Hacking Darkmaster

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Concluding Thoughts 

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

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

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.”

Inspiration and Sources for Against the Darkmaster

This is the first in a series closely modeled after Peter R’s read-throughs of such games as Zweihander (sorry for the missing umlaut, all) and HARP. I’ve recently adopted the playtest of Against the Darkmaster (abbreviated as VsD) for my tabletop home game, and I’m also running VsD via play-by-post for a few folks on the official VsD Discord server. I have a number of thoughts about the system—at least the system as it is portrayed in the QuickStart—and I’ve been sharing these with the designers and now you, the readers of this blog, if you care to receive them.

I feel that it’s appropriate to establish my relationship with VsD. My first rpg was Middle-Earth Role Playing. I believe I was twelve years old at the time, so the game must have been just published. Later, I discovered other games, notably Champions and West End Games’s Star Wars, but I never got into D&D until years later when 3e was released and a local group needed someone to DM for them. Last year, nostalgic, I began a MERP campaign. I quickly “evolved” it to RM2, then, dissatisfied with some of RM’s mechanics, I “devolved” it to Original D&D. Naturally, I was interested in what the designers of VsD had done with the game for which they likewise had fond feelings.

When I talk about games, I prefer to differentiate “emulationist” from “simulationist.” In my definitions, an emulationist game seeks to imitate a very specific intellectual property or (sub)genre. A simulationist game seeks to be “realistic.” Now, I understand that games that I consider simulationist—and this includes Rolemaster—often contain magic and the supernatural, but I argue that, even while exhibiting those unreal elements, such rules seek to mechanize the content according to the “laws” of actual physics as best as we can understand them. This is not to argue that these systems can’t (in my definition) be used to emulate specific genres and properties, but this is not the purpose for which they have been created, and, in such situations, for a certain play experience the GM must be relied on entirely. With emulationist designs, in contrast, the intended experience is built into the rules (though a GM always could mess this up).

I don’t believe VsD seeks to “compete” with any other d100 system. Instead, I think VsD hopes to rewrite MERP to emulate a very specific experience, and the milieu for this interaction is epic, “heartbreaker” high fantasy. In the introduction to the QuickStart, the designers cite novels, movies and music as their inspirations.

I am most familiar with the novels, though I have puzzled over a hierarchy that the designers seem to be suggesting: VsD “draws its main inspiration from the classic works of the masters of the genre, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ursula K. Le Guin, passing through the two Terrys (Brooks and Goodkind) and their followers, Weis & Hickman, Jordan, and Williams.” This appears to rank Tolkien and Le Guin (though both are fantasists, to me they are qualitatively very different writers from each other) as the “masters.” The two “Terrys” appear to be grouped simply because of their names. Though I am told Brooks’s later books get better, his 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara is a very bad, almost note-for-note imitation of The Lord of the Rings. In contrast, Goodkind (I’m only familiar with Legend of the Seeker, a two-season television series based upon his work) crafts a truly unique secondary world. If Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan and Tad Williams are supposed to be followers of the Terrys (and not all of them together of Tolkien and Le Guin), then it’s puzzling that the Weis and Hickman and Williams publications predate Goodkind.

My confusion here almost certainly results from a simple error in phrasing. It’s no big deal (right now), and the point is understood. Possibly with the exception of Le Guin’s, all these works feature Iron Age Western and Northern lands of myth and magic in which a diverse group of usually-reluctant heroes band together on a long overland quest to defeat an Evil Dark Lord usually through the use of some legendary item. I don’t think it’s too much to say that there’s usually an even more specific element in these works: major characters around which an adventuring party soon forms begin their journey innocent and naive in a secluded pastoral community, usually in the West of the land. Into this intrudes an Evil Force that is seeking these very characters. During the course of the heroes’ quest, armies will be mobilized against the forces of the Evil One, and the principal characters either will be involved in the military campaign or in the final mission to find/destroy/use the relic of power that actually can defeat the Dark Lord.

That’s it. That should be the VsD experience, not just because the GM sets such a course but because the rules impel it. I will say right now that I’m not entirely convinced that VsD, at this point in the playtest, achieves specifically the form that I have described. In some aspects it greatly delivers. To preview some later articles for this series, it provides Encounter recommendations for overland travel that are highly evocative of this genre. It has rules for PCs to find Safe Havens (not in the QuickStart but detailed in the blog) that are likewise emulationist. It’s certain that the degree of correspondence should not be judged by the QuickStart alone: the texts and tables provide many evidences that the QuickStart is a living document and a fractal portion of all that the designers have written. But the developers have told me that (right now) mass combat is outside their designs. I understand. The final product is expected to be over 300 pages already, and, really, it won’t hurt to reserve some aspects for “support” purposes. But my point remains: in these sources there always is some space for a great big war.

I have had my say and completed my introduction, but still there are two more inspirations forming VsD. And, looking at them now, I’m realizing I might have had the wrong idea about VsD’s object of emulation. VsD is inspired by the “great fantasy movies” of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I’m not sure there were any “great” ones. They were all we had, so we made the most of them. If we still like them (and I do), it’s because they are a part of us now. The writers term some of these films “sword and sorcery”, and if this subgenre also is an inspiration, then some of the design choices seem at odds. Most likely the authors aren’t using these terms with the same specificity with which I understand them, so I’ll depart from this observation for now.

I’ll have to do the same for the final inspiration: metal music. Specifically, VsD combat is inspired by metal. I didn’t have any older siblings to introduce me to roleplaying or music. Roleplaying I managed to find all alone, but music didn’t mean anything to me until 1991 when the American Top 40 began playing tracks from U2’s Achtung Baby, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and R.E.M.’s Out of Time. I’m afraid I won’t be able to comment on how bands like Malmsteen, Dio and Black Sabbath inform VsD combat.

Well, that was more than anyone wanted! Next we’ll get into the rules themselves, and I’ll be keeping my mind on how well they emulate the fictions. First up, Character Creation, and I’ll probably have to tackle it in a few parts.