Weekend Musings 9-12-2021

Greeting to the Rolemasterblog, it’s participants and readers! As you can see, our blogging activity has really dropped off over the last few months. It felt like we had some energy and spring in our step earlier this year, but speaking for myself, the return of the COVID really has had a demoralizing effect on my time management and creativity. I hope everyone that reads this is doing well and have not suffered any personal tragedies from this pandemic.

So while I have a number of blog posts started, I thought I would return to a weekend centric overview blog of some thoughts, notable news and other items that have come up.

  1. If you don’t read Grognardia and have an interest in the “Old School” movement, you should check it out. James recently posted a review of “The Iron Wind” that is worth reading. Certainly I have a very different view point of the IW based on my back ground, but outside views are very relevant!
  2. Roleplaying plots. Like many of you, my game ideas are often drawn from a variety of media sources. Recently, Amazon made available one of my favorite genre movies: “Brotherhood of the Wolf“. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it and would also suggest the original french version with subtitles. Visually striking, the movie is a period piece, historical fiction, martial arts film, costume drama, mystery with a touch of horror. But what makes the movie great, is how easily adapted it could be to a great role-playing adventure. Mysterious monster killing women and children? It’s got that. Secret societies and cults. Yes. Adventures called in to save the day. Of course. Throw in royal and political intrigue, a Paladin with his trusted companion native Scout, a spy/assassin and lots of action and…well, just check it out!
Chainmail!

3. The image above is a 800 year old chain shirt found recently and in excellent condition! More on the story can be found HERE.

4. The authors of the Dragonlance series are creating a new world setting using the D&D “open source System Reference Document”. (Is this like OGL? Someone chime in on this as I’m not up-to-date on the vagaries of IP use or D&D in general.) However, two things strike me. First, it’s interesting to see open source opportunities for gaming system in general, and still frustrating that we haven’t found a working solution for RM besides “d100”. Second, the setting consists of “dragons and flying airships”. Look, I’m not suggesting that Shadow World isn’t derivative or there hasn’t been flying ships or dragons elsewhere, but if you had to describe Shadow World one way would be to “dragons and flying ships”. So while the SW setting has been described using phrases like: “derivative”, “kitchen sink” or “standard fantasy tropes”, apparently those tropes must still be interesting to someone. I touched up this subject back in 2016 HERE.

5. Mathieu is teasing some of his art for RMU HERE.

My final thought is that this has been an exceptionally slow period for ICE, the Rolemaster Forums, this blog and other RM and Shadow World material and updates. Thinks seem to go with cycles, so hopefully we’ll see an uptick this fall and over the winter.

Getting Back To It.

Now that most everyone I know is vaccinated and the world is going back to normal I am able to restart my Shadow World campaign. This is less of a continuous adventure and more of a ongoing testing campaign, but my players expect, and I think welcome, random rule changes that occur almost every session (“Inter-office Rule Memos). In the past, that has meant having all of their spell lists replaced with new ones, losing skills that I deleted from my core rules, abrupt level changes and other pivots that they have learned to expect and provide feedback.

I have them running through Chapter 4 & 5 of Legends of Shadow World a few more times and then they are heading to the city of Nontataku to test out my new module. They have been to the city before, but just passed through on their way to Shade. It’s been a long time since they have done real urban adventuring and I’m looking forward to the change in environment and to stretch my DMing skills with more in-game social interactions and political intrigue. The Alliance is in town and making a play for the city!

A few years ago, I decided to focus more on blogging about content rather than rules, but I have 3 fairly major changes that I’m implementing and have been adopted in my SWARM rules. I’m going to see how it goes, and will probably blog more about them as things develop.

