Initiative, the third leg of the RM combat stool.


When it was first introduced in Arms Law the fluid concept of splitting a weapon skill between offense and defense was very compelling. It helped that RM’s d100 system provided a larger result range than the competing d20 systems that allowed for any number of modifiers to be used within that basic framework: multi-attack, drawing weapon, parry rules, combat modifiers etc. Mostly it was just intuitive and the allocation between offense and defense added a layer of combat strategy within a simple die roll.

However on facet of combat has been the subject of repeated rule revision and discussion: an effective initiative system. These solutions generally involve 2 components: a roll (d10, d100 etc) modified by the characters Qu. Whichever system is used, the purpose is to determine who will act or attack first—an important consideration in a system that can result in decisive criticals.

If you haven’t seen our weapon specific modifier table posted on the RM Forums I would encourage you to do so. You can find the document link here:;topic=17102.0;attach=3660

RM/RMU generally sets combat modifiers at fixed rates regardless of the weapon size, speed or function. For instance, drawing a weapon is generally -20 whether you are drawing a dagger or a 2H sword. Attacking multiple foes incurs the same penalty per/target no matter if you are using a pole arm or unarmed combat. It seems like a system that models weapon efficacy with individual combat charts can better model other weapon characteristics. In fact, even the earliest RM had weapon stats for “speed” and “length/reach” but never an elegant solution for incorporating them into combat without clumsy or complicated rules.

Our initiative combat hack brings the initiative system into the offense/defense duality, includes weapon specific factors, eliminates the need for a beginning declaration phase and adds a component to combat initiative beyond “order of action”. A new tactical “triumvirate” of combat! How does it work? Let’s lay out the parts:

Initiative (Init) = (d100) + (allocated skill bonus) + (weapon speed mod) + (Qu mod)

The character rolls d100, can allocate part of their skill bonus to the roll and then adds weapon speed mod and Qu mod. It’s important to note that these are in order of importance—Qu will often be the least important modifier. The concept, like the allocation between offense and defense, means that the character can opt for a quick strike or offensive series over accuracy or even defense:  a “wild, rushed, flurry of attacks”. Obviously the character can opt to allocate none of their OB to Init.—like parrying, this adds a tactical layer to the combat without any “one-off” rules. Weapon Speeds can range from 0 to 75 and thus are the larger part of the initiative roll when historically Qu has been the predominant modifier. This adds complexity to player weapon selection beyond its ability to deal damage.

Initiative Results: Normally initiative is used only to determine order of attack/action. Under these rules the winner of initiative also sets the “combat sphere”: the area/range that is most effective for their weapon. For opponents using the same/similar weapons this won’t matter, but for weapons with different combat ranges this can have a significant impact. So while the initiative roll uses “weapon speed”, the combat sphere uses “weapon range”. As a simple example visualize two combatants; one has a halberd and the other a dagger. The halberd has a slow weapon speed and the dagger has a high weapon speed. They roll initiative and the halberd user opts to allocate a portion of their OB to the Init. roll knowing that the dagger wielding opponent will have a speed advantage.

Combat Sphere: The winner of the Init., sets the “Combat Sphere”: the effective melee distance based on the weapon reach. Basically there are 4 broad melee ranges: Hand (1-2’ unarmed, dagger etc), Short (2-4’ handaxe, short sword etc), Med. (5-7’broadsword, longsword, battle axe) or Long (8’ whip, polearm, 2H). Alternatively, you can use the Weapon Combat Modifier chart linked above and use the proximity penalties. A penalty of -20 per range category is applied to the combatant who loses the Init. Returning to the “Halberd” and the “Dagger” combatants: Halberd wins the Init and decides to attack with his full OB. Halberd is positioned for the attack at the optimal reach of the Halberd. Because Dagger lost Init. he is outside the effective range of the dagger and is at -60 (Hand to Long range -20×3). Dagger can allocate remaining OB (been reduced by 60) to parry. If Dagger doesn’t have any OB remaining he can’t allocate to parry but is allowed to attack modified by the negative OB.

