On the difficulties of low level role playing

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    Some History

    I have been interested in role playing games since I was very young, having first encountered it when a friend found a book about D&D. A few of us set up a game based on it with some made-up rules and a lot of misunderstandings about how it was meant to work. Later we got an actual D&D game, learned how it was meant to go, and we went on from there. At school, a few years later I encountered AD&D and widened my experience, though didn’t see it as enough of an upgrade to warrant the spend on buying it. Later I bought or was given (I honestly don’t recall which) a MERP box set. That was amazing and so different. 

    At university, we had a role playing and board games club, where I learned of Rolemaster. This was fantastically more grown up than the previous games, and like an advanced version of MERP – which in fact it was, and I was hooked. Over the next few years, we as a group added SpaceMaster to the mix as well as a few sourcebooks for cyberspace, time travel, horror and the like. Its been my mainstay since. More recently, Ive acquired some newer games, Eclipse Phase, Airship Pirates, The One Ring, GURPS, Warhammer 40k… I’m getting quite the collection now, but never has it felt like the glory days of massive campaigns that spanned star systems and aeons of time in their scope. I miss it. 

    Last year, I had an idea of getting a new campaign started using Eclipse Phase, and running online though nothing came of it and I shelved the idea other than an occasional chat with other people about setting up. It was a shame, but these things happen. And then about a month ago, I finally got something started. A very small thing and one requiring a lot of patience. My partner and I started a game using MERP, with the intention of transferring to Rolemaster FRP (the latest published iteration of Rolemaster – there’s another one in testing right now for maybe next year) as we learn and progress. This is pretty much where we are now.

    A New Hope

    We started off by deciding on a time and place to start the game and settled on the area around Rivendell and Bree in the third age, around the time of The Hobbit. It should be a fairly simple and mostly safe area to adventure before setting out on more dangerous quests. In fact, the MERP book provides a starting adventure in the area. What they forget to mention though is that the pre-generated characters are a lot better equipped than a generated team would be, and that at least four players are needed. The first should have been obvious on a quick read through, and so missing it was my fault. The second, less so. In any case, the actual player party of two first level characters, a Dunadain mage (played by my partner GeekyLou) and a Wood-Elf ranger (an NPC) were woefully unprepared for even this starter.

    Part of the issue is that at level one, mages in MERP don’t get any offensive magic, the first attacks coming between level two and five depending on specialisation. This limited the ability of the team in combat to what the elf ranger could do, and they’re not fast at that level. This was emphasised in their first encounter where, while camping they were set upon by brigands.

    Now seeing as it was Lou’s first time, I was deliberately easy on her allowing a few things I wouldn’t normally, like the one on watch being able to wake the other as a free action, and little things like that. It helped somewhat. 

    • Initiative dealt with, the elf moves first and misses,while the brigands wielding axes are closing. 
    • As soon as able, one brigand throws his axe at the elf, but also misses. 
    • The elf fires again and wounds the second, who drops to one knee. 
    • The mage is by now mobile and comes to join in. 
    • The brigand who threw, charges at the elf but rolls badly (03 if I recall) and stumbles. His attack lands but only results in the elf’s next shot going wild. 
    • The mage, at this point does something unexpected. I allowed an instant cast as part of the “going easy”, and she casts “boil liquid” at the brigand attacking the elf. I check the rules and it’s allowed. The cast roll is successful and the brigand fails to resist, and so I consult the spell stats, and wow. It raises a volume of any liquid to boiling point over the course of a round… which is fine, but the volume is 1 cubic foot per level of the caster. A quick calculation tells me that’s about 5 gallons. The brigand glows red and dies as his blood very literally boils. 
    • The other brigand seeing this turns and runs… He is shot in the back. 

    So that went well, but that spell seems vastly overpowered for level one. More research will be needed here but it does seem right. Weird! 

    The next encounter is a little later when they are stopped by a lone highwayman wielding a loaded crossbow. This doesn’t go as well. 