  1. Stats as Skills. I started working on this back in 2017, and had the players make stat checks on a few regular items: feats of strength, recall and correlation and poison/disease RRs. Over the subsequent couple of years, I’ve expanded the use of stats in the game and happy with the result. I’ve been reading some Grognardia blogs about the use of stats in D&D that coincides with some RM conversations about eliminating stats and just use bonuses. I am in the camp of increasing the use and utility of stats rather than eliminating them.
  2. Stat “Nerf”. There was some comments about the utility of low stats over on the D&D blogs: for example, a low intelligence may make the player immune to charm spells or ignore Illusions. I played around with some ideas for these types of benefits for all of the RM stats, but I admit I wasn’t completely satisfied with the results. However this led me to the conclusion that my player’s average stats in general are too high. Most have every stat above 75! So I’m trying something new: players are given 600 points to assign to the 10 stats. They still roll for Potential stats, but that’s starts them slightly above average and makes them think long and hard about stat levels. Given the increase use of the stat score for action checks and the added utility of historic “dump” skills like memory, the players really think about things. Even with a 30 or 40 stat score, they aren’t getting negative modifiers, but it does change the stat as skill roll outcomes.
  3. Magical Languages. For those that have followed the perpetually evolving Project BASiL know that I allow casters access to all of the spell “realms”. However, within some of the realms are different classes of spells: for example, Essence has Minor, Lesser and Greater “Paths”. This somewhat mimics the base list structure of RM and creates cost obstacles so players can’t learn the highest powered lists of each Realm without concerted DP allocation. To accentuate that further, I created qualifying skills, pre-requisites, that needed to be developed in tandem with the higher Paths. In the end I found this cumbersome and didn’t like to add skills that only had one purpose and no real in-game functionality. To simplify I decided to expand the magical language list and assign them to various spell lists. This had the added benefit of working well! In general, Essence lists now have a required magical language needed to cast the spells. Some lists can be cast with different languages, and some languages can add bonuses or other benefits to casting. Like rare spell lists, the casters are motivated to track down and learn other magical languages!

I’m looking forward to finalizing my Shadow World ruleset, but a part of me feels like the endless tinkering with the rule toolbox is a feature and not a distraction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 26. “Hirelings”.

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

Page 34. “Henchmen”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games: played or not played?

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

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

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

Game I played:

Ringworld (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

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

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

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

Game I didn’t play.

Twilight: 2000 and its amazing hook – Yore

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

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

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

What I’m reading.

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

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

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

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

What are you reading?

Low level combat in Rolemaster.

Building 1st Level Combat Encounters: SlyFlourish.com

There is a lot of discussion and criticism of the deadliness of Rolemaster’s combat system. Many times, these critiques are used in conjunction with arguments about the impotency of Level 1 characters. Unfortunately, this type of talk may turn people off from trying Rolemaster, the older versions or the upcoming RMu edition. The good news is that the deadliness of RM’s combat is probably overstated and outlier results can be easily addressed by good GMing, proper planning and some defensive strategies by the players.

For me, as a GM and player, low level adventuring is often the most rewarding. Level advancement feels like a real achievement, the stakes are high when survivability is uncertain and each new ability feels earned and appreciated.

I’ve heard descriptions that RM levels 1-5 are the frustrating “kill zone” range, 5-10th seem to be the normative gaming range, 11-15th are normal for longer run campaigns, and levels 15+ are much rarer. That’s probably as it should be, with general character ranges following a distribution curve of some form.

There is an older post from 2010 that covers some basic strategies for low level combat, and while much of it seem commonsensical, it bears review from time to time.

As a GM though, it’s relatively easy to design encounters that the group not only has a good chance of surviving, but can do so with some simple planning.

Encounter #. For me, this is the simplest approach to handling low level encounters. Having the group face a single foe has many advantages. First, it allows them to work cooperatively in a group and balance the various skills and abilities. Second, the focus of the group against one target improves upon their chance of success, and conversely reduces the random risk of a severe critical that kills a player. Rolemaster’s open-ended system is flexible, but the law of averages will create very high rolls and critical results. The more attack rolls a GM makes, the more likely an aberrant result. Having a dozen foes, even low powered ones, will make the odds of a high roll more likely.

Intel. Provide the PCs a chance to gather some intel or observation about the foe. Is there a mysterious animal attacking villagers in the night? Providing some clues about the creatures size, type of attack or similar details will allow them to plan for the encounter better.

Picking the battle map. RM allows for significant combat modifiers for terrain and cover. If the players can choose the terrain, they can tip the combat to their advantage and favor. Partial cover, bottlenecks or rear attacks against a single opponent give a group of low level characters more than a fighting chance.

Certainly, individual strategies like the use of shield, parrying and armor and weapon selection matter, but overall, it’s the GMs responsibility to provide balanced encounters, and the players responsibility to be prudent and strategic to survive! Rolemaster combat doesn’t have to be deadly, but rather dangerous and rewarding.

Summary of Miscellaneous Musings on Spell Law, BASiL and RM Magic.

