Background, Passions and Drive in Against the Darkmaster

One of my favorite features of Middle-Earth Role Playing is its Background Options Table. Oh, man, how fun it is to put those points into rolls on the Special Abilities and the Special Items charts. I allow my player-characters to roll only once each on these tables, but how disappointing if the player rolls something mundane like +5 to a primary skill or +15 to a secondary skill or something just weird or out of concept such as “Infravision”? Anyway, I soon learned that the real mini-game was to maximize stat increases to higher Bonus thresholds. If this process left any points left over (in other words, if the next stat bonus was out of reach), then one could drop a point into the Special Items table.

Against the Darkmaster (VsD) provides Background Options, at first glance, in a manner similar to MERP. As in MERP, the number of Background Points to be spent is determined by the character’s Kin, and they are spent according to a menu of options. Unlike MERP, however, there are no random rolls on these Background tables. In fact, they almost can’t be described as tables. At least according to the QuickStart, each option has two “Tiers.” The first Tier always costs a single point. The cost of the second Tier varies according to its in-game “power” but seems to average 3 points. A player need not spend points on both Tiers of a single option but gains the benefits of both options if he spends points on the second Tier. Here is an example of a Background Option:

I chose to share this option because it’s easy to photograph and because it’s a good example of how Background Options can inform the narrative elements of a character’s backstory. Most of the Background Options contain a narrative element that is conducive for emulating the heroic aspect of VsD’s source material, and all of these features are tied to a mechanical benefit.

I think this is where the design choices in VsD become most compelling. I love these options! They work very well in my games, both by adding “character” to the PCs and by awarding them cool toys. I could do with pages and pages of these things, and who knows, maybe I’ll get them with the full game. The QS contains just two pages of Options, more like a page and a half, really—eight Options total. But they’re very well-chosen! My players haven’t had any problems finding something attractive for them. Our only difficulty had been how the description of an important feature has been inadvertently left out of Elven Training, but the designers quickly and willingly supplied us with that missing information.

VsD’s mechanic tying Passions to Drive likewise encourages more detailed character backgrounds and character-driven campaign play, something that pleases me. I’ve already pointed out how, at this stage in VsD’s development, the guidelines for players developing Passions are inadequate, particularly if Passions are tied to stereotypical features regarding Kin. But, when carefully chosen, Passions work well, and, so far, they have been working for all of my players.

I have been thinking of Passions as composed of three parts, but, looking again, I see that the designers describe Passions as three distinct elements: Motivation, Nature, and Allegiance. Motivation is, essentially, what the character wants to do; Nature is her demeanor or personality; Allegiance is his faction. In my games, the only Passion that has been driving the campaign is Motivation. Nature, in time, might become more important, but I tend to see character personalities emerge throughout gameplay, and my current games still are in their “Adolescence.” Finally, as a gamer said at my first tabletop session, “Allegiance might change from session to session.” I’ll explain the mechanical implications of Passions after I cover Drive.

Every PC begins play with 1 Drive Point. This, essentially, is a heroic resource with a menu of applications. Rather than going through all of them, I’ll give arguably the most common use: a Drive Point can be spent to immediately re-roll any failed roll with an automatic +10. There are explanations for how multiple spends might “stack.” A character can’t possess more than 5 Drive Points, and, if a character is fortunate enough ever to have 5 Drive Points, all 5 might be spent at once for some truly sensational effects.

At first glance, to me, it looks like just another thing to track, but I’ve seen these points get used twice already, and I think the mechanic will be an enjoyable feature. I’ve even had occasion to award a Drive Point, and now is the time to show how Passions interact with Drive Points. The QS says,

Whenever a character willingly puts himself into a dangerous situation, in a challenge, puts himself in a bad light because of one of their Passions, or makes the story change in a new and interesting direction following their Passion, they then gets to increase their Drive score by one – to a maximum of five.

p. 30

I can provide an example from my first session. A PC’s Motivation is to recover an abducted sibling. A member of a rival desert tribe, claiming to have information regarding the PC’s sister’s capture, met with the PC. Trying to determine if the NPC was trustworthy, the PC Critically Failed a roll, which caused the NPC to withdraw from the interaction. Later, desperate to learn more about his family member, the PC stepped in front of this new antagonist (who was quite dangerous, a third Level Assassin), gave him a gift, and with fancy words implored his help.

“Take a Drive Point,” I said. And, of course, the PC received his information.

A last observation is that the designers of VsD seem to hope that the Passions mechanics will knit together the PC group, writing,

Creating interesting Passions is a collective process that really must involve all the players at the table, since it’s vital for a VsD game to come alive with vibrant and interesting characters, and it’s also an excellent opportunity to tie characters to each other and to NPCs and root them to the story.

p. 29

Perhaps some groups will have the collective conversation that the QS describes, but I found myself working individually with each player to define, for that PC, a Motivation. Then, multiple PC Motivations in mind, I endeavored to give the group a shared goal, a reason to be together, that at least hinted at the possibility of everyone in the group attaining his Motivations separately. I can see new GMs having difficulty with this—weaving together the strands of individual character narratives. It’s possible that either the new GM will push the players towards one shared goal, a direction that could be intuited from the QS’s words about collective world building, or risk the PCs venturing forth in separate directions. I expect the full rules will contain thorough directions about this aspect of VsD.

Next will be Adventuring! So I will “mop up” with some final observations on Character Creation. Finishing Touches and Derived Attributes are as follows: every character has a Base Move Rate of 15m; Defense is the character’s Swiftness or 0, whichever is higher; Save Rolls are calculated from the relevant Stat, Kin and other bonuses and # character level x 5; total HP are starting HP and total Body Skill (the QS appears to erroneously leave out starting HP); and total Magic Points are the relevant Stat/10 (round down) per level + bonus MPs for Kin, Vocation and Items (such as Spell Adders). Our characters are done!

Vocations and Skills in Against the Darkmaster

Now, in this ongoing series exploring the QuickStart rules for Against the Darkmaster (VsD), we cover Vocations and Skills.

