13 September 2021

MERP resurrected? Against the Darkmaster!

MERP (Middle-earth Role-playing) by ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises) is one of my favourite games of all time. It was the second game I played regularly (after D&D/AD&D). I must have spent 50% of my spare time during the mid- to late-1980s reading, thinking about, and playing MERP. I feel much the same nostalgia for the MERP core book and some early campaign books that I do for the first edition AD&D manuals and classic Gygax modules. 

[Chris Achilleos's rather "metal" cover for the 1985 UK edition of MERP.]

I fondly recall running an extensive campaign set during the early Fourth Age that involved the characters journeying to the far north—the Bay of Forochel—in order to recover the lost Palantíri of Arthedain. One of the characters was the son of Eowyn and Faramir, another the son of Samwise Gamgee. I made a lot of mistakes in running that campaign (in my defence, I was only a teenager). But I learned as it went on, and I think everyone had a great time. (This campaign was based upon a brief outline included in the Rangers of the North campaign book. Most of that book focused on Arthedain in the middle of the Third Age, around 1640, when it was the last kingdom of the north standing against the dark realm of Angmar and its Witch-King. However, the book did include some suggestions for adventurers during different eras, including a couple for the early Fourth Age. The adventure outline later would be developed by ICE into 1994’s epic Palantír Quest.) 

Over time I developed something like 600 years of history for the Fourth Age for my various MERP adventures. (I did not like the default 1640-1700 Third Age setting at the time, as I didn’t like the idea that my games would be bound by a particular “future history.” These days such a thing would not bother me at all, although I still think that that era is too unfamiliar to fans of The Lord of the Rings, as, for instance, Rohan does not exist yet and Moria has not fallen to the Balrog. The choice by the designers of The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-earth to set their adventures in the period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings makes more sense in this respect. But I digress…)

I loved the ICE campaign and adventure modules—even the ones like The Court of Ardor and Greater Harad that strayed away from Tolkien’s Middle-earth, both geographically and thematically. In fact, I was fascinated by the ways in which ICE’s writers developed Middle-earth beyond the areas described by Tolkien. Even as a teenager, though, I could tell that some of these developments were not fully consistent—in either detail or spirit—with Tolkien’s writings. Nonetheless, I didn’t care that much, as the material (usually) was cool, exciting, and full of flavour. Ardor in particular remains a favourite. (If I were to use it today, though, I would sever it from Middle-earth and place it in its own setting.)

The Peter Fenlon maps and Angus McBride covers were pure magic as well. I love them to this day—indeed, I rank Fenlon and McBride among my favourite FRPG artists of all time.

The system, for the most part, was not crafted to emulate Tolkien’s world. It was a simplified version of Rolemaster (RM), a version that, I think, kept what was good about the RM system (namely, its critical hit and fumble charts, and its novel—for the time—combined character class, level, and skill system) while helpfully streamlining the system overall. Eventually the game’s designer, S. Coleman Charlton, added a couple of subsystems to try to rein in MERP’s magic system (namely, a system for determining whether Sauron or his minions detect the use of powerful magic by the characters, and a ‘corruption’ system for the misuse of magic). These subsystems were meant to encourage keeping the use of “flashy” magic (e.g., fire bolts and the like) rare, and thus more closely resemble the way in which magic is portrayed in Tolkien’s books. I doubt that many groups in fact used these rules (we didn’t). Overall, the MERP rules were, I think, a poor fit for Middle-earth in many respects, magic in particular. But casting spells was fun, and we didn’t care that we were playing a rather D&D-ish game in an ersatz Endor. 

In short, despite its various shortcomings, I was—and remain—quite fond of the MERP system. It was a faster, more playable—and I think more fun—version of Rolemaster

Over the past dozen years or so, with the rise of “retro-clones” and “quasi-clones” for various editions of D&D and AD&D (and other games), including the quasi-clone Crypts and Things, I had been wondering about the feasibility of a “quasi-clone” of MERP. Just over a decade ago ICE produced something kind of like this with Rolemaster Express (RMX). However, RMX disappeared for some reason when ICE changed ownership, and it wasn’t really MERP in any case (but rather a very stripped-down version of second edition or “Classic” Rolemaster).  

[Against the Darkmaster's awesome cover.]

