Experimenting with Level less Resistance Rolls

At this risk of opening the door to more blogs about rules (which I try to avoid) I wanted to post about my current experiments with level less resistance rolls. It’s important to understand that my current gaming group has accepted the fact that I frequently change rules from session to session. Sometimes dramatically. They take it in stride and certainly provide an instant feedback loop. They are also pretty good distinguishing between what might be a good system rule and what may benefit or hard their character and note their own biases.

For a primer on previous blogs and VERY good comments I would suggest the following:

Generally we’ve been testing Resistance Rolls in our repeated playing of Legends of Shadow World, so the gameplay is very high level. So where are we right now?

  1. We use “Stats as Skills”. So the actual Stat(or a average of several) is used as the modifier. This works best when stats are actually the product of random generation or has a normal variation. Not every stat for a PC should be 75+.
  2. Resistance falls into 4 categories: Fear, Poison/Disease, Mental Attacks, Essaence/Magic.
  3. RR’s use a Success 100+ so it works the same way as all other skills.
  4. Fear. There were good arguments as to why Fear should have a factor of level since it reflects experience and maturity so I keep playing around with it. Natural Fear effects (ie from a Dragon, Undead or Demon) is given a Difficulty modifier like an MM/SM. I generally use a Difficulty modifier range of +100 to -150 rather than Difficulty labels like “Routine”, “Hard”, “Absurd” etc. For cast spells that create a Fear effect I use the resolution for Essaence/Magic below in #7.
  5. Poison/Disease. Same as Fear. Poisons and Disease are given a Difficulty level/modifier. For example, Jeggarukh (level 6 circulatory) has a -40 severity modifier. A target with a 80 Constitution would need to roll over a 60 to resist. The level of failure determines the effects of the poison.
  6. Mental Attacks. We use the SD stat as the primary modifier PLUS the # of skill ranks in Mental Focus (a developable skill).
  7. Essaence/Magic. We use the average of Re/In/Em stat to resist Essaence/Magic. We don’t distinguish between “Realms”–it’s all just Essaence. In our game, Realms are just the way magic is manipulated and shaped. There aren’t three types of power (plus the 3 mixed hybrid). I always thought that silly.

So for #6 and #7 what is the target resisting in a level less system? Again, we use a Success 100+ for a spell casting roll. The amount over 100 is applied against the target. So let’s say Barry the Mage casts Fear at Selma the Simperer. Barry rolls a 55 on his spellcasting roll, adds his skill bonus and modifiers of 75 for a total of 130. The excess of 30 is used against Selma in her RR. Selma has a SD of 70. She needs to roll at at least a 60 to resist the spell.

One option that I use with the above system is using the # of Power Points in both the spellcasting roll (a negative to the caster to represent the dangers of using power) and the # of Power Points as a negative to the target as a proxy for the potency of the spell. So more dangerous for the caster to cast, but more potent for the target to resist. This is similar to using the PP’s as the level of attack versus just the level of the spell.

Finally I’m still playing around with a RR versus Stun/Surprise. I like it, but don’t want to add more RR rolls to combat. That’s the gist of it, and it has worked. I play around with bonuses, modifiers and various options but always try to keep to the 100+ success so almost all resolutions are unified.

RMU and it’s implied setting.

[Disclaimer. I haven’t finished reading the RMU Core book and haven’t even started on Spell Law or Treasure Law, but I wanted to start the discussion and/or provoke some thought!]

Because RMU Creature Law has not been published yet, this post may be a a bit premature. We’ve blogged a lot about the relationship between game rules and the associated setting; mostly the “gap” between Rolemaster and Shadow World. Now that RMU is quickly becoming whole and fully formed I was wondering what the rules are implying to you about a setting? Professions, races, spells and now alchemy rules all inter-relate and drive a concept about a setting. To me, clearly it’s not Shadow World but neither is it a generic quasi medieval, European setting nor a Gygaxian ecosystem. We’ve always argued that a ruleset should have strong supporting adventure material. Maybe just adventures in the beginning, but ideally a world setting that matches the metaphysics of the magic system, a cultural history to support the races and economy, and a physical framework for adventuring. To me, RMU is not a dungeon delving system. But the rules should inspire the setting and the setting should support the rules…

My first setting impression that RMU invokes is a bit of a steampunk setting. Perhaps it’s the dabbler or the style of Treasure Companion that feels more tech than magic. I’m reminded of the the Ketty Jay setting: flying ships, a construct/golem, daemonist, ancient civilizations, magic and firearms.