The QS is but a portion of everything the designers have written for the game, and often the tables in the QS give some hint of what else is out there, since, I suspect, to avoid having to make all new tables specific to the playtest, the QS charts have been repurposed from master documents. The Vocation Development Points and Vocational Bonuses table contains listings for Warrior, Rogue, Strider, Wizard, Animist and Dabbler. These essentially are the six Professions from Middle-Earth Role Playing with a difference: recently the designers decided to axe the Strider from their game. Their reasons why are long and interesting, and I agree with them, but I won’t give them here. Also, though everything needed to play a Dabbler (MERP’s Bard) is on the table, the QS gives no deeper description of the Vocation, and it becomes uncertain what boundaries—if any—there are to a Dabbler’s access to Spell Lores (Spell Lists). And again we see an unstated assumption that gamers will playtest certain characters.

Moreover, as a reflection of the total game, in this case the Vocation options on the table are misleading for a reason besides the recent deletion of the Strider: I hear there are other Vocations in development, and one of them is something called the Champion. Anyway, this table, as expected, provides per-Level Development Points (DPs) to be spent on Skill Ranks. As the title of the table indicates, this chart also identifies one-time Vocation bonuses that players add to Skills at Level 1. The DPs specified are distributed at every Level. There are eight categories of Skills for which various Vocations receive DPs. Four of these categories—Combat, Adventuring, Roguery and Lore—neatly contain five Skills each.

Converting DPs into Ranks is fairly simple. It costs 1 DP to raise a Skill by 1 Rank (in its appropriate category). No one Skill can be raised by more than 2 Ranks by this method every Level. DPs may be transferred from one category to another with a cost of 2:1. While I’m on the topic of transferring DPs, an additional Magic Point (the table provides Vocational Magic Points per Level) can be purchased at a cost of 3:1 once per Level.

There are some observations about this table that should be of interest to Rolemaster gamers. Armor is a single Skill category and consists of a single Skill, Armor. The same is to be said for Body and (to a degree) Spell Lores. Basically the Armor Skill is used to erode any Armor penalties. The penalty for any Armor never can become positive from 0, so I imagine that those Vocations comfortable with lighter Armors will be looking at transferring these DPs at later levels. Only Wizards and Animists don’t receive DPs in this category. The Body Skill results in 5 HPs per Rank (added to a Kin’s starting HP and possibly bolstered by a character’s Fortitude Stat). But as one of the designers, ToM, recently shared with me in a comment last post, the Body Skill sometimes has applications outside of calculating HPs and, yes, if a character’s Body ever is reduced to 0, then that character dies instantly. Wizards and Animists (unlike the way in which they are treated in the rules for MERP) are not awarded any DPs in the Body category. After a first read, this concerned me. I asked the designers if they had not created a “tax” on magic-users because I couldn’t imagine any player being comfortable with not increasing HPs at every Level. The developers disagreed. They said that, in their play experiences, magic-users tended to be comfortable with their starting HPs. I have yet to see if magic-users will be similarly comfortable with this arrangement in my own games.

Spell Lores, technically its own Skill category, I’m discussing separately from the above, and the way Spell Lores are handled in VsD I think should have a similar application to the Cultures Skill, which is contained within the Lore category of Skills.

To begin with Spell Lores, these are developed in a manner that BriH has told me is how the BASiL spell system works. In VsD, DPs buy Ranks in particular Spell Lores. These lists follow MERP in going as high as ten (though, considering all I’ve been learning recently about the “full game,” I would not be surprised if in manuscript form they reach higher than this). For example, a character with 4 Ranks in a Spell Lore would be able to cast spells up to Level 4. At the same time, the total bonus resulting from Ranks and other considerations in the Spell Lore would be applied to the Spell Roll. Each Spell Lore is attributed to a variable Stat—sometimes a different Stat even within a specific “realm of magic.” For example, in the Wizard Lores, the Stat associated with Eldritch Fire is Wits, whereas with Detections it is Wisdom.

Since the QS is a “living document,” in one area the Skill Cultures is erroneously identified as Languages, and this suggested to me that the Cultures Skill should be handled similarly to Spell Lores. Also, here is the Cultures Skill description:

This skill represent the general knowledge that the character has of a specific culture. This skill can be also used to try to establish communication with another culture by using specific knowledge of that culture which includes spoken, written or signed language.

p. 26

Cognitive dissonance here results from two uses of the word “specific” for a Skill which appears to be generalizable. Even though such a discussion isn’t in the QS, we all can assume that (to continue with my favorite example) our Deep Dwarf understands his Dwarven language and everything but, perhaps, the most particular specifics of his Culture (in my own American culture we might not all understand the lore behind certain Christmas traditions). Now the Deep Dwarf encounters a Fey Halfling (that’s a startling combination of Kin and Culture!). The Deep Dwarf has 4 Ranks and +5 in Wits. The player rolls and succeeds with, let’s say, a 125 for her Dwarf to understand this puckish little creature’s chirps and whistles. What now? Are we to believe that the Dwarf simply understands the Fey Halfling? Can that make sense? And what’s to be done going forward? Does this Dwarf now permanently understand the Fey Halfling language? Should the player write this down on his sheet? What strange, good luck!

Instead I propose that (borrowing from MERP) some Kin and all Cultures should begin play with Ranks in specific Cultures. The player can develop these Skills and others through the expense of DPs. In a manner similar to how Spell Lores operate, Ranks in a Culture should give a measure both of how well the character speaks that Culture’s primary language and a bonus on any Skill attempts to understand/remember something specific about that Culture’s heritage. To hew close to the Spell Lores precedent, 10 Ranks should be absolute fluency in a language.

To get back to the Skills as written, every Skill, of course, is associated with a Stat, but some—if not all—can be associated with more than one. I know that this isn’t a problem unique to VsD, so at my table I prefer for my players to keep Stat bonuses out of their total Skill calculations. Instead we add them at the time the Skill is being used, and the Stat used is determined through how or with what application the Skill is being employed. In tactical combat, of course, this allows Swiftness, rather than the default Brawn, to be applied to small, fast weapons. The designers have said that the possibilities for this kind of play shall be made explicit in the full rules.

