Gamist Elements in Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter

Recently I read Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, one of the most interesting Dungeons & Dragons novels I ever have absorbed. I call it a Dungeons & Dragons novel not because it contains oversized, fire breathing serpents, nor because it portrays sprawling, underground inhabitations of wealthy monsters—indeed, it contains neither of these—but because of its metaphysical system. Reviewer Judith Tarr identifies it in a tradition of “Fourth Age” Tolkienian fantasies—there are mere glimpses of Elves and Dwarves and rumors of Orcs within a mostly human-centric civilization—but, to me, the narrative is most interested in presenting a realistic martial milieu in which forces of magic originating from both the arcane and divine (or Essential and spiritual) sources are tactical components in conflict and warfare.

It’s this second that I want to explore with some depth. The first can be settled by pointing to other writers within the military fantasy tradition. Off the top of my head, two are Glen Cook and Steven Erikson, and only Erikson I have read with regularity. What’s striking to me with these novels—and this is true of Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, as well—is that sometimes a character “party” can be fairly diverse and be occupied with specific missions or quests, but mostly they are involved in military engagements, and usually their shared skills and identities are combat-oriented. In other words, there are few “balanced” parties composed of a Cleric, a Fighter, a Magic-user and a Thief (or their various sub-classes) but entire companies of these various classes individually pursuing their roles in the midst of a military campaign.

Or, in yet other words, these novels that are derived from the first game in the rpg hobby appear to cleave closer than D&D itself to its roots in war gaming. I expect that many a Rolemaster campaign does, as well, since, because of its skill system, parties might be composed wholly of one Profession but still allow for necessary variations within that Profession. The great resources of War Law and Castles & Ruins might provide for this kind of campaign, as well.

One effect that Sheepfarmer’s Daughter contains that I think would be worth exploring in an rpg campaign is the tight focus of a military recruit within the larger strategy of a military operation. I’m envisioning two games being explored at the table. The first would be along the lines of a traditional war game, players moving entire companies into engagements, and the second would comprise the true role playing component of individual endeavor, focusing on PCs within those various companies and the dramatic tales that arise from their actions. This, indeed, appears to be the structure of Steven Erikson’s and Ian Esslemont’s Malazan novels.

A component of Elizabeth Moon’s novel that is more traditional with how D&D has come to be played is its use of divine magic, specifically its use of holy symbols among the faithful. Moon’s perspective character Paksenarrion, Paks for short, appears to be being called to the office of Paladin. As such, she’s able to use holy symbols in a manner different from her fellow recruits. In fact, it may be that her fellow recruits can’t use holy symbols at all, but they wear them merely as dressings of their faiths and that they only believe that they might provide them with “luck.”

When Paks comes into possession of one, it does provide her with luck. She also uses it to Heal a character through laying on of hands. As some readers will remember, currently I’m a player in a 1e game, and I’ve been puzzled by the costs and uses of the two kinds of “holy symbols” in the equipment table. Should my Cleric purchase a wooden or metal one? What are the benefits—if any—of one over the other? My DM doesn’t seem to know or care. Obviously the wooden one is more liable to break, which, in his game, seems to be the only pragmatic consideration.

But the gamist in me wants more. Might the amount one spends on a symbol—the metal obviously is more expensive, and begemmed or artistically crafted would be more yet—confer a greater benefit, one awarded through this form of devotion and the personal “sacrifice” indicated in the expense? I also wonder if holy symbols might indeed confer a bit of “luck” for the casual worshipper, probably in the form of a bonus within certain situations, and have more powerful applications—or even be a requirement—in the hands of an established Cleric of the faith.

I notice that RM2 Character Law has no listing for a holy symbol in its equipment table. This and the removal of a Turn Undead ability for its clerical Professions is an interesting indication of what that game had become about in terms of the divine component in its role play. Maybe it should be reintroduced. Has anyone done so? How do Clerics and other divines function at your table?

Navigator Tech

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this article. After perusing the equipment offerings in both White Star and Spacemaster’s 1e Tech Law, I believe that Peter R probably intends to confine himself to the gear in White Star, though this might cause problems for backward-compatibility with Spacemaster products, an intention of purpose he has for his Navigator RPG.

As would be expected, White Star equipment is fundamental. Its standard gear isn’t more wondrous than modern tools in existence today. Its weapons range from the primitive ones available in most fantasy rpgs to modern “slugthrowers” to laser weapons. Armor in White Star, no matter how it is “skinned,” is just armor—even if it has reflective coating against laser weapons. Shields are either energy or physical, and they can’t be used together. Only with starships do we see some innovations predicated on genre. Here we find Shielding, Targeting Systems, Automated Weapons, Cloaking, Ion Guns, Proton Missiles, Reinforced Hulls and Tractor Beams.

