Adventure Creation on the Fly: Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr.’s D30 Sandbox Companion

With Peter R writing so much about Level 1 adventures, I’ve been reflecting on how published scenarios aren’t often that usable for me. I’ve run them, at conventions and in my home game, but—particularly in my home game—I find myself needing to “reskin” them to such an extent that I might as well just write my own stuff. I’m sure most people also have experienced how homebrewed adventures run with fewer unexpected hitches. We write them, specifically for our own campaigns, sometimes on the very day of the session; we know where all the pieces are without having to refer to someone else’s pages.

What I don’t always have are adventure ideas, though, and over the years I’ve found myself relying almost wholly on adventure creators. I have a number of generators now. I have some favorites. All of them have varying strengths and ideal uses.

I also have been thinking of doing a series, reviewing and demonstrating my favorites, so it is almost serendipitous that, at my last session, two of my four gamers suddenly couldn’t make it. A big pot of chicken curry and a cranberry coffee cake in front of those in attendance, we faced the option of breaking out a board game or entertaining a side adventure. My players opted for a side adventure. Therefore I reached for a product that seems designed precisely for just this sort of on-the-fly occasion.

The publication is the D30 Sandbox Companion by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. Another notable and complementary tool is the D30 DM Companion. This latter is specific to dungeon use, so, because of the nature of most of my scenarios, I find myself using the Sandbox Companion a lot more.

This book is basically 56 pages of tables. I use a lot of these (particularly settlement generators and tavern name creators), and it begins with two charts for adventure creation.

These are not the tables I turn to when I have time to prepare, but they seem perfect in a pinch. So, while my gamers ate curry and chatted, I rolled a d30 (no, I don’t own one; I make do with a d6 and a d10) ten times on ten different columns.

As with most generators, one doesn’t have to make all of the rolls nor stick to the results. The tables are designed to generate ideas, and often a result can suggest a seemingly unintended consideration. My imagination approached every result from the context of my ongoing campaign (this night was the second session of my new Against the Darkmaster campaign). The PCs currently were mid-journey in a prodigious, warm-weather forest.

Here are my results:

Next, of course, is the process of listening to your imagination and synthesizing these components. The adventure that revealed itself to me (presented here, unfortunately, out of order with my results) is as follows:

Some tree-goblins (first encountered last session), serving the Darkmaster, have torched a Great Tree all the way through its roots by using persistent, incendiary chemicals, a nasty composition of the Darkmaster’s. They were instructed to do this because this gets the Darkmaster revenge on a magic-using Elf who recently escaped his dungeons. The Elf’s imprisonment deeply and irrevocably scarred the Elf’s inner vitality; he needs the strength of Root and Stone to carry on, so he bonded his essence with an Awakened Tree friend named Heavenbough, the one that now is burned (and only just alive by the time the PCs arrive for the Animist to cast Speak with Plants). This setup makes itself known to the PCs, who have been traveling through the wood, when two (the ones whose players were absent) seem unaccountably and deeply damaged and incapacitated after a short rest. The conscious PCs likewise become aware of their own vitalities being magically sapped. They need to discover the Elf, who is sleeping in a cave and surrounded by glowing magic crystals. They need to give this insensate magic-user a potion to break his connection with Heavenbough, because now his latent, necromantic powers as inculcated within him by the Darkmaster, are sapping the life forces of humanoid creatures in the area in an unconscious attempt to heal his own inner wounds.

How did it go? I think it went fantastically, and now we have some new and interesting elements established within the campaign. As I said, normally I use much more intensive adventure generators, and I plan to introduce and demonstrate those as occasions arise for further adventure creation throughout my campaign.

Two Pulps. Two Science Fiction Campaign Ideas

Against the Darkmaster inspired me to begin a survey of the fantasy fiction that has informed its rules, a project that quickly encompassed the most well-regarded, Tolkienian secondary-world novels published during my lifetime. Perhaps the endeavor is too ambitious, particularly when I’m also committed to keeping up my reading of the classics (with an emphasis on those handsome omnibus editions published by the Library of America) and the two magazines Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

On two (well, three) occasions now these last vestiges of traditional pulps have provided me with campaign ideas. The incident in parentheses is a situation in which a story in Analog gave me an idea for an R.E.H. Conan-themed adventure. The two non-parenthetical moments have been in keeping with the genre advertised on the magazine covers.