In the Skills section is a table with a short list of Secondary Skills. These are given without elaboration, and descriptions for these are highly desirable, particularly for such Skills as Battle Frenzy—how does that work?

Finally, the section on Vocations states that Vocations enjoy special abilities specific to the Vocations. Unless these are the one-time bonuses on Skills, though, these are not described in the QS.

I had more to say about Vocations and Skills than I thought I would! Next up: Backgrounds, Passions and Drive.

Is it time to lose another table?

I had sort of made a bit of a commitment to not rules bashing so much this year. I want to concentrate on adventure creation, with an aim of assisting new players and GMs when RMu arrives, and highlighting really cool tweaks that could be learned from other games. That is where my Zwei series is coming from and HARP before that.

It was Hurin talking about 3d10-15 on the superior power level thread, over there, that made me think. Hurin finished one post with “and it gets rid of another chart” or words to that effect.

Now I was thinking about skills a lot in the last couple of weeks. Gabe’s VsD contributed a bit, Spectre has been proofing and editing my Wild West game and that contributed a bit and of course Hurin as contributed a bit.

The standard Absolute Maneuver chart looks like this.

But I cannot think of a single Absolute Maneuver. Perception rolls? Well you will hear it eventually if the thing is getting closer, or not if the sound has passed. If you are looking for something then you will find it eventually if you keep looking or not if you run out of time and give up.

Picking Locks? Well given enough time you will pick that lock it is more just case of can you pick it in the timeframe of the adventure, the approaching guards or before the fighter smacks the hinges in with a mace.

I did think that adrenal moves may be absolute but it makes so much sense that sometimes you may need more than 5 seconds to get in the zone or for things like balance or adrenal landing it could take more than 5 seconds to recover your equilibrium after the event.

The Percentage Maneuver table has the same pass mark and the Absolute but without the grade boundaries of success, partial and failure etc.

But this the real insight. The Percentage Maneuver table makes starting out characters MORE capable.

Think of it this way…. There is a locked door (lock quality Medium +0) at one end of the corridor, the PCs are trapped in front of it and approaching them from the other end are a bunch of Goblins.

The thief sets to work on the lock and has a skill of +17, he is afterall 1st level. He rolls a 50 the first round, total 67. Under the old rules the result is:

You fail the maneuver and must pay the consequences. Hopefully this wasn’t a life or death situation.

Actually it was life or death and the entire party dies. The End.

Under the Percentage Maneuver idea the result becomes 60% complete so the GM tells the player that a couple of tumblers fall into place, keep working. The Goblins arrive and the fighters start a desperate defence.

Round 2 the thief makes a second roll and any roll over a 24 will open the lock. The thief throws open the door and ushers some of the other characters out. The fighters fight on for another round and then in the third round, risking opportunity attacks, turn and flee.

That is a much more dramatic situation. Maybe a character died in the three rounds of combat, maybe they didn’t. Is the thief the hero for getting the door open?

Percentage Maneuvers just mean that everything takes longer if you are not very good at it but you will get there eventually.

If there is an Absolute success/failure skill test that I have not thought of it doesn’t make a difference the pass/fail threshold for Absolute and Percentage are identical 101+.

We do not need the Absolute Maneuver table. Also for most things we don’t need to use the Percentage one either at the actual gaming table. The result is your total roll rounded down to the nearest 10. It is only when you need to over achieve, results over 100%, or critically fail, that the actual roll is important.

I have started a thread on the forums about this table. I also think that the results over 130 should be more in line with Action Points so if you spent 4AP picking a lock but roll phenomenally then the result should leave you with some APs remaining. The table results of 110 or 120 etc do not translate well into APs.

The Stats, Kin and Cultures of Against the Darkmaster

For this article, part of an ongoing series, we begin to examine Against the Darkmaster’s (VsD’s) Character Creation as detailed in its QuickStart rules.

VsD uses the six Stats associated with Middle-Earth Role Playing (six Stats, that is, as long as we ignore the always-fun Appearance) and most d20 systems. Honestly, I prefer this to the ten associated with Rolemaster. I recognize the RM impulse towards specificity, but, when gamers find themselves with the trouble of applying multiple Stats towards individual Skill bonuses, then you know you have more tools than you need. VsD’s Stats depart from Rolemaster in another way: they are not rolled (so it’s a “point-buy” system), and they are not percentages. Players are given bonuses totaling 50, to be divided among the six Stats VsD terms Brawn, Swiftness, Fortitude, Wits, Wisdom and Bearing. The points must be divided into increments of 5. No starting value may be lower than 0 or greater than 25.

I think getting right to the bonuses makes a lot of sense.* What is lost is the mini-game, the random rolls that can represent the fickle nature of genetic influence and predisposition. But player freedom to rearrange these rolls moderates this simulation, anyway, and many gamers (as suggested above) might prefer a point-buy system. Something else that is potentially lost is a GM tool: I haven’t known anyone to do this, but the percentile stats can function as a neat assessment of how likely a character is to succeed at a test using the raw attribute alone. The only true mechanical process perhaps problematically missing, now, is a convenient measure of when, actually, a character should die through loss of hit points. The QS places this at a standard -50 Fortitude, which I don’t feel recognizes the variation that should result from characters with more or less Fortitude.** Of course, the GM can adjust the point of death up or down this measure, depending on a character’s Fortitude score, so problem solved!

Another possible problem for the RM gamer who (for whatever reason) is running VsD and not RM are the absence of Stat potentials, but again this is a problem that can be solved through the players making rolls either on a pre-existing table or one of the GM’s own devising to see if a character might qualify for a Stat increase at character creation or later (which in this case would be a straight bonus, probably—unless the gamer was getting really creative!—in an increment of 5).

