All is quiet in Rolemaster world.

I have literally 5 minutes to spare so I thought I would get in a quick blog! As RMBlogs reader have seen, activity is WAY DOWN on the blog and even the RM Forums are pretty slow moving. Let’s chalk it up to the dog days of summer, real life commitments and a temporary lull in the conversation. I have 5-6 posts stewing on the dashboard that I hope to get to, some polishing up on the 50in50’s and then of course the rest of my projects.

So what have I gleaned from quick and random perusals around RM land?

  1. It feels like RMU is close. There was a flurry of activity on the development forums on several topics and it looks like some tightening of the rules. Generally though it feels like most everything is now set and close to publication. That is just my sense–no inside info.
  2. GenCon. I was sad to see Terry had to cancel  his GenCon game. I think his presence would have been a big hit and brought some exposure to Rolemaster and Shadow World. On the other hand, it’s time for newer younger players to take up the banner and run with it via RMU and new products.
  3. Real life news. No not politics! There has been a ton of cool archaeology news lately. I should do a weekend round up soon!
  4. According to Terry, my SW submission and Lethys are on the shelf! He has asked Nicholas to find a new editor since he is busy with his own projects. That’s discouraging… I’m leading towards just publishing it for free so I can have closure and move on to the next one.
  5. When things free up we are going to put together a super edition of the Fanzine with a compilation of updated SW material. I promise Peter!

ok, back to the grindstone. If anyone wants to put their big toe into the land of RM or RPG blogging now would be the time! And it would be a great help.

Thrown Weapons in Arms Law. A critical component of combat.

A recent thread over at the RMU Arms Law Beta Forums discussed the viability of thrown weapons. The general impression is that thrown weapons aren’t used regularly by most players; according to the poll over 60% of player use thrown weapons 0-20% of the time. There are a number of reasons stated or implied for the low use of thrown weapons:

  1. Limited damage.
  2. Limited range.
  3. Limited “ammo”; once you throw it, it’s gone for the remainder of combat usually.

But there might be a systemic problem within Rolemaster combat that minimizes the use of thrown weapons–I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, let’s distinguish between larger thrown weapons like spears and war hammers and smaller less potent weapons like daggers, darts, shurikens, needles or even ball bearings. All of these smaller weapons are cool, add personality to players and NPC’s and are portrayed as being quite deadly in popular fiction. But in many RPG’s, small thrown weapons aren’t that potent; or as seen in the forum thread, rarely used.

Terry includes a lot of thrown weapons in his NPC’s. Wrist dart guns, axes and  shurikens are frequently used, but they are often magical (return via long door) or have other bonus properties (exploding flame cartridges or sleep powder). These “add-ons” overcome some of the real or perceived  limitations of thrown weapons, but also reinforce the idea that mundane small thrown weapons aren’t that usable.

So solution 1 is to enhance thrown weapons with Weapon Runes, poisons, or powders/pastes. I like this solution as it adds even more utility to the Herb/Poison skill and can be a accessible solution for lower level players.

Where and when does one throw a weapon? The base 50′ movement rate/rnd allows players to shift from long distance ranged weapon use to melee in a single round. 50′ is usually too far for effective thrown weapon use, and within 10′ it’s basically melee engagement. Throwing while moving incurs fairly high penalties and basically removes the ability of the player to use a more effective melee attack at the end of the movement phase. It feels like a small window of opportunity and combined with low damage, makes thrown skill less important when allocating scarce development points. Certainly everyone modifies or house rules their combat rounds, so ask yourself how your methodology encourages or discourages thrown weapons.

Therefore, Solution 2 addresses issues that might be arising from the RM combat rules itself by allowing for thrown weapon use in melee. If we consider normal melee engagement distance to be between 5′ to 10′ then allowing small thrown weapons at the outer limits of that range, as an extra attack, to be advantageous. We’ve worked this into our system with the “combat sphere” in our initiative rules and our individual weapon modifiers. With this system, if the “thrower” wins the initiative they’ve created a small space/distance to effectively throw (similar to the combat sphere of a polearm wielder). That means an opponent with a shorter weapon will be at a disadvantage against the thrower.

However, you don’t need to add those extra rules –just permit  thrown small size weapon use in melee with the understanding that the small give and take positioning of combat allows for gaps needed to throw. Allowing more flexibility with thrown weapons and adding some enhancements can make these small, even innocuous, weapons quite deadly!



Chargen Part 2 Questions

I used to have a GM that would start the first game session with dishing out about 5 pages of questions about your  character. The format was sort of question followed by about 10 lines of space then next question and so on. I cannot remember the actual questions except the very last one which was “What would your character sell his soul for?

I used to detest these questions. For a start I rarely know my characters personality when I sit down to play. I tend to have an idea of what I want to play but I am heavily influenced by the other players characters and the first adventure.

It is not the actual questioning I objected to but the timing of it. During that first session there is so much to take in, you could be getting to grasp with an entirely new setting, your new character, new party members, a new mission and possibly new rules or variations on the rules you thought you knew.

What brings this all to mind are twofold.