Note that if the Init. results were reversed, Dagger would have moved in close to Halberd, effectively nullifying the long weapons attack advantages. In this case if Halberd survives the attack he could elect to drop the Halberd and draw a dagger, but OB would be furthered reduced by the weapon draw penalty on the Weapon Combat Modifier chart.

Parry Declaration: No parry declaration is needed at the beginning of the round: both combatants can allocate OB to the Init. roll and then the winner of the Init. can decide the OB/DB split and the loser of the Init can decide DB as a response to the winner’s attack.

Summary: Adding the “combat sphere” not only simulates weapon reach in combat but it increases the importance of Initiative beyond determining first strike. Including Initiative into the skill bonus allocation (with OB/DB) reinforces the importance of Initiative and builds in individual weapon speed. This process is easily inserted into version RM combat, adds strategic choices for the players without new “one-off” rules, models weapon advantages and disadvantages on more than just damage, simulates the factors between combatants with widely varying weapons/reach and adds a “visual” aspect to melee with combatant positioning.

RM Optional Rules: Alternate Skill Rank Bonuses & Aptitude Bonuses

I’m a bit off track with blog content but wanted to continue on the subject of skills that both Peter and I have discussed in the previous blog entries. All of these “rule snippets” are part of a larger “No profession” system that we use within the SW setting. While rules like “skill atrophy” can be used as a standalone option they are put of a broader rule ecosystem that allows for balanced character creation without the arbitrary limitations of the professions system. There are several other parts that might be worth exploring as options:

8.1  Skill Rank Bonuses

These rules use an alternate skill bonus progression. This progression follows a normal distribution curve where gains start low and then slowly increase per rank, peak and then slowly decline. This follows a more realistic learning curve, pushes the cost/benefit slope higher and avoids lower level players accumulating a handful of levels (leveraged by stat bonuses) to generate a broad range of skills with minimal investment. Note that we also use unlimited skill progression with stepped cost. So it is possible for a low lvl player to be a “prodigy” by dedicating all of their DP’s to a single skill and at the opportunity cost of all others.

# Ranks Bonus Total Bonus
0 -25 -25
1 1 1
2 2 3
3 3 6
4 4 10
5 5 15
6 6 21
7 7 28
8 8 36
9 9 45
10 10 55
11 9 64
12 8 72
13 7 79
14 6 85
12 5 90
16 4 94
17 3 97
18 2 99
19 1 100
20 1 101

+1/rank after 20th

7.1     Skill Aptitude Bonuses

Since we don’t use professions we don’t have traditional professional skill bonuses. Instead the players get “aptitude bonuses” they can place on any skills. Players can choose from 3 options to assign Skill Aptitude Bonuses. Each character gets a total of 6 points that can be used in ONE of the following choice

  1. +1/skill rank to each of 6 separate skills
  2. +1/skill rank to 3 separate skills AND a +2/skill rank to 1 separate skill
  3. +3/skill rank to 1 skill


RM Optional Rules: Skill Atrophy


While RM and it’s various iterations focus on obtaining and learning skills much less attention has been paid to the slow erosion of skills due to lack of use: “Skill Atrophy”. Many RM skills should require continuous practice to maintain that ability or sustain the peak level of performance. Taking a handful of ranks over a few levels and then ignoring the skill shouldn’t guarantee performance in perpetuity.  Skill atrophy also addresses several issues with the RM skill system:

  1. “Min/Max skill rank bonuses”. Many players will run a skill just up to the +5/+3 rank bonus inflection point. This gives them the most bang for the buck and when tied to stat bonuses can give them a solid bonus for most skill checks.
  2. Higher level skill bloat. Once most core skills are maxed out (skill rank +20), PC’s will turn to obtaining ancillary or non-core skills. While they may cost more DP’s, the +5 bonus gets them a better return than adding a + ½ to a fully developed skill. Thus higher level characters tend to homogenize into a jack of all trades.

Skill atrophy incrementally reduces skill ranks IF the character doesn’t take at least 1 new skill rank in that skill when they level up. So even high level characters with 20+ ranks in a skill and who gain very little in taking an additional rank will need to continue spending DP’s to maintain the skill.