53 Chaos' Magical Languages ideas | runes, book of shadows, ancient symbols

With RMu seemingly close to release, I’ve left my BASiL project on the back burner for quite some time. As I mentioned in previous posts, I’m focusing more on game content rather than rules or rule hacks. Rolemaster & Shadow World needs more game support, not more Companions or optional rules. Plus, I’ve found everyone is fairly set in their ways using their own house rules, are waiting for RMu, or I rapidly change my own house rules as I progress. In fact, my participation here on the Rolemasterblog has slowly shifted me to more “rule light” than my previous drift to rule density. I like grittiness but am pushing back on complexity.

Eladans participation here on the RMBlog and over at the Forums, has re-opened some of the broader discussions on spells, lists, base lists and spell functioning. I had some thoughts rolling around, so I thought I would excise them via a blog post! An older summary can be found HERE.

  1. Revisting Spell Law Mechanics.
  2. Essence. Mechanics. The skill bonus is the appropriate Magical Language Skill. You can read more thoughts on this HERE.
  3. Channeling. You can read some thoughts HERE, and I’ve written extensively on this blog about channeling.
  4. Mentalism. I probably tinker with Mentalism more than any other “realm”. Here are my last thoughts about this. There were some comments and concerns about the impact of concentration on gameplay. Lately, I’ve been allowing the total number of spell levels cast not to exceed the total ranks in Mental Focus. So 10 ranks of Mental Focus would allow the caster to have 10 1st level spells “running” or 2 5th lvl spells etc. It’s less complicated but still models the appeal of “partitioning” that comes from Mental Focus.
  5. Notational Magic. Eladan’s posts over on the Forums, made me revisit some of my thoughts on Notational magic. You can read my original post HERE.
  6. Investiture/Enchanting. I haven’t done a deep dive on my solutions for imbedding and creating magical items. Mostly because the spell lists are fairly simple, much of the sausage making takes place out of game time and I built a very simple system for making magic items in game time. Some thoughts can be found HERE.
  7. Rendered/Performance Magic. I haven’t written much about this at all. First I need to put a lot more time into this, it’s potentially the most complex and interesting realm and it could add a lot of new magical layers to the Spell Law system. The concept of magic as performance is not new or novel, but utilizing it in gameplay can be.

This is just a summary of a handful of relevant posts I’ve made over the last 5 years! My thoughts and views evolve, but I always enjoy other thinking “outside the box”!

Rolemaster game settings and Shadow World boxed sets.

ICE Shadow World 6100 Emer - The Great Continent | #129387579

The most recent post in Grognardia had me thinking about a number of issues around game settings, game material and the appeal of the old school box sets. The Grognardia blog was a review on a early 80’s Chaosium/Runequest box set: Borderlands. I admit that I have no experience with Runequest or this product, but the blog evoked fond memories of older game products we did use and enjoy.

First, I want to point out a quote that James is quoting in his blog (bold emphasis is mine):

Borderlands is another good example of what Chaosium did well: present a large area of Glorantha in an approachable fashion and never forgetting to make it gameable. That’s very important to me. However interesting and evocative a game’s setting may be, one must never lose sight of its purpose: to foster adventure in the game itself. Setting for setting’s sake seems to me to miss the point..”

As soon as I read this I immediately thought of Shadow World. There are lots of reviews on Shadow World products that can be found on the web, but two of the most persistent are it’s “Kitchen sink” nature and it feels so high level as to preclude useful adventuring. The first complaint I attribute to the non-canon SW modules; no matter their quality, they so varied in theme and tone that it gave SW a very generic feel. I challenge anyone to read Xa’ar or Emer material and argue that it’s a generic setting.

Beyond that though, I wonder if Shadow World is a better narrative product than a practical adventure material? As James asks:

“…a setting through adventures rather than through pages upon pages of background information, a “show, don’t tell” approach…”

Shadow World books are certainly great to read; the timeline alone is a significant piece of work product that is filled with depth and campaign ideas. But I’m reminded that many people’s favorite SW books are Quellbourne and Norek–both are foundational low level settings with generic fantasy concepts but are definitely not Terry’s writing style. So is Shadow World more inspirational than usable? Is it more cool than practical? I’m not speaking for myself; I write and use SW exclusively since I have so much time invested in the setting and not enough time to commit to other game systems or settings.

What about other settings? We used Rolemaster in some other settings:

Middle Earth. Like everyone else, we shifted from D&D to Rolemaster, but still wanted to play in Middle Earth. For us, it was mostly a campaign using The Court of Ardor, but I don’t recall ever getting to the higher level narrative. Thinking back though, I’m not sure much of the MERP books were playable in the way that James is discussing.