The range of equipment in Spacemaster’s 1e Tech Law is much more diverse, but these raise design questions that aren’t easily resolved. Does armor lacking reflective covering provide any protection against laser beams? How about blasters, which I’m interpreting as a weapon that fires a wall of force? Against these energies, armor might minimize damage, but the character nonetheless should be subject to being knocked prone. Ion blasts should be particularly pernicious to robots and gadgetry, and plasma and matter/antimatter should be particularly lethal: plasma should eat right through physical armor (only energy shields might provide a defense) and perhaps continue to do so for rounds later, and matter/antimatter… Well.

White Star Advanced Equipment (in the White Star universe, this appears to be the equivalent of wondrous items or artifacts—not “for sale” and designed to be extremely rare) offers devices such as an Atomizer (Save or die, 10 uses), Plasma Projector (massive damage, 10 uses), and a Freeze Ray (a stunner?). These, perhaps, emulate some of the Spacemaster tech I have described above.

I guess these considerations merely show, per Peter’s intentions, that there is great potential in these spaces for third party developers. These designers should have opportunities to create very interesting and tactical mini games based on real or fictional “science” and technology.

If the range of science fiction personal gear in White Star is limited, its starship offerings are much more serviceable, and this chassis, as a foundation upon which to build, is preferable to Spacemaster 1e’s opaque method for designing starships, though much—particularly the construction of computer programs and abilities—could be ported in from there. I guess I likewise look forward to the mini games that third parties might develop for spaceship combat and exploration.

Well, those are my thoughts for the emerging Navigator RPG. I’m eager to see it take shape!

“Casting” in Navigator RPG

I appreciate Peter R’s inclusion of the telepath or mentalist into Navigator RPG. As I have said before, I’m amused by the preponderance of this archetype in science fiction, that training, mutating or evolving to use the power of brain waves is somehow more believable than outright “magic.” And magic it is, demonstrated as so by Spacemaster adopting its Rolemaster magic system in toto for its emulation of psychic abilities.

In preparation for this article, I had thought I was going to propose an utterly different system for mentalist abilities. For awhile I had been dissatisfied with the resource-based method of magic in RM, and I believed I would be additionally so, when it came to mentalism, while proposing a system in Navigator. I had thought that using a straight skill mechanic —individual lists developed independently, as is BriH’s method or in Against the Darkmaster (VsD)—while completely disregarding Power Points would be my preference.

My thinking was that a telepath—in contradistinction, perhaps, to a magic caster who was born special or had access to some numinous gift—simply had learned to use one’s mind to an extraordinary degree. In other words, whereas you and I think, perhaps, all day long with comparative ease, a futuristic mentalist simply will turn these thoughts outward to interact with other minds. How successful they will be at this interaction, I had been thinking, should be dependent on a Skill roll, one most often opposed by a Skill roll arising likewise from the target mind.

I also liked the idea of a telepath becoming strained or fatigued, however, and that’s when I began to reinvent the wheel. Perhaps the mentalist should expend hit points for its abilities. Or maybe it made more sense to burn the actual stat most closely associated with its powers. But then I thought that this was too punishing, that a telepath should be able to do some things passively or with ease, and hence Power Points were reintroduced.

What this line of reasoning did for me, however, was to recognize that the subsystem within which casters operate might be—and perhaps should be—applied to other classes. I doubt that this idea is original, but here it is: every profession should enjoy a secondary resource, determined by the table that enumerates Power Points, based on their archetypes’ primary attributes. For casters, this resource should power their spells, of course, but additional points might be spent to add bonuses to the roll or its effects (VsD allows additional spends for more powerful applications). This is what I propose for other classes: these might spend points for, say, +10 per point, while attempting actions in conformance with the professions’ primary abilities. I would allow these bonuses to stack up to a cap determined by a sum of three main stats keyed to mind, body and soul.

I developed a system like this for my d100 Viking game, heavily inspired by the game Yggdrasill, which uses a PC resource called “Furor” for many similar results.

Two considerations remain.

The first is this: should casters (and other classes) be allowed to burn hp or temporary stat values? I really like the idea of burning mind power for the telepath, an action that, within great straits, could leave the character brain dead or, at the very least, temporarily impeded in cognition, which could reduce Power Points per day, while the mentalist recovers.