Next the player chooses his or her Kin, and this decision, unsurprisingly, might alter the value of some of the Stats and now might result in some of them dipping below 0 or breaking 25. I already have said, in previous correspondence, that my familiarity with Rolemaster ends with its second edition, but I see consonance between at least some of the ideas in the latest iteration of RM still in playtest and VsD. Nevertheless, I will confine the following observations to VsD alone.

The player’s chosen Kin provides, in addition to Stat alterations, starting figures for Hit Points, the Max Hit Points the Kin is allowed, bonus Magic Points (if any—and Magic Points are RM Power Points), bonuses to Toughness Save Rolls and Willpower Save Rolls, available Background Points and starting Wealth. These last two values will be discussed with some detail in later articles. The starting HP values based on Kin range from 20 (Halflings and some Elves) to 75 (Dark Troll). A Man starts with 30. RM gamers might recognize that VsD uses just two types of Save Rolls (known in RM as Resistance Rolls). In addition to these modifications, various Kin enjoy certain abilities and/or bonuses to specific Skills and/or Saves. No surprises here.

Paired with every character’s Kin is a Culture. Again the latest, nascent RM might come to mind. Though many Kin have Cultures recommended—such as the ever-classic Dwarf from a Deep culture—the player, in most cases and without GM interference—is free to select the character’s Culture. This Culture serves in three ways: it provides “free Ranks” in certain Skills much in the manner of MERP’s Adolescence Skill Table; it provides a menu of “starting gear” from which the player selects; and it potentially increases the character’s starting Wealth score (the greater detail of which I’m still saving for later). Any Ranks given for Spell Lores have to be spent in Lores (RM Lists) specific to the Culture. The only Cultures listed with Ranks in Spell Lores are Fey and Noble.

Although the QS contains a chart giving Stat modifications for fourteen Kins and Skill Ranks and Wealth and Outfit Tables for thirteen Cultures, it provides deeper explanatory text for merely five Kins and six Cultures. This indicates the fractal nature of the playtest and suggests either that gamers are expected to experiment, at this time, with only these options or that these choices are the most common or the most likely to appeal to players.

There are two more aspects regarding Kins that I’m tempted to ignore completely. In fact, in my games so far, I have ignored them. But to give a fair read-through of the VsD experience as it is intended, I’ll wrestle with them here. In the QS, the deeper descriptions of the five Kins contain guides for character Passions and Worldview. Both of these features are tied to mechanics to be discussed later, but, at this time, something can be said about their problematic natures. Here is the QS:

Each Culture description will also include some of the beliefs, opinions and prejudices commonly held by members of that Culture, as well as some suggestions on how they could influence a character’s Passions. Obviously, these guidelines are only general assumptions made to help players bring their characters to life, and are in no way prescriptive. Players are free to interpret their characters as they wish, either playing along with these concepts or creating an atypical member of their character’s Culture.

p. 14

Okay, so these are stereotypes or archetypes, and the gamer can play to these if she or he wishes or… not. I’m going to try not to dismiss these out of hand. I know that not all gamers are creative enough to come up with even a modicum of a character background, and something—anything—to work with can be of value. So let’s see what the first Culture, Deep, has to offer here:

A player wishing to underline their character’s Culture could write a Motivation about protecting their home or clan from the forces of the Darkmaster. Alternatively, they could link their Nature to a code of honor, or maybe to their character’s lust for gold and precious stones. Finally, they could write about their unlikely or unstable Allegiance with one of their companions from another Culture.

p. 15

I recognize two things here. First, the three specifics Motivation, Nature and Allegiance appear, which demonstrate how difficult it is to discretely and systematically present a rpg rules system which is, because of its nature, interconnected. These three aspects of character creation, tied to a mechanic, come up later in the QS and therefore later in this series. Second, it’s not clear why these descriptions are specific to a Deep Culture. These features might describe anyone, anywhere. This remains helpful for the player who is devoid of ideas… sort of. But so might the descriptions of any other Culture. In fact, I’m guessing that the descriptions of all of the Cultures might be interchangeable.

What might be more useful for the gamer short on imagination are tables providing one hundred possibilities for each of these three features. But perhaps something even larger is going on here.

VsD does not intend to have an official setting. I think this is fine, probably my preference. But it therefore becomes difficult, not knowing what any particular game world might look and feel like, to design mechanics dependent on setting. Much might be assumed about the generic high fantasy milieu, but, as I believe I have demonstrated here, such generalizations might apply to anything. It is preferable, perhaps, to direct these discussions towards individual GMs, even better, as is my first inclination, to provide random Motivation, Nature and Allegiance tables to inspire collaboration between the GM and his or her players.

Our characters aren’t done yet! We still have to develop Vocations and Backgrounds. We also have to return to Passions. But we’ll cover these next time.

*This article is going to assume a shared knowledge concerning the major features of the Rolemaster game system.

**Elsewhere in the QuickStart, in a description of the “Body” Skill, the designers state, “If the Body value is reduced to 0, the character dies instantly.” This, to me, is evidence of how this work is a “living document.”

Inspiration and Sources for Against the Darkmaster

This is the first in a series closely modeled after Peter R’s read-throughs of such games as Zweihander (sorry for the missing umlaut, all) and HARP. I’ve recently adopted the playtest of Against the Darkmaster (abbreviated as VsD) for my tabletop home game, and I’m also running VsD via play-by-post for a few folks on the official VsD Discord server. I have a number of thoughts about the system—at least the system as it is portrayed in the QuickStart—and I’ve been sharing these with the designers and now you, the readers of this blog, if you care to receive them.

I feel that it’s appropriate to establish my relationship with VsD. My first rpg was Middle-Earth Role Playing. I believe I was twelve years old at the time, so the game must have been just published. Later, I discovered other games, notably Champions and West End Games’s Star Wars, but I never got into D&D until years later when 3e was released and a local group needed someone to DM for them. Last year, nostalgic, I began a MERP campaign. I quickly “evolved” it to RM2, then, dissatisfied with some of RM’s mechanics, I “devolved” it to Original D&D. Naturally, I was interested in what the designers of VsD had done with the game for which they likewise had fond feelings.