Now there is Against the Darkmaster (VsD for short). This game is clearly inspired by, and draws heavily on, MERP. But it’s not a retro-clone (i.e., it’s not the MERP version of OSRIC). Rather it’s what I would call a quasi-clone (a game that draws heavily on an earlier one, and retains broad compatibility with its predecessor, but also deviates from it in some important ways). VsD looks like it’s compatible with MERP, in the sense that it should not be difficult to use MERP material with the system. But VsD introduces some new elements. For instance, VsD separates “races” from “cultures”: both humans and halflings, for instance, can have the “pastoral” or “urban” backgrounds. These elements of characters were not distinguished in MERP. 

It goes without saying that VsD is stripped of any specific references to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It is easy to find equivalent races and cultures, though, if you want to use the game in that setting, say, if you want to use VsD with some of ICE’s old MERP campaign and adventure modules. Dúnedain Rangers of the North, for instance, would be High Men with the “Weald” culture (or perhaps the “Fey” culture for those raised in Rivendell).   

I’m very impressed that the Against the Darkmaster core book includes a small setting and set of connected adventures—an entire mini-campaign—called “Shadows of the Northern Woods” (almost 50 pages of material). Running these adventures could easily take a group 10+ sessions. I think it’s important for games to include starter adventures, as they provide an easy way for groups to test out new systems. But to include a small but rich setting with three adventures is exemplary. The plot of the campaign also strikes me as quite intriguing. I’d love to run “Shadows” sometime. 

The book is incredibly thick (565 pages!). The rules strike me as well considered and potentially a lot of fun (although I’ll need to go through them more carefully once I find the time). The MERP foundation is clearly there, but with many interesting refinements and improvements. VsD fixes some of the main problems with the MERP system, I think, while keeping all the good stuff (critical hits, the solid class-with-skills system, the core d100 'higher-is-always-better' mechanic, etc.), and making the system setting-neutral. It adds options while at the same time making the system overall more coherent and straightforward. It’s an impressive accomplishment!

The art is top notch as well (though not quite McBride caliber, of course).

[A couple of "Noldor" ... er, "Star Elves."]

In short, my impression of Against the Darkmaster is very positive. This may be my favourite new FRPG since Mythras!

[Angus McBride's original cover for MERP. Note the family resemblance?] 


23 August 2021

Steve Perrin, RIP

 


Influential game designer Steve Perrin passed away recently at the age of seventy-five.

In addition to RuneQuest, Perrin authored or contributed to numerous other role-playing games, including two of my all-time favourites: Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu. And RQ's system, of course, informed all subsequent Basic Roleplaying (BRP, or “d100”) games. He also authored the influential AD&D module, Under Ilefarn, which was the first original adventure for TSR’s Forgotten Realms setting. 

Arguably, Perrin’s influence on RPG design was second only to that of the genre’s creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Shannon Appelcline provides a nice overview of Perrin’s work here.



15 July 2021

I cast magic missile

I was walking along Queen Street East in my neighbourhood this morning when I came upon a television or movie crew working outside of a coffee shop. This is not an uncommon occurrence in Toronto (at least once a month I encounter some filming happening during my various urban ramblings). It was not clear to me, though, whether I should cross the street to avoid them, and so I hesitated.

I was wearing a dark t-shirt that had “I cast magic missile!” emblazoned upon it. The guy in charge (who had been telling people to move things hither and thither) noticed me and said: “You can pass, no worries –- so long as you don’t cast any second-level spells!”

I had a good laugh at that. Nerds: we’re everywhere.

P.S. This is the shirt (but not me modelling it): 


 




28 June 2021

Mythic Babylon unleashed

I’ve been part of a Mythic Babylon campaign as a play-tester for about a year now (meeting roughly twice a month). The campaign is being run by one of the book’s co-authors (Chris Gilmore). It took me a while to get myself oriented in the setting. Bronze Age Mesopotamia is far less familiar to me than, say, Dark Ages Britain or Imperial Rome. And while I certainly would not claim to have a clear grasp of the setting even now, a year later, it does not feel quite as alien as it did at first. It’s an interesting place, and I’ve been enjoying the campaign enormously in recent months. 

Now everyone can enjoy this excellent setting for themselves: Mythic Babylon has been on sale to the public for over a week now.

Here is the description of the setting from the Design Mechanism site:

What is Mythic Babylon?

