Saturday, June 16, 2012

Three Things I Love About Rolemaster

The first one is obvious: The critical hit tables.

The critical hit system does not mesh well with the hit point system and the tables are far too erratic for my taste, but the descriptions provide such delightful detail that I perpetually come back to them, try to cook up a way to integrate them into whatever I'm playing at the moment, and give up in disgust.

The second thing I love about Rolemaster are the Angus McBride covers (for the second edition, later reused for the Rolemaster Standard System).

The ruined city on display on the cover of the three main books is my personal Skull Mountain, i.e. it fires my imagination like no other illustration of a fantastic location. If I ever design a megadungeon of my own this is it.

Finally, the rules - and I mean all the rules, e.g. the many Rolemaster Companions - form a huge, baroque encyclopaedia of fantasy roleplaying (of a particular kind, I admit).

It's impossible to use all the options, not only because many are mutually exclusive but mostly because an already complex game would collapse under their combined weight. Also, many options aren't even particularly well thought out or useful at the table -- I suspect many were never tested.

Just how useful is a table that tells you how much your character's Weather Watching skill improves for every 1000 years of age? This sort of thing is a prime example of silver age obsessions. It's not useful at the table but reading this stuff or - God forbid! - cooking up similarly byzantine subsystems can be immensely inspiring. These days, I'd rather get down to actually playing but I'll always have a soft spot for the treasure trove of ideas that is Rolemaster Second Edition.

My longest running and smallest campaign (five years and two players, respectively) used Rolemaster Second Edition and conjures up nothing but fond memories. Great times!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rant: Illusionism is Lies, Lies, Lies

Allow me to describe two roleplaying incidents that happened decades ago:

The party ambushed a particularly large and ugly ogre. One of the PCs initiated combat by firing his bow. He hit the ogre. The DM provided a delectable description of how the arrow hit the ogre squarely in the ass and how the surprised ogre involuntarily grunted and let loose a huge fart. It dawned on the players just how tough the ogre was.

Pretty cool, huh? A DM with a knack for funny and informative descriptions!

The problem? The PC had scored a critical hit doing a ton of damage. Rather than describe the actual hit ("You shoot him through the neck and he starts to drown in his own blood." etc.) the DM (a) stuck to his pre-canned description and (b) upped the ogre's hp to match (he should have been nearly dead).

The party chased an evil wizard to the top of his tower. Smirking triumphantly, the wizard stepped off the tower, promised bloody vengeance, and activated his ring of flight. He had to make a trivial Magic test to activate the ring ... and fumbled! He plunged to his death.

Pretty cool, huh? A DM who doesn't protect pet NPCs and lets the dice fall where they may!

The problem? The whole thing was scripted. Everything was 100% fake: the wizard's natural 1 ('rolled' behind the screen, of course), the surprise on the DM's face and his lamentations over the death of the NPC.

(I should know. I was the DM.)

I've had it up to here with illusionism, both as a player and as a DM.

It's a common style of DMing and, to varying degrees, consciously embraced by many DMs and players. I suppose that makes it a valid style of play (at least if everyone at the table knows that the DM is fudging rolls, changing numbers on the fly etc.) and I admit that I used to game that way for years.

Today, I can't stand this anymore.

I want anticlimaxes.
I want failures.
I want death.

I'm out for blood.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: Doom of the Savage Kings

I plan on running Doom of the Savage Kings for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG next week. I've already run the low-level introductory adventure of the main book to great success. Here are my partially ambivalent impressions from preparing to run the module:

Doom of the Savage Kings is a 16-page module provided with the DCC main rules as a pre-order bonus. The suggested retail price for an isolated purchase is $9.99.

The module was written by Harley Stroh and sports a nice pulp cover and gorgeous cartography by Doug Kovacs. You can check out some of his stuff, including this module's map of the Tomb of the Ulfheonar here.

The backstory is reminiscent of Beowulf as a terrible hound preys on the population of the village of Hirot night after night. It cannot be slain (at least not permanently) by normal means which makes it a fantastical monster in the truest sense. Well done!

The PCs are expected to engage the problem out of the goodness of their hearts or, perhaps, a general thirst for adventure. I found this surprising as it is in direct contradiction to DCC's tagline "You’re no hero.You’re an adventurer: a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock guarding long-dead secrets."

The village and its inhabitants are well realized, providing plenty of hooks and potential for conflict and roleplay. Doug Kovacs' beautiful map seems inspired by King Theoden's seat in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and I mean that as a compliment.

The module discusses a number of ways to slay the immortal hound and advises the DM to be open to alternative methods devised by the PCs. I like this approach very much: A few examples to get across the nature of the hound and a statement in favour of creativity.

One possible solution is retrieving an artifact from an old burial mound and as one might expect, there's a classic dungeon to be found here. Doug Kovacs' map is drop-dead gorgeous and - just like the one for the introductory adventure - immediately made me want to run this.

(Should the players pursue another way to slay the hound, you can just use this dungeon at a later point.)

The dungeon is very well-designed, with a nice mix of traps, monsters, recent dungeon history (i.e. dead tomb robbers) and plenty of flavor (to differentiate the different catacombs). It's a tad small for my tastes but that seems to be DCC's style. Treasure is plentiful and the various magic items seem well-designed.

The dungeon is no cakewalk - which is fine by me - but some of the difficulty numbers (DCs) for saves and skill checks seem awfully high to me. The walls of a pit, for instance, require a DC 23 climb check which is practically impossible (unless a character burns Luck or is a thief). I wonder if the module was originally written for 3e.

Addendum: The author has kindly cleared up this point over at Goodman Games' forums.
I wouldn't argue that the skill DCs are fair. In fact, mine are often deliberately unfair. If a non-thief PC reaches the point where he has to make a skill check, he's likely already down the wrong road, having missed the chance to solve the challenge via roleplaying. 
The high DCs are not a fluke and Harley Stroh sticks to his guns. I like that.

There is one serious misstep, though: There is a scripted scene which I consider a prime example of railroading at its very worst. Not only does the the scripted scene shaft the party, moreover the DM is explicitly advised to override any precautions the PCs might have taken.

Highlight the following quote from the module, if you want (SPOILER):

"If the PCs left hirelings with their mounts [...], XXX has already slaughtered the rearguard before the PCs emerge. (At the judge's discretion, beloved henchmen are merely bound and unconscious in a nearby clearing, though the PCs won't discover this until after the encounter.)"

Note how a big dose of arbitrary DM whim is added for good measure, too.

My advice is to cut this scene altogether. If you feel you must have it, at least drop plenty of clues because it's potentially very deadly. Most importantly, though, PC choices and precautions should matter. Other than that, the writing and the DM advice are good, so this is no deal-breaker.

All in all, I can recommend Doom of the Savage Kings. It's not quite as good as the excellent introductory adventure but the heart of the adventure, the dungeon, is very well-done, ready-to-run and beautifully illustrated for the DM. That makes it a winner and I'll happily reward 3 out of 4 stars.

Addendum: I ran Doom of the Savage Kings yesterday and we had a blast. Five players ran four 0-level characters each. Time was short, so I started them off right in front of the dungeon.* They lost 18 out of 20 characters and slew the hound. Great times!

*I'll use the village as a base for a planned mini-campaign dealing with the highly acclaimed Barrowmaze.