There are many ways to get my creative juices flowing, but perhaps the most fundamental is just reading: fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, historical novels. I tend to read in clusters of topics and since I’m reading quite a bit of fantasy and catching up on authors and series that I left languish during COVID, I thought I’d blog about several of them.
I’m not sure if I ever read Vance “back in the day”, but I thought it worth exploring given various blog posts I read that reference Tales of the Dying Earth and Appendix N. The D&D DNA is certainly there; especially in the magic system and I found the stories enjoyable. I also enjoy the vague references to ancient, technologically advanced societies. One of the reason’s I enjoy Shadow World.
I’ve mentioned Adrian Selby’s first work, Snakewood. His setting is low magic with only a handful of Magic-Users. Instead, the world is driven by mercenaries and fighters that use “Brews”; basically a potion that enhances strength, speed and senses like a supercharged dose of steroids. I’ve already started working on a SW version of this which combines alchemy and herbs since I’m not a fan of “magic potions”.
I read Liavek and it’s sequel back in the 80’s and apparently there has been many more books in the series over the following decade. Setting anthologies were popular in the 80’s, the most well-known being Thieves World. I wanted to revisit Liavek as part of my process writing Nontataku–a city module for Shadow World. Anyway, these are light but fun reading. Will Shetterly, the editor has also written one of my old favorites: Witch Blood.
Hurin wanted Rolemasterblog to tackle the Warrior Mage next, so I put aside my blog on the Mystic and spent some time reviewing and thinking about the Warrior Mage. I can’t recall any of my players choosing a Warrior Mage, but I know that the Warrior Mage is VERY popular among players and controversial as well. Hurin is doing a rebuild of WM spell lists and is a proponent in general, so I thought I would take an opposing view of the profession!
One of the first issues for me, is that the Warrior Mage doesn’t feel like a “Profession” like other RM semi-spell users. Instead it’s really a multi-class, A Fighter-MU that combines the 2 most popular PC aspects: combat and elemental attack spells. Not only does it merge the best of 2 classes, but it fully embraces the Fly, Sleep, Charm, Fireball cornerstones of the fantasy Magic-User.
What’s in a name? Most RM Professions carry an implied conceptual design with their name–a topic we visit with these blog posts. Most people have a clear concept of a character when they hear words like: Bard, Ranger or Paladin. These Profession names evoke class tropes, literary references and a skill and power framework. We don’t call a Ranger a “Animist/Fighter” or a Paladin a “Cleric/Fighter” even if those descriptions are technically accurate. Profession names carry enough referential information that we can even argue over skill cost minutia. Of course some of these Professions imply a setting or specific social construct but the Warrior Mage does none of that. What do you think of when you hear Warrior Mage? Probably that it’s a great character because there is both fighting ability and useful spells–but what’s the context? It’s merely a Chimera–a combination of two primary ABILITIES, but without any conceptual framework. While we may disagree on small details of varying Professions, we immediately get the concept of an “Astrologer”, a “Beastmaster”, a “Dervish” or a “Moonmage”. There is connotation. I just don’t get that with a Warrior Mage. To me, it feels like a work-around and a class designed by a player not a GM. A RM Magician can already allocate DPs to learn combat skills–the Warrior Mage just accelerates and amplifies that outside of the game balance. The Warrior Mage spells feel cherry picked for power and utility–in some ways they feel BETTER than the Base lists of the pure Magician spell caster!
Spell lists picked and designed by a player. There are several versions of a Warrior Mage, but let’s stick to the original in RMCOII. In this version, the Warrior Mage receives 3 Base lists and a suggestion for a 4th: Minds Touch, Elemental Ways and Highriding. The 4th suggestion is Body Renewal, a Monk base list. If a player could individual choose spells and put them into their own lists, I’m not sure you could do better than these. I’m not making a argument for the inherent power of the spell lists–I realize that there is an argument that they are “overpowered”. I just don’t like the incredible bias of these lists.
Minds Touch. Basically combine Spirit Ways with Telekinesis and you get the 4 incredible spell abilities: Charm, Sleep, Telekinesis and Telepathy. All great for in-game use!
Elemental Ways. Why bother with a handful of Elemental Spell lists organized by the Element, when you can just bundle the ALL the best spells of a Magician into a single Base list! Fireball, IceBall, Fire Bolts, Ice Bolts, Water Bolts, Shock Bolt at 2nd level and Lightning Bolt by 12th.
Highriding. My favorite! Flying, Longdoor, a Tensers Floating Disc and even Teleport. Wow!!!