I’ve included a few links to past posts, but I’m very interested in readers thoughts!!

Picture of the Day

This is Goa Gojah located in Indonesia. The cave features a screaming mouth as an entrance, and the monster’s face is surrounded by a sea of flames. I thought it was very “Tomb of Horrors” and always a reminder that there are real life inspirations for fantasy settings. (besides New Zealand in general)

“Punching Up”: Warrior Monks in Shadow World

It’s been a long time since I’ve played a character in Rolemaster. Early on I became the GM and have filled that role to this day. But when I did play it was usually as the Warrior Monk “Caylis” (who later became a regular NPC in my Shadow World campaign). In general Monks have been problematic in RPG’s–with some cool abilities but lot’s of weaknesses and shortcomings. Like many of RMs professions, the Warrior Monk was drawn from the templates D&D provided.

Some memorable special abilities in D&D include “Feign Death” and “Quivering Palm”, neither of which made the translation to RM. Due to RM’s lack of inherent professional abilities, RM’s Warrior Monks were just unarmed fighters with a few low cost skills like Adrenal Defense and Adrenal Moves. So unless you play a spell-casting Monk, you didn’t have much for special abilities and had some limitations:

  1. Inability to wear armor or be encumbered to utilize Adrenal Defense
  2. Martial Arts were arguably not effective against animals and much larger creatures.
  3. No parrying.
  4. Martial Arts have to be developed in Ranks, so the most effective Rank 4 will lag in development (and skill bonus).

Early rules did include some options for quick strike, multiple attacks and engaging multiple opponents and also had rules for Weapon Kata so Warrior Monks had some increased combat abilities, but were basically slightly less effective fighters. While I still am a fan of Warrior Monks they definitely had their limits. So where do Warrior Monks fit into Shadow World?

Fortunately, Terry incorporated both the Warrior Monk and the Monk into a famous monastic institution: The Changramai Monastery. As Terry notes in Emer I, the Monastery is more of a school and training center than a true monastic or religious organization. Nonetheless, the Changramai were renowned for their fighting ability and the school hires out skilled Changramai to serve as bodyguards throughout Kulthea. To be hired out, Changramail need to have achieved at least the “Third Veil” which is around 10th lvl.

There are a number of references to the Changramai in Canon with which we can construct a better picture of the Changramai. Some mentions in the books include:

  1. The Nomikos Library used Changramai extensively as guards throughout the facility. Nomikos Changramai are 6th lvl.
  2. The Nameless One is protected by 4 Changramai.
  3. The “Black Velvet” Brothel also uses Changramai as guards.
  4. Kyan Kim is a named NPC and trained in the Changramai school, living in Eidolon. He is 8th lvl.
  5. The Monastary was established in 2500 Second Era. “It is believed that the Changramai are disenchanted Xiosians who left the service of the Titans”
  6. Terry introduces a new special weapon: the Jata. This is a thrown, circular, 3 bladed weapon that has virtually magical properties to attack multiple targets AND return to the thrower.

There are a number of other references of powerful figures in both Eidolon and Haalkitaine that use Changramai for guards. The implication is that they are either very competent, or so feared that they are never tested. But how does the realities of the Warrior Monk profession stack up to this reputation? Throughout the books, Changramai are described as “imposing”, “intimidating” and:

  • Changramai monks can catch arrows, run on walls, leap incredible heights, punch through stone walls, and defeat half a dozen well-armed foes simultaneously with their bare hands.
  • Are fearsome experts at unarmed combat. It is said that they can see things invisible and know a liar by his voice.

Certainly Monks, with their spellcasting ability can perform some of those feats, but are Warrior Monks truly that adept? If you look at Changramai stat block, the typical Nomikos Changramai is 6th lvl, has 90 hits, AT1 with a 90DB and has a 90OB using MA Strikes R4. Depending on your liberal use of Adrenal Moves, Warrior Monks would be hard pressed to “punch through stone”, “leap incredible heights” or “catch arrows”. As an added comparison, using Jaiman stat blocks, a Erlini Sentinel is 5th lvl, has 85 hits, AT1 50DB and a 90OB is Short Sword. Really not much of a difference. Changramai are basically comparable to many of the rank and file warriors in the Master Military Tables found throughout Shadow World books.

Of course those are rank & file. We would assume that the Nameless One, or Haalkitaine Royalty would engage higher level Changramai as befits their position, status and wealth. But even higher level Warrior Monks are just going to comparably scale up by level in comparison to Fighters. They still won’t have those legendary abilities ascribed to them, or attainable by Monks via their spell lists.