  1. Spectre771 mentioned in a comment to my last post about the differentiation between experienced players and newer less experienced players.
  2. My reading of the 7th Sea rules.

One of the things that my Rolemaster house rules always share is that character generation is always diceless. In RMC I use fixed #hits and point buy stats. In RMU hits are skill based, not rolled, and there is a core rule for point buying stats. Spell acquisition is skill based in both games although using different methods but the net effect is the same. If you know my house rules then you can create your character well in advance. For me it means that I can then devote my time and effort to any new players who cannot be left to create a character without some support.

7th Sea is also a diceless character generation system, you just pick options at each stage to create your hero. It is exceptionally quick and easy but lacks much of the detail and granularity of RM.

The stand out difference is that 7th Sea starts with 20 questions. These start with objective things like What Nation is your Hero from? and progress through things like What are your Hero’s highest ambitions? and What is your Hero’s opinion of his country? to eventually end up with What does your Hero think of Sorcery?

The fundamental difference between these questions and my old GM’s questions is that of timing. I can give out the 7th Sea questions along with a primer on my setting, nations and game world long before the game starts. That way you get to think about the sort of character you want to play in your own time. You can answer the questions then go back and change your mind. The answers you come up with then turn into a blue print to use in creating your character.

Adopting the same technique for Rolemaster, particularly with new players, has massive advantages. For really new players coming to RPGs for the first time the difference between Roll play and Role play are not always clear in their minds, particularly if they are coming from a wargaming background where the use of dice for combat resolution is an idea they are comfortable with.

I don’t see this just as a structure for new players either. It doesn’t hurt to give it to experienced players. My group have a tendency to slip into the same old personalities again and again. I get my players to create a post-it sized personality description which is stuck on the front of their character sheets. At the start of every session I ask them to read it to themselves as a reminder. If they tell me they do something that I think would be seriously out of character then I will ask them to read their post-it and then reconsider. Sometimes they read it and then insist that they are happy with their original choice, others they retract the action and do things differently because the character simply would not rip the innocent bartenders fingernails out just to get the address of an informant.

The 20 7th Sea questions do not take up any game time as they happen before the first game session but they make creating that personality prompt post-it much easier. It also makes creating a character with a new player easier too. As a guiding GM with a new player if you know what the player wants to play it is easier to help them achieve that. This is doubly true with a fully expanded RM2 I would say.

If you want I will list the 20 questions but I would also suggest that you create your own and make them setting specific. For modern espionage settings (I’m looking at you Intothatdarkness) you could style it like a psych evaluation. For shadow world if you have already decided on your characters starting location then you can add in cultural influences or drop in questions to hint at the Unlife or if everyone is going to be Gryphon College trained then twist things to reflect their world view.

Any thoughts? Do you want to see the questions?

Bone Weapons in Rolemaster & Shadow World

Figure 1.

Last October I posted up some of my work with “Special Armor“: cultural armor that utilizes special materials that is specific to various Shadow World cultures or groups. Since then, I’ve been building on this idea with weapons, and specifically weapons made of bone.

While bone may seem too fragile or may splinter too easily to make good weapons, there are historical precedents. The picture at the top are human bone daggers utilized by tribes in New Guinea. Not only is the idea of human bones cool/grim, the “Runes” carved into the daggers lends itself to a fantasy RPG setting. The tribes also made daggers from bones of the Cassowary, a large flightless bird similar to an Ostrich. For inspiration, check out this article on real weapons made from animal components. Some of these are quite intimidating!

Figure 4.

While scientists have concluded that the human thigh bone has excellent properties for use as a piercing weapon, a fantasy game setting opens up the opportunities for bone weapons made from magical creatures: Dragons, Shards etc.  So let’s take it one further: combining magical bone with Weapon Runes. These become totemic cultural weapons that can help define a unique culture. Special bone weapons are common in other game systems and fantasy computer games, but not really represented in Shadow World. I added  a tribe for my Shadow World campaign:

Igata – Triangle Glyph. Outer islands. The Igata are a reclusive tribe living on the long island south of the Demon Gap. They will trade with passing ships but their isolation from the mainland makes them cautious of strangers. The Igata consider themselves caretakers of the waters of the Ssoei’dawass and the Sea Serpents that travel to the sheltered bay to spawn, and eventually, die. The Igata collect shell fragments and bones from the bay and carve them with powerful runes and fashion them into potent weapons. Their main hall is framed with the rib bones of an enormous serpent.

The Igata skills combining Sea Serpent bones with ritual and inscribed magic (Runes and such) to make charms, weapons, staves, rods and other powerful items that are sought after. The magically infused and unnaturally strong Sea Serpent bone lends itself to enchantment. (see my post and chart on enchantment and material strength; I use a single number for both material strength and enchantment capacity). While bone items may be better for Crushing or Piercing weapons,  I also allow the magical properties of special bone to be used for Slashing as well–or alternatively by utilizing an  “Edging” Weapon Rune.

With so many cool magical metals and alloys in Shadow World, it probably doesn’t seem necessary to add enchanted bone weapons, but I think it adds a lot of cultural flavor to the game. Have you used Bone Weapons? What SW or RM creature would have “good bones” for use in these weapons?