Midkemia Press. One of our favorites, and very reminiscent of Borderlands mentioned above and perhaps much of the early Judges Guild products were the Midkemia books. Of course a quick read of the first Midkemia novel Magician: Apprentice reveals it’s roots in a rpg game. This makes the associated game material so “useable”. We especially liked Jonril: Gateway to the Sunken Lands.

I try to be conscientious when writing SW material, and part of the process for me is adventure hooks. That’s why the Rolemasterblog 50 in 50 is such a good exercise; it forces me to continually come up with short adventure sparks that might not fill pages, but could end up using several game sessions and mutate into a significant narrative. I also want to maintain roots in those early game sessions that I played. SW may not be dungeon oriented, but my early gaming years were spent in the search of treasure!

I also wanted to comment on boxed sets. SW was launched with the original box set, but honestly, it felt a little underwhelming. Emer: the Great Continent was a vast improvement–especially the darket cult aspects and the addendum material. But, like Borderlands, box sets were a feature of early gaming.

Will there ever be a future for box sets in Shadow World or for I.C.E.? In the new world of digital media and print on demand, I doubt the economies work for such a product…but let’s use our imagination. I imagine 2 box sets, a final capstone on Terry’s work that completes the 2 main continents: Jaiman & Emer.

Box 1. Jaiman.

  1. Gazetteer Jaiman. Timeline, flora and fauna and politics and power overview.
  2. Jaiman Players Guide
  3. Jaiman I, the NW.
  4. Jaiman II, the NE.
  5. Jaiman III, the SE.
  6. Jaiman IV, the SW. .
  7. City Books. Lethys, Norek, Haalkitaine.
  8. Book of Adventures. Legacy of the Sea Drake and assorted adventures.
  9. Atlas Jaiman. maps and more maps.

Box 2. Emer.

  1. Gazetteer Emer. Timeline, flora and fauna and politics and power overview and more maps!
  2. Emer Players Guide
  3. Emer I
  4. Emer II
  5. Emer III
  6. Emer IV
  7. City Books. Eidolon + 2-3 others.
  8. Book of Adventures.
  9. Atlas Emer. maps, maps and more maps. GM maps, city maps, player maps, treasure maps. etc.

Looking that over, most of the work is already done and Terry probably has little incentive for one last re-write or re-org. But imagine a kickstarter campaign that funds this work and new artwork and lots and lots of maps. Would that be of interest to anyone? Plus it would cement both continents into final organized products with a TON of material for years of play. I can’t imagine Terry tackling another continent in a comprehensive way that took decades of work for Jaiman and Emer.

As stand alone books, there is well over $100+ in print products. As a kickstarter you could offer special maps, or similar incentives to tier pledges. What would you pay for that product? Finally, if you could group fund it and raise the capital, why not stat it for RMu. Tackle the whole thing once and for all.

In summation:

  1. What are your thoughts on the playability of SW material?
  2. Besides ME, have you used SW in other settings?
  3. Do you have a favorite box set from the Golden Age or something more recent?

Hirazi. Race or Monster?

Winged Folk | Ogre Battle Saga Wiki | Fandom

I recently wrote on my blog topic “Race or Monster” and discussed the Krylites in Shadow World. Like the blog previous to that on the Neng, I wanted to explore the suitability of non PC races for use as player characters. Given that racial stats are provided for virtually all humanoid creatures, it doesn’t seem a stretch, even if playing a “monster” creates in-game social issues.

This time around I wanted to discuss an actual Shadow World race that may be ill-suited for PCs: the Hirazi. Here is some data from the Atlas:

Hírazi:

  1. No professional limitations.
  2. Large, muscular humans, with wide shoulders to support their wing structures.
  3. Their bones are hollow, their lungs are huge, and their muscles have a
    unique structure which makes them very light.
  4. This race is rather fragile.
  5. Their fabulous wings are covered with plush white feathery hairs like those of a bird—vary in color from blue to white to gold, often a shimmering combination of the above.
  6. A Híraz may fly at up to 30 mph for short periods (1 min/con pt)
  7. They may acquire skill in gliding and travel for hours on thermals.
  8. An adult Híraz can carry up to about half his/her weight for short distances at half-speed

Having a winged humanoid is interesting, but not only could it be potentially unbalancing, but the player would be severely limited in a variety of environments. In fact, when you examine their flying ability, they have some short-comings there as well. So they don’t seem very good underground, underwater, in cities, in small confined spaces and can’t really fly fast or for very long….

I’ve never used Hirazi in my SW campaigns. Not as PCs, NPCs or even as window dressing. So what’s everyone’s opinion?