But if you want to “Punch Up” the abilities of Warrior Monks, or just the Changramai Warrior Monks, I would offer up a few of my own solutions:

  1. I eliminated the development Ranks for Martial Arts and instead use the Ranks as the effectiveness of the combat style. This is similar to the size limitations found on in the various Claw Law attack charts. The Changramai and Kortri Ta Shiin styles are Rank 4; lesser unarmed combat might be limited at Rank 1, 2 or 3. This represents the superiority of these fighting styles and reflects the deadliness of the Changramai combat system. Removing the Rank skill development also frees up a TON of DP’s for Warrior Monks to expand in other skills.
  2. I allow for parrying with martial arts–no bracers needed. If parrying is really a proxy for an offense or defense posture, than even an unarmed combatant can emphasize active dodging/defense over a full attack.
  3. I use specific weapon modifiers, unarmed combat has very low modifiers for initiative, engaging multiple opponents and attacking and engaging targets in 360 degrees. This gives martial artists a implicit advantage over weapon wielders for a variety of combat situations and allows them to engage multiple opponents with the least amount of penalties. This chart also includes penalties for parrying missile weapons–allowing Changramai to swat arrows away!
  4. I’ve modified Adrenal Defense and rolled in the “Yado” secondary skill. This allows Changramai to not only parry missiles but to catch them.
  5. I use a modified Adrenal Strength and Speed that further benefit martial artists.
  6. I have unlimited skill rank development and a modified rank bonus progression that allows for characters to accelerate a few skills through focused development. The creates a tradeoff between average development of a broad array of skills or fast development of a smaller, focused set of skills. This seems appropriate to a unique combat school like the Changramai Monastarey.
  7. Finally, I use a “no profession” system to my Shadow World campaign. Changramai Monks are neither “Warrior Monks” or “Monks” and have access to the BASiL Mentalism “Self” Spells. With these lists and the changes above, the Changramai skills are complete, indeed they are powerful as depicted in the Shadow World books.

Have you utilized the Changramai in your game? Have your players ever faced off against them or perhaps have Changramai training?

Cool Things in Shadow World

I’ve blogged about the various, unique aspects of Shadow World as a setting, but today I thought I would note some very specific things that differentiate Shadow World and are great additions to the game.

Favorite Familiar:

Tameki. Introducted in the Cloudlords of Tanara, Tameki are small animals resembling black Terran housecats. Tameki have short, silky blue-black fur, large blue or violet eyes, and upstanding
triangular ears. They differ from cats in that their paws have longer, dexterous ‘fingers’ and their torsos are slightly shorter. Very acrobatic, these small creatures are able to leap amazing distances.

Obviously cats are featured a lot as Wizards and Witches pets, but Tameki are just enough that they feel familiar and different enough to add flavor.

Favorite Material:

Keron. A black, very shiny alloy. The substance is strong but flexible and holds a keen edge. When polished it has such a high luster that it looks wet or oiled. It does not corrode, and should be treated as
enchanted.

I don’t use alchemy spells in Shadow World to enchant item bonuses. Instead I rely on Kulthea’s naturally occurring metals and alloys that can be forged by smiths. (Thus, I don’t need to have groups of 30th level Alchemists working in sweat shops batching out Laen or Eog items). Keron is Shadow World’s “Mithril”–a cool material that is intrinsically tied to the setting.

Stone/Mineral/Gem:

Bloodstone. A soft, sandy stone dark red in color, this material can stop a would bleeding up to 5 hits per round! In seconds. This is often overlooked, but what an incredibly valuable stone. Better than a herb or a spell, portably and rugged.

Baddie Critter:

Gogor. Not unlike gargoyles or huge bats in form, Gogor are black as
midnight, with tough hides and leathery wings. They stand about
7 feet tall. Their heads are elongated with a certain reptilian appearance.
Huge, protruding green glowing eyes see in complete darkness.

I’m a fan of all the artificial and specific “monsters” in Shadow World, but Gogor are a good foe for a capable group. My players have some remorse from opening stone jars found in an ancient facility. What they hoped was treasure….

Special Weapon:

Kalta. A Loari Dart Pistol with a 10rnd clip. Very cool, practical, and not game changing. I’m a fan of small projectile weapons and thrown weapons. They add a coolness factor to combat, are a unique skill for players and they don’t impact game balance.

Riding Animal:

Kith. A giant six legged panther? Sign me up for that!!!

