Yet, like the Tumbleweed, this blog has been in a bit of dormancy as the conditions have not been ideal for growth, well in terms of wordage, at least. But now is nearly the time of blooming. What has been happening is all in the background and is probably the result of too many ideas to fit into the time available for producing a completed product.
There has also been no RPG time either. While I worked on the next segments of the Mazalbanam Campaign, one of my fellow players was going to GM (well that didn’t happen). Now one part (a section of the lost city of Jöruvalla) has already been completed all bar format and proof read; a number of other sections will be appearing much more rapidly as I move towards a Summer break. So, it looks like I will be back in the hot seat and there will be some updates to the play session reports.
I’ve also been working on a solo adventure which has now morphed into planning for the keep at Cara Celairnen and some geopolitical work to build on the small paragraph included in the ICE material (this might be a little slower). Then there is still the house rules on no-level MERP to finish but that is lower down in the pecking order of need.
As part of a move away from levels, I want to move my players towards adventuring for the adventure and not a “level up” mentality. That will mean a move away from the EP reward system, which my current players aren’t quite ready for yet. What they are ready for is a way to acquire secondary skills by study and I reckon that is a back door waiting to be opened. So the question now becomes how long does it take to really acquire new skills?
Before beginning on deciding how long it takes to learn a skill it is worth reviewing what the skill ranks in MERP/Rolemaster represent. According to the rulebook, 5 ranks in any skill can be acquired during adolescent development, which suggests apprenticeship skill development but no higher. The Rolemaster blog uses chunks of 10 ranks to define relative levels or lore, vocation or skill.
Secondary High school
Basic knowledge and abilities skill and simpler sub-skill.
Broad abilities of skill and sub-skills
Advanced skills and sub-abilities
Guildmaster or similar
Singular mastery of skill and inter-related disciplines
Another consideration here is the level of the character – yes I know the aim is to go levelless but bear with me here. Gaming wisdom would put the average soldier at between level 2-4 and the NCO’s at 5-6 rising up to level 10 for experienced heroic fighters. Beyond this, certainly in the Middle Earth, the characters are getting to be legendary. So if the average competent person is around level 4 in their chosen profession then they will have 8 ranks worth of experience, which is about right for the general population.
Armed with a framework of knowledge and understanding it is time to think about how long it will take to acquire these ranks. Gladwell proposed that very successful people take 10,000 hours to master a skill (possibly by misinterpreting another study on elite athletes which was actually looking for a genetic component). For Gladwell 10,000 hours equates to 20 hours a week practise for 10 years although he does seem to bundle those skills into a domain of learning so they are all focussed on one specialism. The original study, by Tucker and Collins, was really looking to see if deliberate practise was more important than genes and could not find a link either way. In fact, it seemed to suggest that a combination of talent and practise produced excellence.
So much for 10,000 hours but I think it still holds a nugget of truth, even if the time is wrong. If we say a level 20 character is a master then it should take 10 years of deliberate practise to achieve this. However, there are some other factors we should consider in this. It requires someone to support you with food and other necessities to allow you that time (achievable for a single skill on two hours a day). Elite athletes generally don’t have a full time career making demands on training time. Bill Gates wasn’t required to go out and collect the harvest or sow the crops. So only a small group of people in a fantasy setting will be able to achieve this rate of development. Thankfully, adventurers would be such a group with their generally above average aptitude (stats) and focussed learning or as I prefer to call it staying alive.
There is further support for this idea when we look at the modern education system. The primary phase of education, which is mostly general (although Maths and Primary language seem to now dominate) takes around 5 years (5-11). Secondary, still developing a wide set of skills, but beginning to specialise is another 5 years (11-16). Tertiary, a really odd phase of specialisation lasts 2-3 years here in the UK. Whereas the quaternary phase (graduate) is anywhere between 3-4 years. The final Quinary phase (post-graduate/PhD) can last from 3 -5 years depending on field of study or practise.