Skills are assigned a skill atrophy percentage of 5%, 10%, 20%, or 25% that sets the amount of atrophy and the minimum threshold the skill can’t be reduced below. If, at level advancement, a current skill doesn’t gain a new rank than the skill atrophy modifier is applied. The result is always rounded down and the skill ranks can never be reduced below a level that the atrophy percentage is less than 1. So an atrophy mod of 5% means that the skill won’t reduce below 19 skill ranks while a 25% atrophy mod means the skill could slowly be reduced to 3. For example, a skill with 15 ranks and an atrophy level of 10% will lose 1 rank at each level advancement that the skill is not increased until 9th lvl, where it won’t atrophy any further.

Skill types and atrophy. In general learned knowledge (lore skills) have little or no atrophy while skills that require top physical performance or specialized training (athletics) will atrophy faster. While individual skills in categories may have differing atrophy rates, general suggestions are as follows:

Lore Skills: No atrophy or 5%.

Trade skills: 10%

Crafting: 10%

Social: No

Performance: 10%

Physical or athletic: 10% or 20%

Endurance: 20% or 25%

Combat skills: 10% or 20%

Mental skills: 20%

Magical Skills: 5% or 10%

Spells: No

Directed Spells: 10% or 20%

Special Skills: 5% or 10%

Option 1. Atrophy still applies but instead of requiring an additional skill rank, allow a character to expend 1 DP to “maintain” the skill IF they don’t take a new skill rank in that skill.

Using RM’s professions, skill atrophy reduces skill bloat at higher levels by requiring characters to continually invest in their critical skills. When using a “No Profession” system, this further enforces the need for characters to focus on core, “defining” skills that in effect creates professions without the need for arbitrary pre-defined classes.

RM Combat Hacks: Enhanced Riposte

Welcome to my 1st RM Combat Hacks post! While RMU is developing cool new combat expertise options, I thought I would introduce a few rule tweaks that we’ve used over the years. Our options don’t require adding new skills and can be used with every version of RM. I thought I’d start with a simple one that has worked well in years of playing.

Enhanced Ripostemelee7

While riposte was added as a secondary skill in RM2 the rules allowed for a combatant to Full Parry and still be allowed to make a +0 attack. Enhanced Riposte allows the combatant to Full Parry and make an attack, but if the attacker misses, the defender is allowed to make an attack with a bonus equal to the attackers result and the minimum number needed for a critical result. The attacker cannot use any allocated parrying DB against the Riposte.

Ex. Taor a 3rd lvl Bard is in combat with a 5th lvl Evil Paladin. Feeling that he is over-matched, he elects to Full Parry in the hopes that his friends will show up and save his bacon. He allocates all +28 of his OB to Full Parry along with his +10 DB. The Evil Paladin attacks with +75 Longsword. He rolls a 14 for a total of 89 less Taor’s 38 Parry/DB for a final result of 51. The Paladin needed an 87 to generate a crit result on Taor. Taor does take 4 pts of damage but can now make an attack at +36!

Note that if the Paladin had generated a critical result, Taor would still be able to make the normal +0 attack per the Full Parry rules.

As this example shows, it’s possible to generate a Riposte attack bonus HIGHER than the combatant’s actual OB. This reflects the mechanism of the riposte—drawing the attacker in and even taking slight damage to create an attack opening from an over-extended opponent. Obviously, a GM can limit the Riposte bonus to the combatants OB.

For lower level players this gives them an additional tool against a superior opponent and if the attacker rolls very poorly, could give the PC a considerable Riposte bonus.


New Topics and Blog Contributors Needed!

I’m a bit behind on posting up new blogs but I’ve come up with 4  basic titles/topics for my  upcoming contributions. So even with a continual stream of new ideas or inspiration I’m going to try and stay within my own topic guidelines! The four I’m focusing on:

  1. Shadow World Spin Cycle: Re-purposing other gaming material to fill in content in SW.
  2. RM Combat Hacks: Optional rules and ideas for adding additional depth to RM combat.
  3. SW Adventure Hooks: Adventure “hooks”, ideas and starting points for SW adventures using the SW Master Timeline and other threads “dangling” in Canon material.
  4.  SWARM. “Shadow World Alternate RoleMaster”. My own rule set for No Profession Character Law for use in the Shadow World setting.