Rolemaster Deconstruction: Familiars. How should they work?


Familiars are not only a staple of fantasy fiction but a core visual ingredient of Rolemaster book covers–specifically the ongoing series of Angus McBride covers from earlier RM books that featured a cast of PC’s with several small animal Familiars.

Familiars had a more sinister aspect in early fiction; most often a demonic imp, crow or other dark-aspected animal tied to an evil antagonist. Early D&D applied this concept to any M-U, and broadened it to a simple servitor or animalistic henchmen of a spell-caster.

First, let’s differentiate between “animal control” spells and “familiars”. Animal control spells are featured in the Animist, Beast Master, Druid and similar professional lists in Spell Law and Companions. These are spells that summon/call, control/master and sometimes allow the caster to sense through a controlled animal. These are all powerful affects, in in some ways SUPERIOR to the limitations and penalties associated with Familiars. So how does Rolemaster deal with Familiars? Fairly easily, in fact, so easy that it behooves a caster to immediately have one.

So why would a caster have a Familiar?

Familiars have a symbiotic connection to the caster where animal control is just a magical charm or affect on a creature. So what is the symbiotic relationship? What benefit does it provide besides cinematics? How does it work, mechanically via the rules?

The basic premise is that there is a REAL benefit to the caster, but at the cost of INVESTITURE. In other words, if the relationship is severed there is a real, physical or psychosomatic cost to the caster. Otherwise isn’t it just easier and less risk to control creatures when needed?

So what is the benefit, or possible benefits, of a familiar that differentiate it from other animal control spells? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Communication. The Familiar bond should allow for free two way communication between the caster and creature. This may not be actual “language” but at least a strong empathic bond.
  2. Awareness. The caster and familiar should have some base awareness in terms of location/distance of each other at all times.
  3. Shared Awareness. With concentration the caster might be allowed to project sensory ability and awareness through their Familiar.
  4. Control. The caster, with concentration, should be able to have some control over their familiar or, at least, give simple instructions for a Familiar to execute.
  5. Shared abilities. A caster might gain some extra-abilities through the Familiar relationship. Perhaps better vision, languages, strength, sensory etc. On the flip side, a Familiar could gain some intellectual ability bestowed by the Familiar bond.

Most of these benefits mirror other animal control spells. But those are temporary spell effects; a Familiar is permanent.

My belief is that GM’s are reluctant or adverse to Familiars. Why? Familiars are really NPC’s for the benefit of the PC’s. That really complicates the narrative.  GM’s not only have to manage normal NPC’s but a constant stream of Familiars that can upend the storyline unless the GM takes the Familiars into consideration!!! At that point, who is the audience? Additionaly, Familiars can change the challenge/reaction of normal adventures–familiars act as scouts or agents with heightened senses that can off-set the normal challenge-balance. At the least, Familiars can be the “canary in the coal mine” and alert the group of traps or other imminent obstacles.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Familiars are GM agents. You can better control the narrative through them.
  • They should be of animal intelligence. They may act with pro-forma intelligence via their caster, but their base ability should be simple animal intelligence.
  • Size. Should they be of smaller size? Should a caster have a bull as a familiar? Probably not. I would restrain the spell limits using the size rules to Small or less.
  • The penalty for losing a familiar should be EXTREME, or at least cautionary. The tie that binds should snap back accordingly and in proportion. This could be loss of temp CO. or even a permanent CO pt, a general activity penalty and even worse.

Again, this goes back to risk/reward. No GM wants to manage intelligent Familiars that run the unknown gauntlet, trip the traps and distract the monsters. At that point, who is playing? Familiars should be carefully hoarded resources–a cool benefit that needs to be defended! Are familiars a great resource in you game?

Of course, if easy and beneficial, every player will have a Familiar. But if the risks and rewards are balanced, would it be different? Maybe the whole concept should be reduced to a simplified, professional agnostic “Animal Bond” mechanic and spell list. That eliminates the whole D&D Magic-User familiar trope and become a generic but specific rule-set that could be used by a variety of PC’s or classes: Magician, Animist, Druid, Beast Master, Barbarian etc. What are your thoughts?




Adding “dark things” to your Rolemaster and Shadow World games.

Poisons, diseases, curses. Oh my. In the earliest days of D&D, adventurers not only had to avoid traps, navigate mazes and defeat monsters, they had to contend with other insidious agents like poisons, level drains, curses or cursed objects, petrification and the diseased touch of the Mummy.  Not really a safe vocation when you really think about it! While much of the Saving Throw/Resistance Roll mechanic was built around these attack types, how often do GM’s really use these “dark things”? How often do you introduce poisons & diseases in your campaign?

D&D made many challenges fairly simple. Curses could be countered with a particular spell, poisons could be Saved or cured etc. They were designed to be yet another discrete challenge that has to be overcome. A binary mechanic: effect vs. cure. D&D didn’t bother with specific poison antidotes (unless part of the narrative) or even causation (what is a curse and why so prevalent in D&D). You Saved and you were good, you failed and you had to seek out a singular solution.