Taking education and as knowledge based skill basic maths skills which are generally above the level required for basic mercantile skills are achieved by the age of 11 (in fact in modern society well above), a total of about 5 years (bear in mind developmental factors will probably have slowed learning in children). The table below extrapolates taught time for courses in UK in 5 rank chunks (for reasons outlined below). The number of hours spent learning to this basic level would be around 43 hours with a teacher present. So with good instruction a basic level of skill can be mastered in just over two weeks at the 20 hours per week level. What the table also demonstrates is that higher levels of knowledge take increasingly longer to gain. Referring back to the table from the Rolemaster Blog, I would suggest that this should be for levels 1-5. A basic addition subtraction activity is unlikely to be tested by a roll. This would make ranks 5-10 take nearly twice as long. There is a nice mathematical progression forming, but it is also perhaps worth remembering that quaternary students spend as much time reviewing and rehearsing learning as they do being taught. So any player expecting to do a job in between might find a penalty for the learning time.
number of weeks
total h/ year
total h per subject
hours per rank
Overall the thesis of ten years to achieve mastery in a field of study still stands with most specialists taking around 10 years to achieve an expert status after the age of 13-15. This even applies to sportsman with premiership footballers achieving first team debuts early but becoming regulars only at around 23. A similar pattern is seen in athletics although I can’t find a study to back this up.
The next part will consider how to balance vocations and individual skills so that the game remains playable without players power gaming every aspect.
Sometimes over thinking something can create a sticking point. A knot of knowledge that seeks the most elegant solution. Creativity is about ideas and the time it takes to gestate the inspiration to create something novel and engaging. However, at some point you have to stop with the what ifs and just try it. Iterations of the project will undoubtedly fall by the wayside, which is the case with my versions of Caras Celairnen. Having created a first draft and then re-read the source material I was unhappy with the layout. I then did some digging and was vexed by the location of the the town on the map. I still am. But whilst I have thrown the location around I have also been looking at some example of villages/towns on rivers to get a feel of how the place might look.
My first issue is the sheer scale of the region into which I need to place my town. Given a blank piece of paper and my own squiggles this wouldn’t be a problem, but I am working from a predrawn map with a rather large scale of 1# to 20 miles. To give you an idea of the vast areas involved lets look at the map in hex form. Each side of the hex is scaled to 10 miles. That means from corner (side to side) to corner the distance is 20 miles. In terms of travelling time on foot and laden for the journey (loaded march) that’s two days; on horseback perhaps half a day by road. In terms of area its 259.81 square miles! To put that in persepective, a golden eagle has a hunting territory of 60-200 square miles, a lion upto 100 square miles. I don’t think I ever appreciated how vast these maps were or how desolate the space inbetween populations would be.
Now clearly a cartographer cannot be accurate with a symbol on a map of this scale. The map is more pictorial rather than ordance survey accurate. So I scaled the map and overlayed a 1 mile per side hex (2 miles across, area 2.6 sq mi).
Now the symbol of Caras Celairnen is around 20 miles from the tower which is the distance give for the libary it represents in the Arnor module. Which means the town occupies 2.6 sq miles according to the symbol, but its not OS. So how much area would 4000 people really need?
Let’s start with the area of the average household in
1/4 mile hex
660 ft per square (435,600 sq ft)
pale red is road. pale orange is the city according to map. green is the marsh. brown is a low density area and square is 544 houses in high density. Questions – what is isthmus ground type? flood /marsh/raised. Where should the town go? Is the road a causeway across marshes? Should the marsh go all the way to the rocky spit of Caras Celairnen? How much land around should be devoted to agriculture to provide for daily needs? What fortifications are needed?
So I got to doing a little extra reading about population and spent a little time digging up some exemplars that would help with the design. I found a nice reference which made Caras Celairnen bigger. I did some scaling up of the map and discovered that there was a lot more land than even I though. I looked at a river port on the Severn (Chepstow) to get an idea of scaling and layout. All of which has been changing my thinking on where the town might be situated and how it might be laid out.