The final suggested list is Body Renewal–a Self Healing list that rounds out the Warrior Mage as virtually a self-sufficient offensive machine. While the WM base lists don’t have spells from 16-20 why bother? Most games seem to run at player levels less than 15th, allowing the WM to put together a basket of great spells by 10th.
Profession as a Trope. So I want to return to the Warrior Mage as a template beyond a Fighter-Magic User or semi spell user/Essence. I’m not opposed to a simple Essence semi-user, but that doesn’t really fit into the RM system does it? Is there a better set of spell lists that aren’t: a teenager’s masturbatory idea of a PC; imbue the Profession with a concept or connotation like other Professions?
I’m going to think about this further. Since I can already build a Magician that spends Development points on a combat skills (yes, at a high cost), I want to see a Warrior Mage concept that is unique or inspires roleplaying ideas. Of course, I always think of Professions in relation to Shadow World–in that setting there are some ideas that could make great templates for a WM: Cloudlords, Xiosans or the Guarla of the Raven Queen. Any of those might work as an organization of Semi-Essence professions, albiet with specific organizational spell lists rather than the RMC II Base. I’m interested in seeing what Hurin comes up with! What are your thoughts?
Now that I’m posting up some more spell lists–Mentalism primarily, I’m tracking comments and feedback on the forums and here at RMBlog. The number one issue I see is the desire for spell list reductionism, maybe build 10 spells per “list” and allow for creative scalability similar to or identical to HARP.
That is a compelling thought, but after writing a ton of spell lists I wanted to put my own thoughts in order.
Distillation. Rebuilding classic RM spell lists typically requires some trimming. Many spells within a list are redundant: not just the spells that progress as I, II, III etc, but different named spells that do similar things. Distilling the essence of a list can really reduce the total number of spells which makes a scalable spell system very appealing!
Spell scope. I’m not a fan of kitchen sink style spell lists, but do see a fundamental difference between the realms. Essence should be very tightly focused around a key aspect, Channeling should allow for much more variability based on the particular god and I see Mentalism lists following a shared mental mechanism. Using these basic rules provides different ways to build lists in different realms.
Compatibility. A major motivation to maintain the 1-50th spell lists is basic compatibility with RM and Shadow World.
Built in scalability. Many of my lists are built around 3-6 spells, that progress from I-V and maybe include a mass effect. If each spell repeats every 5 levels that takes up a chunk of the list, but also gives a repetitive appearance that seem suitable for scaling. However, the spell versions don’t just scale progressively, but change in target size, AoE, Range and other aspects that provide “more bang for the buck”. General scaling assumes increased power point cost/expansion of range, area, damage etc. So from an efficiency standpoint, higher versions of the spells in BASiL provide a better impact/PP than just linear scaling. “Spell II” isn’t just 2x better than “Spell I”, it can be 3x better or have expanded efficacy or powers as well.
Opportunity and tactical cost. By having built in scaling, players can use higher or lower level spells based on the target, PP consumption and risk/reward calculations. Of course, that’s also one argument for Scaling spells, but the PP usage will be much different per #4 above.
Level assignment. One of the more difficult aspects of designing a spell list is deciding what level to make a spell. Part of me wants to calculate an estimated “power cost”, while other times I’m thinking of utility and game balance. For instance, the big three: Charm, Fly and Invisibility can be very unbalancing to the game, but perhaps shouldn’t be based on “power needed” or some other arbitrary assessment. Some lists just can’t be distilled into 10 spells with scaling options. Some spells need to be higher level to reflect their real power and also make them unavailable to lower level players.
Vertical versus horizontal acquisition. RM (and probably RMU) is build around horizontal model of spell acquisition. Generally players will know more spell lists than overall spell levels. For instance, a 5th lvl caster may have access to 5-10 lists but can only effectively cast to 5th level without risk of failure. In BASiL, it’s the opposite. I use a levelless system so players generally know a few spell lists to higher level. That gives them more powerful, niche abilities. It’s just the way I like my game to run–hard specialization versus the generalization of RAW.
Keystone spells. I still like cool spells that can be found at 10th, 20th and certainly 50th level. I try to add something unique or interesting at these levels for players to look forward too, or to give the list a “bump”!
I guess sticking with RM I wanted to improve on the originally 35+ year old Spell Law and incorporate spell ideas and powers introduced since then. But if I were to start over, I would take a hard look at a HARP scalable system. Or maybe just use HARP rules?
Many of you also build your own spell lists. Do you have build guidelines, mechanistic philosophies or other design criteria that help you in the process?