Rolemaster introduced a more realistic system for many of these challenges; and poisons were definitely more detailed! Not only were there many poisons, they were defined into 5 types, had specific antidotes, and had varying levels of effects. A similar approach was taken with diseases and whole spell lists were devoted to varying curses whose effects spanned the realm of imagination.

A few years ago I took a critical look at my own campaign and GMing proclivities. I realized that I rarely used diseases, never used curses (or at least hadn’t for many years) and was reluctant to delve into poisons.  Now I see these interesting affects as not just a quick add-on but great additions to my narrative toolkit. Let’s take a look:

  1. Poisons. Many GM’s are reluctant to use poisons due to their variety, unpredictable effects AND some sort of ethical standard (maybe established by D&D class restrictions). I think that’s just wrong and leaves a whole layer of complexity to gaming. Putting our own social norms aside, the widespread use of herbs in the RM/SW world clearly lays a path for the common use of harmful herbs and agents as well. I just finished then newest Mark Lawrence book that prominently featured the use of herbs and poisons–it really inspired me to add more depth to poisons and an added value to the skill. Luckily, RM and SW already has a comprehensive list of substances that I collated into a MASTER LIST. I also left Poison as a meta-skill that covers identification (by taste, smell, symptoms etc) preparation, application and use, and as part of our system that provides a benefit for ranks, the # of ranks in Poison is also added to any RR vs poisons.  (This models the idea of a poisoner taking low doses over time to build up their resistance). So now poisons are like spells, with varying effects, methods of delivery and counter-antidotes. To facilitate poison (and similar substances) it helps to use a variety of mediums: paste, liquids, powders, oils that have varying effect times and for pre-prepared antidotes to the most commonly known agents. And poisons don’t just have to kill, they can paralyze, knock a person out, make them dizzy etc, so they aren’t just a deadly, unethical or cowardly attack only favored by assassins and “low men”. Poison preparation also shoehorns into our alchemy rules and can be combined with various substrate delivery systems. I’ll be expanding on this in an upcoming blog or RMBlog fanzine edition in the near future.
  2. Diseases. I think my reluctance to use diseases is multi-fold. First, diseases are generally slow acting so they don’t create a sense of urgency. Second, Elves and even half-Elves are basically immune to diseases so in SW much of the population doesn’t eve worry about it. Finally, Spell Law healing makes curing diseases fairly simple and implies most societies are not going to have problems with disease in general. Besides having a disease as a core plot point to an adventure, I think diseases only work well if they have affects measured in days or weeks and not months or years. That may only be magical diseases. Like poisons, I avoided using diseases for many years, but now I like them a lot–especially the slow, sapping type. Perhaps it’s reduces Str & Co 1 pt a day or week, or there is a slowly increasing fatigue penalty. That hits home with the affected player as it directly impacts the game play–they’ll want to deal with it!
  3. Curses. I still can’t remember when I last used a curse. I specifically reduced “Curses” down to a single spell list in BASiL (and even then it was difficult to rank them by level) and I don’t think I’ve used a cursed object in RM or my SW campaign. I feel that curses are very setting driven and probably generated from Channeling/Diety. In Rolemaster, Curses are more “ill effect” than the common idea of curses that tend towards future effects and augury.  Traditional curses are too open ended and hard to fit into the gameplay. I’m open to ideas, so happy to hear other peoples experience with them.

But “dark things” are not just limited to poisons, disease and curses. Beyond these traditional agents, Shadow World may provide a bevy of interesting taints, attacks and complications that can add to your campaign. Here are a few thoughts and ideas:

Demonic Possessions. I’ve blogged about the problems with summoning and demonic possessions should be based on the particular setting. But Shadow World does have Demons, so it’s possible to have Demonic possessions beyond the thematic demons introduced by Terry. Having a player possessed could make for interesting sessions: Demons may not have any particular agenda beyond being a chaos agent and maybe they even impart some Demonic powers (like Frenzy).

Mental Illness. Introducing a mental illness to a player really relies on their roleplaying skills, but can add a interesting twist to group dynamics. Traditional Mentalism spells can cause mental illnesses, but how should they work and manifest in game play. Serious illness beyond phobias and violent tendencies are going to be metagamed by the player, but a players that really commits to it can be a lot of fun even if it gets the group into trouble.

Unlife Taint. There has been several attempts to mechanize Unlife taint in past GC’s and some other thoughts on the Forums. Obviously there needs to be corruption rules for SW. Should this work as a player accesses “Dark” spell lists? In my own campaign I differentiate between “dark” lists (that are the result of the Gods of Charon) and “Unlife” spell lists which tap into an alien, malevolent power. These lists are the various Priest Arnak lists I posted up on the RM Forums, and the lists Terry made for the Steel Rain and other Unlife organizations. Ideally, the Unlife lists should be really different from standard SL lists and more powerfully to justify and entice spell users to explore and experiment with them–and start down a slippery slope. Unlife corruption should be a core rule mechanic for SW. The concept of players “flirting” with learning and casting powerful Unlife spells and risking being corrupted or subsumed by the Unlife is a great fantasy theme.