A note on population
In Other Minds, Thomas Morwinsky provides some excellent extrapolations of population in Middle Earth. This would revise TA1640 Caras Celairnen to a population of around 4,000, equivalent to a large modern village like modern Overton. The main population sits within an area of 2.5 square kilometres (1.5 square miles).
A note on scale
Put in context of the inch to 20miles of the maps produce by ICE for MERP that is a very small area on the map. I scaled up the region and the overlayed a Google map on Overton on to the map.
Caras is tiny on the map and that river crossing is huge if it was all scaled. Those roads on the Overton map are two cars wide. By scale the bridge would have been half the width of the city, but its a symbol so we can ignore it. So you can really see that there is plenty of space on the drier portion of the spit to place Caras. My initial plan for the town was far too large. Unless I say the bridge is much further to the mouth of the river.The Uialduin river is half a mile across according to this (give or take). A wooden structure is unlikely to survive without constant modification. However, Swarkstone bridge is 17 arches, made of stone and a mile long (with a causeway). If Dwarves built the town then it is entirely possible that such a bridge would exist. The river Lhun by contrast is nearly two miles wide – similar to the river Severn at the bridges. There was before the bridges a ferry that ran from Aust. A stone jetty providing mooring to cope with the tidal river. Of course no engines, just sail and oars. So perhaps more like the image below of the New Passage ferry further down stream in 1727.
Notes on Chepstow
The medival map of Chepstow could be used as a guide to the sort of layout a town like Caras Celairnen might have. Although Chepstow has no marsh land and the river Wye is only 106 yards across, it was a regular river port with tidal trading links around Europe. The extensive field system provides a realistic idea of how the area around the town is used to support the port population. Short docks and jettys on the inside (slow current bend) provide a good example of the structures that might be in use in Caras. in 1306 Chepstow had 308 Burgages (houses rented from the Lord, hence Burgher). Which looking at the 1686 map leaves me wondering where they all are as there appears to only to be 100-200 houses marked. Either way, with a family size of between 5 and 12 that would put the population between 2000 and 3000 strong. Furthermore, I am sure the map makers didn’t include the serf hovels outside the walls.
Changes to thinking
First things first, this is a fantasy game I don’t have to follow any of the things I see in real life or stick rigidly to the historical facts. Nor do I need to get bogged down in where the town symbol is on the map, or the size of the river scaled up. I just need to stick to the fact that “situated on a rocky spit of dry land at the otherwise swampy junction”. Rocky spit – means the finger sticking out between the two rivers. We are sticking with my original drawing idea and placing it right on the spit. There needs to be a bridge crossing, but it can go where needed to make anchorage sensible. The swampy area can be much bigger than on the map, but there will be some dykes and reclaimed land near the town that will use the levee bank on the Lhun side as the start point. Perhaps a causeway for the bridge road as well. With this I can happily have anchorage up the Uialduin in that nice slow swampy region to the north, especially if the bridge is high enough for small river barges. Indeed, there is nothing to stop a high span if the ground on the otherside starts high enough. Perhaps the reason the Uialduin is not a delta into the Lhun is because it passes through a canyon formed from two hard rock hills.
On where to place Caras Celairnen
What is Caras Celairnen’s purpose
If Caras Celairnen is to be placed on the map, the purpose of the town need to be very clear. If it is purely a ferry port for goods crossing then it can only sit on the Lhun and would link to the bridge over the Uialduin using some sort of causeway road. However, we have established that there is no marked habitation on the opposite side of the river making a ferry unlikely. Goods are more likely to be shipped up and down river using river barges and shallow draft luggers.
This leads us to the conclusion it is definitely a multipurpose port. A hub for goods brought overland and down river and also for those that have come up from the sea (bypassing Mithlond).
Where would ships anchor?