The other question is just how many kinds of casters should be in Navigator. It’s foregone that a type of Essence caster is going to be represented in the form of a Star Knight. But what about Channeling? Is the implied metaphysics of the genre that nothing that can function as a deity—be it outside or inside SpaceTime—can exist? I expect that this question shall be answered at individual gaming tables and that Peter R expects resources for this kind of gameplay to be offered by third parties. On my end, however, I’m already adopting the Cleric WhiteBox class—renamed a “Shepherd”—into any future White Star/Spacemaster/Navigator game I might run.

Professions and Skills for the Navigator RPG

In my advancing years, I have ceased being a fan of Skills-based RPGs, and Rolemaster, I am told, quite ironically is Skills. I much prefer the idea of working out resolutions at the table as situations arise, and this lends itself well to the style of play in “first generation” games. Here is an example: in a Swords & Wizardry game I had all PCs make Save rolls vs inclement weather, but the Druid (and this would have applied to a Ranger, too) got to Save for “free,” without a roll. The game was text-based, online, and the Druid gamer sent me one of these: 😍. In contrast, recently in an Against the Darkmaster game, two PCs rolled to detect something in a forest. One succeeded at hearing an unusual sound, the other didn’t. The one who didn’t was an Elf. “That’s odd,” said that player, and, for awhile (being a 1e gamer), that player truly believed that something mysterious was going on. He was an Elf, and Elves simply hear things in a forest. He was a bit surprised when I explained to him that, no, his ignorant Elf simply had spectacularly failed his Perception roll.

I recognize now that I should have dealt with the situation by letting the Elf hear the sound “for free” and requiring the humans in the group to make Skill rolls. I suspect that this is how Peter R runs his games, but Rolemaster, for me, is so “roll-heavy” that I routinely forget to stop and think like this. There’s a Skill for nearly everything, and characters have been built to be “good” at these things because of reliance on their Skill rolls. Perhaps I should have stopped and given the Elf a bonus on the roll, but that’s figured already—that’s Elven racial modifiers. The truth is that, with Skill-heavy games, too often I am lulled into ignoring simple common sense in terms of the fiction.

But what happens when I outright remove Skills? It never occurs to some players that, say, their Fighter character might diversify into some Thief-based qualities. Original iterations of the game provide the highly clunky “dual classing” to accommodate this, though this still tends to keep caster types sacrosanct and unattainable. I think we RM games appreciate a little magical possibility in all our classes. I also know that some gamers heavily rely on a list of Skills to visualize their characters and conceive of which their adventurers are capable.

For Navigator RPG, therefore, my wish is for a sweet spot of basic Class abilities, allowance of common sense, and serviceable, core Skill systems. In the following sections I make some comments on the existing Professions that Peter has adopted from White Star as well as his inclusion of the Mystic. I also propose two of my own, and draft what seem to me a serviceable set of Skills.


It seems sort of odd for this to be a “Profession,” but I very much like it as an archetype. I see a bit of both Leia and (weirdly) Lando in this one. I wonder how Peter is going to use the “Charm Person” quality here. Perhaps it makes more sense to simply give the Aristocrat a special “Convince” or “Befriend” Skill based on Level (I have nothing like this in my lists below). Perhaps something based on a Resistance Roll (using the Aristocrat’s Level) also is a good idea.


I wonder what, if anything, Peter will do with the attacks per Level against creatures of 1 HD or fewer. In my reduced Combat Skills list, I would allow Mercenaries to specialize in one or two Combat skills, giving them a one-time bonus at character creation in these.


I really like the OSR construction of this character class, but this archetype’s ability to take rounds of combat to manipulate the qualities of a starship might better be modeled with Skills in the Navigator RPG. I wonder what changes we will see and if, consequently, the Pilot’s White Star adequacy will be diminished.

Star Knight 


This is Peter’s Spacemaster telepath or mentat. It’s often amused me that science fiction has regarded mind powers as much more “believable” than magic. Anyway, I think it’s an element highly required in Navigator, and I’m quite eager to write about mentalism and its powers with great detail in the future.

Technician and Scientist

At this point, I don’t have much to say about my two additions, but I felt that they should be represented. As with the Mercenary, though I expect these classes to be generally capable, I would have them pick one or two specializations in which to gain some one-time bonuses.

And here follow my lists of proposed skills.


Melee. This would include all melee weapons as well as unarmed combat.

Primitive projectiles

Modern projectiles. “Modern” here would include everything that is modern within the game setting: energy and laser weapons would be included.

Heavy weapons

Vehicle weapons 


Adventuring. This is a catch-all, including Survival and First Aid (also, possibly, Perception).