Channeling Block. A priest who defies their god, behaves in a inappropriate way or similar should be punished. The quickest and most obvious is to sever them from their spell casting ability until they make atonement for their actions. This atonement process is a natural trigger for an adventure or quest!

God Cursed. Similar to the disfavor in a channeling block, a character could get a “mark” that shows they are cursed, outcast or disfavored by a god. This could be in the form of a birthmark, shaped scar, change in eye color, or symbol that can be seen in the person’s skin (excommunication). This would be an ill omen in most cultures, and make it difficult for the player to interact with society.

Just a few ideas that I need to explore in more detail or finalize as rule mechanics. RMSS and RMU have introduced Flaws that are similar to these, but I like for fluidity to these more than CharGen mechanics to offset talents. What has been your experience with “Dark Things“?



Thoughts on ancient structures in fantasy RPG’s and Shadow World.

We dropped anchor in the deep bay west of the Sullen Mountains. A solitary volcanic cone, trickling a faint plume of smoke from its summit loomed above us. The swells chopped but the water was relatively calm compared to the weather we had faced the past few weeks. To the north we beheld the Sunken City, the natives call it the City of Giants, but a cursory inspection of nearby structures indicated the occupants were most certainly mortal in size. The tops of huge blocks, broken towers and chipped obelisks worn down by the millennia spread as far as the eye could see. There must have been leagues of crumbling ruins above the water, but I could only imagine what secrets lay beneath the dark waves.

Travel Journals of Malco Teves, Merchant Captain of the Storm Sea Free Traders

Ancient castles, dark crypts, lost cities. Exploring ruins and structures is a key component in fantasy roleplaying, and if your games are similar most of these “ancient structures” are in fact really not that “ruined”.  I recently visited the Yucatan Peninsula and 4 different Mayan sites: Chitzen Itza, Coba, Tulum and a small complex on Cozumel. In some ways, Coba was the most interesting as much of the huge site (home to 55,000 people) is still buried under the jungle.  As I walked through the jungles, I definitely had my GM hat on, and thought about the experience through a roleplaying session. Peering into the jungle you can see numerous, huge, mounds covered in scattered stones, undergrowth and trees.  These are all buildings that not only haven’t been excavated, they are probably just piles of rubble. Most of the iconic buildings we see at these sites or in pictures are the result of complete rebuilding–often times done multiple times to either repair shoddy work or to correct architectural mistakes as archaeologists gather new information.

In other words, many untouched ancient ruins in real life wouldn’t make good adventure settings! Over time ancient structures degrade: they are buried under strata, collapsed in cataclysms or earthquakes, looted, stripped of cut stone for new buildings or leveled by conquering forces. In jungles, foliage quickly cover buildings and root systems crush and grind the buildings to dust. This reality is in sharp contract to our expectations as adventurers. Rarely do parties have to dig for days or weeks to uncover a tomb entrance or hire a work force to lift and move thousands of cut stones of a collapsed building. Many structures might not even resemble buildings as much as mounds of rubble or small hills which doesn’t work well for a cinematic approach to your game. I think we all tend towards “ruins lite” in our games: basically recognizable and functional structures with some crumbling around the edges.

But what if the buildings are much, much older than Earth comparables?  Right now the oldest constructions on Earth are 10,000 to 12,000 years old (Gobleki Tepi and Jericho) and GT was purposefully buried in 8000 BC to protect it! The 3 Eras in Shadow World span more than 100,000 years with many distinct high tech cultures and of course immortal Elves. These cultures left behind remnants of their civilizations across the planet.

Priest King of Shade (the opening vignette was taken from that) includes the ruins of a 1st Era Althan city. Over 100,000 years old, partially submerged and continuously explored and looted by subsequent cultures I had to think about how it would have survived or what it’s present state should be. Since we don’t have anything to compare to here and it was a city of advanced tech I had to guess at it. And what about other ancient lost ruins that may not date to the 1st Era but are still TENS of thousands of years old. Should we expect them to be intact, structurally sound and playable? Maybe hand wave their condition away due to “magic”?

I’m curious if anyone else has thought about this, introduced standard archaeology or excavation in any of their adventures or have thoughts on this topic?

Current Affairs: Thoughts on Magical Languages in Rolemaster and Shadow World.

Warning: this might be a whisky rant as well.

A recent THREAD at the Rolemaster Forums is discussing Magical Languages. Since I have some opinions on this subject I thought I would write a quick post. For those following my discussion on BASiL or have downloaded the spells probably know that I use a “no profession” system for my own Shadow World campaign.

After reading lots of comments I realize that most people only understand my reference to “no profession” as a direct reference to the RM system “no profession”. That’s not it at all! My players have profession names–but those are descriptors driven by the sum of skills and abilities of the character. With BASiL I allow access to all the realms (but  I have no hybrid realms which break logical mechanics). Professions and classes do reinforce group roles, but again, Rolemaster mostly broke that a long time ago…AND…that’s why players liked it! So having broad access to all realms has the appearance of unbalance but it’s really just the case of applying “free market” principles to control player skill selection. Early on, I decided to use pre-requisite lore skills to gain access or use certain spell lists. This would be similar to requiring advanced math to do astronomical calculations or basic anatomy for healing skills (spells or otherwise). So BASE lists might require more lore ranks to learn while OPEN lists only need a few ranks. To me that made sense. But BASiL is a work in progress and participation in the Rolemasterblog and RMForums has introduced me to new ideas.

