Being mature

`So this thought has just cropped up on the ICE MERP Facebook group. “Question I play Rolemaster in Middle Earth why not use a much more mature system but still al the middle earth info/ICE modules etc?” 

Now ignoring the obvious replies that can be made by those of us who graduated to Rolemaster (RM) and in our case reverted back in this incarnation, there is a bigger question. What is a mature system? A system that is mature in my book has a lot to do with my background in biology and medicine. It has a robust interdependency that has over time evolved to provide a stable supporting equilibrium.  So is RM really a mature system? More complex, yes; also it allows more options and certainly more adaptable in terms of the wealth of character options and fighting styles. But more mature, no.

D&D has evolved to suit its different adventuring worlds, well there were rule changes. I’m not sure if they evolved to balance out the world or in response to players complaints about the previous versions, but at least it was in response to the modules and the world. I have no idea how Pathfinder fits into this idea, someone might like to enlighten me.

For Middle Earth there are just different systems basically based on which company managed to acquire a licence from the Tolkien Estate.

  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • ICE Rolemaster/MERP and subsidiary editions
  • Cubicle 7’s “The One Ring”
  • Decipher “The Lord of the Rings”
  • various online and by mail MMPORG

None of which has ever been part of a serious effort to become better at being a reflection of Middle Earth. Now, this has not been a fault of players who have attempted to warp whatever system they play to fit their idea of Middle Earth, some of which can be found on various fan sites and zines. However, I wonder if any of the systems have ever really had a chance to mature into a system that really reflects the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s mythic creation?

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Minions

One of the problems with being a GM, especially with Rolemaster, is keeping track of all the NPC in combat. Long ago in a galaxy far away I created some Excel spreadsheets that helped with this sort of thing, but these were sadly lost in PC migration back in the day of 3.5″ floppies. Back in “A road less travelled” I mentioned trying Rolemaster Minion to support me as a GM during combat. So this is a little review of how it has been going.

Initially, I have to say it wasn’t very efficient but this was mostly to do with linking routine OBs to weapon types. It is, after all, Rolemaster, and we are playing MERP but from the players’ point of view, they are not worried if it is a generic table or a weapon specific table. What they do notice is that I am not flipping through a series of tables to find the right weapon (or they are), and I am clearly not cross-referencing a table. I used to use a paper table I prepared with most of the potential protagonists the party would meet and then track on this. This has the potential for many errors when you are pushed including not applying penalties when you should and missing the point of unconsciousness. In Minion, there is none of this as it highlights stunned combatants and when they are incapacitated, and also applies all penalties (unless you switch it off).

In play, there have been a few issues, but I think we can put most of this down to discovering the best way to use the system. You do need to do some preparation work, NPCs and PCs need to all be entered into the program but this is no more than creating a combat recording table. There is a clone function, which is useful for henchmen and guards. The data can be stored through a copy and paste text for a restore. I would recommend keeping a copy of your PC and allies without opponents as this will speed up generating the combat tables. Opponents can be filtered into groups which helps for an adventure with multiple tactical encounters.

There is a facility to roll initiative and play strictly by this order, or as we do, you know which order events occur and then select combatants in each phase. Players can choose to let the auto roll do the work or use their dice roll. Quite frankly, no-one does the former. I mean why would you? Yet it does speed up the NPC combat. Initially, when I was getting the hang of it, I found myself entering the OBs and pulling down menus to select weapons until I got the hang of grabbing from the restore box.  There is also a slight slow down as you check boxes for modifiers for parry and position, but no more than the adjustments made for mental calculation. The benefit is stun and critical penalties are applied automatically. Crit rolls are handled automatically (again players can use their own) but you don’t need to add or subtract from the roll for the crit level.

In addition to the initiative rolling, there is also a dice roll function which can provide hidden rolls for all characters for perception, MM and use item (attunement). Which can be useful for those quick decisions about do they notice, avoid, or use in combat.

There have been a few glitches in play, mostly where I select the wrong character and have to cycle the correct combatants into order (still quicker than looking up results and recording on paper). I did have one occasion where the player and I disagreed on hits, but I’d had a round where the results didn’t appear to have been recorded but I suspect they went in so repeating the attack could have added on. We adjusted in the player’s favour.

Random encounters can cause problems because either you have to quickly enter the details of these or play off the tables. Keeping a backup table of potential encounters is possible but every time the players level up or change OB you will need to go an amend this table and although it appears to be a generic text code I haven’t yet managed to change or add in the raw code without making a mistake somewhere, so you would need to do this in Minion each time.