The first campaign would take place in Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s Diving Universe. This milieu is detailed in short stories and novels that have been published—and are continuing to be published—in Asimov’s. I can’t recall the precise story that struck the gaming aspect of my imagination—I think it might be The Runabout—but it deals with a specific feature of her work. In the story I have in mind, she details a kind of null-Space, a dimension also sometimes called the Boneyard because it contains drifting hulks of spacecraft that have vanished from remote regions, times and intelligences throughout the regular universe into this enigmatic and weird dimension. Salvagers “dive” into this space, often on a ticking clock; some ships never leave the Boneyard, or at least not into their usual timelines, and every moment spent in the Boneyard, for some reason, increases the likelihood of a complication. The Rusch story I’m thinking of details spacers breaking into a dead craft, creeping through various rooms in which are found weird and puzzling wonders. It occurred to me that, hey, this is a dungeon! And shortly after this insight, I thought: hey, this is a campaign!

I tend to respect science fiction more than I do fantasy. This might be because I believe (perhaps inaccurately) that I could write some passable fantasy but not science fiction. I’m not very good at science. Myths, on average, are more understandable to me than what is “real.” So, what I can’t do myself strikes me, when demonstrated by others, as admirable. I suppose it’s for similar reasons that, though I want to run a science fiction campaign sometime, the idea of doing so—and interesting my gamers in it—is intimidating.

Yes, I have run Star Wars, in my youth the d6 version and not too long ago one short campaign of Fantasy Flight’s take, but I maintain that Star Wars is not science fiction. It might look like science fiction. But lightsabers are just swords, blasters are pistols, Jedi are knights (or more accurately, I have heard, Shaolin monks), and starships in hyperspace are just so many automobiles on a highway. Star Wars has more in common with make-believe and thus mostly is in my comfort zone.

In my mind now are questions. What about Star Trek? Firefly? BSG? I think my answer must be that the importance of the science—and now let’s dive right into science fiction gaming—is contingent on a shared level of scientific cognizance at the table.

First, all present must have a shared knowledge of the scientific parameters of the game experience. In our simulation, is there such a thing as FTL travel? Well, it’s probably fantasy then. Is terraforming possible? How likely is it there will be alien intelligences? How different must be their biochemical processes? Is communication with such creatures even possible? All this is important because gamers might have an in-game idea that relies on—and should rely on—actual science. Unless the experience just makes use of a scientific veneer (in which case, again, it is fantasy), that’s kind of the point of the attraction in the first place. Often GMs receive advice on how to deal with players who know the game better than they do. In this case a GM might be faced with a player who knows reality better than he or she does. I can imagine a gamer using an astrophysical calculation to use a gravity well to achieve escape velocity from a star system. With my limited knowledge (and ask my players how good my math skills are!), I wouldn’t know how to referee that.*

Second, the table must establish the extent of in-game scientific capability. Nano-tech changes a game experience entirely. I’ve read stories wherein robots the size of quantum particles can make quite literally anything happen. At this point we again might as well be back in fantasy, in a Vancian universe, following Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum.

Before the advice comes forth—and I welcome it, of course—let me express that I know that these are not insurmountable problems. One more thought gives me the greatest pause: the Universe—even a single star system—is Big. I tend to run sandbox play, and I have difficulty seeing one planet in a system—even if it has just one inhabitable outpost on that planet—as a single adventure location. I feel the need to develop that thing, in which case it takes on the dimensions of a usual fantasy rpg sandbox. The Expanse television show and novels—which I understand was originally conceived of as an rpg setting—make sense to me: confine the PCs to a manageable star system (in this case, our own—even simpler!). For me, though, even this might be too much. So, to return to my inspirations…

Rusch’s Diving setup appears so workable for gaming because 1. The ship is the “village.” 2. The PCs leave the village to explore interesting “dungeons” and navigate them out of the Boneyard. 3. The incentive for adventure is salvage, probably to equip and ultimately to pay off a debt on the PCs’ starship (a popular sci-fi rpg motif). Once all this is done, maybe I’d be comfortable allowing my PCs to fly off to where no one has gone before.