So lately I have backed off on the Lore skill pre-req approach. It added too much to my skill offering and was not tight enough. Instead I have changed my approach to the use of Magical Languages. It’s such a simple, elegant mechanic and solves a lot of problems.

In the past, Magical Languages have been a “bolt-on” mechanic; introduced in Companions and referenced in SW for added casting bonuses etc. Spell casting requires certain mechanics: verbal, gestures, focus, components whatever. But what is that verbal and gesture component? Should it have an underlying science behind it? Is the verbal component linguistically diverse? Can a French person speaking french or a German speaking German recite the same words in their own particular language to cast? That makes NO sense! Immediately, it would be argued that they aren’t speaking French or German but reciting “arcane sounds”. Exactly!!–casting requires a power language of some time that is divested of speaking languages. Once that is accepted the conclusion follows the logic: spells need be cast using a magic vernacular, a magical language. This doesn’t have to be just verbal recitation but gestures, body motions, chants or katas.

If you accept that, than building a number of magical “languages” becomes a powerful tool to limiting spell list access rather than arbitrary “professions”. An Elemental Language might allow casting element spells, while another may allow for Illusions, Arcane or other.

From a mechanics standpoint, I use the Magical Language skill bonus for the SCR. How can anyone cast a high level spell if they have a kindergarten mastery of a language needed to cast the spell? Mastery of magical language is mastery of casting. Creating numbers of “Power Languages”  that are needed for certain types of magic limits a casters ability to learn a wide range of spells and therefore reinforces “class tropes”. (on a side note, to me, the very people that argue for professions LOVE the Arch-mage, Warrior-Mage, and other unbalanced classes).

I.C.E. Deep Dive. Loremaster Series Review pt.4: The Shade of the Sinking Plain.

We are at the last chapter of my reviews of the original Loremaster module series. I wish I could say I saved the best for last; but that’s not really the case. While Shade of the Sinking Plain has occupied a place of curiosity, appeal and mystery for decades, it’s not that great. Basically a D&D module re-purposed for Rolemaster.

Despite it’s arguable quality, it’s generally seen as a “rare” book, at times on par or even more than the price of The Court of Ardor. SotSP can fetch hundreds of dollars or more in excellent condition. But has anyone read it or even used it in an adventure? A quick but not exhaustive search via google and I couldn’t find a single review of the Shade of the Sinking Plain!

First off, SotSP is a “Loremaster Adventure from North Pole Publications, Inc.” and prominently says so on the cover and ToC.  Interestingly, North Pole Publications did at least two other products: The Serpent Islands and Tome of Mighty Magic and there may be MORE. I don’t have time to hunt them down, but it would be interesting to find out more on the company. The credits can be found in the back. Apparently the author was Roger Walker with development credits to Terry, Douglas Bohlman and Rober Walker.  The remainder of the credits for art, production, editing and play testing seems a mix of North Pole and ICE.

The Cover.

The cover art quality is average but the scene itself is compelling.  A robed figure sits on his throne while slaves or pirates present treasure and booty. Skulking behind the throne is a Demon of some sort. The art appears to be done by Victoria Wheeler in 1983. The back side of the 1 piece cover is a large hex map of the “Northern Kingdoms” (which is Trademarked apparently). It’s a fairly simple map with only major geographic features, the location of the Shade’s keep, a few cities and that’s about it. Pretty sparse and in no way the quality of the Iron Wind or Cloudlords. (or Vog Mur for that matter). Again, we get the sense that this is an outlier. More Judges Guild for D&D than a curated ICE/RM product from Terry, Pete and crew.

Table of Contents.

The ToC looks like an attempt to bend the modules material into the standard Loremaster organization: section 1 is on the world of Loremaster, 2 is a general overview, 3 is Politics and Power, 4 is a physical overview, 5 is people of note, 6 is layouts, 7 is a gamemaster guide and 8 is scenarios/adventures. I’ll get more into the actual content, but it feels like there was a half-hearted attempt to “Loremasterize” some of the material by North Pole.

Material starts at page 2 and the font type immediately feels like Judges Guild or Midkemia Press than an ICE product with a smaller more distinct font. There is 1 page of the standard “world of loremaster” copy and then some definitions/glossary with RPG terms and historical people and items. Page 5 has a short general overview: basically the land of the Sinking Plain is an enormous marsh. That’s it in a nutshelf. A paragraph on inhabitants: the only humanoids are Trolls. The cities are mostly Common Man. The woods have Elves. The foothills have Goblins, Orcs and Dwarves. This is all very generic.

Politics and Power.

