Which came first?

Our budding Bounders are taking their ease in the Midnight Rooster at Wibblesham when they are summoned urgently to the nearby village of Crissingham. The breathless messenger explains that two of its citizens have been mysteriously turned to stone and that Mayor Twofoot wishes the support of the Sherriffs to investigate. Spurred on Alvi, Aelfric and Brega are soon at the village Grange where most of the villagers have gathered in a worried mob around the Mayor. It appears that another four villagers have been turned to stone. Mobbed in a chorus of voices some fear a fearsome monster, others a snake or perhaps some kind of bat or miniature dragon. The midwife reports seeing a chicken in the window of a building near where one of the victims were turned to stone.

Cockatrice by Baron-Engel @Devianart

Reflecting on the information Aelfric remembers the tales of his Granny about a fearsome creature of sorcery called a Cockatrice. A mixture of chicken, snake and bat that could turn a man to stone with its beady gaze. Once these were released by evil sorcerers to terrorise villages back before the men from the West Isle came to the shores of Middle Earth. Armed with this mythical knowledge, the party cautiously enter the Market Square to investigate. With a “cluck cluck” leading them on, with the exception of Alvi, they take precautionary action by hiding in the nearest house. There is a moment of embarrassment and then a plan is hatched. Soon the Cockatrice is spotted with the chance of surprise. Brega immediately launches a Shock Bolt at the monster and alerts it to their presence. Unfortunately, both Aelfric and Brega are immediately turned to stone by the Cockatrice’s beady gaze. Luckily, Alvi holds her nerve long enough to launch into a soothing tune that sends the capricious chicken to sleep, at which point she dispatches it before it can reawaken.

Alvi attempts to revive her companions but they appear to be immune to any method of revival that she has at her disposal. Bravely, she explores further to check if this was the only Cockatrice. At the statues of Pancho and Sago Foxburr (the first two victims) she finds the remains of an oily, iridescent eggshell in the hen coop but no more. Reassured she returns to the Grange to inform the Mayor that the problem has been solved. The villagers though are uncertain and decide to wait out the night at the Grange.

During the evening Alvi has a strange conversation with a sandy-haired hobbit called Latana. She admits to feeling guilty as she was the one who gave Pancho the egg (the boy loves chickens). She hints that she did not acquire the egg by legal means and it may have come from a tower in the nearby Red Hills across the Brandywine.

Soon Pancho and Sago are found alive and unfrozen and this is swiftly followed by other villagers until finally Aelfric and Brega are also fully mobile again. Alvi shares her findings with her companions as the village begins to return to normal. They decide that Latana and her role in discovering needs investigating further.

Cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth

The idea for this blog post was started from a series of posts on The Rolemaster Blog around the semi-spell user professions in Rolemaster (RM). They were a sort of lament over the Ranger and the Bard not having spells that buff combat level in comparison to some of the other semi-spell users in the system and particularly in the RMu version. I commented a couple of times, but then it felt like I was about to launch into a blog post that wasn’t really connected to the spell lists but more about how I play these characters as a player and a GM. As a result, I thought I would move my thoughts here into a more MERP-like blog.

Unlike its big clumpy brother, MERP provides less Profession options.

I know, its a bit ironic that I’m talking about professions when I’m also exploring playing without Profession classes and levels. However, this is talking about history of how things have been played and how the mechanics of the game have influenced this.

You get two Arms law based professions (Warrior and Scout), two pure magic users (Animist and Mage) and two semi-magic users (Ranger and Bard). At the start it is worth mentioning that MERP and RM magic in the Rules As Written (RAW) format is not very Middle Earth friendly. It is a common complaint of most players and GMs who love Middle Earth and wanted to journey through it. Just as importantly, to be fair to the old guard at ICE, the RAW were always meant to be a starting point and then tinkered with. However, this creates a problem of portability of characters between games run by different GMs. In this reboot phase, I have been hampered by players wanting to play old, much-loved PCs with spell lists I wouldn’t have granted purely because of the way it changes the tone of the game. However, I’d rather play and we all enjoy it than get over picky about a fixed idea of how things should be done.