Fine tasks








Finally, Peter has plans for armor proficiencies, which I think is a great idea, and Body Development and “Spellcasting” abilities should be handled separately.

Stats (and Skills) in the Navigator RPG

A close reading of Peter R’s Navigator update causes me to believe that, so far, the most salient part of White Star that he is using are the adventuring professions. The rest appears in common with the d100 system that we all love. This strikes me as an opportunity to revisit this latter system, and I shall begin where character creation commences: stats.

Stats define the character, and, broadly speaking, there are three intentions to be considered as one employs player characteristics in game design. PC attributes are the result of a simulation of chance (aka deterministic nature), a player’s predetermined character concept, or a combination of these. This last is the approach Peter has adopted for Navigator: players roll their stats (the deterministic “mini game”) but they get to assign them (the “build”) and, most importantly, if they don’t get numbers high enough, two can be replaced with 90s.

I think the Navigator design process is an opportunity for Peter to revisit Spacemaster’s ten stats. As I have written before, I like the symmetry of ten stats within a percentile system. But that symmetry is sort of broken when Peter assigns three of the ten as bonuses to individual Skills. And, as I have said (again in the article linked above), I like the symmetry of three, which breaks down into the three traditionally-regarded aspects of the person: mind, body, and soul.

I should add here, looking ahead in the design process, that rough Skill “groups” might conveniently break down into three (as is sort of demonstrated in Against the Darkmaster). For Spacemaster these Skill categories could be Combat, Utility and Learning. Should there be ten Skills in each category? Maybe. I might prefer five, but such a paltry value might reflect a “lite” version of our favorite d100 game.

While I’m on the topic of symmetry, it appears that original Spacemaster is likewise considerate of this aspect of elegance. Five of its stats it identifies as “Development Stats;” the remaining five are “Primary Stats.” These designations represent the “mini game” of early Spacemaster character creation: high numbers in Development Stats garner more Development Points for Skills. But high Primary Stats (maybe) directly benefit more “useful” Skills. The parenthetical “maybe” reveals my uncertainty that the distinctions here result in “meaningful” choices (I’m not going to plunge that deeply into this old design) at character creation, and I’m not sure that Constitution (identified as a Development Stat) believably should result in DPs.

This topic of “meaningful choices” should be kept in mind as Peter assigns Stats to Skills. All of the stats should be used more or less commensurately. I’m not saying that they need to be “balanced,” but all should find some use within the game. Another way of putting this directive is that attributes such as Charisma should not immediately be regarded as a “dump stat.” These White Box games have done well to dignify this stat (and Wisdom) by awarding an xp bonus for a high value. If it becomes a last resort, Navigator might consider something similar. Finally, a good first principle would be to try to find a stat from each of the three aspects of the person to modify each Skill.

So now I’m again privileging three aspects of the person. Can I convince Peter to go with nine stats instead of ten? Here they are in categories, to see what might be thrown out.

MIND: Self-Discipline, Memory, Reasoning 

BODY: Constitution, Agility, Strength, Quickness 

SOUL: Presence, Intuition, Empathy 

Looks like I’d wrap Agility and Quickness together, reducing body to three stats.

Spacemaster and the OSR

I’m of two minds while reading about Peter R’s development of Navigator RPG. As far as I can tell, it purposes to be an open content retroclone of Spacemaster but using the convenient OGL of White Star, which is based on the “White Box” version of the Original Game. 

I fully support the mechanics of this decision. Swords & Wizardry has become my game of choice: quick-playing and eminently malleable. Though my own preference is for Swords & Wizardry Complete, I can see the rationale in adopting White Box: since this form uses only d20s and d6s for its mechanical resolution, conversions to d100 should be efficient.

My ambivalence arises from the sources that are inherent in White Star’s inspirations. The strongest influence appears to be Star Wars, and Star Wars—at least to me—is not science fiction. It’s fantasy skinned with spaceships and laser swords. I’m not saying that this kind of fantasy is “bad fun” (for me, Star Wars is very fun, especially the d6 version). I’m saying that this is out of alignment with the ethos of Spacemaster.

But of which Spacemaster do I speak? I own the first edition, the one that is directly compatible with RM2. I’ve never played this edition (or any others). I’m not sure if I can. It’s a fascinating read. Yet, as a publication predating the Information Age, some parts are quaint, and Tech Law’s details for starship construction are utterly confounding. One thing it is not, though: it is not Star Wars (though I believe it accommodates, in part, a player’s desire to play a Jedi Knight). And if it also isn’t, precisely, “hard” science fiction, it at least attempts to be “realistic.”