Cool Item:

Rod of Tanys. Not magic, but a tech remnant, this grey metal cylinder is 2″ diameter and 1 foot long. No it’s not a light saber, it’s a “power whip”!!! There A LOT of cool magic items that Terry has created, but I like the cinematic nature of this weapon.

Favorite Practical Spell:

Warning Portal. Found on the Warding Power list in EMER and SWMA, this simple spells allows the caster to set a magical trip wire across a portal. If someone crossed the barrier, the caster is alerted. This is a 1st level spell. It’s practical, reliable and needed in an adventuring group. I’ve been working on BASiL warding spell lists, and this good spell design.

Those are just a few of my favorite things. I found that on each re-read of the SW books I found something new, something I forgot or a new idea is sparked. Are there any particular things in Shadow World that appeal to you?

Spell Law Deconstruction: Spell Attacks, Resolutions and Resistance Rolls

One consequence of my BASiL project is a critical, and hopefully objective, review of the spell mechanics found in Spell Law. I’ve blogged on “deconstructing spell law” under a number of topics here on the Rolemasterblog; perhaps too many times to provide relevant links. But today’s blog is related to my previous posts on Resistance Rolls (HERE and HERE) and might be helpful to review when reading this entry.

Spell Law establishes some basic classes of spells: Healing, Informational, Elemental, Force etc. It feels like the foundation of a consistent set of principles that covers various spell effects, but unfortunately falls short. I dropped this entirely in BASiL for now, but I’m in a review process and may reinsert spell types again. {I haven’t reviewed RMU enough to see how they might have address this issue}. At issue is the varying classifications of spells compared to the spell resolution.

Three Types of Fire Attacks.

As an example let’s review the differences between Firebolt, Wall of Fire and Call Flame. All are classified as “Elemental” spells. Firebolt has it’s own attack table and Directed spell skill to resolve attacks like a traditional weapon. A target’s defense is determined by AC and defensive bonus. Wall of Fire is a fixed effect that delivers a Heat Critical and specifically states that there is no RR. Call Flame doesn’t specify a resolution, but based on RAW, I believe a BAR is rolled and the initial target is given a RR. One could argue that the missile style of the Firebolt lends itself to a weapon attack resolution, the Wall of Fire is in a fixed position and thus has a unavoidable effect if walked through or touched. Call Flame is a bit of a hybrid. It could be considered a targeted spell (like the Firebolt) when manifesting (takes 1 rnd to form) and then a fixed unmoving effect (like Wall of Flame) for it’s duration of 1 rnd/lvl.

I’ve got no problem with Firebolt and Wall of Flame resolution, but does Call of Flame require more thought? Perhaps a better resolution is to treat the manifestation as a Fireball for attack purposes and then a Wall of Flame for the spells duration. Why am I parsing this?

I don’t think a physical attack, whether Elemental or Force, should be resolved using a magic realm resistance roll. Essence RR’s are modified by the Empathy stat. If Call Fire was imaginary or a nerve attack then ok, I might buy that argument. But Call Fire is actual flames–any defense against that should be physically based: quickness, a “dodge” or maybe even an intuitive reflexive flinch.

Let’s use a more apt comparison: Fireball vs Vacuum. Both are aimed, area spells but neither have a directed spell skill. Fireball is an explosive burst of fire and is resolved on a attack table using physical parameters: range, area of effect, defenders DB etc. Vacuum is a “Force” spell, but still an implosive burst of air. It’s a real, physical manifestation and yet, a target makes a v. Essence resistance roll.

There are numerous examples of similar spells that are physical attacks, don’t have their own attack table but are treated like intangible magical effects that can be mitigated by a magical resistance. It just doesn’t work for me. So what are some options?

  1. Generate individual attack tables for any applicable spells. That sounds like a lot of work, and more tables.
  2. Have the spells use existing established attack tables to save the extra work, but to model physical attacks and physical defenses.
  3. Establish a Resistance Roll that is based on physical stats. Qu/Qu/Int for example? This is the metaphorical Dodge; a slight twist of the body, a ducking of the head or similar that avoids the spell damage.
  4. Allow a targeting process that if successful, inflicts a mandatory result. Basically a Wall of Fire but with a accuracy roll.
  5. Use the “Dodge” skill with these types of spells (physical attacks that don’t have it’s own attack table).

If you’ve followed my BASiL project you know that I generally opted for #2. Plant attacks use the Grappling Attack Table, Wave Attacks utilize the Ram/Butt/Bash Table etc. Since these have attack tables I do allow for directed spell that models a casters mastery and increasing efficiency of the spell.