When I talk about games, I prefer to differentiate “emulationist” from “simulationist.” In my definitions, an emulationist game seeks to imitate a very specific intellectual property or (sub)genre. A simulationist game seeks to be “realistic.” Now, I understand that games that I consider simulationist—and this includes Rolemaster—often contain magic and the supernatural, but I argue that, even while exhibiting those unreal elements, such rules seek to mechanize the content according to the “laws” of actual physics as best as we can understand them. This is not to argue that these systems can’t (in my definition) be used to emulate specific genres and properties, but this is not the purpose for which they have been created, and, in such situations, for a certain play experience the GM must be relied on entirely. With emulationist designs, in contrast, the intended experience is built into the rules (though a GM always could mess this up).

I don’t believe VsD seeks to “compete” with any other d100 system. Instead, I think VsD hopes to rewrite MERP to emulate a very specific experience, and the milieu for this interaction is epic, “heartbreaker” high fantasy. In the introduction to the QuickStart, the designers cite novels, movies and music as their inspirations.

I am most familiar with the novels, though I have puzzled over a hierarchy that the designers seem to be suggesting: VsD “draws its main inspiration from the classic works of the masters of the genre, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ursula K. Le Guin, passing through the two Terrys (Brooks and Goodkind) and their followers, Weis & Hickman, Jordan, and Williams.” This appears to rank Tolkien and Le Guin (though both are fantasists, to me they are qualitatively very different writers from each other) as the “masters.” The two “Terrys” appear to be grouped simply because of their names. Though I am told Brooks’s later books get better, his 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara is a very bad, almost note-for-note imitation of The Lord of the Rings. In contrast, Goodkind (I’m only familiar with Legend of the Seeker, a two-season television series based upon his work) crafts a truly unique secondary world. If Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan and Tad Williams are supposed to be followers of the Terrys (and not all of them together of Tolkien and Le Guin), then it’s puzzling that the Weis and Hickman and Williams publications predate Goodkind.

My confusion here almost certainly results from a simple error in phrasing. It’s no big deal (right now), and the point is understood. Possibly with the exception of Le Guin’s, all these works feature Iron Age Western and Northern lands of myth and magic in which a diverse group of usually-reluctant heroes band together on a long overland quest to defeat an Evil Dark Lord usually through the use of some legendary item. I don’t think it’s too much to say that there’s usually an even more specific element in these works: major characters around which an adventuring party soon forms begin their journey innocent and naive in a secluded pastoral community, usually in the West of the land. Into this intrudes an Evil Force that is seeking these very characters. During the course of the heroes’ quest, armies will be mobilized against the forces of the Evil One, and the principal characters either will be involved in the military campaign or in the final mission to find/destroy/use the relic of power that actually can defeat the Dark Lord.

That’s it. That should be the VsD experience, not just because the GM sets such a course but because the rules impel it. I will say right now that I’m not entirely convinced that VsD, at this point in the playtest, achieves specifically the form that I have described. In some aspects it greatly delivers. To preview some later articles for this series, it provides Encounter recommendations for overland travel that are highly evocative of this genre. It has rules for PCs to find Safe Havens (not in the QuickStart but detailed in the blog) that are likewise emulationist. It’s certain that the degree of correspondence should not be judged by the QuickStart alone: the texts and tables provide many evidences that the QuickStart is a living document and a fractal portion of all that the designers have written. But the developers have told me that (right now) mass combat is outside their designs. I understand. The final product is expected to be over 300 pages already, and, really, it won’t hurt to reserve some aspects for “support” purposes. But my point remains: in these sources there always is some space for a great big war.

I have had my say and completed my introduction, but still there are two more inspirations forming VsD. And, looking at them now, I’m realizing I might have had the wrong idea about VsD’s object of emulation. VsD is inspired by the “great fantasy movies” of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I’m not sure there were any “great” ones. They were all we had, so we made the most of them. If we still like them (and I do), it’s because they are a part of us now. The writers term some of these films “sword and sorcery”, and if this subgenre also is an inspiration, then some of the design choices seem at odds. Most likely the authors aren’t using these terms with the same specificity with which I understand them, so I’ll depart from this observation for now.

I’ll have to do the same for the final inspiration: metal music. Specifically, VsD combat is inspired by metal. I didn’t have any older siblings to introduce me to roleplaying or music. Roleplaying I managed to find all alone, but music didn’t mean anything to me until 1991 when the American Top 40 began playing tracks from U2’s Achtung Baby, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and R.E.M.’s Out of Time. I’m afraid I won’t be able to comment on how bands like Malmsteen, Dio and Black Sabbath inform VsD combat.

Well, that was more than anyone wanted! Next we’ll get into the rules themselves, and I’ll be keeping my mind on how well they emulate the fictions. First up, Character Creation, and I’ll probably have to tackle it in a few parts.

A Murder of Crows

This will be a starting adventure for characters of 1st to 5th level*. The basic premise will be that the party will be travelling in the wilderness. This is not a particularly strong raison d’etre but it does mean that this also could serve as a drop in side quest to another adventure.

The main monster in this adventure will be Gorcrows. Gorcrows, if you are not familiar with them are 1st level, 20hits and AT1 but they have a 55DB. Their attacks are pretty feeble 10 SPi/10 SCl/30 MCl (3). When on the ground their DB is halved and they cannot use their claw attack. The number encountered is 5-50, so we get pretty big flocks of Gorcrows to play with. This is another monster that exists in C&T, C&M and CrL so it is safe to use. What I like about them is that they are both easily imagined and are both monstrous and menacing with their 8′ wingspan.

So the opening scene has the characters travelling when they will see the flock of birds circling, vulture-like, up ahead and diving down at something out of sight on the ground. Whether they choose to hasten and investigate or not as the site in actually on their path they will come across the location anyway.

