Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kung Fu & Random Intrigue in Caras Celairnen

That Borderlands thing last week has gotten me thinking about MERP and its obsessive compulsive big brother, Rolemaster. The beast known as Rolemaster basically started out life as a set of separately sold add-ons for your D&D game. If you wanted more and bigger spells, you could grab a copy of Spell Law. For ridiculous critical hit charts, import a copy of Arms Law into your campaign. If you wanted more character classes and a pain-in-the-ass skill system, then Character Law was the thing to get. Put it all together and sprinkle with some magic pixie dust, and you have the full-on Rolemaster experience. As much as I like the critical charts from Arms Law and many of the wild variant rules from the various Rolemaster Companions, it was always a bit more game than I can handle. One local gamer, a fine fellow who will not bat an eye at playing HERO System or Star Fleet Battles, dismisses the game as "Chartmaster" because of all the look-up charts you need for darn near every action.

MERP, on the other hand, hit the sweet spot for me. Middle Earth Role Playing slimmed down a lot of the more cumbersome rules in its predecessor, but remains compatible enough that you can easily import your favorite subsystems from RM. The original MERP rules are only 88 pages long and in terms of sheer gaming utility it kicks the asses of many rulebooks twice its size. And since Tolkien’s work undergirds so much of modern fantasy, you could easily get away with using MERP to power many other settings. I wouldn’t turn up my nose at MERP+Greyhawk or MERP+Mystara, for instance. MERP+Krynn could work as well, though it's not one of my favorite settings. Heck, I’d probably enjoy MERP+Forgotten Realms more than any attempt to play the Realms with D&D!

If I wanted to something straight Arthurian (you know, with no lasers and stuff) I’d give MERP a serious look. Thanks to the critical hits/fumbles, moving maneuvers and more rigorous magic system, I suspect it would run less like Pendragon’s attempts at literary Arthuriana and more like Excalibur. And now that I think about it, it would be pretty easy to MERP up the first three sandboxes in Points of Light. (If that phrase "MERP up" ever catches on, remember you heard it here first.)

Getting back to Middle Earth, I was reading Rogues of the Borderlands, the module I mentioned last week. The biggest town in the Borderlands, a place called Caras Celairnen, only has about 1,500 inhabitants and all the other human settlements have only a few hundred people. I can relate to that. I grew up on a farm a few miles outside a town of 1,000. Most of the nearby communities had just enough inhabitants to support a post office, a grain elevator, and a bar. But I got to wondering about what sort of people one could find in a Tolkienian town of fifteen hundred. MERP doesn’t have an easy answer for that, but Rolemaster Companion I does. And it involves dice! Yay!

To my eye "Section 8.0 City Design" looks like the direct antecedent to the community design rules that appeared in 3E. That’s not surprising, since several parts of 3E were clearly influenced by Rolemaster. Anyway, the basic deal here is to find out how many Magicians (or whatever) live in a city you divide the total populace by a flat number and then multiply it by a randomly rolled fraction. In the case of Magicians, take the total population divided by three hundred and then multiply it by .02 to 2.00 (2d100%). The city design rules give the formulae for every class in Rolemaster up to that point (which is A LOT by most standards). You also find out about some local institutions, like once you know how many clerics are in a burg you can easily roll up the total number of temples.

In order to give my die rolling hand a rest I put all the numbers into a rough draft spreadsheet to do the rolling for me. Normally I'd throw all the dice for reals but I’ve rolled up about 250 treasure types over the past few days and I can feel it in my wrist. Anyway, here’s what I found out about Caras Calairnen:
  • The local garrison consists of 100 low level Fighters (2nd to 5th) led by 5 NCO’s (6th to 10th) and commanded by one officer (8th to 15th). They’re supported in their efforts by 15 Rangers.
  • There are seven monks in town. A Monk between 6th and 10th level leads a group of 4 Monk Students (1st to 5th) and 2 Warrior Monk students (also 1st to 5th). They don’t have a formal monastery.
  • There are four temples, but only 1 High Priest. The other three are led by lesser clerics. 13 low-level clerics serve in supporting roles.
  • There’s a shrine where a Paladin of level 7+ trains 12 squires of levels 1 to 6.
  • You can get healed at two different clinics in town, which are operated by 7 Healers and 15 Lay Healers.
  • The town’s criminal element consists of a lone thief!
  • Eight bards operate out of the town’s only theatre, where they are supported by 29 non-bard types who work as extras and stuff like that.
  • There are 19 arcane magical types in town: 14 Alchemists, 3 Magicians, and 2 Illusionists. They do not associate with each other in a formal way (i.e. no school or guild). The rules make Alchemists three times more likely than Magicians, which is pretty awesome for the PCs since an NPC who makes magical stuff is way more useful to them than a (potentially rival) fireball lobber.
  • There are also 4 Animists (sorta halfway between Druids and Clerics), 3 Astrologers, 2 Mentalists, 2 Mystics, a Druid and a Sorcerer.
For our purposes let’s set aside the fact that most of these classes have no business in a proper Middle Earth game and instead look at some of neat things we can do with this data. Let’s start with the completely incongruous monks. According to the rules Student Monks and Student Warrior Monks are normally instructed by Master Monks and Master Warrior Monks of at least 11th level. But in this hick town the best they can muster is a single under-qualified Monk that might be a low as 6th level.