Just today I read in the current Analog another genius campaign setup. Approaching the plot of “Applied Linguistics” in game terms, it’s almost as if Auston Habershaw developed a story around a Gray Ooze of D&D fame learning a language and innovating a next step in its own evolution. It’s a genius tale on its own merits, but it’s also rich in campaign ideas. The action takes place on a prison planet. The “jail” is host to a number of aliens and factions competing for resources, most of which are rations or new prisoners that crash down in pods sent there by the space authorities. Yes, at first it looks like a prison-break setup (and I tend to avoid these), but, in this case, the PCs are totally at liberty—outside of not being able to leave the planet, of course. I would encourage bizarre PC alien creation, and the campaign most likely would entail survival and faction interaction. In the end, the PCs might find a way off planet, perhaps about when I’m prepared to explore the next part of the universe.

How likely is it that I’ll actually run either of these ideas? Not very. I think it’s no accident that traditional high fantasy or Sword & Sorcery appears to be the most popular genre for roleplaying games. The core mechanic of any FRPG seeks to simulate “reality” in the way that most of us can understand it. Added to this shared perspective is magic and the supernatural. Concern for the actual physical “laws” of reality is minimal. If gamers seek to emulate or simulate the next great paradigm, they’re entering forbidding territory indeed. One of my most favorite observations about the cosmos (first encountered by me in Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots) should give us pause outside of gaming considerations: “Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” The quotation I’m using here credits Werner Heisenberg.

*Of course, with Spacemaster or the like, I need only lean on the PC’s Astrophysics Skill. See, I learned something! 😁

How Character Skills Can—and Should—Encourage Roleplaying

I know this topic might not be necessary for anyone who frequents the Rolemaster Blog, but, as I’ve moved from an Original “Skill-less” style of play back into an RM derivative, I’ve made some observations that might be of interest to some of us here.

In case anyone needs a reminder, Original Dungeons & Dragons (often referred to now as the Original Game) doesn’t contain rules for Skill use. AD&D (1e) might have something in the Dungeon Masters Guide (since I’m currently a player in a Classical 1e game, I’m willfully not privy to this) that provides the option of Secondary Skills, though it should be noted that these are not the detailed “Secondary Skills” we as RMers know but something fuzzier about what a character might have done before leading a life of adventure—a background that might prove relevant for roleplaying in-game situations. I’m going to breeze over AD&D2e, confessing I know nothing about this system, right on to 3e, which is the first version of D&D I ever played. Since my own initial rpg had been Middle-Earth Role Playing, and since I had moved onto such skill-heavy systems as Champions, I didn’t so much as blink at the 3e Skill list and its system of developing these qualities through—wait for it—purchasing and assigning Skill Ranks. If there ever had been any dispute among the more factious in the gaming community, then it would appear that RM had “won”*: Skills were the way to game. 

But it appears that something started to happen at about this time, a quiet movement that—at least for me—didn’t make itself known until Pathfinder had taken over for 3/3.5. Many gamers were discovering that they preferred the “old” way of roleplaying. Many were utilizing the Open Game License to write and distribute “retroclones” or revisions of pre-3e iterations of the d20 system. Whether these systems are “simpler” than other forms of gameplay is debatable. Certainly many of them present a less granular and sometimes entirely absent Skill system.

Why? Well, the thesis of Matt Finch’s Swords & Wizardry (which is Finch’s version of OD&D) is that all questions outside of the core rules (and even those very core rules) as presented in 1974 should be settled at individual gaming tables according to the preferences of the participants in those groups. It is understood, I imagine, by most of us here that this is precisely the process through which Rolemaster was birthed. Many people have a preference for granularity in their gaming, and, for many years, this appears to have been the direction of the core industry. The Old School Revival is a standard for those who began to say, “We liked it better before.”

A particular power gamer at my table while I was running Pathfinder caused me to look with more interest at the OSR. “[B]ring the balance back”—a lyric from Led Zeppelin—adorns the back cover of S&W’s second printing. The Pf culture was my first experience with a gamer who actively researched “builds” to defeat the GM. Defeat the GM, you say? Since a GM is often described as the “God” of the rpg, how can that even be possible? Well, some of the standards in Pf appear to protect gamers from bad GMs. It’s generally considered uncool—or the equivalent of a “broken game”—to present the PCs with a combat encounter in excess of Epic rating (CR+3). Noncombat encounters, you say? Well, now we’re back to the subject at hand: Skills.