When the characters reach the site of activity the Gorcrows will still be in a feeding frenzy.

Encounter: I would suggest three Gorcrows per PC but every gorcrow that is wounded will flee. They are feeding only because this is free food. If the Gorcrows have the initiative then they will fight launching into the air to use their superior speed and claw attacks.

Once the flock has fled they will stream away to the south. The sheer number of them should be exaggerated by having them circle the site a couple of times first and describing them as blocking out the sun before streaming south.

Their victims were, past tense, two riding horses and one older gentleman. He was wearing workman style clothes. He is dead and dreadfully mutilated by the flock. There are two horses. The first appears to have been his mount, a great heavy horse better suited to pulling a cart than riding. This animal had no proper saddle just a horse blanket and a rope halter.

The second horse was a smaller and finer animal with proper saddle. What remains shows that its mane was platted and bloodied shreds of ribbon can still be seen.

The only bodies here are the two mounts and the one body.

The characters may use skills such as tracking to learn a bit more of what occured here.

Depending on the success of their skill rolls you may reveal certain facts.

  • There are shreds of blue silk caught on some of the undergrowth beside the road. This is not of the same shade as the ribbon on the horse.
  • There is a crushed area of vegetation near the body of the riding horse where it seems the rider may have fell.
  • There are tracks approaching this site from both left and right off the road.
  • Most of the tracks that can be seen were human and barefoot.
  • One person worn small shoes or boots with a narrow heel.
  • The only tracks leaving the site were the barefoot humans.
  • An exceptional tracking roll may reveal that some of the barefoot humans were heavily laden.
  • A bloody and trampled ladies handkerchief is under the body of the riding horse. It is embroidered with the name Katiya in blue thread.

The fleeing flock of Gorcrows will give the characters a pretty easy sense of direction to follow at first. They should be able to follow the general direction.

As night falls then to the south a beacon or bonfire lights the horizon.

I would like to be elastic with distances here. If the characters are on foot then they are probably only going to manage 2mph on foot and cross country, on horses they would be a little faster. Either way I would suggest the characters arrive at night fall. This gives the characters the advantage that skill tests for stalking and hiding are going to be easier in poor light.

The trail leads the characters to a lonely tower. The roof of the tower aflame with a beacon making it visible for miles in every direction.

The map below is one of Dyson Logo’s maps. I have the commercial rights to use these so I can use these in the published form of this adventure. The only difference will be that the one I publish will have a grid for dimensions on it.

Once the characters are close enough they will hear a mix of god like howls, human shouts and cries, apparently of joy. There is also a great deal of rhythmic drumming.

Inside the drumming is coming from the residents beating on wooden tables and slamming chairs against the floors. There are no actual drums.

The floor is flag stone but driven into the joints between flags are wooden stakes and tied to the stakes is a young woman in a tattered blue silk dress.

Dancing around her are naked humanoids with jackal heads and just two clawed fingers per hand. There are as many creatures here as there are characters in the party.

These creatures are Hothrog, 7′ tall man demons. C&T pg 97/81, C&M pg and CrL pg 611.

In total there are twice as many of these demons as there are characters in total. Each is 2nd level. 60hits, AT11 and 15DB. So these creatures are hitable. The danger is that they are vicious fighters with 50OB with claws and two attacks per round or a 50OB Bash with a 100OB followup bite if they get a critical with the bash.

The half of these demons that are not dancing around the prostrated woman are on the first and second floors. On the first floor the second chamber houses a huge cauldron and a pair of Hothrog are stoking fires and pouring in buckets of water. This is Katiya’s destiny if she isn’t rescued.

The remaining Hothrog are on the third floor feeding the flock of Gorcrows. There is an evil symbiotic relationship going on between the Gorcrows and the demons. The Gorcrows are their scouts and in return the Hothrog, who kill simply for pleasure provide food. Once the Gorcrows are roosting the beacon is lit and this keeps the flock in the tower over night as they are afraid of the fire so will not fly out past it.

So the ground floor holds the most Hothrog and the woman, the middle floor has just two Hothrog and the third floor has the remaining Hothrog and all the Gorcrows that were not killed earlier. The top floor is open to the elements but contains the beacon fire but no living foes.

The challenge is how the characters will attempt to rescue the girl.

Katiya: is a healer of 5th level. She learned her trade providing healing for her local community. The man with her was her father. When they were attacked they were rushing to a nearby village that had been attacked by the Gorcrows. This was a precursor to the village being attacked by the Hothrog.

If she can be rescued she will of course help any injured characters. If any Hothrog survive then there will be a follow up attack on the village with Gorcrows acting as a vanguard and then the surviving Hothrog attacking the village once the villagers are in disarray. The characters can save the village if they can get to it first and warn them of the nearby danger. When the attack comes it will be during the day and if the village is unprepared then the first people killed will be villagers working out in the fields, your shepherds and outlying farmers. The tell tale circling of the crows should serve as a harbinger of the approaching danger.

At the end of the adventure Katiya will want to stay with the villagers to help them recover and eventually return to her own cottage where she lived with her father. So is not intended to join the party as an NPC healer.

So that is my latest ‘cliched’ adventure “Characters wander around and for no reason get attacked by monsters who have holed up on a tower.”

*I used to think 1st to 5th level as designating adventures for not only new characters but also characters that had had a few adventures. It took a lot of exp to get to 5th level. Now of course we have no idea what level people are starting at.

Zweihänder Read Through – Trappings & Combat

Trappings is Zweihänder parlance for equipment. The default non-setting of Zweihänder uses three base coins, each of which reflects a social strata, brass pennies are used by the poorest peasants in society, the low born, including my PC. Silver Schillings are the currency of commerce and the marchant classes and then gold crowns at the top of the economic tree.