One of the ways in which it is realistic, I suppose, is in its range of Professions. Do you want to play a Research or Field Scientist? How about a Machine Tech? If one follows the usually reliable dictum that a game’s rules telegraph what the game is about, then this feels a bit like Star Trek (which I consider “pseudo-science”). Is your character going to specialize in Planetology? Then what are your “adventures” going to be like?

Dr. Mind: Captain, I’ve determined that this atmosphere contains high volumes of nitrous oxide.

Captain Stern: Very good. Crew, ready yourselves for nitrous breathers.

What a challenge this level of verisimilitude must be for the GM.

An even better indication of Spacemaster’s mundane orientation is in its Races and Cultures. There are no “aliens,” precisely. I understand that Spacemaster 2e does provide a few samples with the caveat that alien intelligence in the universe is highly unlikely, and, even if one were encountered, it’s doubtful that homo sapiens would be able to recognize one as such. The “otherness” of wonder and exploration is nonetheless provided in Spacemaster’s trans humanist vision: humans have colonized space, adapted, mutated, evolved and even modified themselves genetically and technologically. In Spacemaster, artificial intelligence has emerged. I’ve begun to prefer human centrism in my fantasy games, so this aspect of science fiction play greatly appeals to me.

Again, I think Peter R is correct in choosing White Star as his starting point. Moreover, White Star’s more obvious “adventuring classes,” I suppose, are a necessity. I’m not certain about all I’ve been reading about the inclusion of alien species, however, and this has led me to wonder what precisely is being “revived” with the OSR label on this project. As we all know, all game systems are simply tools, and I look forward to adapting Navigator RPG to my preferred form of mundane science fiction. I also wonder at which point, though, rules become so entwined with tone and implied setting as to be inextricable.

Hacking Darkmaster

I’m guessing that it’s not precisely “news” to readers here that the QuickStart Deluxe of Against the Darkmaster (VsD) has been released as pay what you want on DriveThruRPG. The latest articulation has introduced some changes to my game. Most radical is a reduction of five Armours (None, Soft Leather, Rigid Leather, Chain and Plate) to four (None, Light, Medium, Heavy). Most sneaky is total Success on the maneuver table has been reduced to 100 from 110.

The most radical change, however, (and I’m talking specifically about my home game now) is how I’ve undertaken to transform VsD’s entire d100 system into something that works better for the players at my table. Approaching something like this, I often feel out of place in the company I keep here on this blog. I’m becoming convinced that a “simple,” homebrewed d20 system is most comfortable for my gaming table, though I continue to be enamored with the design possibilities in Rolemaster d100 mechanisms.

And I thought I was going to revert to a d20 system and simply carry on with the campaign characters until I remembered how one player in particular appreciates VsD’s and others’ core percentile principle.

A lot of what I’m going to say here I already have shared with the VsD designers, but I think these comments might be of equal interest to RM gamers. I’m going to structure this discussion by presenting two “problems” that I have been endeavoring to “solve,” each followed by a “solution.”


At the beginning of last year I determined to run Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP). I quickly grew irritated, while trying to track the various weapon “stats” that modified the rolls and results on the attack tables. A “solution” appeared to be to adopt RM2, but then my burden was to track tables for every single weapon.


I’m already anticipating a response from the RM community to my complaints, so let me try to provide more context here. When I was young, my friends and I were deeply interested in the simulationist aspects of rpgs. We didn’t care at all how much time—or math—was required of us to resolve a single conflict. It was common for a combat to involve hours of our time. My group now isn’t interested as much in that. Obviously, we’re not plunging fully into story games, but we’re more interested in narrative. We also don’t believe that a lucky shot from a mook necessarily should be able to outright kill a player character.

I have received advice from RM gamers concerning the time management element. Give attack tables to the players, say some gamers. I’m certain this works for some groups, but not mine. One of my players will outright refuse. He says that I’m lucky he “rolls his own dice,” and he’s only partly jesting here. And even if the other players were willing to take on this work, as GM I’d still have to be monitoring their work. These are casual gamers.

So the bottom line is that all this, as it is with any group, is about how my players and I detail the game system that we need for our table. And our struggles and solutions might be of interest to some other groups.

VsD, cleaving more closely to MERP than RM, uses weapon stats and consolidated attack tables. I have consolidated the attack tables into a single one closely modeled on the maneuver table. All weapon types are assigned damage dice, based on 1d10 for one-handed and 2d10 for two-handed. Armours deduct results on the critical tables in increments of 10 per armour type.


