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.

Towards skills without levels part 3

If you have been reading this blog you will know that I am considering a move away from levels as part of the mechanics of the game. I feel that they encourage a hit first and solve problems later approach to roleplaying. Even when you do address this by awarding experience points (XP) for ideas or roleplaying, players tend to focus on levelling up as a measure of success.

In the first blog, I thought about the factors that influence this and some input from Peter R demonstrated that for adventuring PCs. In the second post, I considered the time for education to each level of knowledge. In this post, I will look at how this might affect NPC character development.

RanksHours per rank
1-572
5-10144
10-15270
15-201800
203600
Time taken to increase by one rank

Based on a modern education system, which is probably being very generous in some settings, the amount of time to study for each rank is a simple formula to apply. However, the access to education and study will be restricted by social class. I have divided social strata into serf, merchant, lord and royalty. For my basic work up I have considered merchant to include artisans/skilled craftsman, who in Middle Earth are likely to be as wealthy as an innkeeper or costermonger. The number of hours to have deliberate study is limited for lower levels of society because they would be required to complete daily tasks for survival which Lords and Royalty wouldn’t. Also this is based on a 6 day learning week which then gives wiggle room for sickness or other major events. Based on background it would be possible to decide on the ranks available for variations on a theme.

AgeSerfMerchantLordRoyalty
10-154102436
15-202102436
20-25151218
25-3001612
30-400036
40-500036
500036
Hours per week available for study in age brackets

These hours of study can then be turned into the time taken to achieve one rank (level 1-5 only) by dividing the hours per rank by the available study time per week.

AgeSerfMerchantLordRoyalty
10-15187.232
15-20367.232
20-257214.464
25-30
72126
30-40

2412
40-50

2412
50

2412
Weeks needed to achieve one basic rank based on social status and age

And from here a simple calculation based on a 52 week year to work out the number of basic skill ranks achievable in a year.

AgeSerfMerchantLordRoyalty
10-15371726
15-20171726
20-2514913
25-30
149
30-40

24
40-50

24
50

24
Basic skill ranks achievable in one year of deliberate study

A “serf” would now achieve 15 ranks or around 3 skills of an apprentice level before 15 years old and a further one by 20 years old. Spread these out and you have a reasonably well-rounded individual with a specialism. However, Merchants, Lords and Royalty are already going to have a range of skills that will be greater than 5 ranks before 20 years old. For this reason the next level of ranks calculation has been applied for ages above 20 where the NPC is likely to be more specialist in nature, focussing on a core set of skills.

AgeSerfMerchantLordRoyalty
10-15 (ranks 1-5)371726
15-20 (ranks 5-10)14913
Ranks per year combined table

A serf might add 5 ranks to a skill above the fifth rank between the ages of 15 and 20 years but this is in reality a fraction of a rank each year, so can be used at need. Merchants are able to develop four skills to rank 10 by 20 years old, giving them mastery in a group of skills connected to their trade. Lords and Royalty obviously have a wider range of skills that need to be developed as the ruling classes. In Middle Earth they are also likely to be Dunedain and longer lived, therefore being more able to study in later life.

As a mechanic this appears to provide a good method of creating NPCs with a realistic background without having to worry about their levels. Let’s face it, unless the PCs plan to kill every villager the level is irrelevant. I could imagine creating a bank of villagers with an interchangeable specialist skill set at various ages. There is one little hitch at the moment and that is spell casting. Spell lists could be learnt as a percentage chance or as individual spells (my preferred option), but casting and particularly resistance rolls in Rolemaster are very dependent on a level derived mechanic. I can see some work will need to be done on magic mechanics.

In Caras Celairnen there is a lord called Bregol according to the unpublished Lindon module but printed in other source material. He is quite a significant figure as the Arnaroquen and if I followed the level grading from Lords of Middle Earth Vol II (MERP ICE ) would be around level 20. In my setting Bregol is going to be a Lesser Dunedain of around 40 years of age. My aim is to maintain game balance so for this to work the “aged” model should be roughly similar to a level 20 version. I’m going to do this very quick and dirty on a MERP character build with a more permissive Rolemaster approach because the secondary skills are more important than the adventuring primary skills.

Bregol at 10 with adolescent ranks added as baseline

Bregol is a Merchant Lord and if the class/profession rule still applies then he is most likely a Bard but really this is irrelevant for everything but magic realm and lists. I more inclined to let the skills be developed according to the type of character than be restricted by a notional profession.

Bregol at 15

Bregol would have received considerable schooling by the age of 15, mastering basic weapon skills and athletic skills with a knowledge of diplomacy and some regional knowledge by 12 and developing his regional lore and sailing skills by travelling with his father’s sailing ships before 20 years old. An adventuring bard would gain roughly a rank for each skill per level so Bregol at 15 would be about level 5. If his father had been more warlike then Bregol would be proficient in different types of weapons and possibly would be developing ranks above 5 but a less broad sweep of other skills.

Bregol at 20

By 20 years old, Bregol has travelled extensively down to Gondor and on the Harad. He has learnt to speak several languages more fluently and more about the locations he has visited. Although he is not a sailor or a navigator he has learnt about these skills to a level of competency of most seaman apart from the key ship leaders.

Bregol at 25 years old

From 20 years old to 25 years Bregol begins to take on daily responsibilities and although it would be unfair to say he isn’t learning things about state-craft and running a business, the effect isn’t as great. I could use the study time to develop 9 ranks in a new skill, but I don’t think Bregol is that kind of person. He will be getting married and settling down soon and even as a Dunedain Lord his available hours of additional study will be reduced.

Conventional MERP character development taken to level 10 leaves Bregol at pretty much the same ranks for the skills of our 25 year-old learning over time. In the trial run it takes until level 12 to replicate the same character sheet and only if I go with a 2:1 point transfer for secondary skills. A Rolemaster development would be similar within the usual restrictions of development points based on stats and I would (if really exploring this) use a no profession for comparability.

In the next blog post I will look at how development of 10+ ranks and equivalent level 20 specialist development can be handled using study time. However, before the comments start flowing that PCs will develop slightly differently as I plan to use something like Peter Rs development mechanic for adventuring skills but offer the PC a chance of developing other skills in downtime using this method.

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.

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.

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.