However, I’ve also experimented with a physical resistance roll that is used for reaction times: ambushes, physical spells etc. Like many of you, I will continually tinker with my house rules, but one thing is certain: I don’t believe that using magical resistance against a physical attack (magic or otherwise) is a good resolution rule.

What do you think?

Follow Up: Magical Languages in Shadow World

Now that I have had a few years of playtesting on my magical languages I thought I would blog a quick update. This is a follow up to my 2018 blog post on the subject and the added comment I posted in response to others.

For a quick summary here, I have made magical languages a skill rather than just a assumed ability that is gained when learning spells. In fact, it’s odd that Rolemaster doesn’t embrace magical languages as skills given the need to codify virtual anything as a skill. (I’m looking at you RMSS!) My goal is to create barriers to learning spell lists within my “free market” approach without arbitrary rules about Open/Close/Base or learning lists via “A”, “B”, “C” et al spell picks. (Base list restrictions is just another “Rules for Rules” example).

I originally had 20 or so magical languages I was trying out, but over time I’ve reduced them to just over a dozen. This is due entirely to my thoughts on mapping the development of magic use from the Ka’Ta’Viir (arguably Arcane or possibly Mentalism) to the multiple “realms” that I use in BASiL. So while I created a few of my own, I started with the base magical languages that Terry helpfully provided! I generally classify them as “High” or “Low” which corresponds to Base/Closed and Open classifications in Spell Law.

Aludos:* The “alphabet” of Enruning. Aludos is the language of “short hand” magic used in inscriptions, runes, glyphs, sigils, hieroglyphics and other codified, written magic. This is not a spoken language, but Aludos allows a caster to execute inscribed magic as well as interpret other’s work. (This magical language replaces the function of the Rune skill)

Elemos. High language of Elements. This language is used for casting the high spell lists of Elemental Magic.

Enruth:† Language of Imbedding Magic. Used for alchemy and enchanting objects. Glottogonic analysis suggests the Enruth evolved from a mingling of Elemos and Aludos.

Krônyt:* The High language of physics magic. Used for spatial, physical and time manipulation spells.

Kugor: The High Language of Dragons. It is virtually impossible for other races to use due to limitations of the vocal chords.

Kuskarûk: An arcane language utilized in “Dark” spellcasting. It is believed to be a corrupted form of Orhan power and was introduced to Kulthea through the Charon pantheons.

Logos:† (‘The Word’) The discipline of word-thoughts: mnemonics, method of loci, meditation, transcendence and schema that allows a caster to utilize Mentalism magic.

Meanas: The high language of Illusions, Shadow and Misdirection.

Morgradoth. Language of the Pales and Void. Used for Demonic summoning and controlling spells.

Nomos: “Common” Language of the Essence, used for most lesser Essence spells lists.

Sylmaria: High Speech of the Flows. Almost musical in nature, it is required for spell lists involving the Flows of Essaence. This language is very difficult to learn. Its teaching is closely guarded by Loremasters and Navigators.

Shurak: Language of Fire

Uscurac: The ancient magical language of the Ka’Ta’Viir and “Arcane” magic.

Var Arnak: Language of the spells of the Unlife.

Xytos:† Language of Power-words (Essaence). This language is a limited vocabulary of single word spells and closely related to Uscurac.

With BASiL spell lists are assigned a language. So a caster that wants to learn a diversified selection of lists will probably need to expend additional DP’s learning multiple lists. In addition, the caster can’t cast a list above the level of their Magical Language skill rank AND the Magical Language skill bonus is the bonus used for the SCR. All and all it’s worked great and mimics the original arbitrary spell list acquisition rules using the core Rolemaster premise: skill acquisition.

This is my Shadow World. What’s yours?

I’ve had the opportunity to correspond and talk with many other Shadow World games over the last decade or so and one aspect I really enjoy is hearing about their own interpretation of the setting; what aspects of Shadow World they use a what they don’t. Some of that trickles into the forums and discord server so it’s clear that no two Shadow Worlds are alike. That’s the way it should be!

I’m always irritated when I read a SW review that describes it as a “kitchen sink” setting. I’ve discussed this before, and it’s probably the result of the early third party modules that varied in style and tone, but it’s also true that the 1st Ed. Master Atlas and even Jaiman could be considered standard fantasy fare. When takes as a whole though, Terry’s collected works, “Canon”, is as distinct in flavor and often very unique in material as any other established setting.

I’m going to avoid a compare and contract situation, but I think Kulthea stands up well compared to the 2 standard AD&D settings: Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. It’s certainly more unique than the “white bread” Harn or Midkemia. But like all settings, each campaign, and each GM dips into the materials differently. Perhaps by preference or taste or driven by the players.