With that in mind Peter is looking for new Blog writers & contributors. Do you want to write short posts on RM or RM related topics? Let Peter know!

Spin Cycle for Shadow World: CoA pt. 2

5The Citadel of Ardor.

What is it? A 9 level tower of black “marble” stone. Interior features with familiar SW elements including iron/steel/laen tracked doors, glowing glass panels. There is even a lower level cavern hall.

How and where to use it in Shadow World? The tower feels A LOT like the Loremaster’s Tower of the Winds with its High Council Chamber and the lower cavern could be the repository for the Master Orb. (MA p.72). But the elements, materials and craftsmanship certainly evoke LoE or 2nd Era style.

General Ideas:

A tower for a powerful Priest of the Unlife, a Mage or local Lord/ruler. If you need to drop in a powerful adversary, this layout may be perfect for their stronghold. The lower cavern works well as a room for summoning or ritual magic. Like the CoA plot, the PC’s can try and stop a dark ritual or sacrifice.

Empty fortress to explore. If you need a floorplan for an abandoned tower this could work well. The entrance gate may need to be open or the PC’s could access the lower hall via an Earthwarden tunnel or the Ash Lairs.

Lords of Essaence (LoE) facility. There hasn’t been many, if any, LoE towers detailed—most of their surviving structures have been underground. It’s certainly possible to attribute it to the LoE, but has subsequently been taken over another ruler, powerful individual or organization.

Earthwardens (EW). The stronghold seems too polished for the EW but the lower cavern could be built around a Foci and the tower could have been built over the site later in the Interregnum or 2nd Era.

Specific Ideas:

Some of these locations are only noted in the map keys without any other information. However, if the PC’s are exploring Emer than the Citadel may be great layout to quickly insert for the following:

  1. Tower of the Church of Zanar. Isle of Fire, Emer.
  2. Tower of the Spider Queen. Haestra I. Map A #1
  3. Red Moon Tower. Haestra I. Map A #4
  4. Tower of Kelstro. Haestra I. Map B #2
  5. Amethyst League Tower. Haestra I, Map C #3
  6. Blackforest Tower. Haestra I, Map C #17
  7. Xa’Chaak Mentalist School. Haestra I, Map C #19
  8. Tower of Silver Ice. Haestra I, Map C #20
  9. Tower of the Five Moons. Haestra I, Map D #3
  10. Earthwarden Ruins. Haestra I, Map D #8
  11. Tower of the Warlock. Haestra I, Map E #7
  12. Tower of the White Sorceror. Haestra I, Map F #3
  13. Vog Ien. Northern Falias
  14. Tower of Magic. Ebon City Govon.

If you have any ideas on re-purposing the Citadel of Ardor please add a comment! Stay tuned for Part 3!

Spin Cycle for Shadow World: Court of Ardor pt. 1

While there is always demand for new Shadow World material, even after ignoring all the non-canon material there is still an incredible amount of material for a lifetime of gaming! But gamers love new books and while Terry is working diligently on Emer IV and a slew of other projects I thought I would start a new blog series called “Spin Cycle for Shadow World”. In this series I’ll be suggesting old RPG material that can be re-purposed for Shadow World. An area map, a layout, or a fortress from other settings can be a convenient insert to fill in a campaign or flesh out current material. For the most part I’ll keep the suggestions for use in Jaiman and Emer, the two continents that are well represented by canon SW material.

So where to start? Obviously the first place to look is in other I.C.E. publications and we don’t have to look too hard! Luckily early MERP material is easily adapted to Shadow World; not only is it built on RM stats but the flavor and design aesthetic of Peter’s maps and Terry’s layouts were used in both the Loremaster modules and early MERP campaign modules. But even better, some of the coolest MERP products were authored by Terry himself. The first we’ll discuss, The Court of Ardor, shares the structural DNA of Shadow World and could almost be adopted whole and dropped into Kulthea with little effort.