This section is an overview of the three cities: Zetta, Garrothold and Oriz, but the majority of the section focuses on Oriz. Why it’s called “Politics and Power” is beyond me. Zetta and Garrothold only have the briefest of material so the GM will have to fill in a lot of information for the cities to be useful in the game. Oriz gets a small hand drawn map (see above), lengthier material on different city districts, a rumor chart and some notes on the monetary system.  Strangely, each of the 8 districts are covered twice, first as descriptions and then again under a sub-category “Economy”.  Overall there is 5-6 pages covering the 3 cities and it’s sparse. The last section is a Vignette–a short first person narrative used to introduce the Shade. I’m curious whether this was written by Terry or an ICE staff member as the quality of the writing is much better than the rest of the module.

Physical Overview.

This section is short and a bit puzzling. First there is the crappy map you see above–my drawings are pretty bad, but that one looks like it took all of  minutes to draw. Unlike the other Loremaster/MERP and SW books which feature excellent maps, Shade just doesn’t keep up. Then there is a short section that describes the Shade’s keep and his Bronze Barge.  The barge is very cool, but this material should have just been inserted in the later “Layout” section. Finally there are some encounter tables that don’t work well inserted into the page layout–they should have been structured as actual tables in the back. Again, the organization of this module is poor and really breaks up the flow of information.

Peoples of Note.

This is really the “Politics and Power” section as it covers the key NPC’s and there history. This is the core of most ICE modules as it provides an overview of the dynamics and backgrounds of the key people. This section is a bit more comprehensive (punched up by Terry or ICE?), and covers the “Shade”, Aaron the pirate captain, Prince Arndre W’ricke ruler of Zetta, Danel Silens an advisor, King Y’rage, Smiley a war lord, and finally Lito Extempler prelate of the truth. Most of the section is spent on the Shade, as it’s the key NPC opponent for the players.


Section 6 covers the layouts of the key locations. First is the Shade’s keep:

It’s basic but serviceable. Then there are some detailed drawings of the portcullis winch system and piping used to disperse a variety of fluids: oil, acid, paralysis and “moron oil”. These oils are keps in cauldrons that run along ceiling tracks. Compared to the rest of the module, this is very specific and detailed and feels like Terry or Pete had a hand in this.

The next layout is the Shade’s tower:

This is a great layout and the layout key was definitely written by Terry or ICE. There are great traps, descriptive text and there are 14 levels in the tower. The Shade’s tower layout is really the best part of the module and a great drop-in to any campaign. In fact, it would be a great fortress for Roth Naku, the Lich that resides in the Thanor Stand (p. 68 Emer II).

The next layout is the Shade’s bronze battle barge.

The barge is huge, with multi story battle towers, rams, catapults and driven by an Elemental Engine. Very cool so far, but here is the kicker for me: the 380′ barge can be reduced to toy size and put in a storage bottle due to a spell “Boat in a Bottle”. I was never a fan of shrinking castles and ships and it doesn’t feel very Rolemaster.

Game Master’s Guide.

Section 7.0 is a mixture of material. The first part covers the “adventure phases”–basically the writer sees this module as a linear adventure rather than a sandbox setting like the other Loremaster books. It’s a short story in 4 parts: gather info, travel to the keep, the battle, return and collect reward. The next part introduced new magic items. There are a few good ones included but one in particular is like the barge: it’s a marble cube that transform into a 13 level fortress including forming a hill as it’s base.  Again, I’m not keen on the concept; it seems more whimsical magic than the more grounded magic found in Rolemaster. After the magic items, we have a number of new creatures: some Demonic creatures, some hybrids, snakes and giant spiders. Nothing to revolutionary or creative. Next are new spells. This IS interesting as North Pole Publications also did a Tome of Mighty Magic. Listed are individual spells that name lists and level so they can be incorporated into existing Spell Law lists. Many of the spells are more suited to d20 games but there are few goods ones:

Tangle Weed. Basically allows plants to attack using Large envelope. Plant attacks weren’t found in the first iterations of Spell Law (either Animist or Ranger) and seem pretty obvious in hindsight.

Alaup’s Zufferooma. I’m not a fan of “named” spells, but this one is pretty funny. It creates an almost indestructible, horrid, camel that is constantly surrounded by a sand whirlwind.

Healing Sleep. This is a good one. It basically sends the target into a deep sleep but also provides accelerated healing.

Hey Bartender. Yes, this spell summons a magical bar and bartender.

Elemental Summons. RM didn’t have any elemental summons for quite a while. The module has 6 summon and control spells that can be inserted into Gate Mastery. That’s a good add if you are using 1st edition RM.

The next few pages are the master charts: Personalities, NPC’s of Note, suggested player characters (thief, rogue, ranger, bard, magician, cleric), Master military, creatures, movement/travel rate chart, and several price charts.


The final section breaks down the adventure path with very specific If/When conditions.  Again, the intent here is a standard linear adventure, the the GM is coached here to keep the train on the tracks. But in this section is something interesting: a simple large scale combat system. Basically this is used for a infantry or siege battle with 30 minute phases, morale checks, archery mechanics, fortifications and charts  for Attack Conditions, Heavy Weapons, Ship Capabilities and troop training. I’m not familiar with War Law, but someone should check these rules out and see if they make sense. They only take up about a page or two and it might be a nice little mechanic for troop actions in RM.