With problem players (and I don’t intend for this to be a rant about this unsavory topic; we’re leaving this in a moment) Skills can “break the game”: “Well, my Perception is +32. Can I get a roll?” “I want to leap over that wall. My Acrobatics is +28.” As a GM, I wanted my power back. I wanted to decide if it made sense for a character to notice something. I wanted some walls to be unclimbable. I wanted this because I wanted a satisfying story and because I wanted my players to feel challenged.

This can be accomplished without removing Skills altogether, of course. My point is that I explored a Skill-less game in order to start from scratch, to “make the game my own” at its Origin. I quickly found myself reintroducing Skills through mechanics of my own devising. Then, in the course of moving from a “homegrown” system to the MERP derivative Against the Darkmaster, I realized—with a bit of surprise—that Skill systems can encourage better roleplaying.

Skills define the character. This seems obvious in hindsight, but, without that list of capabilities in front of them, some gamers have difficulty making in-game decisions. A list of skills provides ideas and parameters for the gamer, shows the player what his character is good at, and telegraphs goals towards which the character can work through skill development. If the gamer imagines that her character should be good at picking pockets, then he sees that as a clear goal and puts points into that at Level advancement. Perhaps, more importantly, say that within the midst of a campaign a character realizes that she really should be better at tracking. Well, he makes a note and at Level advancement puts ranks into that Skill because, in game, the character realized that skill was important enough to work at it, to improve it.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is that, even if Skill attempts are resolved at the table with die rolls and modifiers, the action should be roleplayed. A criticism that is made by some in the OSR community—most of the time unfairly—is that later, Skill-heavy rpg systems replace roleplaying with mechanical resolution. Even if a Skill Test is involved, a player should describe specifically how a character is performing an action, taking into consideration the GM’s scenario, then the dice should be rolled with modifiers subject to how competent or ludicrous the PC’s intention might be. This isn’t as obvious as it might sound. About a year ago, a friend of mine played in a Starfinder game at a con. He said that the experience felt like a lot of “roll to see what you get.”

Skill rolls should drive the story. This one might be less obvious than the previous considerations. It only came to me after I adopted VsD and started using its Action Resolution Table. There are two very important results in VsD’s chart: Critical Failure and Partial Success. Critical Failure means that a character made the situation worse. For example, in my play-by-post game, a character trying to talk a horse-trader into a good price for his steeds actually convinced the businessman to attempt to steal all the PC’s stuff and hold him hostage. In my tabletop game, a PC led an NPC into the city and then tried to lose him: Partial Success. Okay, maybe on the way back the PC is mobbed by an excitable crowd who never has seen an Elf before, or a nefarious somebody else notices the maneuver, or the dodge brings the PC through an ominous back alley. All of these are exciting, spontaneous, new features in the narrative.

Pf, as written, has a Pass/Fail mechanic. The Original rules set I most recently was using had no mechanic. VsD Skill resolution introduces opportunities for plot complications and narrative twists. I’m not sure if I would be GMing this way had I adopted the RMu playtest instead of VsD. The language in the RMu Maneuvers table, despite its variation, reads very much like Pass/Fail—except for that magical 66, of course!

Anyway, those are my thoughts: Skills give players something measurable to define their characters by and Skill resolution mechanics should contribute to meaningful storytelling.

*I’m not sure that there had been factions: the pre-Internet late-80s/early 90s seemed to be a different time, and all the D&Ders I had known were politely interested in and perhaps secretly envious of how I claimed to understand and play something as arcane as MERP.

“Ghosting” and Ways of Play in Online Play-by-Post Games

I think I’m “ghosted” again.

I want to game much more than I have time for. I’m sure most of us can relate. Because of work and family obligations, I’m generally confined to one night a week (mine is Monday) for gaming. This is doubly exasperating because of the welter of beautiful rpgs tantalizing from my bookshelf or from afar. Most games are built for campaign play. They cry out for long term exploration. One-shots are fleeting affairs.

I’ve tried some online relationships. To game with Roll20 or something comparable would threaten my Monday commitment, so I’ve attempted Play-by-Post, something slightly less involving. I’ve had four of these affairs. One ended sort of badly. The rest just… ended.

Here are my four PbP relationships in order of acquaintance. If you, dear reader, happen to have been a player in any of these, this in no way is intended as a slight against you. For all of these games I was the GM (online, as in real life, there appear to be a whole lot more people queuing up to “play” rather than to GM). Conan 2d20 on G+ (2-3 players). RM2 on G+ (2 players). Swords & Wizardry on Discord (a rotating roster of 4+ players). Against the Darkmaster on Discord (2 players). Even from the very first, I intuited that I would have to establish some expectations going in, and the foremost was this: everyone is expected to “check in” and post something at least once a day.

