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.

Into the Woods

In the previous episode, the brave heroes had fought the Zombie King and survived the devious traps protecting the Iron Rose held beneath a rotten tree. Now Pick, Limolas and Dagaard set out to try and discover the location of the final item required to release Edananar from his frog form. Progress was again slow, but the party took heart when they could see the rising Hills of Evendim; this giving the small hope that the depths of the swamp would soon be left behind. 

Soon the band of adventurers found themselves warily entering a forest of dead trees.  Mists floated in from the swamp obscuring the view further, but untroubled the heroes pushed deeper into the woods and soon came upon a thicket of thorns. It was clear from their previous information that this should be the labyrinth of thorns spoken of as the resting place for the amber stones. A quick survey of the perimeter revealed three entrances and the wanderers soon realised that a strategy to defeat the labyrinth was in order.

e4c4aa06e6061b411f1d084653053476Sadly, after many hours of debate, the best plan they could come up with was to pick the nearest entrance and take the left turn until no more turns could be made and then return to the last turning. Pick, by far the most intelligent of the band, being only slightly below average intelligence, suggested leaving a marker at each turn, and so with bundles of sticks the band set off to explore.

The thorns of the maze pushed in on the adventurers as they explored through the mist. In the mistaken belief that they were efficiently exploring, the party pushed on into the Labyrinth. The tension grew as every wrong turn meant retracing steps and finding the marker sticks, which were becoming less with each wrong turn.

Warily, the party pushed on. Soon Limolas’ sharp ears heard a clacking sound and so the party were aware of the approach of a pair of skeletons.  Unfortunately, the close-packed thorns left no room for manoeuvre and so Pick was forced to deal with both at the junction. Limolas let fly volleys of arrows, but alas they had little effect when his aim was true. So alone and beset on two sides, the brave dwarf swung is mighty warhammer in defence of his comrades. So it is perhaps fortunate that this was the time for our heroes to discover that weapons that break bone, are more effective against the skeletal form of undead.

skeleton_warriors_by_aaronbradburyThe guardians of the Labyrinth dispatched, the explorers pushed on in their haphazard way seeking the centre of the maze. The going was slow and there were many encounters with more skeletons. The dauntless dwarves covering both the van and rear guard dispatched these with ease,  and despite evidence to the contrary Limolas continued to use piercing weapons to provide support.

A cold damp night later, the explorers gained the centre of the maze. In front of them stood a twelve foot high dark green dodecahedral tower, and atop gleamed the prized amber stones. Now the heroes could grab the loot and depart this depressing maze. However, between them and the stones stood a band of skeletal warriors. Faced with odds of three to one, Limolas thought to thin the numbers using his skill as a bowman. His efforts continued to have the same effect as before and the skeletal figures advanced with purposeful menace. The dwarves, taking a more pragmatic view advanced with warhammers swinging and soon the sound of breaking bone filled the centre of the maze. Limolas, finally abandoning his bow, joined the fray swinging his longsword to and fro. Within a few minutes, the floor was littered with a carpet of shattered bones and the heroes could turn their attention to the high pedestal on which the amber stones sat.

A combination of a lack of height and acrobatic skill made it clear very early on that recovering the stones would need a solution that did not involve a tower of two dwarves and an elf. However, by standing on both the dwarves shoulders and using his spear Limolas was eventually able to push the amber stones off the pedestal, where they were soon rolled into the magical bag ready for transport back to the golden frog form of Edananar, All that remained was to find their way back to him through the miles of damp, dreary, dangerous, swamp.

The squelching dead

In the last session, the adventurers had beaten a tactical retreat from a watcher in the water, to seek alternative pathways to the Floating Island on which the Iron Rose was located, or for that matter the Labyrinth of Thorns where the Amber stones were to be found. However, it was becoming clear to the party that seeking these locations in a large swamp is never an easy matter.

After several days of false trails, and occasional encounters in the swamp the meanderers sighted the island again. Cautiously they approached knowing that the island was protected by a Zombie King.  Fighting their way past the reanimated corpses of some marsh boars the heroes were soon engaged in combat with the Zombie King, who was soon defeated. They then began to search the island and quickly discovered a way into the island through the a break in the lonely tree that stood at the centre of the island. The gap was not large and although Limolas could have entered through the gap into the drop to the underground lair, Pick and Dagaard felt that this was Dwarf work and that they should head the start of the exploration.

Heading down into the depths, Pick and Dagaard found themselves in a lightless tunnel. Torch light provided the unwanted detail that the tunnel was made of the bones of various animals and humans. The pair moved cautiously up the tunnel only for Pick to fall foul of a drop trap. The stalwart Dwarf was injured but not fatally, and with the aid of Limolas, Dagaard was able to extricate him and so attend to his wounds.

With the injury making vigorous activity inadvisable it was left to Limolas to go beyond the new pit and explore further. Thankfully, it was not far before he discovered the Iron Rose, a 8ft cast iron statue in the shape of a rose stem. After seeking several different methods of placing this giant effigy into the magic bag that had been collected from the Nixies, Limolas eventually secured the Iron Rose and began his return to his companions. This was when disaster struck and the elf triggered a latent trap seriously injuring himself. However, the wound though serious, was not beyond the first aid skills of the party. With the Iron Rose secured the heroes returned to the nearby causeway to rest and recuperate before venturing further into the swamp.

 

 

Into the mist

In the last session the adventurers had managed to acquire the basket used by the water spirits to keep their treasure. Miraculously this small coracle was transformed into a small bag which the party could carry back to the golden frog. Before leaving the pool Limolas attempted to find more information about the location of the remaining items from the Nixie but it appeared that the adventurers were no longer of any interest to the capricious water maia.