This chapter covers four aspects. The first is actually buying stuff and prices. The second is how skills interact with these prices such as haggling for a better price. The third is the game mechanics and how items, particularly weapons interact with the game mechanics. This is a list of ‘qualities’ that equipment may possess and the effect of each quality. Fast is a quality and a weapon with the Fast quality confers a -10% to a foes chance to dodge, Slow is the opposite quality and confers a +10% bonus to dodge and parry. There are dozens of qualities from Adaptable (weapons that can be used one or two handed) to Weak (weapons whose damaged is capped).

Damage from weapons is described as Moderate, Serious or Grievous Injuries.

The final part of this chapter combines the previous parts into detailed textual and mechanical descriptions of all the weapons and equipment.

My character posesses a Mortuary Sword. This is what I now know about it.

MORTUARY SWORD: The most common weapon for explorers, it is useful and evokes little fuss. Not surprisingly, it tends to cleave violently – thus its namesake.

WEAPON: Mortuary sword
HANDLING: One-handed
TYPE: Bladed

The Vicious quality has this definition:

VICIOUS: Weapons of this Quality grant an additional 1D6 Chaos Die to determine whether you inflict an Injury upon a foe.

We will come back to the Chaos Die.

The overall impression of the trappings chapter is that it is really well designed. It covered a variety of skills such as those for trading but also for repairing damaged equipment. Everything related to gear from superior materials to things that explode to haggling is all covered in one chapter. I cannot help but feel that in RM we would be flipping from chapter to chapter or from Character Law for the prices and then C&T for superior materials and so on.

Chapter 9 Combat

The first thing that stands out in the combat rules is the initiative system. Every character has an Initiative parameter on their character sheet that is derived from their agility and their encumbrance. This is added to a d10 roll and that is their initiative for the entire combat. Nothing exciting there.

Ever character, NPC, foe and event is then added to an Initiative ladder. Events that are not known to the the PCs are marked on the ladder as coded marks. This ladder is open for all to see.

Examples of these unknown events may be when a bomb is due to explode or when a hidden assassin has rolled their initiative.

I am not convinced by this system. It seems to me that the players will have some sort of a priori knowledge if they can see that there will be events that happen before or after their move. So far I have not had an opportunity to run a combat with multiple players to see how they react to this open initiative ladder system.

My other worry about this system is that with my players we do not sit around a table, we are scattered around a living room on sofas. No one is going to see this initiative ladder or it will be a massive disturbance to the flow of play as it gets passed from person to person and inevitably the players worry about a special marks at initiative points 4,5,6 & 7.

So let me put initiative to one side.

When it is your turn you get three Action Points to spend. You may hold APs to later in the same turn (what we call a round Zwei calls a turn and they are 10 seconds long).

There is a pretty good table of available actions and their AP costs. Movement costs AP, walking costs 1, spending a turn running costs all three and a charge costs 2 but that does not include the attack at the end of the charge. Called shots cost 2AP.

Attacks cost 1 AP each except magical attacks that are just listed as VARIES.

There is a menu of special moves like throwing/kicking sand in your opponents eyes to blind them or attempting to stun them. Being stunned robs them of 1AP.

Zwei uses zones of control although it does not use that phrase. Anyone leaving an engagement gives their opponents a chance to perform an opportunity attack against them.

So after the description of Initiative and then the list of AP actions there is a description and example of every available combat action. I found this bit quite interesting:

In ZWEIHÄNDER, combat swings are abstracted to a great degree. Rolling to strike and dealing Damage has been carefully balanced, designed to be swift and merciless. Because of this, multiple attack rolls on the same Turn are not a consideration of the system. However, some Professions and Traits may allow you to take advantage of two weapon fighting in different ways.

So Zwei is a flurry of blows system.


There is no self respecting RM player that doesn’t want to know how to parry. Parry in Zwei takes place after you have been hit but before they roll damage. You make a skill roll and on success you take no damage. Parry is a 1AP action.

The basic combat procedure is Roll your attack, defender defends and then you roll any damage. The defender has a choice of actions such as dodge and parry as you saw above and a few others.


I had to read the wounds section twice to make sure I was not imagining things! Right at the top of the combat chapter the rules say that Zwei does not use hit points but in the weapon descriptions there was talk of rolling additional dice of damage, called the fury die. I was curious as to how this was going to be reconciled.

What I just read was basically like someone had lifted the entire character damage section out of 7th Sea. Believe me when I say 7th Sea is about as far away from Zwei as you can get.

So here is the basic mechanic. Your combat bonus (one of every characters basic stats) is the basic damage you do plus you roll 1d6 for the Fury die. That is the additional damage. The fury die ‘explodes’ or is open ended. So if you roll a 6 then you roll again and add the new roll to that six. The fury die can keep on exploding if you keep on rolling 6s. So the total damage is you CB value plus the total rolled from the Fury die/dice.

This total value is then converted into levels of damage by taking into a characters damage threshold which is made up of one of their stats plus armour.

So if the total damage is less than the damage threshold then no damage is taken. If you get over the damage threshold then that is one level, if you get 6 over the threshold then that is two levels, 12 is three levels. Any attack that does 3 levels is an instant kill.

So now we have turned points of damage into levels.

The levels push a character along a damage track. The track goes:

  1. Unharmed
  2. Lightly Wounded
  3. Moderately Wounded
  4. Seriously Wounded
  5. Grievously Wounded
  6. Slain!

So if you take two levels in the first round you are lightly wounded. If you take a further two levels the following round then you would seriously wounded. Another two levels and you would be slain.

At certain points you have to roll from 1d6 to 3d6 and try and avoid getting any 6s. Sixes are bad and equate to actual injuries. One of the effects of injuries is bleeding and it is as bad or worse than the bleeding we have in RM.

So the net effect seems to be that if you are being hit then you will die. I haven’t run a combat yet so I haven’t tried it out but it really looks like parrying is really important to avoid being hurt in the first place and then if you are losing then get out of there!

So that is a brief summary of combat.

We are now on page 256 of 692. That is chapter 8 done. Next time it is hazards & healing and more excitingly we get our first look at magic in the Grimoire.

Current “lay of the land” for d100 systems.