Yeah, sure, they say. It’s good to have this understanding going in. No doubt.

And it begins, a flurry of activity, multiple posts over multiple days. I have a question about this. Can I clear this with you, GM? Cool character! Here we go!

A good PbP run for me appears to be an encounter or two. At first the gamers are responsive. Most of them are complimentary of my style and adventure. Then one or more of the players miss a day: “Sorry, catching up on posts now.” By now I’ve learned that this means it’s not long till the ghosting occurs.

Why, exactly, does this happen? I would love to administer an exit survey for these gamers. One very generous player for my Conan game apologized for whatever culpability he had in the game’s demise (not much) and praised my GMing. Maybe I should have continued on with just him as my gamer. I have avoided this because I think a better game involves inter-player interaction, not the imbalanced top-down authority of GM to single gamer. But for PbP, this might be the only way I can go. And who knows, maybe in collaboration with one highly competent and experienced gamer I can create a masterpiece such as the one (face-to-face constructed) by Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont during grad school. For those who left my PbPs, I’d offer the following survey.

Why did you ghost/leave my game?

Was it you?

Was it just too much writing? Are you not used to writing a carefully worded post once per day? Would you participate again if you had more time?

Was it too much thinking? Did you find it upsetting to be cogitating about this interaction throughout much of your day? Did it interfere with your work or relationships?

Was it too much time? Did you not anticipate the obligation that posting once a day would demand of you? Did it begin to interfere with your work, relationships or other gaming commitments?

Did you get what you wanted? Did you simply want to explore the game, create a character, make new friends, and now that you have done that, it’s time to move on?

Was it me?

Am I a bad GM in the way a GM can be bad in any format?

Was it my writing? Did I write too much? Did I post too much? Was my prose intimidating?

Was it my micro-aggressions? I’m an old school gamer. I tend to talk tough. Did this seem adversarial to you?

Was it my agency? Did I open avenues for your character that you didn’t want explored?

This last survey question leads me to rumination concerning differences regarding online PbP from traditional tabletop interaction. I suspect that many PbP gamers might chiefly be interested in a lovingly crafted character and its backstory. These gamers might cool to the experience as soon as we start “playing” and I, the GM, begin to introduce elements that the characters’ loving creators never expected nor intended. Years ago (still always the GM) I was sort of like this. While world building or helping my players generate characters, fictive elements might synthesize with such power that I simply wanted to go off, away from the players, and write a fantasy story outside of the players’ communal creative influence on my personal vision.

PbP is different from the tabletop experience because the sense of immediacy is gone. With an entire day, the players and I have plenty of time to construct an evocative post or consider the implications of a character action or die roll. The possibilities resulting from all this time caused me, as a GM, to consider whether or not I was “writing” rather than gaming—even if I were sort of cheating, because I didn’t have to improv so much and easily could restructure the narrative, with careful thought, around the character actions. The gamers might have similarly been aware of how much situation analysis was available to them.

It’s clear that my PbP failures aren’t solitary. It’s also clear that PbP can be successful, with campaigns running for many years. For now, I’m resigned to be content with my Monday nights, and perhaps it’s time for some solo play.

And the Rest: Movement, Travel, Wealth, Experience and Magic in Against the Darkmaster

As with most games, Against the Darkmaster (VsD) tracks Encumbrance Levels—five of them, ranging from Unencumbered to Over Encumbered. Generally, the GM and players use a few simple criteria to eyeball what might be a character’s appropriate Encumbrance Level. An encumbered PC moves more slowly during overland travel and takes penalties on physical activity. No surprise.

Surprisingly, though, for someone like me, the VsD encumbrance system was a bit too handwavy, even while I recognize that, in mostly every game, encumbrance is shrugged away anyway. I consequently went through the Equipment Table, assigned a weight number (usually 1 or 2, if anything) to large items, and ruled that characters possessing these in numerical increments of 5 would go up an EL.