Overall, I’m much happier with this running the combat than the old pencil and paper method. We now talk more descriptively about the combatants rather than relying on the mechanics to describe the state of injury. “Pick is reeling in front of his foe, blood pouring from his nose like a punch drunk boxer” rather than “Pick is bleeding 2 hits/round with a broken nose and is stunned for 2 rounds”. Currently, we are still double-entry bookkeeping, with players tracking details of their characters, which as we have seen is useful at the moment, but I suspect in time all injuries will be more descriptive. After all, when you break your leg, you know it is probably broken and you are in excruciating pain, how many seconds before you are able to focus clearly is irrelevant you respond either by crumpling in a weeping mess or grit your teeth and try and move. Equally, when bleeding you don’t think “Oh I have 50 secs before I’m incapacitated”; you say “***@@, I’m bleeding badly, I’d better slap a bandage/tourniquet/plaster on that!”. So hopefully, the roleplay experience will be enhanced.

World Anvil update

In my last blog, I introduced the World Anvil site which had been mentioned by the Kind GM. I thought I would give a quick update on my progress as it seems to have occupied a lot of my GM downtime. In addition, there have been some developments that may have widened the appeal to other GMs.

First, the world building, which goes well, The ability to record even brief sketches of a location and the people in one place and link them all is a very nice tool to have. I have been trying this out with my village sketch of Elvenbyen. This seems to work well, owners of establishments can be linked and using categories you can group these into a managed table of contents. I found that linking into broad groups like location, people of note and organisations was about all that was needed. I can upload and access maps linked in this way although I suspect that my conventional paper layout is more accessible in gameplay.  It would be nice if I could hotspot the locations from the map to the descriptions, which I should probably feedback to the developers.

Categories provide the hierarchy for organising your information, however, I have not got two locations on the go and the article list by which each entry is organised is a bit too long for this to work as well as it should. Yes, you can filter into main categories, but what if the character or organisation fits over more than one category.  Also when working on one location you really only want to see those articles, but overall not too much of a problem. Linking to various articles uses drop downs and these currently aren’t linked to the category you are working on. This does mean you have to scroll a lot as your list of characters or locations increases. Again though, another thing that could be fixed.

Overall, the World Anvil site is providing a useful way of organising information for locations I am creating. As it has the crosslinking categories I can keep a database organised and when it comes to publishing the location information it should be a simple matter of taking the online information and putting it in a location-specific document. Of course, my biggest fear is that the website will go defunct and I will lose all the information so my paranoid brain is getting ready to copy all the web pages into an offline version.

A new feature that has been introduced is a Campaign section. I suspect it is going to be most useful to gamers who play online, but the plot functions do intrigue me. I have had a little play and it does have the potential for organising your story arc and individual scenario story. PCs and NPCs can be linked and through the generic table function, I guess stats could be added. Using the image function you could store maps and the 6 point story structure gives everything the basic planning features you would need. I am trying it out to organise some of the ideas I have for the current campaign, much of which is written on paper as sketches. I must say it is helping me think about the details, but in the current format, there are a few things that make it clunky to work with. For example, in a scenario, I might want an NPC antagonist and rather than creating them in the plot, I need to create a character and then go back and link to the plot. The same is true of locations. This makes workflow trickier, well for someone who tends to use multiple sheets of paper it does.

The second part of the Campaign feature is the session tools. There is one for playing and one for reporting on the session itself. I have had a mini play and again it could be a useful tool. Online it probably would work as a playing space, but what if there is no internet! Furthermore, I think a GM is going to need to flip multiple tab windows to track all the information they need. Having paper strewn everywhere may be a bit inconvenient, but you generally can still talk to your players in this state. I wonder if the chat window/video is as accessible or would you need a second computer? In the world of rock paper scissors, paper still beats electronics for overall usability.

So we are not there yet – probably closer for DnD GMs, less so on the plotting and world-building side, but still an interesting project and it does need a download backup function.

Hammer and the Anvil

Depending on the GM, a lot of time can be spent building the locations in which adventures can be set. I know some GMs just take it all from published materials and run without thinking about the big picture. To be honest why would you when your players are just interested in solving the mystery, slaying the beast and getting the gold/girl. For me this works well for one off adventures, but not so well when the characters become involved in a campaign or series of interlinked adventures. I begin to find my players become more interested in the world around them and I have to have a set of reasons why they can’t take over a town as overlords or set up their own bank or…. Well the hundred and one off-the-wall reasons that can be given by players. Which means at the very least you should have some background at your fingertips.