Aside from the questions of magic in Middle Earth, the issue of I need my Bard/Ranger to be more combat ready in some format got me thinking this. If your game needs your semi-spell user to be more powerful in combat, are your adventures the ones for the party? Over on the RM blog, Hurin, pointed out that most of his adventures are combat heavy. Which kind of makes me think of a Roman gladiator contest. We all sit round the edge like gods and watch the mighty heroes fight their way across the arena. Occasionally, we may throw some dice to determine their fate.

A ranger walks the wilds of a mountain

In my MERP games, there is still a lot of combat (probably more than I would like but the mechanics and story tropes kind of push it in that direction). However, there is also a lot of wilderness exploring and for us a Ranger is a vital part of any party and gains an awful lot of experience points (ie development) through tracking, avoiding ambushes, scouting, foraging either with or without spells. Similarly, the Bard acts as the Urban version. Rewarded properly, both professions make good progress through the levels.

In terms of level development, my observation of MERP that focuses on experience points (XP) weighted to combat encounters is that warriors rapidly increment levels early with a lag for the semi-spell users. Animists played as healers are the next to develop because suddenly they start to use lots of healing spells. Bringing up the rear are Mages who struggle to employ effective spells in combat (unless they game the system).

A party of adventurers of different Professions

When warriors and scouts reach level 5 the rate of development switches as the combat specialists have exhausted the range of new foes and the enhanced bonus. Animist healers continue to power forward as even though the fighters are better they still take some damage and random Criticals. The mages really begin to pick up the pace as well as the spells on the lists become more useable in combat. Semi-spell users continue at a steady pace because unlike the warriors they haven’t used up all the bonus multipliers on Criticals and Kills.

In contrast, if you move the XP generating events away from a combat focus. All professions benefit. First the Pure and semi-spell users can use those “odd” spells to complete an adventure. Second, events that rely on skills other than combat are promoted in character development. To go back to an earlier post; the party can fight their way in or they could use some form of deception of stealth. To my mind a nudge to players habits of you get a reward for doing it this way (apart from walking away alive) reap benefits in the long term for the game and the choice of Professions used in your game.

As a GM this means the planning of your adventures and campaigns needs to hold elements that reflect the different skill sets of each Profession. In an ideal party I’ sure you would like one of each 6 Profession. However, this never has happened to me….well OK a few times but only because these were one-off massive games with about 12+ players and that made the law of averages work. Generally, the party is too small or players prefer to play a certain type of Profession.

Should your party have a Ranger then find reasons for them to employ the odd Limbwalking spell and look after the party in the wild in a way that doesn’t involve tackling an irate boar or a pack of hungry wolves. A Bard, then give them chance to gather information from the locals or to use their smooth talking or Songs spell lists to get through a section. Make the Mage use their low level spells to overcome obstacles or use Arcane knowledge to interpret clues. Most importantly reward them for it!

Which brings me full circle to Rangers and Middle Earth. In our games because much of the adventuring happens in the wilderness Rangers generally develop faster than Bards. Which is a failure of our games because none of us, as GMs, have favoured the type of environment that favours a Bard of any persuasion (Entertainer, Loremaster or Diplomat).

Currently, I have a game with a Dwarven Warrior (skills in locks, caving, dwarf lore and combat), a Hobbit scout (stealth, trickery, locks), and an animist/healer (whose player keeps thinking he is still playing a Ranger who is now sadly deceased). Previously, the adventure in the swamps used the skills of the Ranger to track and survive in the wild. OK so it backfired and he ran off into the wilderness in fear leaving his companion to find a way home alone but still the bulk of the XP didn’t come from the combat. Down the Hobbit Hole used a lot of the Scout’s stealth and I have deliberately constructed a campaign around the dwarf for his lore and caving. Although I’ve kept the NPC Dwarf linked to the party just in case of a fatality.

In summary, there is perhaps no need to rehabilitate the Ranger and the Bard. Rather, ensure as GM’s that adventures use their skills and abilities in a way that is rewarded with adventure success and XP for character development.