Tucked in between rules for Encumbrance and Wealth is a Hazards Table. Here is a more lingering glimpse of the emulationist aspect of VsD: characters are expected to encounter 2-3 Hazards during mid-length overland travel. The table provides randomized results of Weather, Free People, Natural Obstacles, Minions of Darkness, Wild Beasts and Ancient World Perils. The table is useful but not enough. The QS lacks even a modicum of explanation for these results. Certainly the full rules will rectify this, and I hope that the complete game will contain “breakout” tables with which the GM short on ideas might generate different types of Weather or numinous suggestions for Ancient World Perils. For my game I borrow a strategy from Kent David Kelly, using a standard dictionary to randomly generate words that inspire possibilities.

The rules for Travel are expanded on the VsD blog. As with the fictions inspiring the game, it is very important for characters to find sheltered Campsites and Safe Havens in the midst of adversity.

If the Encumbrance rules weren’t anything surprising, the Wealth and Treasure system was! Instead of tracking coin, every character possesses a Wealth Level ranging from 0 to 5. Everything on the Equipment Table has a Fare score that falls within an equivalent range. If a character’s WL exceeds the Fare of the desired item, that character is understood to have purchased that item immediately. In this instance, the character’s WL does not change. If the WL equals the Fare, the WL drops by one. If the Fare exceeds the WL, well, tough luck—go find some Treasure. Right, Treasure: each trove has a corresponding Treasure Value. If the TV=character’s WL, WL increases by 1. If the TV exceeds WL by any increment, the WL becomes the TV.

I ran a Session 0 for my tabletop game. My players determined their characters’ WLs, I explained the system, and we went shopping! When I described to the designers what I had done, they said something like, “Oh. Well, you can do it that way, I guess, but our intentions had been for WLs to be part of starting equipment. We imagined that all new acquisitions would be roleplayed in-game.”

In VsD, PCs seem to advance in Experience Levels more swiftly than in other games, another feature I appreciate. My gaming table never is going to complete a years-long campaign from Levels 1-10 in traditional play. It’s just not possible. Even if there weren’t numerous other equally-enticing games and genres vying for our attention, we just don’t have the time anymore. Starting PCs possess 10 XP at Level 1. After every session, every person at the table asks his or her character if that PC can say yes to the following questions:

You travelled to or explored a location you’ve never seen before. You faced dangerous foes and/or difficult situations. You completed a quest or mission. You suffered a grievous wound, or suffered a great personal failure.

p. 57

In addition to these are some Vocation-specific queries. Every yes awards an XP. Every 10 XP results in a Level advancement.

As has already been stated, the basics of the VsD spell system are shared with BASiL and some others. What remains to be said is that some spells may be Warped. This means that additional Magic Points can be expended (exceeding the base cost of casting the spell) for greater or additional effects. Another rule regarding Magic emulates VsD’s source fictions: if ever, during a Spell Roll, “doubles” are rolled on the d100 (e.g., 66), the character might “attract the attention of Dark Powers and Servants of the Shadows.” The GM then rolls on another table to see what specific action, if any, the Darkmaster takes in response to this Magical Resonance.


I have examined this game, as presented in its QS, through the lens of the specific fictions that this game seeks to emulate. By this criterium, some of the rules—particularly those that contribute toward lethality in combat—are at odds with VsD’s stated intention. Some features—such as rules for Warfare—are missing and without intention of being developed, but these might be provided for through community contributions or future company support.

I expect my own gaming table will be exploring this rpg for the entire year. Two of my four gamers have expressed great enthusiasm for these rules. They are fairly new gamers, so this kind of surprises me. The presence of a d100 core mechanic (in comparison to the cobbled-together, home-ruled Original D&D I had been running) probably contributes to their enjoyment.

For myself, I love how this satisfies a nostalgic impulse while designing away most of the features that have created difficulty for me in regards to its progenitor. More is to be done, and the basic structure of VsD is porous enough that, should I need to, I can modify this to my own tastes. My main difficulty appears to be Weapon Stats. 

ToM’s recently stated company openness to non-profit community content (and some licensing) and independent OPEN00 (genius name, by the way) game derivations is highly encouraging. With this support, the VsD community is likely to enrich individual game qualities and perhaps appeal to brand new gamers who are seeking an experience outside of the d20 hegemony. I very much look forward to an update to the QS and, above all, the Kickstarter for the full rules later this year.

Combat in Against the Darkmaster

I think I should have the Against the Darkmaster (VsD) QuickStart introduce this topic:

Combat is a serious thing in Against the Darkmaster.