Then there are GMs who write adventures/campaigns creating the content needed to play a game because, well they enjoy the process or don’t like what is available. Finally, there are the world builders who relish the chance to think about the macro and the what ifs. Well I’m one of those, and even though Middle Earth is full of source material, there are plenty of places to build and develop. My computer, and some binders are littered with pen sketches of places, notes on names and characters: along with adventures to run. So it was with interest that I read about World Anvil  on the Kind GM’s blog.

The site provides a way to organise all those pesky bits of paper into a coherent gazetteer. You will have seen some of my latest content appearing on the blog pages, but really that is an awkward way to manage the content.  So I have been plugging in some text of locations that are of interest currently to see if the site will work for me.

The content holders are useful and mostly match with information and ideas that I want to record, and there is a useful way of linking characters into geographical locations. However, there doesn’t appear to be a way of linking the location to the characters, unless they own the site. If you upload maps they can be linked to the site and I guess using a side bar space I can start adding specific detail from the map.

When I started I just put up one location and started to link characters associated. I soon discovered that when you do this, you will need at least some headline work on races and locations of a top level nature to tie things together. For example, I needed to create a species man and then subdivide to ethnicity Northman/Riverman to include this information on the character. It is possible to get away without having this infomation and leaving it very generic, but at some point linking locations and characters into kingdoms etc has to be done. As a result, it is better to do it early and add to each new item rather than retrospectively.

One thing I do like about the design of the site is the ability to put in secret information that is not generally known to the world. This apparently would be available to subscribers of the world stream but not to the casual observer. Quite how this works in practise I don’t know. I guess a player could read the public content and GMs subscribe, but how do I know which is which?

The website allows for collaboration (any budding authors drop me a line), but really without upgrading to a private account, I don’t think the capacity for images is going to be large enough to cope with more than a few maps. So at some point I’m going to run out of space. It also uses BB code (a cut down HTML) which in this day of smart interfaces seems a bit dated. Even the basic WordPress toolbar begins to look science fiction compared to this.

As a trial I’m going to carry on building locations and ideas for Caras Celairnen because it does make organising the content easier. It is a useful tool for creating the correct environment and forces me to think about who lives in a place and what they look like and how they act. However, at some point I will end up taking all the text and relocating in a more published format elsewhere. Like many internet ventures it will only last as long as the server, so it will pay to make a back up.

 

MERP, running and the dreaded MM table

Search the internet and you will find scattered here there and everywhere GMs who complain about the MERP/Rolemaster MM tables. It is never a surprise to me, as on my initial read through I missed the point as well. However, when I dug down into the reasoning some 25+ years ago it mostly made sense. At least in a way that allowed us to play a game and not have my players argue every 5 minutes about why they a 4’5″ dwarf should be able to cover 100m in 10 secs in full plate. So I am starting a little series up in the Rationale section to explain my thinking and explore some ideas.

Who lives here?

So finally, I think I have managed to find a purpose for the town of Caras Celairnen. Using Rolemaster campaign lore it is an easy task to begin populating the town with militia and the usual tropes of healers, mages, and thieves. A random variation on percentages of populations really does take care of that. But who else lives in the town aside from the main characters of the town?

earlymarketA simple trawl of medieval professions leaves a huge list of potential trades that could be used to populate the town. The problem for me as a GM is that I really don’t care about them in any detail, and neither will my players, who will probably only want to see the inside of the nearest tavern and the outfitters. However, my trick is to have these trades available to draw on to create colour to the daily life and give a reason for different districts to flourish. After all who would live in a town dominated only by criminals and militia?

So more to the point how common are these trades and how many of each will we need to populate the city. In Caras Celairnen, I have set 7 trading lords (that is lords of sufficient wealth to trade over distance). They will have their own network of middle men, merchants who will sell to the local market of transport goods onwards at their own risk. That means a transport crew (ship or otherwise) of around 20, dockers, warehouse men, clerks, would account for another 10 or more workers. That is without including servants needed for running the household, Although some may work for more than one employer. No man is an island they say, and certainly not all will be bachelors so now we need to multiply to include a family of between 5 and 12. Easily each Noble Lord could be directly responsible for the “existence” 50-100 people of the town

To support around 100 people there will need to be a baker, some form of costermonger, tailor, inn keeper with their families.   Ancillary trades such as tailors, washerwomen, cloth dyers, leatherworkers, tinkers  would also be needed but probably to a lower density than the main trades. So the trickle down effect means each noble lord creates around 150 people of the town.

42fec890ea305312db69e4cec130453d-medieval-art-medieval-woodcutBeyond these direct employs there are other direct employees we need to consider. The Militia need feeding and entertainment, as do the local healers, wizards and other local colour. There are also the middle merchants to consider who will also use services and goods and employ a few others directly. To complete these thoughts on the demographics of the town, because there are so many wealthy individuals, there will also be high quality, high end artisans. Not forgetting at the lower end the night soil movers and beggars.

