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.”

4 Replies to “The Stats, Kin and Cultures of Against the Darkmaster”

  1. Howdy Gabe, ToM here.
    Amazing job from you in these series of posts, thank you so much. Dissecting the game from a player’s perspective greatly helps us the authors to see any potential inconsistency or pitfall.

    Just wanted to drop here a few notes on some of your topics.

    First about the random stat generation method. This WILL actually be presented as a variant method in the Full Rules, along with options to build more or less powerful characters amd have starting stat values higher than 25 and lower than 0. Of course this variant method could not find room in the streamlined QS rules, but yes, it will be there.

    Then about “dying” value for HPs. It is set to a flat -50 HPs in the QS, correct. This may or may not change in future iterations, depending on the result of the playtests and feedbacks received. However the HP value must not be confused with the Body skill value. The Body skill bonus is factored in the HP total but also has a different use. Total HPs are given by the Body skill bonus plus the starting Kin bonus and that’s it. The Body skill will also represent a bonus used in certain rolls and also a separate counter for – say – attacks draining health like some undeads or the effects of certain poisons and diseases.

    As for Passions: these are under development too. The Full Rules will probably feature rules for tieing them even closer to the story. There will certainly be suggestions on how to write good Passions and how to use different types of Passions else from the standard Motivation, Nature and Allegiance. Plus, there will be suggestions on how to run more character-driven games basing on players agenda as expressed by their characters Passions (like in Mouse Guard or Burning Wheel), or use Passions as a lighter layer over a more story-driven game style (like say in 5e D&D).

  2. Hey Peter! Thank you for hosting us all!

    The OPEN00 project is something we had in mind since the very beginning of the development of Against the Darkmaster, yet it has still not very well defined boundaries.

    It will be a SRD or barebones framework on which VsD is built. You can think of VsD as a specialization of the OPEN00. Still, the OPEN00 will probably not be just a flavorless VsD, but more of a toolkit to develop games similar to VsD but with different scopes and focuses. The OPEN00 will probably not be playable “as is”, as it will not be a complete game.

    VsD on the other hand will probably accept both fan-made materials and contributions and commercial-licensed material made by third parties after launch. The fan-made, no-profit material will be more than welcome, while we will give an option for third party companies and freelance authors to submit their contribution and be published either under the Fellowship standard or co-branding with VsD their product.

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