and artificial creatures. While any RPG borrows from common tropes and memes, there seems to be a distinct bit of SW in Numenera. Any thoughts on that?

TKA: When Numenera came out, I admit I was a bit annoyed because it smelled like SW, and the game was selling on an idea of ancient tech, and that very evocative art of the floating crystal. And Monte worked at ICE during my Shadow World time. But Monte created a very different and compelling universe. If maybe SW inspired him, I’m flattered. I wish him the best.

BH: Some of the ICE founders have moved on to other gaming companies. Have you ever been interested, considered, or been approached to work at another gaming company. (besides your work with Kult)?

TKA: Pete and Coleman went on to Mayfair and of course, Catan! I could not be happier for them. But no, we don’t really talk about business.

BH: Given the various changes that have occurred at ICE, I think a lot of people are probably confused about the status of some of the older SW products. You mentioned Emer I, II and Haalkitaine. Can those just go through a reprint or do you need new material & artwork? Are there any other older products you would have liked to see re-published? 

TKA: The Emers and Haalkitaine all suffer from sub-standard artwork (I was on a very tight budget, doing those books on my own!), and as the years went by, I thought of a lot more material I wanted to cover in those books (Emer III ended up being almost twice as large as those early books). So for me, new editions were imperative. Actually I am working on Haalkitaine and Emer I now; Haalkitaine might be out by the end of the year.

BH: The lack of a full-time employees and in-house resources must make it difficult to spin out new ideas or products. On the other hand, you have a fairly broad skill set: writer, designer, page layout, art etc and you continue to generate well produced and well-received products. Is there ever times when you feel like “ramping up” and growing Eidolon studios or even doing a Kickstarter campaign?

TKA: I’m not sure what you mean? Right now Eidolon pretty much exists to do ICE products. I am doing layout for some HARP books, which is some nice easy income, and hope to continue our relationship with producing mutually lucrative Shadow World books. I don’t really have the time (or much desire) to go off and do something independently outside of those borders. Some other publishers have had big success with kickstarters, but that’s really not my call.

BH: You seem to have covered all the major elements in the “SW story”: gods, major organizations, key artifacts, etc. With this framework in place, is it now just “filling in the gaps” with regional material like Wurilis and Emer IV?

TKA: Pretty much! I mean, should I ever get bored with this hemisphere, there is always the East, beyond the Barrier. But there is still so much to tell here.

BH: Between the Grand Campaign, the timeline and your Shadow World novel, the larger meta-narrative appears to be heading towards a climactic conclusion. Do you have the major plot points outlined? Are there any new elements that have yet to be introduced to GM’s or players in the books so far? (spoiler-free of course)

TKA: Heh-heh. Yes, events seem to be heading to a few major confrontations. The novel obviously uses the characters I’ve created, but I assume that GMs will put their own PCs in those key positions where they can ‘save the world’ if they desire. And at the rate I am going, the big catastrophe is years away in real-world terms…

BH: Are there any other continents besides Emer and Jaiman that you’ve written notes/materials that you’d like to tackle?

TKA: A couple (Folenn and Falias) are kind of taken-care of. I would like to go southwest to Thuul…

BH: Throughout the SW books there are tantalizing tidbits or references to things, places or people that haven’t been covered yet. (My favorite is the Mazatlak Pillar City). Is there any person/place/thing that you’ve referenced that you’d like to explore further?

TKA: I’d like to learn about Mazatlak Pillar City too! 😉 Yes, in the Atlas (and in the Emer I maps) I designated a bunch of locations with little or no description. They were mainly meant as teasers for the GM to develop, but I may get to some of them eventually.

BH: You commented that you weren’t happy with the art in Emer I and Haalkitaine but I’d like to get your thoughts on RPG artwork for the last few decades. Like D&D, ICE started with b&w line illustrations and hand drawn layouts and regional maps. You then oversaw the artwork for MERP and the popular Angus McBride covers (which might have influenced the artwork for the LOTR movies). I recall you diving into computer rendered art for the Shadow World website in the 90’s. Now RPG’s have embraced full color illustrations that seem drawn out of computer gaming: exaggerated or out of scale features or excess musculature drawn from comic book aesthetics. There has been some comments on the forums about re-introducing hand drawn and colored maps but that sounds a bit too labor intensive? That’s a lot to unpack, but I guess the question is. if and how has your artistic sensibility has changed over the years?

TKA: That is a long, complicated, and unfortunately often painful story. Back in the old ICE, we often were very late in paying artists (and sadly, I fear ICE did not pay some artists what they were owed, but I am not sure. I had no control over how money was paid out). This continued until the current managers (GuildCompanion), who are very careful about staying in budget and paying on time. However, with smaller numbers of product sold ICE cannot afford the prices of the well-known hand-drawing artists any more.

(re: the Emer and Haalkitaine art, I got that mostly from copyright-free books and um, other sources.)

I experimented with computer rendering back in the 90’s with a little program called Bryce, which was great for landscapes, but sucked beyond that (and print-quality renderings took hours, even on the most powerful Macs back then). But again, I had no money, and it seemed like a way to convey some atmosphere. I know some people resist it even now, despite the gorgeous renderings by our artist Craig, but I think they really convey the Shadow World.

Now, since we are doing Shadow World books in full color, we are sticking with computer renders for illustrations (I work very closely with Craig to get the scenes, characters and costumes just right), and we will mix hand-drawn and computer maps.

BH: Last question. Most SW products are a combination of small narrative vignettes, text body and stats. When you are writing a product do you develop the three in a linear fashion? Write the copy first and then the stats? Floorplans first? Do you have a writing process or system that you’ve developed over the years?

Using my current work on Emer IV and NE Jaiman as a guide, I guess I start with the big picture, and almost naturally work through a book in a similar way to which it is presented. I do the geography and environment, governments, then towns and interactions, then bore down to individuals, interesting characters. Adventures and floorplans are usually last. I find it hard to write adventures.

As a side note, the novel came out a result of a series of ‘Kalen’s journal entries’ I published on an old web site years ago, which people seemed to enjoy and thought gave the SW some additional personal life.

BH: Thanks Terry. We all waited for each new addition to the “Journals of Kalen Avanir” back in the day!  It’s interesting to note that “serial stories” like yours are all the rage now on the internet. You were a pioneer!

Anyway, I want to thank you for decades of inspiration, great gaming sessions and creative content! For those that want a more detailed background for Terry you can see his wiki HERE. If you are interested in Shadow World you should check out Eidolon Studios and the Shadow World Forum.