“I use like three of these,” said a player, referring to a VsD character sheet that, incidentally, is significantly more compressed than any RM sheet. So we reduced Skills into general categories, and each breaks down into two types of uses or applications, and each of these are modified by two discrete character Stats. I enjoy how other versions of RM use multiple and complementary attributes to modify specific Skills. The latest version of RM uses three of its ten for each Skill, sometimes “double dipping,” when there aren’t other clear associations.

So, instead of assigning Ranks to granular Skills, in our hack, at Level advancement PCs gain bonuses in broader Skill categories.

Concluding Thoughts 

My group has made changes, also, to how the GM handles NPCs, and it’s also wrestling with VsD’s use of Drive Points—in fact, we’re considering outright dropping this meta currency. But the largest consideration we have is whether we keep the d100 roll. I think most of us will agree that most bonuses in an RM game reduce neatly from +5 (on a d100) to a +1 (on a d20). So why deal with 100 numbers rather than 20? Honestly, for greater ease of roll resolution, I see no reason outside of the relative Fumble values, though these could be remedied: a second roll could follow any roll of 1 to determine if a particular weapon is fumbled. Incidentally, I see that Chivalry & Sorcery has done something similar, offering a C&S “Essence” rules set in addition to its “Rebirth.” I’m similarly curious about the news of an upcoming “lite” version of RM.

What are your thoughts? Why do we gamers want 100 numbers?

More Lazy GMing: Destination Spaces in My Against the Darkmaster Campaign

So now I have nudged the trajectory of my PCs wholly into an overland journey to the enemy-occupied Dwarven mountain city of Angrothrond, wherein the PCs expect to find armies of Orcs and Trolls, caverns of partially mined angril (a homebrewed substance similar to mithril) and perhaps a massive, inert stone golem and a slumbering Iron Dragon of Morgoth from the First Age of Middle-earth. Since starting this coming avalanche—the trickle of adventuring steps that should result in armies at war—I have been anxious to envision specifically what the PCs should encounter at this destination.

I’m not content to rest with the near-zero prep that unpredictable gamers have required of me for our discrete sessions. This is because I’m reasonably assured that the PCs will come to Angrothrond, and I should be adequately prepared to meet them there. And yet I’m still not sure how to build the location—or if I should construct it at all, even considering the new circumstances.

A game’s official materials often telegraph the intended experience. VsD’s Level 1 adventure contains what essentially is a “5-Room Dungeon”—always a quick and satisfying structure.

The first thing I chose to do was randomly generate half a dozen qualities for just as many areas in the surrounding countryside. This adheres to lazy GMing. But I have been wrestling, since then, with how detailed to make Angrothrond itself. I began to map it out. I sketched a side-view of the mountain with a rough estimation of levels, then I sketched a couple “overhead maps” of some components of the individual levels.

In my youth I never, ever did much with maps. Most of my GMing was “winging it.” My friends and I would be at someone’s house for the night, giddy on Pepsi cola and Reese’s Pieces. In between consuming VHS movies, my friends would insist I run MERP. I’d sit in a corner for a few minutes, dreaming and maybe jotting a few notes, then, when ready, I’d announce the beginning of the scenario.

When I did need maps—and almost always they were overland maps—I had Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth, a 1987 birthday gift to me from two neighborhood friends. I still have it, and I still use it, as you shall see in this discussion.

Fonstad’s Lonely Mountain

While playtesting Against the Darkmaster, I have been thinking a lot about GNS theory. For those who might not know, GNS stands for Gamist Narrativist Simulationist. These three qualities comprise all rpgs (at least, I have yet to find an exception), and individual rpgs might be described by where they fall among these poles or within a Venn diagram. Right now, I haven’t determined where VsD lands in a graph.

I do know that OSR games tend to land heavily in the Gamist portion of the diagram, and I believe that two evidences for this are the ease and speed of character creation—roll one up and try to survive!—and its preponderance of detailed maps—this is the space; interact with it. When a game moves into Narrativism, rules concerning improv acting enter play: Is there any kind of lever on the wall? (Whether the GM had intended it or not) Yes, and you notice a rusty iron grate directly below it; perhaps the lever operates it in some way? I think that VsD is supposed to bleed into Narrativism in an appreciable way—its intent is to emulate exciting high fantasy, after all, not necessarily the Simulationism of dungeon exploration—and player questions and Skill rolls, therefore, are likely to directly affect the game space.