The difference between a Warrior Monk and a Monk is that Monks get all sorts of neat spell effects for their righteous kung fu, while the Warrior Monks stick strictly to kicking ass and taking names. So a Monk could probably instruct a novice Warrior Monk in the basics of martial arts fighting, but it’s not going to be pretty. Basically you’re asking the Cobra Kai punks to learn from Mr. Miyagi. The non-Warrior students are going to be more successful in this environ, frustrating the already naturally belligerent Warrior types. The situation is a ticking time bomb. Eventually those two Warrior Monks won’t be able to take it any more. They’re sick of meditating in the lotus position all day, dammit! When are they finally going to learn the secrets of real, ultimate power?! Will these kids walk out on the sensei and seek out adventure? They could become henchmen, allies, or rivals of the PCs.

Or maybe one or both Warrior Monks get involved in the local crime scene, possibly just for the cheap thrills of getting to beat people up. The one thief operating in the town could use some help! A town the size of Caras Celairnen should normally average a thieves guild of fifteen scoundrels. I just got an outlier result with the one thief. What’s the story here? Is the town one of those super-nice saccharine sweet places where life is so good (almost) no one has any need to resort to crime? Or did the grim Rangers and Paladins get together and burn down the thieves’ hideout one night and now the place that was rebuilt on the spot is haunted? Maybe the sole survivor of the ordeal is putting a new gang together and plotting revenge.

Another thing I noticed is that I ended up with 2 healing Clinics and there just happens to be two different classes that specialize in healing. Maybe the seven Healers (a class powered by divine magic) operate a religious institution that only cares for members of the flock, while the Lay Healers (a psionic type class) operate a secular medical facility which makes you pay through the nose. Sure the PCs dig the free cure light wounds from the gang at St. Somebody, but how many times are they going to be sent on crap holy quests before they start considering the advantages of the more business-like atmosphere at Mind-over-Matter General? And which joint secretly healed the badly burned burglar that crawled into the place the night the “good guys” nearly set the whole town on fire?

Finally, I should note that Mystics and Sorcerers make pretty decent villains. All the Sorcerer spell lists have the word "Destruction" in the title. What else do you need to know? Mystics get both some illusory/misdirection spells and some elemental attacks. Could one of them be an agent of Witch King of Angmar? Who tipped off that dumb Paladin Squire as to the location of the Thieves Guild HQ? Could the same person be whispering to the Warrior Monk Students, trying to turn them to the dark side?

And what’s going to happen when the commander of the garrison finds out that the Rangers, who are nominally under his command, started the fire that his men ended up fighting? Dammit, he lost two soldiers putting that conflagration out and was himself fairly badly burned!


  1. Man, now I want to play in this game.

    I'm going to graduate from Bovine University, and then work at St. Somebody's!

  2. I am afraid I have not understood the Pendragon reference...

  3. Pendragon tries pretty hard to inject some highbrow literary goodness into its take on King Arthur. I've got nothing against that. But if instead of chasing virtues and grails you just want knock down Round Table Rumbles then MERP might be a better choice.

    Does that help?

  4. "That’s not surprising, since several parts of 3E were clearly influenced by Rolemaster."

    I never thought of that until you said it, but I can see it now.

    Rolemaster has always scratched a flavorful itch that other systems never did. I snarfed up a lot of it around the time the companion came out. My copy of MERP is also well loved.

    Have you checked out the orphan of the rolemaster system , High Adventure Roleplaying (HARP). You can download a lite version here...

  5. This post has me wanting to spring RoleMaster on the new group now...gah, I'm in the midst of planning a Trav game for them. Now I have a major RM jones...

    Curse you, Mr. Rients.

  6. Okay, now I want to check out MERP.

    And this couldn't have come at a worse time. I just placed fairly substantial (for me) orders with both Amazon and RPGNow. So I don't know where to look -- maybe ebay.

