Towards a system without levels

Recently,  I had one of those moments of insight that make you want to move on. They usually lead you onto new things and new places but they are also mighty scary and need some time to process and if you are sensible (or just a lot older) require a bit of planning. I’ve had a few in my life and they have led to changes that have only helped me grow, even if the process as not always been enjoyable and yes, dear reader I have learnt to plan for the change through failing to do so previously.

Anyway, to the point in hand, I thought “Why do we have levels and EP?”. I think it grew out of the emulation/simulation debate raised by Gabe and a growing dissatisfaction with the whole EP reward and class system. So I raised the question about if anyone had done it and how it worked on the Rolemaster forums. Of course, there is no need to re-invent the wheel when you know it exists, which given the love of rule mechanics often foisted on RM players, was a surprise to find already invented, if a little diverse.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised because I already knew Runequest used a learned skills system and in some ways, I was thinking about a similar concept. I think that there are several things to consider before I put the mechanics to players as a way forward and inevitable at that stage we may tweak things but when I mentioned it at the post-game beers the other night they didn’t quail.

Here is a list of things I’m thinking about

  • How many hours/days to acquire skill ranks?
  • Are all skills learnt at the same rate?
  • Is the rate of learning linear?
  • What is the effect of a mentor/tutor/school?
  • In game skill development?
  • Natural aptitude vs resilient study?
  • Hierarchy of knowledge or accomplishment within skill levels?
  • Complimentary skills?
  • skill/knowledge fade?
  • How to provide an overall measure of success to the players if no level?
  • How do you encourage adventurers out of school?

Which is a lot of questions to work on, hopefully, I can blog some of my thoughts on the approaches we come up with. I suspect that initially at least we will apply this to the secondary skills in MERP which are almost impossible to develop using the development points given for each level. Certainly, that is what my players would like as a starting point.

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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?

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.

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.