Throughout this blog I’ve written quite a bit of material that references my own Shadow World campaign–a campaign that I consider 1 single story despite 30+ years with different groups and players. In my mind, it’s been a continuous narrative, interwoven and ultimately heading towards a climatic conclusion that will never occur!

Over those years, I’ve adopted, discarded and changes a number of setting elements as Terry produced new material and covered new areas but some common elements remain a core part of my campaign style. I thought I’d note a few and invite others to describe their own unique elements in their Shadow World game. For this blog I’m looking for setting elements that are used or not used and not Rolemaster Rules…

  1. I’ve eliminated “Orcs”. Not just Orcs, but all of the standard D&D critters: Goblins, Trolls, Ogres and Giants. While Terry came up with new names for these races, I always felt they diluted the atmosphere of my game and leaned to heavily on ingrained tropes my players know too well. I use Quaidu, Neng, Krylites and of course the Unlife (which can infect all living things) as common opponents of the players. It’s not a hard adjustment, Terry uses very little of these races in his material.
  2. The Unlife. My use of the Unlife embraces the standard SW stuff: Priests of Arnak, Messengers etc but I’ve expanded it with a more liberal use of possession we call the “Soulless”. I also de-emphasize standard undead tropes (no ghosts, wraiths or vampires) and instead a Priests ability to Turn is effective against Unlife possession and manifestation. In fairness this was in no small part due to the Evil Dead and Deadites. The players experience more existential dread from fearing anyone being infected or possessed than being confronted with a standard Undead creature.
  3. I don’t really use Loremasters. It’s too easy to lean on a powerful mysterious figure that can save a group, offer advice and guidance and provide direction. As a GM it’s basically my avatar that ends up leading the party; a role I shouldn’t have. Instead I use Navigators quite a bit. Not only do I depend on the fickle and unpredictable nature of Essaence Flows, but travel is part of the setting. Getting from one place to another can be just as challenging as the ultimate goal and Navigators are an essential tool. Navigators can be funny(I play a few favorites with a very dry and fatalistic wit) but more importantly, completely neutral. In many cases wickedly mercenary with the group.
  4. Apparent to anyone that reads this blog, I lean heavily into the Gods. They are real and manifest, so they should have a significant role in the goings on of the world. But they are also fickle and capricious, so when they do provide aid or guidance it can be with a hidden cost or inexplicable purpose.

Of course I’ve blogged about ret-conning a number of things in Shadow World as well, but these are just some basics. I’m curious what you use, or don’t use, in your Shadow World campaign?

Rolemaster Spell Design: Thematic or Mechanistic?

Since I’ve been spending quite a bit of my writing time on BASiL: Mentalism I’ve also been engaging with a few other writers about spell design concepts. As my blog title suggests, there are two approaches to Rolemaster Spell Lists.

Thematic. The spells within the list are unified by a concept, theme or purpose.

Mechanistic. The spells are unified by an underlying process, mechanism, or metaphysical force.

While I am firmly in the “Mechanistic” camp, there is compelling evidence that some spell lists in Rolemaster were driven by the “Thematic” approach. Why might that have occurred? I think Professions development is a top down process: you start with a professional concept, you define the skills and abilities that reinforce that concept and then you assign skill costs and spell abilities last. For instance if we want to model a Paladin profession we might then create broad spell list categories like this: “vs Undead/Evil”, “Healing”, “Buffs” and “Combat”. Then we would design and fill in spells under those thematic categories. That makes sense.

The problem is that you can end up creating spells that work on different operational principles. Good examples of this can be found in the expansion Professions in RMCI, specifically the Nightblade and Paladin lists:

Nightblade/Distractions. This list contains a number of spells that fit under the umbrella of “subterfuge” it’s a hodge podge of styles. Nightvision (a personal augmentation, Confusion (a mental effect), Smokeflash (a teleport with a elemental angle),Extinquish (cancel elemental). So the list is a bit of Magician powers and Mentalist powers all jumbled up.

Paladin/Holy Warrior. This spell list really covers three areas: self healing, buffs (Strength & Courage), and “holy auras”.

A quick review of almost any list will find at least half a dozen “outlier” spells that don’t really fit into the mechanistic’s of the spell list. I’m not suggesting that a thematic approach is wrong, and ultimately, you probably need a mix of both to create full spell lists.