Mythic Babylon is a role-playing supplement for the Mythras game system. It provides everything you need to take your Mythras game back to the 18th century BC and enter a world of cut-throat diplomacy, Machiavellian politics, and ecstatic prophets. Within these covers you'll find information on the society, culture, religion, trade, laws, and beliefs of Old Babylon and the surrounding lands. The setting is presented as a sand-box with a wide-ranging gazetteer of places to explore, each loaded with plot hooks. For those who like to play against the backdrop of history, we provide a timeline of past and near future events. A bestiary and a chapter for game masters rounds out the end of the book.
This book contains everything you need to create adventures in the lands of Sumer, Akkad, and Subartu from the low lying Eden to the Cedar Mountains and even into the Underworld. Follow in the steps of kings like Gilgameš, Kubaba, or Hammurabi in this mythological and historical setting that was nearly 4000 years in the making.
Where is Mythic Babylon?

Mythic Babylon is set in what will later be called Mesopotamia by the Greeks, which means 'The Land Between the Rivers', referring to the Tigris and Euphrates. At the time our book is set, there is no one name for the whole region. Instead, the southern plain is called Sumer and the central plain is called Akkad. Together, these will one day be called Babylonia after the city of Babylon. The northern plain is called Subartu, but will one day come to be called Assyria after the city of Aššur.
This book focuses on Sumer, Akkad, and Subartu. Peripheral regions such as ancient Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Bahrain are given a more cursory treatment.
Mythic Babylon is expertly illustrated by James Turpin, and is an exceptional addition to the Mythic Earth range for Mythras. It comes as a hardcover book, 322 pages, and the PDF price is included in the hardcover price, along with an additional PDF file containing additional maps.
Initial reviews are very positive. This is no surprise to me. I can confirm that it’s a great setting and that a lot of serious research went into it. My only quibble is that there is no sample scenario included. I generally think such scenarios are helpful so that players can “test out” a setting or game without too much difficulty. This especially is the case for settings that likely will be unfamiliar to many players. But this, obviously, is a very minor thing. 

What impresses me the most about this book, like the others for Mythras with which I am familiar, is how successful it is in translating a difficult setting into something suitable for a game, that is, in rendering the world playable. Hats off to Chris Gilmore and Paul Mitchner on producing such a fine work.

For an interesting discussion of the importance of lists in ancient Mesopotamia, and their application to world-building in role-playing games, check out this post by Chris at The Many Coloured House

After years of waiting Mythic Babylon is finally available to the masses. Praise Marduk!

[A Mušhuššu (Babylonian dragon) – my character beheaded one of these pests!]





10 June 2021

Mythras Bundle of Holding

I thought that I would mention that there are four days left to pick up the Mythras Settings Bundles (PDFs): the “Starter Collection” (which includes the Mythras core rulebook, the Mythras Companion, two combat adventures, the Monster Island setting, and the Monster Island Companion) and the “Bonus Collection” (which includes the excellent Lyonesse role-playing game and setting, two Lyonesse adventures, the Luther Arkwright setting book, and Parallel Lines, a book of adventures for Luther Arkwright).

 

As I’ve mentioned before here, Mythras is an excellent role-playing game, my favourite of the past two decades, and has the best combat system ever designed. And Lyonesse is brilliant setting, certainly one that belongs in the collection of any fan of Jack Vance’s fiction.

 

More information here.

31 May 2021

The Court of Ardor

One of my favourite campaign modules of all time is The Court of Ardor by Terry K. Amthor.

 

Ardor is set in southern Middle-earth. But the region – and especially the malevolent Court itself – does not fit well in that world. The background to the Court does refer to the roles of Morgoth and Ungoliant in poisoning the Two Trees of Valinor, Laurelin and Telperion, and the subsequent creation of the sun and moon by the Valar. These connections, though, fail to overcome the stark differences in tone between the module’s setting and Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The Court is a secret society of powerful magic-users (astrologers, sorcerers, mentalists, and the like); even the non-spell-casting members of the Court have access to powerful magic items. The magic system of Rolemaster simply does not work well for Middle-earth. Moreover, Amthor’s treatment of elves in this book is quite “un-Tolkien” in nature. (The themes of the setting, I think, anticipate Amthor’s later creation, Shadow World, with its secretive organizations of extremely powerful immortals.)

 

Its “non-Middle-earth” character aside, though, The Court of Ardor is a great fantasy setting. Indeed, it has been a wish of mine to use this module for a campaign for over three decades now. I would relocate it to a different world if I were to do so – specifically, I would embed it in a ‘homebrew’ fantasy setting inspired more by Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance than Tolkien. I probably also would change certain elements of the setting, in particular, the overarching aim of the Court, as well as aspects of some of the cultures and peoples.

