One of the things that I am enjoying at the moment is rediscovering the joys of populating the environment that my players will be travelling in. I love to be able to create descriptions of places that sound like they are lived in. For reasons why this is a good idea read my thoughts in the Rationale section.
If you have read the set-up of this adventure then you will know that we started off using a MERP adventure module. The town of Culwic has a sketch outline and for the adventure provided gives enough NPCs that I can improvise others on the fly. I then started to add to the character of the town with traders and the skill level of the local healer. I did this because I knew before we started out on the next adventure, both players would want to pick up a few items that they realised were missing from their kit. It was still a brief skeleton, but it was enough to make the village believable. No high powered magical items or characters needed, and none appearing thanks to a frantic roll to a request (not that these PCs had that kind of cash). Preparation is a key GM skill.
The next adventure set in course some events that will lead the players following a number of trails across the lands. Their failure also means that overhearing the local’s gossip will encourage the players to move on. At this point they are faced with the mountain wilderness or travelling towards Arthedain civilisation to report their findings. They should set out towards Eruimar which again is a location described in the adventure book. However, details here are even less than that for Culwic. As I am intending on setting another step in a series of periodic linked adventures here the players are likely to return for rest and recuperation. In addition, their are some investigative elements to the adventure and it will be helpful to know who knows what and where to find them.
I’m not flush with time, but I can give myself a fighting chance of improvising in a game if I have put together a framework of a village. Why is the village there? What is it’s main business? What sort of people live there? What sort of items can you buy? Who is in charge? All quite simple to do and if you are really short of time and want to have something you can throw out at random you can find pre-prepared option from various sources such as Raging Swan’s Village Backdrops (not so easy to use in MERP, but adaptable).
So, happy as a lamb, I have spent several days, in small snatched chunks, creating details of the Eruimar, a village that sits on a trading route to a crossing of the river Lhun. The adventure has several characters who remain in the village and adding in a few more key NPCs to make village life interesting has brought life and a couple of red herrings to the whole adventure. To help with the flow of descriptions that create a sense of place, I also worked on some descriptions of some main dwellings and generic ones. It is about this point that I wish I wasn’t so ham fisted at drawing so I could show a sketch of them, but somehow this seems like cheating, and I’m not sure as a player I would want to know all the detail that way.
With the adventure planned and a village backdrop planned I went into complete gazetteer mode. I realised that on the official MERP maps there are no marked crossing points or Ferry points to Caras Celairnen (the first official Arthedain town). It leaves a road that travels along the Rammas (a spur of the Blue Mountains) to the river Lhun with no town or village that has built around a crossing point. Given the width of the river at this point it is really unlikely that traders and travellers are fording, although a nearby marsh could make it possible that there are shallows that could be forded with sufficient local knowledge. However, the local guides would need to live somewhere and with heavy snow melts raising river levels and changing routes it would seem weird that there is no village or town here. Suddenly, I needed to create this town! I had no adventure planned here, but as I began to think about what sort of place this would be, I began to drop in rumours of adventures that will allow me to challenge the players as they pass through. Quickly, the quick sketch has a lot more detail inside my head even though on the page my new town gazetteer only has the same level of detail as that of Eruimar.
So I present to you the small town of Elvenbeyn (River town, I’ll blog the details later). A Riverman (Northman) settlement that acts as a major focal point for ferrying goods to Caras Celairnen and other points further up and downstream. I based names on Norwegian, as this fits well with the ideas from Tolkien for this race of man, and gives a character to the town. Obviously, as a trade town of people who are fiercely independent the influence of Arthedain is limited. There are only two things that matter in this town, goods and transportation. Of these transportation is probably the most important. Consequently, a guild of Rivermen who ply their trade on the water seemed like the most likely organising force for social structure. Then there are always goods that need transportation without questions asked so some sort of smuggling operation must exist. As a permanent settlement it will obviously attract it’s fair share of itinerants, but as the population is composed of superstitious, rebellious Rivermen, the elves and Dunedain will be less welcome if tolerated at all. Instead, the hunters, trappers and river runners from the North will flood in for the winter and disperse over the summer. In winter then the town will be a bustling place with casual danger and petty crime, but as the winter snows melt and passage becomes easier the town will be quieter, although not always less dangerous. All in all I feel like I have a location that is ripe for kicking off lots of adventures and now I can’t wait until the players get here.Of course they may never get here and choose to be elsewhere, but that doesn’t detract from the sense of satisfaction from the process of creation.