How detailed should Angrothrond be, therefore? At first I tried to map it extensively. By the time I reached some lower levels, though, I felt like it was a useless task—who cares how many independent Dwarf homes are on this level! I wondered if I might save myself some time by borrowing a map. I have plenty of OSR dungeon maps, but using those for VsD simply would highlight the mundanity of Gamist play. Well, what about some true Middle-earth precedents? I don’t own any early MERP modules that might have the Dwarf structures. I looked up what Cubicle 7’s One Ring might be offering these days: some reviewers of Erebor: The Lonely Mountain were disappointed with the lack of significant maps, so that seemed like a hefty price for a mere curiosity of a PDF.

Fonstad’s Moria

But didn’t I have maps already? Turning to Fonstad I found not only maps but a Narrativist precedent. Tolkien’s Dwarven caverns are better described as immense underground cities rather than dungeons. Who cares about the placement of every single municipal feature in a town or village? Same with these places. In fact, Tolkien’s prose concerning underground exploration often involves hours—even days—of journey through a single passage, sometimes with just a few choices concerning passageways. It wasn’t until Tolkien’s characters encountered adventure features that he described the space with any tactical clarity.

So I think I shall do the same. Angrothrond will be defined by rough levels, and each of these will contain some major features to be more fully detailed as the Narrative requires. Thank you, Tolkien and Fonstad, for clearing this up for me!

Race as Class in Rolemaster Games

The other day I was looking up something in Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP), and I came across a passage I don’t recall reading before—ever before, even when I aspired to run MERP just last year!

Elves have certain advantages over the “mortal” races … , and in terms of a fantasy role playing game this is reflected by a restriction on how they assign their stats. Each Noldor Elf must assign his highest stat to his Presence, each Sindar Elf must assign one of his two highest stats to his Presence, and each Silvan Elf must assign one of his three highest stats to his Presence.

The rationale for this appears to be twofold. In Middle-earth, Elves are awe-inspiring, and the rules should reflect this. Also, Elves are inherently powerful. Later generations of gamers would begin to characterize Elven character features as “unbalanced” or “overpowered” (“OP”). MERP appears to make up for this perceived unfairness by necessitating that Elven characters need to boost what is usually regarded as a dump stat. This can be seen as a kind of “tax” or handicap for playing such a capable player. I instantly see the appeal in this stipulation and am looking for a way to adopt it into my Against the Darkmaster (VsD) campaign. 

In MERP—and now in VsD—nonhuman characters are further restricted by receiving, at the start of the game, fewer Background Points to spend on goodies. They also have class restrictions. For example, Dwarves can’t be Wizards. We see some of these tendencies in Rolemaster’s current d20 siblings, as well. But some of the first versions of D&D did something that always has struck me as quite elegant: when it came to nonhuman PCs, Basic editions decided that, in these cases, character “race” was its most important distinction. In fact, the character race was character “class.”

Class, of course, is what RM calls Professions, what VsD calls Vocations. Basically, Class is a character archetype or a description of the kinds of skills in which a character specializes. D&D character Classes seem to derive from early gamist considerations and the vaguely medieval milieu—which emphasizes a strict social structure—that D&D emulates. In this case, classes might be considered the hereditary training in which characters should specialize. RM should receive credit for being an early system to push against the rigid restrictions resulting from class. But the game did so by innovating a complex skill system ultimately adopted by D&D 3e.* In this conception, a Fighter might choose to be skilled at Picking Locks but at significantly higher cost than were she simply to improve a Weapon Skill. In other words, the Fighter was best built for fighting. He developed other interests at expense to his primary vocation.

Now, D&D and its progeny have come a long way from its sources in early fantasy literature to become its own thing. In a typical fantasy setting for D&D now, it’s perfectly acceptable to find nations of Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and more, all with guilds and specializations largely indistinguishable from their usually-more-numerous Human neighbors. But when I consider the literary inspirations for the genre, classed races don’t make much sense to me.

When it comes to high fantasy racial cultures, Tolkien’s Middle-earth must be the best referent. In considering that property, what character Class was Legolas? A Rogue? Well, he didn’t seem particularly thiefy. A sneaky and agile Fighter? Certainly, but how about a Ranger?

And Elrond? In The Hobbit he is presented as a kind of sage, but he also has survived many wars and battles. The point is that, in Tolkien, all Elves are free and all Elves are awesome. They live forever, with ample time to master any pursuit. Elves are essentially their own thing, not Rogues, Fighters, Rangers or even sages.

So what about Dwarves? Well, they’re Fighters, obviously. But shouldn’t they know something about locks? Okay, give them a bonus on those skills. Might they also be Rangers, though? Many are in a diaspora. They have to explore the mountains, too, prospecting for new mines and homelands.