Today we are going to be looking at Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. Like The Court of Ardor, Umbar was one of the first MERP products put out by I.C.E. and like Court of Ardor fits very easily into Shadow World.
Welcome to another “Spin Cycle” blog post! If you aren’t familiar with my previous entries on re-purposing MERP products for Shadow World. You can find my take on the Court of Ardor HERE, HERE and HERE. and the MERP adventure module “Thieves of Tharbad”
Today we are going to be looking at Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. Like The Court of Ardor, Umbar was one of the first MERP products put out by I.C.E. and like Court of Ardor fits very easily into Shadow World. Cover art is by Gail Mcintosh–I always like this art for representing my idea of Rolemaster combat: gritty, dangerous (they never have much armor on!) and this is cool because it’s on a boat that’s tilting!
So why is Umbar such a useful module and a good fit for Shadow World?
Strip away the Middle Earth material and you have great adventure content. The city of Umbar with city maps, sewer maps, tavern maps, 6 city towers of various “Captains”, info on the Wizard Guild, smugglers, merchants, Thieves Guild, City Milita, healers, Armorers Guild, Dark Religion and ships and sailors. Plus there layouts for 6 small castle/keeps that are great drop in plans for any adventure. This is classic RPG material. The Middle Earth info is just window dressing.
Where does this fit into Shadow World? Plasidar. There isn’t much material on Plasidar in the Jaiman source book but a few data points:
Piracy along the Melurian Straits is on the rise…..the lords of Plasidar, and the Xooba raiders all increase activities.
Generally considered a ‘wild land’ filled with thieves and pirates, Plasidar most likely is not quite as bad as it is made out to be.
The Duke of Plasidar….is an Elven merchant-lord who commands an impressive fleet.
Gûl is the capital city of Plasidar and certainly Umbar is a good stand in for the port city. Umbar has the 6 “Captains of the Havens” while Plasidar has it’s Sea Captain “Lords”. Umbar has Corsairs, Black Numenoreans and Haradrim raiders, (plus smugglers and merchants) while Plasidar has thieves, pirates, raiders and merchants. All in all, a pretty good fit! Given that the new updated Jaiman source book is complete and unlikely to be revised again, using Umbar fills in a fairly large chunk of southern Jaimain that’s close to other important areas: Lethys, Nomikos, and across the sea from Emer and Eidolon.
Since this isn’t meant to be a straight up product review, I’m going to skip down to page 11 where the content starts becoming usable for Shadow World.
3.1. There are 6 Captains the rule the city, each has their own fleet, tower in the city and castle with liege lord outside the city. The names themselves are “Tolkien” style, but dropping the accents, and putting in apostrophes convert to “Shadow World” style. Each lord gets a paragraph with a good description to flesh them out as NPC’s. The Lords are in the 20-25th lvl range, so they make great higher level bosses. There are also stats and info on each lords Chief Captain; these NPC’s are 10-13th lvl.
4.0. City of Umbar. Like most ICE products, Umbar has great color maps with building color coded as well for Alchemists, Lay Healers, Mentalists, Magicians, Herbalists and other professions. Umbar is pre-MERP so all the RM classes are used in these early products. Another bonus for Shadow World use.
There are layouts and information on two taverns, The Drunken Goose and The Red Sunset. These are perfect hang-outs, meeting places and starting points for a group of adventurers.
5.1. Describes the 6 city towers of each lord. There are floorplans and layout keys and are perfect for a thieving expedition.
8.0 Organizations. Several pages are dedicated to city organizations that the players could interact with or even belong to: The Wizards Guild, Smugglers, Merchants and Merchant Houses, Thieves Guild, City Guard, Healers and Healing Orders, Ships and Sailors, Armorers Guild and a Dark Cult. There are stats for key NPC’s of each, some building or lair layouts and certainly enough information to easily build adventures.
10. Castles of Umbar.
Umbar contains the layouts and keys for 6 keeps, each controlled by one of the lords. Nearby are farmlands and villages that support each keep and the city.
Finally there are the usual and useful summary charts for NPC’s, master military chart, herbs, key people, magic items and some supplementary adventure info.
Umbar is a fantastic “mid-size” campaign module that easily fills in the blanks of Plasidar. The format is easily understood by SW and ICE players, the art work is cool and the stats are straight Rolemaster. The additional info on ships is a great bonus for ocean adventuring, pirates and smuggling scenarios.
While Umbar is OOP, there are multiple online sources for usable PDFs. Check it out and enjoy!