 

The module focuses on the activities of the shadowy Court of Ardor, an organization of extremely powerful elves who are plotting something … both terrible and awesome. (I won’t say what here. What I’m about to write is mildly spoiler-ish, so skip down past the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want that.) The members of the Court all possess a magical deck of cards that portray their compatriots, and which enable them to communicate with each other. (Amthor confirmed in an interview decades later that this was inspired by the cards in Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” novels.) The deck of magical communication cards is quite cool – but, as I mentioned above, not exactly “Tolkien-esque” in nature.

 

Charles Peale’s illustrations of some of the members of the Court are – appropriately – in the style of cards:

 




There is only one illustration in the module that does not depict a member of the Court. It is of the bard “Klaen” – one of the few “good guys” in the region described in the module. It also is the only illustration not by Peale, but rather by Amthor:

 


Finally, like most of ICE’s Middle-earth modules, there is an amazing map by Peter Fenlon:

 

Hmmm… Perhaps I should use (a heavily modified version of) The Court of Ardor for a future Against the Darkmaster campaign…

 

(I had planned to write up this post weeks ago, shortly after my initial post on Peale’s artwork for ICE, but alas the end of the spring term overwhelmed me. Hopefully my blogging will pick up somewhat over the next few months.)

26 April 2021

Charles Peale – the fantasy artist

This is a post about the artist Charles Peale – no, not this guy! Rather, the artist who did a lot of the early interior black-and-white illustrations for Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE).

 

During its heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s, ICE boasted some excellent art. I’ve praised the amazing maps by Peter Fenlon here before, as well as the inspiring colour covers by Angus McBride.

 

Reading through the new fantasy role-playing game (a kind-of-but-not-exactly-MERP-clone) Against the Darkmaster (VsD), I felt compelled to look through some of my old MERP campaign and adventure modules. (Yes, despite having loads of work to do, I wasted some time daydreaming about someday running a VsD campaign employing these classic works.)  

 

Looking through these old books I was reminded of my fondness for Peale’s work. I really loved his line work, the ‘clean’ aesthetics of his pictures, and always wondered why ICE stopped using his material. ICE eventually switched to Liz Danforth for most of their interior art. While I like Danforth’s work well enough, I prefer Peale’s overall – there is, in my view, something ‘artificial’ or ‘stiff’ about the poses of Dansforth’s figures.

 

Anyhow, since I suspect that many people who occasionally visit this blog might be unfamiliar with Peale’s work, I thought that I would post some of his pictures here. It would be great if his work could be appreciated by a wider audience.

 

Here are some pictures from the Middle-earth modules Mirkwood, Isengard, Bree, and Cirith Ungol:

 

[Astrith -- a.k.a. the "Green Asp" -- of Calenhardon]
 

[Treachery in Cirith Ungol]
 

[Beorn in Southern Mirkwood]  


 
[Caline Halfelven of Cirith Ungol]


[Dwarves hiding from a giant spider in Northern Mirkwood]


[An orc follower of the Necromancer in Southern Mirkwood]


[Townsfolk of Bree]


[Saruman and Wormtongue in Isengard]


I will post some art that Peale did for the amazing campaign module The Court of Ardor later this week.

27 March 2021

Swords and Sorcery House Rules PDF available again

Many years ago I put together some 'swords and sorcery' house rules for Swords & Wizardry (also usable with older editions of D&D, such as '0e' and 'B/X'). 

They have been available at this blog for over a decade now, and many people seem to have found them useful, or at least interesting, over the years. 

Once upon a time the house rules also were available as a PDF (kindly assembled and hosted by Benoist). But that PDF disappeared from the internet at some point. This was unfortunate, but I never got around to putting together a new PDF and hosting it somewhere myself (I'm kind of lazy).

Fortunately, the old PDF is available here via the Wayback Machine. (Thanks to evangineer for locating it and bringing it to my attention! And my apologies for missing evangineer's comment -- which was posted way back in November 2020 -- until now.)

By Crom!

 [Conan versus the frost giants by Frank Frazetta] 

26 March 2021

This blog is not dead

I know things have been rather quiet here recently, but this blog is not dead (yet). I've just been really, really busy at work over the past few months. 

Current mood:

"Real life" -- it keeps one away from the things that make life worth living.