Modern conceptions of Halflings have moved far from Tolkien’s Hobbits, but I think we’re still apt to class the diminutive folk as Scouts or Thieves. This probably is because Hobbits are inherently sneaky, and for this reason Bilbo was unfairly branded as Master Burglar. But the kinds of classes that the little people most likely are to produce are modern vocations—gardeners, millers, postmasters and, yes, Bounders, to name but a few. As a racial feature, I would give these guys a bonus Secondary Skill in a mundane profession.

For the precedent set by my fantasy literature, therefore, I’m attracted to “race as class,” and I have devised a chart for VsD. VsD seems to “balance” its Vocations by distributing 15 Rank Points among 5 different categories. For versatility, it also distributes as many as 150 points in bonuses among the individual Skills.

I must confess that I can’t find “balance” or structure in the latest RM race rules. Anyone have an idea how to construct race as class in that rules set? Might such a project be undesirable in that context?

*For the purposes of this discussion, I’m ignoring the “No Profession” Profession.

Generating Fantasy Adventures for Competent Players

No plan survives contact with the players.

—Davena Oaks

After my latest session I opened up Michael Shea’s The Lazy DM to compare his advice to my emergent method of adventure generation—one that suits my current campaign, anyway. It’s from this book that I pulled the quote above, and, for the sentiment contained therein, at first Shea’s advice seemed like it would be of some use to me. Then he suggested sketching three “paths” the adventure might take, then three NPCs the party might encounter. Not bad advice—perhaps perfect advice for particular groups—but I genuinely believe that this would not work at my table. Shea’s chief recommendation is to avoid spending time on adventure preparation that will not find use in an actual game. So, if I accepted this for my game, I wouldn’t even prepare three adventure “paths.”

The reason for this, of course, is that by now my gamers aren’t certain to use any trail I blaze for them. A path forecasts an Adventure. In many cases, my players won’t go on the “adventure.” Don’t get me wrong: they will adventure, but it will be one of their own choosing; perhaps I should say it will be one of their own making.

In case my tone is ambiguous here, I am not complaining. As a GM, I am more interested in seeing the stories that gamers create. This is why—somewhat belatedly—I’m realizing that I’m somewhat in error if ever I refer to our Monday night game as my game. For this same reason I’m realizing that it’s quite unfair of me were I to drop the current campaign, switch systems, start something new (as I have done before), as if our communal experience is an auteur rough draft that no longer satisfies me. Our campaign is not a monograph. It is our narrative, and to abandon it, through the authority of being Head Writer, would be an act of egotism and presumption.

The consideration remains, though, about how I might best execute my role as GM to provide the most interesting game possible for my players and their characters. I’m learning that the answer to this also is dependent on the shared experience the players want to explore. In a recent conversation with a player, I identified three modes of play within a wide spectrum:

Entirely free form. The PCs do what they will, dependent on the character personalities and stories, and the GM responds improvisationally.

Adventures keyed to character. The GM writes adventures, but they usually are relevant to individual PC goals and stories.

Adventures. Whether they are purchased or written by the GM, the story is the thing, and PCs are expected to “play through.” Larger PC goals might affect the adventure, but this is reliant on the GM’s indulgence or interest.

The player whom I was in conversation with wondered if my current method was entirely improvisational. I believe it’s in between the first and second form above. What I mean by this is that I have an idea of what is going on in the world independent of the PCs; how the PCs interact with these forces—if at all—is discovered during play.

This is not to say that (outside of world building) I don’t prepare at all! Against the Darkmaster provides me one narrative mechanic and resource that I can leverage in predicting what might interest the PCs. These are Passions (which I’ve simplified as individual character goals or quests) and Drive (a “benny” that PCs earn for following their Passions). In my world building, I have woven the individual PC Passions into one destination, and I think the overland quest to this destination is going to commence soon.

The other way that I have been preparing is as follows:

Generate the “unfleshed bones” or prompts of an adventure. Lately I’ve been preferring Richard Le Blanc’s D30 Sandbox Companion. During a session I can refer to this to help structure an emerging narrative.

Generate inspirational terms. I randomly select these out of a hefty dictionary. As the session progresses, I look at these for help in fleshing or weirding adventure components or answering player questions.

Generate NPC names. While I roll my terms, I gather morphemes, combining them for suitably fantasy-sounding names.

As I’ve suggested, this method has been developing for my current long form style of campaign play. I’m looking forward to next year, when I will run an episodic version of the Conan 2d20 rpg. That system has adventure generation resources particularly suited to Conan-esque Sword & Sorcery entertainment, and I think that that kind of adventure creation will be much more responsive to my individual vision for a particular group experience.