A few false trails later the party were able to relocate the bower of the golden frog and from him discover that the iron rose and amber stones were to be found to the north. They would need to find a floating island controlled by a Zombie king, which could be recognised by a single dead tree on it, and also locate a labyrinth of thorns which was in a wood at the margins of the swamp.

The vagueness of the directions caused much consternation from Pick and Limolas, who began to realise how long this adventure was going to last and the dwindling in food supplies. Not helping the mood of the party is the fact that now the mists have closed in and although the terrain is flat, it has become difficult to make out shapes through the grey fog.

A day of miserable trudging through swamp, with some false starts, and the party discover a strange mound in the swamp. As they approach their nostrils are assaulted by an acrid stench. Fighting back the urge to gag they explore the sight and find cages with disfigured human remains hanging at the top of the small mount. Finding nothing else of interest they return to the causeway path and continue to seek the floating island or the woods.

Sometime later, the party discover a small village of crude reed huts on a large raft of reads. Around thirty disfigured humans appear to live there and the adventurers approach with caution. Limolas attempted to make contact through exchanging a gift of raw boar meat that the party had killed the previous day. Although the gift was accepted the party decide that the gulf in communication is too great and there is nothing to be gained by remaining. They move on through the green, grey swamp seeking a way to one of their objectives.

Just after midday, nearly two weeks after setting out from Caras Celairnen, Limolas spies a lonely tree rising out from the mist. Heartened by the thought of an end to their quest, the adventurers hurry forward only to din that their path is blocked by a green, noisome pool of swamp water. Fortunately, around the edge of the pool are a series of tussocks that should provide a reasonably safe path towards the island. Concerned about the potential of the island to be hiding the Zombie King, who the party presume is some form of Mewlip or Wight, Limolas remains on the shore to cover the party with his bow whilst the dwarves make the trek to the island.

jhwitwWithin the first few feet, it is Pick whose foot slips and enters the water, and from the fetid pool a great blurp of gas erupts. This is followed by a low keening moan that appears to make the ground shudder. Not having travelled far both dwarves make their way quickly back to shore, as a long green and grey tentacle emerges from the pool. Although Limolas attempts to wound the monster, his arrow misses the mark and the party beat a hasty retreat.

Deciding, that to cross the pool would be suicide, and believing that as a floating island, there might be a chance of finding another way on the party retrace their steps to find a new causeway to the floating island.

 

A Frog he would a wooing go.

At the end of the last session the party were alone deep in the swamp north of Caras Celairnen. Cold, damp and guide-less, they have been forced to rely on Limolas’ tracking skills to navigate the dangerous causeways that criss cross the dangerous marshes.

Another day of grey, green dreariness and swamp wild-life lead the party, after a few mis-steps, to a small floating island. On the island was a small bower, within which sat a small golden frog. Limolas and Pick are first to step tentatively on to the island. Sensing no traps they move closer to the bower. Whereupon, the frog speaks to them and beseeches their aid in reuniting him with his lost love. The frog tells the party that his was once a mortal man who fell in love with a Silvan elf in the years of twilight as the sun first rose. He tells of how an elf perverted by Morgoth cast the spell on him as he returned bearing wedding gifts for his love, and how until they are returned he cannot resume his mortal form.

The party debate the risk and rewards. In the first instance, they decide that this is not what they are being paid for and that taking the idol to the Alabaster lady is the best option. That is until they discover that the frog cannot be moved. It seems they need a magical basket which is currently in the possession of some water maia.

The party set off back into the swamp in the direction indicated by the golden frog. After some minor swamp encounters they soon arrive at a hedge of swamp bushes behind which they hear the light laughter of female voices. Peeking through the bushes they spy the beautiful form of the water nixies grouped around a large pool. In the middle of the pool floats a small coracle filled with treasure.

Retreating away from the pool the party debate the best approach to securing the basket. Aware of the elemental power of the Maia, Limolas suggests that direct force should be a last resort measure. As a result, the party decide to try charm and the hope that a love story will melt the hearts of the Nixie. Much to the party’s surprise this approach works wonderfully, although it costs them in a few magical items and coins to secure the boat, which when touched by mortal hands becomes a small basket.

Encouraged by the turn of events the party return to the island of the golden frog.

Gone fishing

In the last session, the party had escaped the perilous Oracle caves with barely a breath in their bodies. All the party were affected by hallucinations, but Pick was more affected than the rest of the party and spends several hours muttering about visions of a great Dwarven hall in which great lost Dwarven treasures could be found.

When the party are fully recovered they set forth, guided by their local guide, into the swamp. Initially, they are guided safely through the swamp and meet nothing but some local wildlife. However, after a day in the swamp they meet another of the treasure hunting teams and although the party tentatively try to open a parley, the other group attack. Narrowly, avoiding an opening salvo of crossbow bolts the two parties close. It is suddenly clear that the other party have a wizard as shock bolts fly, but they prove ineffectual. Again it is Dagaard who leads the melee, with Pick being redoubtable in defense and Limolas able to dart round and remove the threat from the wizard. The brief battle done, the party assess the situation to discover their guide has disappeared. Now they are alone in the swamp.

Thankfully, Limolas finally finds that he is an expert in something other than fashion and begins to navigate the tricky paths through the swamp. The party even have time to stop and do some fishing providing a fishy supper for the night. However, the lack of firewood demonstrate the importance of thinking ahead before planning to live off the land.

Night falls and although there is a close run encounter with a corpse candle, which almost lures Pick into the swamp, the party are able to continue their search in the morning. Navigating the paths proves tricky and once or twice back tracking is required. The swamp becomes more sinister as time passes and the party of encounter a giant versions of Leech and Catfish before they make camp for another night in the swamp.