Having considered all these factors the demographics of Caras Celairnen begin to look something like this.

A Militia Garrison for around 400 with 30 or so NCO and officers.
2 shrines with Clerics – one should be to Ea as this is Dunedain culture
30 or so healers of various levels
30 Guides but I may change this as there seems little need
4 magic users or different shades

74 Criminals in various guises of fences, footpads, burglers and thugs – some of whom will have day jobs.
20 Entertainers

minstrels

 

400 businesses – Acater (food vendors such as bakers), innkeepers, boothman, colliers, costermongers, habdasher,  iron monger, hay merchant, egglers, fishmonger, blacksmith, linen draper, mercer, milkmaid, oynter (oil seller), peddlers, pie sellers, spice merchant, vintner, leatherworker, fletcher, wool stapler and wood sellers

124 transporters to include carters, ferrymen, lightermen, bargees, and pilots

At a conservative estimate this would put the population of the town between 1500 and 4000 which neatly fits with the suggested population of the town by Thomas Mowinsky in Other Minds and Jeff Erwin in the Lindon gazetteer.

 

Trade the life blood of nations

Which as far as I can tell is an apocryphal quote attributed to the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith, but none the less holds true for a town such as Caras Celairnen. In this post I will be considering some of the economic needs to support the town in what is a strange location.

It is an undeniable truth that trade requires goods that one place has and the other does not have in a high enough order to meet from within. Caras Celarnen must have it’s own needs to function as a town, but lets assume that is as little as food probably from the regions surrounding or at worst from the Shire and Saralainn. So aside from this what goods could flow through the town or to rephrase what do the surrounding kingdoms produce, and how far will the merchant’s travel? It is probably safe to say that Mithlond, the tower hills and the regions of Lindon are going to be pretty much self-contained with minimal leakage of Elvish craft as their involvement in humans affairs decreases (see History of Lindon). The Dwarves of Ered Luin on the otherhand will want to trade, not least to satisfy the desire for gold. Extensive seams of coal, copper (blue mountains), and finished metal products are likely to be the main exports. Equally, to the south is the shire and the fragmented mannish kingdoms of Cardolan (now lost). Here the region is rich in arable land and so we would expect there to be grain, and cattle flowing from this region.

earlymarket

Trade requires a market

What then of potential trade partners who would “use” the town as a transit point. As Kingdoms of major populations there is of course Arthedain in the mid-Third age, the Dwarves of Ered Luin and the Elves of Lindon. Minor populations are the Hobbits in the shire, Rivermen on the Lhun, Saralainn.

The Elvish lands of Lindon should for the most part be thought of as self sustaining, the lands are extensive, include plenty of wood and mining opportunities, and in Harlindon probably a climate conducive to good arable land. Wine might be one thing lacking, being a cooler temperate climate some might be shipped from Gondor, but this would not be passing through Caras. In all, the Elves would really only be looking for the craftsmanship of the Dwarves which matched that of the Noldor. Since there are fewer Noldor perhaps this would be a reason to trade through Caras, where a neutral ground for negotiations or even a neutral negotiator can be arranged. Certainly, in the third age, the breakdown in trust between elves and dwarves would make this true.

The Dwarven market is far easier to understand. With limited land for farming and for the more northerly communities a limited growing seasons food would be the prime consideration. In addition, if dwarves main occupation is mining or crafting the time they are able to spend on growing crops would be less. This ideas is supported in some ways by the description of Erebor in the Hobbit, where Dale was clearly the town that supplied the food needed to support the Dwarven community.

In the Third-Age Arthedain is a kingdom on a war footing. It too will be lacking in food to supply its populace. Again because of the shorter growing season, but also because of the large standing army. Most of this would be supplied from the Shire to the South, but perhaps some might come from Lindon. What would be needed in a greater quantity would be materials for building and maintaining defenses (wood and stone). Also a significant quantity of metal and leather for weapons and armour. This may be supplied as raw materials or perhaps some as better crafted weapons from the Dwarves and again possibly the Elves of Lindon.

Trade needs transportation

trade routesWhat makes a good trading centre is its access to various transportation links, in Middle Earth of course this is land, sea and rivers. Sea links to Arthedain and the dwarves are nonexistent so all trade conducted with this region must either pass up one of two rivers or be transported overland. From Caras Celairnen this would either be up the Uiladuin or though the lands of Noirin with a potential poor route across the northern hills of Evendim. Arthedain would also be open to the Branduin river route or an overland route from Tharbad, reasons why Caras Celairnen might be chosen as a route will be discussed later. As for Lindon, as discussed earlier, there is little that they might need that could be supplied beyond Dwarven crafts.