When I try to create a new list (or clean up a messy Spell Law List) I start from the bottom and build the list mechanically. What is the underlying “power” of these spells? Are they similar that they support the fundamental idea of a Spell List? (Similar spells that increase in power). Sometimes I can build enough spells to form a new list to 50th level. Other times I need to include a spell that doesn’t fit well but is needed to support the list functionality. Other times I have 1 cool spell but it’s a dead end to building a full list around the idea.

While I mostly use a Mechanistic approach, it can also lead to less diverse spell lists, or ones that might be better served with a HARP scaling approach. That’s a valid criticism. For limited spell lists, like the Shadow World Messenger Lists, I used a more Thematic approach. I feel comfortable using Thematics for Channeling spell lists, given that they are arguably structured for use by a Diety/Being.

The Thematic approach appeals to my gut- it’s intuitive, it reinforces professional tropes and provides wide latitude to populating a spell list. But my mind finds the mechanistic approach a more orderly process to spell list creation. In the end, much of this will depend on your concept of a spell list.

What are your thoughts?

Shadow World Review: Emer, The Great Continent

If you are like me (mid 50’s) and have been playing Rolemaster and using Shadow World since it’s release in the late 80’s, the publication of the Emer box supplement was a huge step forward for the Kulthea world setting. By 1990, there were over a dozen Shadow World products, but until Emer, only 2 were written by Terry: Shadow World Master Atlas and Jaiman: Land of Twilight. The other 10-12 products were by third party authors. While all of them have their strengths as game supplements, they were generic adventures that were shoe horned into the game setting and did relatively little to expand world building.

Before I dive into my thoughts on Emer, let’s quickly review where “Canon” was in 1990 and the two Terry products mentioned above. For the most part, the Shadow World Master Atlas (SWMA) was fairly generic, establishing a few SW tropes: Navigators, Loremasters and Dragonlords but mostly was meant to connect Rolemaster to a useable setting. These elements were kernels of ideas from the Loremaster module series and expanded and built off of that early material. The Flora and Fauna book was mostly generic creatures straight from Creatures and Treasures and covered all the basics from standard D&D. The timeline was only 2 or so pages and didn’t add any depth that the later Emer regionals provided.

If the SWMA set the table for the setting, Jaiman was the meal. Clearly not a regional book as it was titled, it nonetheless brought a specific tone and style to the setting. A lengthy adventure tied various elements together and promised a larger world (The Grand Campaign took this further), cool “dungeon” style tombs embraced Terry’s architectural background and fused high tech elements in a fantasy setting. It was light medieval fantasy but there was a hint of darker things: Evil Gods, Unlife and enigmatic Lords.

In my opinion, Emer brought a whole new vibe to Shadow World: more mature, more grimdark and more malevolence. One aspect that contributed to the look and feel of Emer was the artwork. You can’t talk about the Emer box set without referencing the incredible box art done by Les Edwards. I suspect that art launched hundreds of adventures and sold many on the Shadow World setting. Prior to his death, Terry even planned on carving the City of the Dead out of the Emer IV supplement to give it it’s due. For more Les Edwards art; interestingly, he did the cover art for the fighting fantasy books by Ian Livingstone who IIRC did one of the Shadow World fantasy fiction books?

Besides the box cover, the interior art was different than that found in SWMA and Jaiman. This piece appears to be done by Michael Alexander Hernandez. It feels modern, perhaps even futuristic but foreboding. It certainly lent a different tone to the setting from previous books.

This piece doesn’t seem to have an artist signature, but it’s in the same style. While B/W, it appears to have a Lugrok tearing into the victims skull…is that rivulets of blood on his face?

History of Emer

The timeline and history of Emer introduced several powerful factions: the Jerak Ahrenrath, the Eight Orders and the Masters of Emer. In further work, the Masters have sort of disappeared, but the Jerak Ahrenrath and the Eight Orders become integral to the wider plots of Emer and the future of Kulthea itself. For me this is entirely new material that expands the Canon; none of this material was seeded in the earlier Loremaster series nor hinted at in the SWMA, so it was a delight to read and shifted my view of the setting–for the better.

Flora & Fauna

Again, Emer added to canon with some new plants and creatures. As I have argued, SW needs more of this and less Terran standard critters and plants to help in game immersion. One of my favorite (if you’ve read Priest King you’ll know this):

It’s important to note, that many of the Canon SW books introduce new flora and fauna, but these weren’t all included in future Atlas’s. For instance, the Shalish, Frask or Boerk were never included in SWMA 3 or 4. I believe I compiled a full list of plants/creatures from all of the core books to be included, but I think it’s a failing that they weren’t included in MA’s.

