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

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

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

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

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

Shadow World Deux ex machina: Gods or Loremasters?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maximizing Essaence Flows in your Shadow World campaign

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

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

Essaence manifestations can play a number of roles in gameplay:

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

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

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

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

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