Rolemaster game settings and Shadow World boxed sets.

ICE Shadow World 6100 Emer - The Great Continent | #129387579

The most recent post in Grognardia had me thinking about a number of issues around game settings, game material and the appeal of the old school box sets. The Grognardia blog was a review on a early 80’s Chaosium/Runequest box set: Borderlands. I admit that I have no experience with Runequest or this product, but the blog evoked fond memories of older game products we did use and enjoy.

First, I want to point out a quote that James is quoting in his blog (bold emphasis is mine):

Borderlands is another good example of what Chaosium did well: present a large area of Glorantha in an approachable fashion and never forgetting to make it gameable. That’s very important to me. However interesting and evocative a game’s setting may be, one must never lose sight of its purpose: to foster adventure in the game itself. Setting for setting’s sake seems to me to miss the point..”

As soon as I read this I immediately thought of Shadow World. There are lots of reviews on Shadow World products that can be found on the web, but two of the most persistent are it’s “Kitchen sink” nature and it feels so high level as to preclude useful adventuring. The first complaint I attribute to the non-canon SW modules; no matter their quality, they so varied in theme and tone that it gave SW a very generic feel. I challenge anyone to read Xa’ar or Emer material and argue that it’s a generic setting.

Beyond that though, I wonder if Shadow World is a better narrative product than a practical adventure material? As James asks:

“…a setting through adventures rather than through pages upon pages of background information, a “show, don’t tell” approach…”

Shadow World books are certainly great to read; the timeline alone is a significant piece of work product that is filled with depth and campaign ideas. But I’m reminded that many people’s favorite SW books are Quellbourne and Norek–both are foundational low level settings with generic fantasy concepts but are definitely not Terry’s writing style. So is Shadow World more inspirational than usable? Is it more cool than practical? I’m not speaking for myself; I write and use SW exclusively since I have so much time invested in the setting and not enough time to commit to other game systems or settings.

What about other settings? We used Rolemaster in some other settings:

Middle Earth. Like everyone else, we shifted from D&D to Rolemaster, but still wanted to play in Middle Earth. For us, it was mostly a campaign using The Court of Ardor, but I don’t recall ever getting to the higher level narrative. Thinking back though, I’m not sure much of the MERP books were playable in the way that James is discussing.

Midkemia Press. One of our favorites, and very reminiscent of Borderlands mentioned above and perhaps much of the early Judges Guild products were the Midkemia books. Of course a quick read of the first Midkemia novel Magician: Apprentice reveals it’s roots in a rpg game. This makes the associated game material so “useable”. We especially liked Jonril: Gateway to the Sunken Lands.

I try to be conscientious when writing SW material, and part of the process for me is adventure hooks. That’s why the Rolemasterblog 50 in 50 is such a good exercise; it forces me to continually come up with short adventure sparks that might not fill pages, but could end up using several game sessions and mutate into a significant narrative. I also want to maintain roots in those early game sessions that I played. SW may not be dungeon oriented, but my early gaming years were spent in the search of treasure!

I also wanted to comment on boxed sets. SW was launched with the original box set, but honestly, it felt a little underwhelming. Emer: the Great Continent was a vast improvement–especially the darket cult aspects and the addendum material. But, like Borderlands, box sets were a feature of early gaming.

Will there ever be a future for box sets in Shadow World or for I.C.E.? In the new world of digital media and print on demand, I doubt the economies work for such a product…but let’s use our imagination. I imagine 2 box sets, a final capstone on Terry’s work that completes the 2 main continents: Jaiman & Emer.

Box 1. Jaiman.

  1. Gazetteer Jaiman. Timeline, flora and fauna and politics and power overview.
  2. Jaiman Players Guide
  3. Jaiman I, the NW.
  4. Jaiman II, the NE.
  5. Jaiman III, the SE.
  6. Jaiman IV, the SW. .
  7. City Books. Lethys, Norek, Haalkitaine.
  8. Book of Adventures. Legacy of the Sea Drake and assorted adventures.
  9. Atlas Jaiman. maps and more maps.

Box 2. Emer.

  1. Gazetteer Emer. Timeline, flora and fauna and politics and power overview and more maps!
  2. Emer Players Guide
  3. Emer I
  4. Emer II
  5. Emer III
  6. Emer IV
  7. City Books. Eidolon + 2-3 others.
  8. Book of Adventures.
  9. Atlas Emer. maps, maps and more maps. GM maps, city maps, player maps, treasure maps. etc.

Looking that over, most of the work is already done and Terry probably has little incentive for one last re-write or re-org. But imagine a kickstarter campaign that funds this work and new artwork and lots and lots of maps. Would that be of interest to anyone? Plus it would cement both continents into final organized products with a TON of material for years of play. I can’t imagine Terry tackling another continent in a comprehensive way that took decades of work for Jaiman and Emer.

As stand alone books, there is well over $100+ in print products. As a kickstarter you could offer special maps, or similar incentives to tier pledges. What would you pay for that product? Finally, if you could group fund it and raise the capital, why not stat it for RMu. Tackle the whole thing once and for all.

In summation:

  1. What are your thoughts on the playability of SW material?
  2. Besides ME, have you used SW in other settings?
  3. Do you have a favorite box set from the Golden Age or something more recent?

Thee Tales of the Tarot Deck.

Tale 1. One of the more curious aspects of The Court of Ardor is the “Deck of Ardan”, a tarot-like magical set of cards. At first glance, the deck simply acts as an “org chart” for the mysterious Court and assigns members to various roles based on a playing deck. Additionally, the deck holds other powers, two of which are detailed. The first is the ability to communicate with other members of the Court featured in the deck. This can be through voice, or if chosen a visual window akin to modern “Facetime”. The second detailed power was enhanced “Channeling”–per the channeling skill in Rolemaster. Since no one I know has ever used the Channeling skill (as described in RM2), it was interesting but ultimately unhelpful. (I recently asked Terry about the origins of the Channeling skill, but that’s another blog!)

Tale 2. The Court of Ardor was not the first appearance of a Tarot style deck in fantasy that replaced the cards with characters in the particular story. It has been decades since I had read Roger Zelazny’s “Nine Princes in Amber” but I vaguely recalled the same style device being used. The book was published in 1970, so it clearly predated Rolemaster and I’m not the first that noted the similarity. Age of Ravens blog noted the similarity in 2011.

http://ageofravens.blogspot.com/2011/02/rpg-supplements-i-like-court-of-ardor.html

So was this just a coincidence or an example of convergent creativity in early fantasy? When I asked Terry, he provided this short explanation:

“Yes the Ardan Tarot was inspired by Zelazny’s books. More details I am afraid I don’t recall after all these years!”

So there we have an answer, but answers to questions I had about additional powers of the deck or further ideas on their use were lost in the mists of time!

Tale 3. 29 years after Zelazny’s book and 16 years after The Court of Ardor, a Tarot plot device appeared in another fantasy series. One that had it’s birth in fantasy gaming. Gardens of the Moon is the first Book of the Malazan and featured the Deck of Dragons. This deck of cards was both a divination tool and depicted the various members of a pantheons court. The Deck of Dragons plays a major role in the early Malazan books, but less so as the books go on and other systems replace the deck. I’d enjoy asking Steven or Cameron (the authors) if they too were inspired by Zelazny’s book; the Malazan series was driven primarily by their early roleplaying games.

Perhaps I’ll read Nine Princes in Amber again, but I’m still intrigued by the use of Tarot cards in Court of Ardor and Malazan. Zelazny might have been the progenitor of an idea that is now shared DNA in two other fantasy settings.