23 February 2021

Ravenloft 5e setting book coming soon

 

Like many who got into role-playing games, and especially Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, during the 1980s, I owned (and still own ... somewhere) a copy of the original Ravenloft adventure. At the time I thought it was unbelievably cool, with its evocative Clyde Caldwell cover, beautiful maps by David Sutherland III, use of randomly drawn tarot cards to determine the structure of the adventure, and so forth.

 

However, I have not read the original module in over three decades. And I never purchased any of the subsequent Ravenloft products—including the 2nd edition and 3rd edition settings—until the recent 5th edition adventure, Curse of Strahd. And even that book I only skimmed. For the most part over the past few years it has been simply sitting on my bookshelf. (Nonetheless, a review of the 5e version, by my friend C. Robichaud, was posted here.) It’s not that I had anything against Ravenloft—indeed, it always struck me as rather intriguing, and I liked the way it was connected to other campaign settings, including the World of Greyhawk (I believe that a connection to Vecna was established in the 2nd edition version of the setting).

 

Anyhow, a proper ‘setting book’ for Ravenloft is coming out: Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. I have to say that neither the standard cover nor the alternative cover blows me away. (I don’t think that they’re bad, certainly, but they’re not nearly appealing in my view as, say, the two Saltmarsh covers.) But covers aside, I plan to get a copy of the book when it becomes available in late May. I hope to return to my Greyhawk campaign sometime this spring, so perhaps there will be a way to connect Ravenoft to it. Or maybe not, and I’ll just use the book to mine for ideas. Or perhaps I’ll simply read it for pleasure. In any case, I’m interested enough in the setting now to look forward to it, unlike most of the setting books that have been published hitherto for 5th edition D&D.

 

(But the real reason I’m looking forward to the end of May, is that it will be end of the “Domain of Dread” that is my current work situation…)

23 January 2021

More Fantasy TV: Westeros and Middle-earth

It looks like there will be no shortage of fantasy television shows in the near future. In addition to the potential Dungeons and Dragons series that I mentioned in my previous post, The Witcher will be returning for certain, and rumblings of a possible Conan series are heard every so often.

Amazon’s Middle-earth series should be out later this year. This brief article confirms what I noted before: the series will be set during the Second Age. I would be thrilled—and not at all surprised—if the first season portrayed the rise of Sauron (as the comely “Annatar”) and his cooperation with—and eventual betrayal of—Celebrimbor in the creation of the Rings of Power. This should be followed with the great War of the Elves and Sauron, which would involve Númenor. The first season could end with the defeat of Sauron. The second season could portray Sauron’s return centuries later, his subsequent capture by and corruption of (a now decadent) Númenor, the destruction of Númenor and the founding of the “Realms in Exile” (Gondor and Arnor), and the end of the Second Age with the War of the Last Alliance. Perhaps more storylines could be added—e.g., the stories of Elrond, Galadriel, et al., during this time; the persecution of “the Faithful” by the “King’s Men” in Númenor; the establishment of Númenorean colonies in Middle-earth; and so forth. But I think that these two great conflicts—the mid-Age initial struggle with Sauron, and the late-Age defeat of Sauron—should be the overarching storylines. How could it be otherwise?

[Map of Númenor from the Atlas of Middle-earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad]

Also, HBO hasn’t given up on Westeros. In addition to the House of the Dragon (set about three centuries before the Game of Thrones), a series based on G.R.R. Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” stories is in development. I quite liked those stories. And given their modest, episodic nature, there is little risk that HBO will fumble the ending the way that they did with GoT. However, I don’t think that the stories provide material for more than one or maybe two seasons. That’s perfectly fine in my view—it worked for Watchmen


I actually don’t watch that much television normally, but I quite enjoyed GoT and The Witcher, and so will be happy if other fantasy series of comparable quality become available in the near-ish future.


22 January 2021

The Mittens of Redistribution

While I generally try to avoid bringing up politics in this blog (my “day job” is teaching and writing about political philosophy), I found this to be too amusing not to post:

More information on this wondrous item can be found in this Polygon article: “Bernie Sanders’ mittens are now an extremely powerful magic item in D&D.”

 

15 January 2021

Dungeons & Dragons: a TV series and a Movie?

It looks like a Dungeons & Dragons television series is now in the process of being developed by Derek Kolstad (the author of the script for the first John Wick film).

This is separate from the previously announced Dungeons & Dragons film, which apparently will star Chris Pine.

I hope that the series and/or movie turn out to be entertaining. But I am gripped with a sense of trepidation, given my memories of this disaster from two decades ago:



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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.