Overall impressions and thoughts. At it’s core, Shade of the Sinking Plain is a short, basic adventure. The efforts to expand it’s scope with cities and regional maps just fall short in quality and there is so little there it’s basically meaningless anyway. However, the Shade’s keep and battle barge are cool and interesting and the NPCs can be easily fleshed out. There are some good spell ideas and that battle mechanic may be useful for a quick and dirty mechanic. Ultimately, the most useful and well done section is the Shade’s tower and that definitely has a RM/SW feel to it.

Finally, for clarification, my module The Priest King of Shade WAS meant to be a re-imagining of Shade of the Sinking Plain. I kept the best “kernels” of Shade and expanded it into a more traditional Shadow World regional module located in SW Argyra.

Thus ends my 4 part blog on the original Loremaster series! Thanks for reading.




Maybe I should make movies?

On Sunday I found myself with an hour and a half to kill but also tied to the house so I decided to watch Conan The Barbarian on Netflix. My first impression of the first five minutes was that they had the the depiction of the Pictish warriors/savages down perfectly. At that point things looked promising.

Pictish Warriors from the movie…
Pictish Warriors, they all seem to share a sort of brutal Native American vibe.

After that my opinion changed somewhat. To be honest I think this is a pretty dreadful movie and I read this evening that it cost $90M to make and grossed $21M, making a net loss of $69M. I am guessing most of that went on the CGI which was certainly plentiful and was mostly used in place of any real plot and dialogue. I admit that you don’t engage with Conan for his witty repartee.

So even when watching the movie it was plainly obvious that this was a dreadful film and no amount of topless slave girls and serving wenches was going to save it. Surely this was obvious to the creators at the time?

What the film tried to depict was what we would consider an entire adventure, not a full campaign but certainly more than just a collection of encounters. There was a definite character motivation, revenging Conan’s father’s death, that ran through the film but the fact that Conan was plainly not doing anything to further that revenge until a huge clue lands in his lap says that if this were a game and not a movie then the film represents a character goal inserted into a greater campaign.

We do get a few encounters along the way. Conan and crew attack a slave caravan. Their plan involves starting an avalanche of rocks down on to the slavers caravan and then charging in and killing the remaining slavers. Being Hollywood all those rocks only hit slavers, no innocent slaves were hurt. You try that in one of my games and there being 20 or so slaves for every slaver there is a very good chance that you will be scraping Slave jam off the road.

Another encounter has some bad guys row up to Conan’s ship and attack them. Conan’s crew then defeat them and stand around on deck cheering. No one thought to wonder where the attackers had come from. Maybe if Conan had asked a few more questions he would have exacted his revenge a few years earlier?

So was there anything good about this movie?

Yes, right near the end the hero and NPC thief (for want of a better phrase) do battle with a submarine beasty. We never really see it, just a mass of kraken-like tentacles. The fight is a bit so-so and the CGI a bit mediocre but the set for the scene, and the beast itself was really evocative of the Cthulhu style dark gods of the Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria (Howard and HP Lovecraft were close friends).

So what I think distinguished the best from the worst in this movie what that all the early encounters were disconnected and there was no visible plot thread to bring them together. Leading up to the water beasty scene we got to see Conan recruiting his thief NPC, breaking into the BBEG’s fortress and then encountering the beast and its ‘keeper’. We were suddenly into a story that was progressing from challenge to challenge and had a continuity.

I suspect that writing a good movie is slightly harder than writing a plot for a gaming campaign or at least a enough plot for a few gaming sessions but if we put the player in the seat of the viewer, unless there is a reason and a feeling of progress then games would be just a procession of meaningless encounters. We are almost back to wandering monsters, that is how the first half of the movie felt.

So how could the movie been made better? Well you could have lost the first half of the film and started with the recruiting the party to attack the fortress. Conan could have explained the entire plot up to that point in about 5 seconds “Fifteen years ago this man killed my father, I will have my revenge! Who is with me?” <kick over tavern table and shake sword>

We could then have launched into the one bit of the movie they made well. After the kraken scene they tried a bit too hard to be Indiana Jones and the movie slumps back into the mire.

For GMs, if you have ever watched his movie, or any like it, the lesson must be to draw a compelling world for your players. Not for the characters, but the players. If they are not invested in it then the best plot in the world will become just a linear series of hack and slash encounters. I think this is same idea that Brian has been pushing for for RMU. It has to have that compelling world, Shadow World, to get people to invest their heart and soul into wanting to bring the game, world and story alive for their players.

I know there is an argument that not everyone wants to play in Shadow World but casting RMU as the Shadow World rules does not exclude anyone. I don’t adventure in Grayhawk but I reuse old style D&D modules. Most people do not adventure in Faerun but they will happily use 5e stuff. GMs tinker with bought materials, they reuse and they extend them. They always have and they always will. I have put RM characters, adventuring in the Dales through Traveller adventures. I just replaced spaceships with wagons. After all a good adventure is a good adventure regardless of any fancy dressing up but for my players the clothes I put on that adventure helped bring their little corner of the Forgotten Realms to life.