    Anyway, I had always looked past MERP before, but on your recommendation, I just might give it a glance. Thanks!

    p.s. The verification word for this reply is "fabooves". I can't make this stuff up.

  7. Yes it does help.

    I didn't understand what you said because I run the game as a Dark Ages "run'n'tumble" without any highbrow injections of literary stuff.

    There's absolutely no preassure on the players to play virtuous, grail-chasing PCs or sigh lametabely all day for a damosel's love. *snicker*

    I don't think MERP would be a good replacement for the core system. BRP is damn near perfect for the game and does away with levels, tables, charts, RRs, etc.

    Also its combat system provides more options to the players than MERP.

    And lastly of course, there's the Battle System. Merp doesn't have anything comparable to that.

  8. Awesome!
    I love the city generator in RMCI - but my spreadsheet skills are nil...nice to see it used - and in a speadsheet, the formulae wouldn't be to hard to tweak - the authour even suggests writing a program to do the work for yopu (or was that the quick-combat system in that companion (which I've used and is pretty awesome))

    Anyway, right on!
    I'd play any of those characters waiting to happen :)

  9. Table IIb: Sweep the Leg Appropriate
    01-29 Left Leg
    30-58 Right Leg
    59-70 Roll on Table IIc: Other Limb Swept
    71-98 Shocked disbelief at enormity of act.
    99-00 Fumble: Immediately apologize and adjust relationship three columns towards friendly with target.

  10. I still absolutely love Rolemaster 2nd Edition. It's one of those games that I've always wanted to run, but could never sell a group on it due to it's lovely reputation.

    I still borrow things from it willy-nilly though, the Herbs in Character Law, the Magical Languages in the First Companion, and some of the combat stuff in the Arms Companion just really made Fighters seem like wonderfully capable individuals.

    Never really liked the whole pay a skill point to have a chance at learning a full 20 levels of spells thing though.

  11. Not to be confused with one of my old favorites "Role Aids." My fave because of the name of course. I mean, Role Aids...c'mon!

    Those didn't have cool charts though, just crappy adventures.

  12. Thanks for this entry. I love MERP and it pretty much hit the sweet spot for me too. I've thought about MERPing Up quite a few settings over the years.

    One thing I like about this is that it quite clearly doesn't fit into a proper Middle Earth campaign, but that's okay because, let's face it, nor really did MERP! Art and flavour text? Great. Rules and mechanics? Nah.

  13. Anonymous4:33 AM

    MERP was better than Rolemaster but I disliked both games for one reason:

    Critical Hits

    No matter how amusing the little descriptions were, having your character killed from a lucky hit by a blind, syphilitic kobold armed with a pen knife was never fun.

    Mind you, it wasn't as bad as Runequest where entire parties were made up by one legged, one armed adventurers thanks to its critical hit system.

  14. If you dig MERP, you should check out its modern version, Rolemaster Express. All the coolness of Rolemaster without all the rules pileup.

  15. Anonymous11:47 AM

    The Rolemaster-3rd edition connection is probably Monte Cook. He worked on RM before getting a job at TSR.

  16. RM martial arts were indeed some fun stuff. I played in three consecutive RM campaigns back a few years ago and each one had at least one or two martial artists in the party, and the GM developed a new martial arts "package" for one of the PCs. Martial arts weren't extraordinarily deadly, but it was effective and the PCs were fairly survivable thanks to the Adrenal skills they had access to.

    That same GM has wanted to run a short MERP game for some time now - one of these days we'll have to actually carry through on it. I do need to take a look at this Rolemaster Express - sounds interesting.

  17. Anonymous5:45 AM

    RM and MERP were both fun and the skill system great, but they really are just too complex. I DMd RM for about 5 - 8 years, ran two campaigns in it, and the diversity of character choices and combat outcomes was great, but it really really was a big challenge to run as a DM. For a group of more than 4 it is also time-consuming.

    I think the best way to get your RM jollies is to import some of the ideas for skill resolution (partial success & open ended rolls particularly) and character generation (buy any skill at varying costs) into the D20 system and definitely ditch or simplify critical tables.

  18. MERP and Rolemaster 2e are two of my favourite systems. I played tons of MERP back in High-School, and some RM2 as an undergraduate. Thus I really enjoyed reading this post.

    MERP is out of print now, but people interested in MERP or RM2 should, as Blizack recommends, check out Rolemaster Express (which is a 'rules light' version of RM2 -- somewhat similar to MERP). I also recommend Rolemaster Classic (a cleaned up version of RM2). Both are available from ICE.

    Also, I ran a Middle-earth campaign a few years ago using the Rogues of the Borderlands module as the starting area! Caras Celairnen was the main base for the party for the first several adventures.

    Good times. :)