Given that a variety of craft will be using this port a number of anchorages would be needed. If the Lhun is tidal, then so is part of the Uialduin around the mouth of the river. This means that there needs to be sheltered anchorage for some of the ocean going ships with enough draft that they aren’t beached on every tide. This is likely that it would have to be in the middle of the channel of the Lhun. Barges would then transport cargo to shore.So we need barge docks in easy reach of the middle channel of the Lhun. We would also expect barges to wish to use the slower current of the Uialduin for mooring and perhaps some areas of the swamp as dry dock repairs. We can also say there are probably several ferries operating crossings, but that they are unlikely to be permenant routes.
We could divide our triangle between the two rivers into each corner zone. The North East corner is really beyond the bridge and although it is possible it might have a sufficient depth for small ocean going ships the presence of marshes suggests not. In contrast, the North West corner is connected to the North road that follows the Lhun. It fits the bill for ocean ships and if the lower portion of the triangle is also marsh then the flats would provide refuge for the river barges. A causeway road would be needed to take road goods to the bridge across the river Uialduin. The south west corner also offers similar attractions to the North west. With the Uialduin backing up water into a marsh because of the Lhun it would suggest that at the meeting of these two rivers in the lee of this spit anchorage is relatively easily. Barges could stay out of the stronger current when unloading ships (less work) and could still be stored in marsh creeks. The bridge is now the only conudrum. Is it a true bridgehead – no further navigation by keeled vessels, or is the bridge special. The former can go further upstream with again a causeway road to link tot he town. The latter could span the river in high arches as a miracle of Dwarven construction (just because no-one mentioned it doesn’t mean I can’t build it).
It is not often I get to ponder on something these days, my time taken up by wondering how to get sprogs intereseted in learning stuff to order, but I was planning on making a map of Caras Celairnen over the summer and got to reading some of the source material from Iron Crown (ICE).
The Arnor supplement makes some reference to the town of Caras Celairnen as a river port with some detail on the heritage of the town and rulers. This is all free to view on the Notion Club Wiki, which essentially has culled the information from the books.
I spent a little while researching what a river port might look like on a tributary to a major river to get an idea of how that might look. I printed off some grid paper from Incompetech and made a quick sketch of where it would all go. So one day this summer I took my own sprogs (not the 30+ belonging to others) to the pool and let them loose, while I sat with a coffee and drew my first location map for years. I put a fortification on the end of the spit and then filled the town in below with some warehouse and merchant houses. I including some noble houses and space for itinerant river workers and captains. I thought about where some of the lower orders might live. Then I ran out of space on my A4 sheet of paper, so the planned marsh side town outside the walls didn’t happen. Hey can’t get everything right on your first go!
It was then I started to ponder. Did I have enough dwellings to support the population of a full town? Well as it turned out I was probably about right without planning (if there are around 10 in every household that is not a major house. I can always add a few more houses at the marsh gate at some point. Then I looked at the map again and wondered: how did that marsh form and why is there a path by the big river (Lhun), and is Uialduin a deep enough channel for cargo ships?
This got me to thinking have I drawn this right at all. Is Caras Celairnen a fortified town at all? Knowing what I know about river ports (quay) on the Severn, which when you look at the Lhun you are almost forced to compare the two, is this a viable town?
My first port of call (past the basic river geography I did at school), was to think about rivers I know well. Have I ever seen a marsh sitting upstream between them and a tributary? Well not really and certainly not with a path on a levee/dyke, because a river prone to big snow melts would scour across that low plain and into that lovely low plain to the south. So search the internet what rivers might have a marsh like this? Well the Amazon river, but that is one big marsh and tropical and kind of unique. The Tigris and Euphrates but that actually is just one very big river delta down to the seas. As is the Ganges, Missippi and pretty much every river you look at. But at least the Tigris and Euphrates did provide an example of a bigger river backing up flow from the smaller river. So perhaps with the winter rain melts off the highlands and Uialduin meandering more the marsh is more viable. If we assume that the path we see is alongside a levee caused by the Lhun flooding over the years. So we have a Riverine type marsh that is navigable as far as the bridge.