Due to time constraints I don’t have the luxury to explore new or emerging game engines, systems or settings so I have to count on Peter’s blog posts to find out more about other d100 products. Peter is assessing Zweihander and Gabe just mentioned “Against the Darkmaster” in a blog comment.

I vaguely remember reading about vsDarkmaster but was quite surprised when I checked it out–the cover art, logo style and basic system seems very much like Rolemaster. In fact they frequently use *master to reference RM. Is this a blatant copy of RM but better adapted to a MERP setting?

Since my writing time might be better spent writing adventures for newer, growing game systems I thought I would explore these game systems further…but.. I have no time. Instead I thought I would shout out to the gamer community here on RMBlog. Which d100 games are worth checking out? Do they have a setting or good game modules? How close are they to RM? Any and all information is appreciated!

Innovation Incubator: New Rule Ideas for Rolemaster or d100 game systems.

Ok, I’m going to dip my toe back into rules! Rather than me present my ideas I thought I would call upon the readers and writers to offer up suggestions on new rules. Today I want to solicit ideas for four rules that have undergone several revisions, companions, house-ruled and now addressed in RMU. I’m looking for simple, elegant ideas that fit into the current engine and make sense. RMU introduces various combat expertises that allow that skill bonus to offset a combat style’s penalty. AT first I loved the idea but now I’m really not a fan. RMU does have some good solutions for other issues…. Anyway, looking for novel approaches–explain why it works but identify any failings as well. Let’s begin:

  1. Two Weapon Combo. The mere fact that 2WC allows a player 2 attacks makes it a compelling option. RM offered 2WC as a skill equal to the combined skill cost acquisition, provided for a “off-hand” penalty but there are still many complication. Can a Dual Wield attack 2 different opponents? If so, what is the penalty? How far apart can the targets be? How does parry get allocated? Does the wielder develop one weapon in the main hand, and the other in the off hand, but must use the 2 only in combination? Can the wielder use just a single weapon with the normal bonus? Should weapon and shield fall under the same rules as Dual Wield?
  2. Mounted Combat. So RM kept this simple: your riding skill bonus acted as a percentage applied to your weapon skill bonus. That’s not a bad solution really, but doesn’t take into account some weapons relative ineffectiveness when used mounted. Another option is to have the weapon skill specify that it’s specific to mounted combat–but that doesn’t take into account a player taking “mounted combat-weapon” and not taking any riding skill whatsoever.
  3. Weapon Kata. I won’t even get into the optional rules in RM1/2. The real question is weapon kata really a thing? Is a martial artist using a spear any different than a fighter using a spear? Should a MA with striking ranks be allowed to do additional damage when wielding a kata weapon that is 2 handed? RMU deals with this by allowing different attacks with different weapons…spear & fist in this example. Not bad but it’s not a martial art weapon kata–more a universal solution for multiple attacks.
  4. Shield. Now that Shield is a viable attack option should it be treated as a second weapon? Should it be a stand alone skill that can be combined with any weapon is the other hand or should it be trained specifically with another question. Should you still get the shield bonus if you attack with the shield? Personally, I think RMU mostly nailed this, but I’m still thinking it needs to be tightened up.

As continues to publish adventures we are going to develop a short-hand lingo for versatile stat blocks and character attributes. Even though game rules are not protected IP, I have my own S.W.A.R.M. ruleset, Peter has developed a great reductionist stat block and all of us are working on a “Universal” language that is easily adapted to d100. I’m interested how our work will connect with Zeihander and other competing works. A simple solution for these would be great when utilizing other d100 rule sets. These aren’t obscure or niche issues: dual wield, mounted combat, shield use and even martial arts weapons are really core abilities in fantasy lexicons.

There may already be a good solution in all the various rules iteration. RMU may already have solved it to your satisfaction. However, if you have a novel idea, or just a glimpse of one that you haven’t worked out yet, please comment.

Sneak Peek

For some time now I’ve been rambling on about my modern game stuff (to the great annoyance of many, I’m sure…). Well, I thought it might be time to give people a sneak peak at some of its bits. Not much, mind. Part of an attack table, a bit of background, and one Profession with skill costs. They’re working drafts, so the formatting is a bit ‘off’ in spots and they aren’t pretty by any means. But it will give you an idea of where this is going.


Below is a link to the AT1 column of the Pistol Attack Table for my system. Note that it’s got two lines of division: overall weapon Mark and specific calibers. Since my system allows you to determine maximum damage based on actual numbers (bullet weight and muzzle energy), some calibers are capped at that point. This does two things: shows why it’s popular to “move up” in caliber and why small caliber weapons do maximum damage more frequently. With a lower max damage, recoil penalties (modifiers to hit) don’t hurt as much.

Attack Table


The next bit is a sample piece of one of the elements of my character generation system. This bit represents a generic college eduction OR four years of work experience. This is the third part of four in my character generation cycle when it comes to skills. The first two (Culture, Background – which is optional) come before this and the last piece (Entry Training) comes after. The end result is a first level character who’s MUCH more capable than normal for RM. The numbers here are skill ranks, not DPs or anything else.



Or more to the point – how much skills cost. This is the skill cost matrix for one Profession in my espionage genre system (which is the core product). You’ll see the biggest change is assignable skill costs. Any Category that has more than three sub-skills is broken up like Combat Training. Players may assign the lowest cost to whatever skill they wish, then the next cost, and so on. The last cost goes to any remaining skills in the Category. GMs may also set some of these costs, creating an agency that prioritizes (say) Rifle training for their Direct Action operatives. That puts the lowest skill cost in Rifle. It’s a flexible, yet standardized system.



Why put this out there? I’m doing it to show how the Rolemaster engine can be used in different genres. It’s also helpful to illustrate some of the things I run on about here and on the RM message board, especially when it comes to character generation and skill costs as they relate to Categories. I firmly believe you can retain elements of individual skill costs this way, and it keeps every character from looking more or less the same. Some of the reductions are small, but at lower levels that’s a big deal.