I’m not a Tolkien expert, so I’m unclear on how much material in CoA was derived from his work, but most of the material seems to cover regions, politics and power not addressed in the LotR. It does feature Terry’s creative trademarks: a mysterious and powerful organization–check; cool magic items—check; powerful NPC’s—check; unique fortresses with great layouts—check. Great stuff and very familiar to Shadow World users. The Court and its members certainly has the glimmerings of the later Jerak Ahrenreth and the various “Suits” (Staves, Helms, Swords, Orbs) echoes the Eight Emerian Orders. The organization of “Darin Tesarath” is virtually identical to the Steel Rain and the Guild of Elements feels like a precursor to the Earthwardens.

While the organizations may be useful, the real benefit is the layouts of the Court’s 9 citadels and the city maps provided in the module. We’ll look at this in more detail in CoA pt. 2.

Shadow World Deux ex machina: Gods or Loremasters?

For a variety of reasons, many RPG GM’s have less time to design, develop and write original gaming material. Marathon gaming sessions with the same group in high school or college have given way to infrequent gatherings of old friends. The result: time-strapped GM’s have to rely even more on prepared materials and modules. Part of the magic of gaming is the immersive quality of the game setting—artifacts, creatures, cultures and locales all hint at a rich history and a broader world just beyond the players senses. But what happens when the PC’s stray off the modules defined, prepared course? Even a GM with their own extensive world will find themselves in uncharted territories; unprepared for a quirky player decision or random adventure tangent. Even worse are the groups that muddle about without any real direction and seem incapable of making a group decision to move the game forward!!

The original Character Law or Campaign Law alluded to avoiding “channeling players through a path deemed most desirable”, but for a GM with a narrow adventure path provided by a game module or a limited environment hastily sketched out prior to game play, keeping the players within those boundaries is paramount.

Good GM’s can subtly direct their players while maintaining the illusion of a pervasive world; bad GM’s put up roadblocks or punishments as a deterrent which can shatter the gaming experience. Luckily there are two convenient mechanisms in the Shadow World setting to help guide and direct the players while simultaneously connecting them with the larger world: Gods and the Loremasters. Both of these groups create a convenient way to introduce an “adventure hook” as well as a method to redirect a wayward party. Let’s discuss both.

Loremasters. Is there a more established trope than the “wise, mysterious and powerful” guide? Sure, Loremasters may seem a bit generic but they can be fully fleshed-out, flawed and even “in over their heads” NPC’s. However, as part of a larger organization they have real motivations and resources that can give direction and guidance to a party and keep them focused on the adventure goal. Many of the Loremasters described in the SW books are notable individuals, but the organization has younger members still in training that need field experience. It’s more likely that lower level PC’s would encounter one of these apprentice Loremasters. If and when the group grows in experience and power, so to would that younger Loremaster. As the game develops that Loremaster contact can help connect the PC’s to new plots, adventures and tasks; in spycraft terminology the PC’s become a “Field Asset” of the Loremaster! Because the guiding role of the Loremaster can become a heavy hand it’s important to bestow some vulnerabilities on the NPC: Loremasters shouldn’t all be omniscient and all powerful. It might even make sense to have the Loremaster played as a PC with direction, aid and counsel coming down from the Loremaster hierarchy. That provides the GM a more indirect guiding mechanism for the group. Certainly a PC Loremaster would have access to some proprietary information about the game world, but most players can easily download SW books, review the timeline or read the SW novel and know most of the “secrets” of Kulthea! In the end the Loremaster is an established mechanism for guiding the party and keeping them on track.

Gods. One of the often over-looked aspects of playing a Cleric or other religious profession is the compact between the God and the follower. D&D created alignments to enforce player behaviors but game systems without alignments will often encounter the inevitable behavioral drift to the center: self-interest. For Channelers in RM, there are no real game mechanisms outside GM discretion to enforce player behavior that reflects the Deities’ ethos or requirements. However, it is the use of the “God Mechanism” that enables a GM to arbitrarily assign tasks to a follower or group and guide them during an adventure. As the god’s proxy, a follower is meant to further his god’s will and purpose in exchange for miraculous powers (Channeling spells). Too often, Channeling spells are treated the same as Essence or Mentalism—follow the game mechanics, expend PP’s and roll for results.  But Channeling should be different than the “agnostic” realms: their use should imply a greater cost or responsibility of the caster to wield such powers. That cost is the crack in the door—the mechanism by which the GM can manage the party. Whether through signs, visitations, dreams or augury, the Priest/Paladin/Druid/Shaman will have a connection or dialogue with their patron as part of their service. The amount of guidance will depend on the involvement of the God; the Orhanian pantheon is relatively aloof but powerful, the Charon pantheon is more “hands-on” but less powerful, while local Gods can be very present but in a limited geography or aspect.