    • The mage is up front this time and uses fast talk to distract the highwayman while the elf gets out of the back of their wagon and into the bushes. 
    • The highwayman, surprised doesn’t shoot and so the elf is able to aim and fire her bow. She misses. 
    • The highwayman fires at the mage, also missing, and drops the bow to draw a sword, turning towards the elf. 
    • This is where the mage makes the mistake of also drawing a sword and jumping from the waggon, instead of preparing a spell. She fumbles and falls in the mud, dropping the sword, while the highwayman attacks the elf. 
    • The elf also draws a sword and parries the first attack. 
    • As they fight, the mage gets slowly to her feet, drawing a dagger, and makes to attack, but by this time the elf is down and the highwayman, not in much better condition, is ready to make a killing blow. 
    • Of course, he fails to see the dagger wielding mage and is killed. 
    • Unfortunately for the team, the mage isn’t strong enough to get the elf into the waggon and can only attempt to use healing herbs and a hot knife to cauterise the worst wound. 

    Eventually another NPC comes by and with help they get back to civilization, but nothing seems to go right for them. 

    The issues are not all their fault of course. Its been a while and scaling encounters is tough and there’s no point blaming newbies for not knowing their options. I need to do more, but if i do too much then Lou will never manage without help.

    Next time they, and a new NPC healer are travelling cross country going north and approach a ruined tower as it comes to evening. Instead of investigating, they decide to camp outside. Now this is on me. I should have told her it was silly, either overtly or by having one of the NPCs say something. I didn’t and the orc patrol that found them in the third watch wiped them out. I won’t detail the battle, but it was short and brutal.

    I’ve just rolled back to their last stop off and we’ll see what happens next session. I’m currently trying to put together a short, low impact mission that might get them up to level two, because otherwise its no fun for anyone. More players would probably help, since more eyes see more, of course. However there’s still the level one problem.

    Anyway, that’s where we are now and I am considering just upgrading everything to Rolemaster. It gives a much more developed skill set, more spells and better options. Fortunately it’s compatible enough that i don’t need to do all the characters together or it might take a while.

    So where next? We play on the dining room table. I am considering moving to the Cambridge table top games club, and/or going online. Oh and i also dislike using PDF versions of the books. Its too much of a pain to switch between to look things up. Any suggestions would be welcome at this point.

    Notes and Definitions

    For those unaware or new to the subject, some of the names used will be strange or downright indecipherable, and often don’t tell anything, so a little definition might be appropriate. D&D is Dungeons & Dragons (http://dnd.wizards.com), perhaps the name most will recognise, and AD&D is of course Advanced D&D (which seems to have been absorbed into the previous game over the years). MERP was Middle Earth Role Playing and was published by Iron Crown Enterprises (http://ironcrown.com/). It was a cut down, specialised version of Rolemaster (also by I.C.E.) and set in Tolkien’s world. SpaceMaster is a Sci-Fi version of Rolemaster, and expands with sourcebooks to horror (DarkSpace), cyber (CyberSpace) and time travel (Time Riders), while the original Rolemaster’s sources expanded with historical fantasy settings (Mythic Greece, Mythic Egypt, Arabian Knights, &c). GURPS (http://www.sjgames.com) is General Universal Role Playing System, and is a deservedly popular system that rivals Rolemaster in its ability to model pretty much anything. Others mentioned are limited to their own genres, Eclipse Phase (http://eclipsephase.com/) is Sci-Fi, Airship Pirates (http://airshippirates.abneypark.com/) is Steampunk, The One Ring (http://www.cubicle7games.com/our-games/the-one-ring/) is another Middle Earth/LoTR game and Warhammer (http://warhammer40000.com/) is well, there’s little to say on that one that people won’t have already heard.

    All games and systems are of course copyrighted and trademarked by their respective publishers &c, and all rights are reserved, reversed or whatever applies. I suggest you look at their websites to learn more.

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