In our modern way of thinking transport is a given and reduced to a logistics exercise based on just in time delivery with transactions with the ultimate vendor already completed and just the vagaries of local consumers the unknown. However, delve in to the history books and suddenly transport is much less reliable. Medieval and by implication fantasy trade transport was a far riskier adventure. For example, will your chosen transport method actually get your goods to the destination? Can you repair the transport on the journey or will you be forced to abandon your goods? Is the cost of the goods less than the transportation costs (method + labour + security + damage). Further risk is from robbers, hence security, given the wildness of Middle Earth their is almost certainly a “finders keepers” type rule on goods as it would be nigh on impossible to prove ownership, especially if you or your minion in charge of the cargo is dead. If this is so then there must be preferred ways of transporting goods where risks are lower. I suspect that highest risk would be long land routes, but water based routes up rivers and by sea would be more preferable. Lets look at the evidence.

caravanFor starters the road network was awful! Yes around the major population centres the road was more apparent, but that could make it worse due to the heavy traffic use.  Even if you allow for the high engineering level of the Dwarves, Elves and Dunadan to allow for Roman-like road networks. This would only account for major military transport routes. Certainly, in the third age both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings suggest the major highways are no more than grassed tracks rather than well maintained highways. So rather than get into an esoteric debate on road engineering in Middle Earth, I am going to suggest that roads aren’t great. This means carting your goods across land is a slow. I suspect the times given for travelling with a cart in MERP are on the optimistic side of travel. Fresh goods do not travel far! No fruits of the south will be making it overland to Arthedain. Yes sir we have no bananas! A second reason for land being the least favoured method is the amount of goods you could transport! A carthorse could haul around a 10th of its weight for 8 hours which is not much (150lbs, see Wagonteamster for more). Add to that you will need camp equipment and feed for the horses and suddenly  you realise the idyllic image of a farmer bring his goods to town on a cart is about all you will see. The alternative would be juggernaut trains of carts moving constantly up and down roads. It makes you realise that goods going overland need to be highly portable and valuable.

hulkWhich brings us to the water-based routes; the undoubted advantage of water is, in general, the ability to carry heavy loads for a reduced effort. A river is an ideal downstream transport system for heavy loads. Timber can be rafted down with little or no effort, with the advantage that not many timber bandits are known. Using river barges on larger rivers would allow lots of goods to be transported easily and, if the barge is able to stay away from the banks, the risk of theft is low. Of course here in the UK we are very familiar with the maritime power of trade. Again long distance trade using sea is far more attractive to a merchant shipping goods than a long land trade. Pirates of course would be an issue, but really a random attack is unlikely given the size of water a single pirate would need to patrol. Which of course only leave state sponsored piracy, either by commission or omission!

Between the bastion of of Gondor and the Elves of Lindon there would be very little opportunity to operate a pirate fleet with state “backing”. However, the middle kingdoms are in ruin and the small kingdoms that have established themselves are a weaker area and Gondor and Lindon’s patrols would be less effective in the inshore regions. As a result, trade routes between Gondor and Lindon and onto Caras Celairnen will probably stick to the deeper ocean.

(quick background reference Middle Ages Trade & Commerce)

 

Trade is run on credit

The most important thing to remember about real trade in a medieval/fantasy environment is that rarely does money trade hands. The often misguided idea that merchants might wander around with huge crates of gold to purchase the goods that will be sold (for profit) at another location is complete nonsense.

Medieval trade was always conducted using scripts and tallies. Goods would then be sold tally-sticks-300x235onto middle men for distribution to redeem the credit into useable cash. All this means that merchants need to have a reputation and sufficient collateral holdings to support their involvement in the trade. That is to say unless you are planning on a risky trade venture, most merchants will be landed gentry. They in turn will recoup their debt by selling on to middle men to deliver to the local populace.

Of course Middle Earth is also a more Middle English Anglo-Saxon tradition so these more modern developments might not exist, except for the high level of civilisation attributed to the Dunedain, Dwarves and Elves.

(more reading)

Trade as the life blood of Caras Celairnen

So what does this all mean for our small market charter town on a river. Having established that the town itself was already pre-established for the purpose of trade between the Dwarves and the Elves and that as time passed it became subsumed into human culture until gifted to Arnor, the principle trade with the Dwarves is a vital element. However, such a trade route would probably not be sufficient to sustain the town and the opportunities afforded by close proximity to Lindon suggest that some Elvish goods would also be available. Finally, although the Gwathlo also provides a good route towards Fornost; Caras also provides a safer harbour in a more stable political region.