In summation, the Shadow World setting has two already established mechanisms for a GM to guide the party. By filtering direction through either a God or a Loremaster you can keep your group on track, maintain the immersive element of the game and connect the players to the broader world of Kulthea!


Maximizing Essaence Flows in your Shadow World campaign

One of the more distinctive attributes of Kulthea is the presence of Essaence Flows, Storms and Foci. From the original Loremaster modules to the more recent Shadow World books, Essaence manifestations have shaped cultures and history, provided a raison d’etre for the Navigator Guilds and added a unique flavor to the campaign world. In the earlier Loremaster modules the Flows seem to be more ubiquitous; splitting and separating regions and isolating pocket cultures throughout Jaiman. Not only was this a great campaign hook, but provided a “sensible” explanation for the disparate cultures, races and even climates within a relatively small geographic area.

In later Non-Canon SW modules, the Flows seemed minimized and moved to the background when they should have been kept as a prime actor in the ongoing SW narrative. Essaence Flows should be seen as an essential NPC in SW campaigns: always present, unpredictable, and frequently impacting the storyline and gameplay. Flows are one of Shadow World’s differentiators from so many other game settings, but it’s easy for a GM to ignore them while managing the game, PC’s and game plot.

Essaence manifestations can play a number of roles in gameplay:

  1. Disruptor. A sudden and dangerous Essaence storm can change things quickly! PC’s or enemies may be forced to flee or find cover. Spellcasters may be drained of needed PP’s or find casting to be too unpredictable due to the fluctuating power.
  2. Limiter. A temporary or permanent Essaence wall can block PC’s from travelling to certain areas that the GM is unprepared, too dangerous for the group to explore or to create an obstacle for the group to overcome.
  3. Balancer. A Foci can provide PC’s with added Power Points needed to overcome a more powerful adversary or replace spent PP’s to allow the PC to continue the battle. An Essaence storm could hamper a powerful spell casting opponent or agent of the Unlife.
  4. Re-locator. Essaence storms can have spatial or temporal vortexes to move PC’s to a new place or time! If you want to avoid a time consuming trip or introduce the PC’s to a distant point on Kulthea than a temporary portal could do the trick! Additionally, you could move the PC’s back or forward in the SW timeline!

Not only do Essaence effects add great flavor to the game but they inject a constant randomness that plays much different than typically fantasy RPG’s.  If you aren’t maximizing the use of Flows, Storms and Foci in your SW game then here are a few suggestions and thoughts:

  1. Make sure that Essaence effects are included in your random encounter tables. If you are using tables that aren’t SW specific or don’t have Essaence effects included, than replace a category with them. Or if there is a “No Encounter” result than use Essaence effects instead.
  2. If you aren’t using random encounter tables than make it a point to include at least 1 effect per day to reinforce it’s presence to the players.
  3. Remember, not all effects have to be serious. A faint odor of ozone, a “tingling” or a slight power surge remind players that they are dealing with an unpredictable and dangerous power.
  4. The more Essaence Flows appear in your game the more helpful Navigators will appear. While “Jumps” might be prohibitively expensive, the PC’s will probably need to hire a Navigator to bypass an Essaence Wall or traverse a particularly dangerous route. This also a great money sink to keep excess wealth from accruing!
  5. Many notable places (temples, fortresses, holy sites etc) are found at or near Essaence Foci. The Foci could have beneficial, harmful or unpredictable effects on magic within its radius or even different magical “rules”. (ie no Force spells, or double power Elemental effects) This can make an “ordinary” dungeon crawl into a unique adventure experience!

Those are just a few ideas for maximizing the use of Essaence Flows, Storms and Foci in your Shadow World campaign.

One last thought. I would recommend a book that came out in 1977 that I feel gives a small taste of what Essaence Flows could be like in your SW campaign.  Check it out: Time-Storm by Gordon R. Dickson.