While characters are assumed to be heroic, even the most skillful fighter must take combat seriously because of the high chance of being wounded or killed with a single blow.

p. 37

Right. Well. Hm.

I don’t disagree that combat should be serious, even for (perhaps even especially for) heroes, but I’m not sure that the type of combat presented in VsD properly emulates the fantasy fictions that inspire VsD. Perhaps I’m off track here. I’ve already admitted that I don’t relate to the Heavy Metal ethos of the 80s, and VsD specifically points to this element as inspiration for its combat.

The combat system in VsD, with some alterations, is that of Middle-Earth Role Playing and various Rolemasters: roll d100, add Skill bonus, subtract Defensive Bonus, compare the result to the appropriate armor on a chart. The armors are the MERP armors—None, Soft Leather, Rigid Leather, Chain and Plate. Results on this table range from a miss to one of the five Criticals, renamed in VsD as Superficial, Light, Moderate, Grievous and Lethal. Okay, simple enough.

An Attack Table. The colors are neat and useful!

But, as with MERP, as with Rolemaster, conditions and qualifiers soon heap on. Does the opponent have Cover? Wait, isn’t she also on Higher Ground? Are you attacking from the Flank? Do you have to Move to get there? Are you at half Hit Points? Is that above the Max Result for your Weapon? Hey, doesn’t that do -10 against Chain?

Ugh. I know that some gamers don’t mind this kind of play at all. In fact, many prefer it. But I think that my table doesn’t like its rules to interfere with its fiction. Don’t get me wrong, these rules do make good fiction. Of course I love granularity and realism. But not when those features become a grind, not when they become fiddly. And not when they so easily can kill my PCs with one blow.

What are you saying, Gabe? Are you forgetting that this also is a game, and no challenge is entertaining if there are no stakes involved? (The voice in my head here, specifically, is Aspire2Hope’s, one that always keeps me honest.) I know, so perhaps I’m saying that the stakes are too high… Or I’m saying that the stakes are too high depending on the situation.

In the fictions inspiring VsD, main characters (our PCs) do die, but they don’t expire because of a stray shot from a Goblin. They perish plunging with the Balrog into the Abyss, they drop while defending Little People against hordes of Uruk-hai, they fail on the Field of Battle, thrown from horseback because of the malevolent terror exuding from a Nazgûl.

Outside of the basic conditions such as Stunning and Bleeding, the VsD combat rules as presented in the QS do not emulate the fictions. Again, they might reflect a Heavy Metal vibe, but arbitrary death does not signify heroic fiction. If this latter is not what VsD is after, there are ways to fix this. VsD already has given players one “character shield”: they can spend a Drive Point to lower a suffered Critical by one severity (but must abide by the new results). Here is another possibility, one admittedly inspired by other games: the character somehow survives death, but she is now Doomed (or Fey, in the Old Norse sense of the word), destined for a truly heroic death. The GM then introduces, as soon as possible, an awesomely terrifying Big Bad and tells the character that this is how he dies; how she goes about doing it is up to him, and usually she should be saving others from a seemingly invincible Presence. The player might choose to die before the GM can roll this out, determining on his own what is a fitting demise for her hero. Or—or in addition to this—most NPCs can be designated a kind of “mook” that has a max damage rating vs a PC. Or NPCs should just be easier to kill. I’m doing this already with my simplified NPC Stats that were slightly revealed last post, and most of my mookish NPCs don’t have DBs.

The easiest way to describe VsD combat as written is to share The Tactical Round Sequence.

I’m not sure how much of this is standard to most iterations of Rolemaster, so forgive me if I go on about anything obvious. I’m going to detail the features that are a bit new to me.

From the top, Assessment Phase. Basically, if the GM determines that any PC might be disoriented—due to being Stunned, taking a fall, getting ambushed, etc.—then this character must succeed at a Perception Roll to take any action without penalty. Other than this, the only thing that is new to me are the order of actions according to weapon size in the Melee Phase. I don’t think anything else should be puzzling to an RM gamer.

The same can be said for what are the three types of Actions—Full, Half and Free—and modifiers to combat that result from taking some of them. It takes time to Load weapons. Characters may use all or half of their Offensive Bonuses to Parry. A low roll could result in a Weapon Fumble. There is a long list of combat modifiers, though this is given as a separate table in the Appendix of the QS.