Races

With a new canvas to paint and a huge land area to fill in, Terry was able to expand on the races found in Shadow World. Of note are the Kuluku. Most of the new Emer races seemed to finalize the racial types found in all later books.

Geography

Part V of the main book covers the various regions which, like the rest of Kulthea are wide ranging in styles, cultures, topography and climate. The Essence Flows are given less credit for this phenomena, and I think that the later de-emphasizing of the Flows as Barriers was a lost opportunity to reinforce a key element of the setting.

This section is further expanded in the later Emer regional books and all, if not almost all of it, is found in those later books. (except for the pending and final quadrant Emer IV)

For me a few takeaways:

Kaitaine really needs it own supplement. From the glassed roof grand marketplace to the Palace of the Bankers.

Krylites are very cool and make a better foe than Orcs.

Part XI (slight spoilers)

I recall reading Emer for the first time and it was this section that really shifted by view of Shadow World. The Jerak Ahrenreth, the “Secret Circle” and it’s history became a more compelling plotline than some abstract Dark God or Evil NPC Magician. A dense world spanning history tied the past with the present made this evil and twisted cult the long term antagonist(s) for my Shadow World campaign. Much of the material seemed familiar and is reminiscent of the Court of Ardor (but that’s ok, cuz that was cool too)

The Circle of 8, the Adherents and the cool citadel layouts are Terry at the top of his game.

ATLAS ADDENDUM

The second book included in the Emer Box Set is the Atlas Addendum and this is where all the new material and cool stuff can be found.

Part I is a grab bag of topics and delves into world awareness, the nature of “good” vs “evil”, more details on other planes, and even advice on modifying Navigator charges.

Part II is the extended timeline, specific for Emer and greatly expanded in later books.

Part IX Places of Power includes a number of magical, mysterious and relevant places in SW. Most can be moved around and used anywhere. My f

Part VIII and Part X: Other Powers & Goodies

But the Jerak Ahrenreth wasn’t the only power introduced in Emer. Terry introduced is to the Eight Orders of the old Emerian Empire, let by Aldaron (a nod to Star Wars?). There is great material here, either as foils for the group or as possible back grounds for the players. And there are Yarkbalkas! We also learn about the Storm Wizard, who is retconned in later work and his 4 mysterious Storm Heralds.

The Dark Gods

Perhaps the biggest addition to Other Powers is the inclusion of the Charon pantheon, the Dark Gods. Of course this is a major expansion to the setting and impacts the metaphysics of the game, channeling and future SW products.

Artifacts & Lost Technology

Often time we buy and read supplements for the “goodies” and not necessarily to use in gaming. NPC stats, fortress layouts and cool magic items. The Emer box set delivers in spades with a good list of artifacts and notable items. I believe that most of these were never incorporated into later Master Atlas’s, so the Emer Box set is the only source for this material. Notable items include (finally…) the Ilarsiri, the Starsphere, the Leafblade, a number of books which I missed in my previous blog, powerful staves, and a slew of Lords of Essence items. Also included is the Lense of Strok, which was my McGuffin for my high level adventure series: Legends of Shadow World.

Other bits. Terry also threw is a more comprehensive look at magical materials, some Warding and a few other Spell lists and pretty good Encounter Table that I used for my version.

So why is Emer Box set worth a look?

  • It appears that only Emer III is currently available on DrivethruRPG. The Emer book will provide an overview over the whole continent–including Emer I & II and the pending Emer IV.
  • While the material was included and expanded on in Emer I-III, it was a better template than that used in Jaiman. (Assuming Xa’ar is Jaimain: NW; Wuliris is Jaiman NE; Tanara is Jaiman SE and Haalkitaine is Jaiman SW). A broad overview of a continent with smaller regional supplements seems a better format.
  • The addendum was the precursor to the desired “Artifacts and Technology” supplement that Terry always hinted at. There is cool stuff in this supplement.
  • It leaned further into the fusion of scifi and fantasy.
  • It established a globe spanning danger that could anchor any long term campaign.
  • Combined, the SWMA and the Emer Atlas basically “fixed” core canon material. Besides some smaller regional powers, some expansion on the Jinteni and some discarded ideas (like Jewel Wells) the framework is all there for future work.

Like many SW products, the Emer Box Set will never be reprinted. Perhaps the Addendum could be republished as a PDF? Or even better, a Master Compendium could be collated from all of this disparate material.

Ultimately, the Emer Box Set was the maturation of Shadow World as a setting, laying the groundwork for all subsequent material.