Bridge?! Hang on that bridge is nominally 5 miles up from the confluence, and bridges in general were only built when it was too shallow for masted ships to navigate up river. That is to say the sailing cargo vessels. Also those marshy inlets that remind me of Romney marsh, and some spots on the Severn, which are useful for anchoring luggers and the like are all cut off by the bridge! I know these maps are not geographically accurate but that really does put pay to the idea that anchorage should be on the Uialduin.
Alright so all the anchorage is going to have to be in the bigger river. At least that takes care of the draft problem. Now all the ships have to worry about is the rate of flow and the probable tidal bore that will some up the river every high tide. I know that on the Severn the ships would moor to a quay that ran along the bank and that there was quite a bit of slack needed on the ropes to account for the tidal reach. So let’s assume that similar moorings are going to be needed for this port.
OK back up a bit. What does the source material say that might help with the design? Well the Dwarven trading post was built on the hill (conjures up thoughts of hidden passages below) on a shelf of land (non-porus rock or there would be no swamp) that has dropped. No clue as to the shape of the hill. It could be a rounded and weathered mount or it could be an escarpment and still fit the description of a rocky spit.
The whole shelf has dropped 1000ft so it would be reasonable to assume that it is more likely to be a rocky escarpment with the vertical side facing the rivers. The sloping side would now drop to the marsh land with its inlets and spaces for flat bottomed barges which can ply trade further up river.
We know that Gondor builds an outpost here. They used smaller vessels than the great Gondorian warships used to sail round the coast to transport troops. However, the army encamped on the south side of the Uialduin, suggesting that space is limited on the mount and that possibly the troop docks were temporary structures. Also the draft is not deep enough for large ocean-going ships but river luggers and the like would be fine.
So what have I learnt in the process, well always look at your map carefully. If you are designing landscape from scratch it really helps if you think about the conditions that cause your features. Classically that marsh should be down stream, although the town would still be on a hill above it. Also if you look at river ports there is always mooring in the smaller tributary allowing ships to shelter in a weaker current. Next think about your reasons for placing habitation where it is. Although this is a trade route to the capital of Arthedain and can transport goods from Mithlond, it is actually a terrible spot for Dwarven goods. The Arnor gazetteer already has a ferry point much further North which would allow goods to pass across land without the need to go down river. Also there is no transit point across the river on the West bank linked with the Southern route (well there is now with my unmapped town Elvenbyen), so where do all these ferries load and unload goods for the Dwarves? As a landscape designer then we need to keep the geography and the purpose of habitations real.
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.
The players gathered eagerly around the table. It has been less than half a life-time since we played, but it might as well have been two life-times. Both these players have run their own campaigns and games. They have been successful GMs with a range of people wanting to join in the fun. They might as well have had no experience the way they peered confused at the range of abilities and Stats. “Where is my hits?”
“How do I know I can move in chain?”
“Is this stat good?”
Suddenly, my rustiness in rolling several characters with a blend of skills didn’t seem so bad.
Soon the choices were made. An unusual pairing I have to say, but they chose them, and although the blend of skills is not perfect it could work.
Elven ranger – Limolas strengths in subterfuge but can generally be thought of as at the back of the queue when the brains were handed out. Limolas’ main concern is looking good and ….oh shiny things!
Dwarven warrior – Pick Strengths in body development. He is able to stand up in a battle soaking up damage and drawing attention. His interests are in the deep dark places and the treasures held therein.
There are slight problems in a dwarf and an elf pairing outside a large party, but its not unheard of. It became apparent straight away that Pick was going to be the brains in the outfit and Limolas was never going to be bright enough to notice. This means that I am going to have plenty of fun reminding players to stay in role. I think both players need to see “Of Mice and Men” to get a feel for the power balance. It does mean that although Limolas only confirms Pick’s prejudices against Elves. Limolas really doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.