By now, readers won’t be surprised that I prefer to keep that list in the Appendix. I might memorize the conditions the QS specifies in its text—combat modifiers for characters who are Prone, Surprised, Stunned, Incapacitated, Held, Flanking and at the Rear. None of these are unfamiliar for RM gamers. For the rest, I would rather use the inspiration of the moment and my own “increment” method.

I’m not sure what to do about Weapon Stats, likewise in the Appendix. I think I have to use them for now. It’s important for weapons to be different from one another. I think I’ll try to push the burden of knowing these qualities onto my players.

A corresponding Critical Strike Table

Skill and Save Rolls in Against the Darkmaster

And now it’s time to play!

No surprises for Rolemaster gamers, in the QuickStart of Against the Darkmaster (VsD), Skill tests are resolved against an easily-memorizable Action Resolution Table (above). For comparisons between this table and others—and how they might be used for narrative purposes—I direct you to Peter R’s recent discussion about Maneuvers in RM games. All that remains to be explained here is that, in VsD, actions are resolved through the character rolling an Open-Ended d100; adding modifiers for Skill, situation and Difficulty; and referring to the GM for the result. VsD gives some rough characterizations for levels of Difficulty, and the mechanical components attached to the descriptions are essentially in increments of ten with a jump from Heroic (-50) to Insane (-70).

I prefer to set my own Difficulties by “increment.” For Level 1 characters, the table is punishing enough—the probability for success is just north of 25%, and, even then, “success” usually means a Partial Success, which almost never allows the character a clean resolution. If one thing is complicating the Action Resolution, I give the roll -10, if two, -20, and so on. Of course, some dangers might qualify singly as -20 or more, and I take these into consideration. My point here is that I don’t necessarily trust myself nor want to take up too much time fussing over what might be an appropriate level of difficulty, so this is my method.

The same is true for any test which involves an NPC. Unsurprisingly, the QS contains rules for Conflicting Actions, which amount to “opposed rolls.” I do use these, sometimes, but it’s more economical to use the NPC Level to set a Difficulty. Is a PC attempting to Deceive a Level 5 con-artist? Well, it’s hard to Deceive a deceiver, isn’t it! The Difficulty modifier is -50. Anyone who remembers my discussion of Skills in VsD will recognize that this value equates to two Ranks per Level in the corresponding “skill” (for any more than this, I’m going to have to multiply Ranks over 10 by 2, then Ranks over 20 by 1). Let’s say that the NPC has been unlikely to develop this specific quality. Fine, perhaps 1 Rank per Level, then, Level x 5. Unskilled? Well, then obviously nothing. But what about Stat bonuses? Yeah, well, what about them? I don’t care; this is an NPC. But, sure, if it isn’t much trouble for you, as a GM, go ahead and toss them in. My point remains: I don’t need to take time, even if it’s just a moment, to make this determination at the gaming table.

The VsD Helping rules, in my own game, have a much wider application than what at first might be expected. I don’t prefer to have my PCs “piling on” rolls for Perception and Lore Skills (for an elaboration of this and “passive” Perception, see my comments in this post), but everyone can Help, even, usually, belatedly. To Help, every aiding character must describe how that person is Helping and succeed at a relevant test. Every success in this way awards a cumulative +10 to the activity roll for the main character attempting the test.

I like to use Helping to simulate other narrative aspects as well. In my play-by-post format, two PCs were passengers on a river ship suddenly beset by a storm. One PC used his Charisma to motivate his followers to help the shipmen steer the boat away from the riverbanks; the other PC did something more direct by seizing a spar and attempting to physically press the hull away from the rocky river edge. If either succeeded, that character would contribute a cumulative +10 to the GM’s roll for the sailors of the ship to keep from crashing. (What happened, you say? The ship smashed and sank.)

Save Rolls are pretty straightforward. An OE Roll is added to the character’s SR bonus in an attempt to beat a Difficulty which is 50 + Level of the effect x 5.

A shorter entry this time. This is because next is Combat! Unsurprisingly, this might be the most involving analysis yet.

Background, Passions and Drive in Against the Darkmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p. 30

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

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

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

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

p. 29

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

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

Vocations and Skills in Against the Darkmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p. 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stats, Kin and Cultures of Against the Darkmaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p. 14

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

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

p. 15

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

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

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

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

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

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