Saturday, 27 June 2015

Middle Earth gaming and power levels

An amusing and informative post ranking the most metal deaths in Middle Earth has been doing the rounds on G+. It's given me somewhat more sympathy for the writers of MERP, to add to my appreciation for the critical hits tables - although they still have a fair way to go to make up for the mundanity of the magic system.

It is a good reminder though that Middle Earth as a setting seems almost impossible to systemise. Even setting aside the (perhaps legendary?) exploits of various Noldor in the First Age, it's clear that the Dúnedain, not to mention various elves of different heritages still around in the Third Age, are capable of extraordinary feats.

Personally I'm comfortable with playing in Middle Earth as a fairly low-powered game, but in doing so I'm quietly ignoring arguably a major aspect of the setting. So am I being fair on game designers where that option may not be available, else they would risk short-changing some portion of their audience?

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Stormbringer and the world of Elric

Nearly 30 years after buying the game I've finally read the main books in the saga of Elric of Melniboné. Somewhat backwards you could argue, but such was the power that Games Workshop's marketing department held over me back in the day...

Inspired by the How Do I Run a Tolkienesque Game? column over on RPG.Net I thought I'd try and draw out the main themes that a successful Stormbringer game should incorporate, at least in my mind.

Everyone's someone

Elric is obviously exceptional himself (Emperor of Melniboné, etc., etc.), so this maybe a poor inference to draw, but equally just as the whole tone of Lord of the Rings is that it's told primarily from the point of view of the hobbits, it seems important to me that in the saga everyone is someone. The warriors, like Brut of Lashmar or Rackhir the Red Archer are, in Joe Abercrombie terms, all Named Men. Other supporting characters are merchant princes, or kings and queens.

So this doesn't seem to me to be a game where a freshly generated character should be setting out for the first time to make a name for themselves. They're not rich or famous yet, but they've at least seen a bit of the world and made something of a name for themselves. They should also have some contacts, and maybe foes, out there.

No one is safe

Not quite on a Game of Thrones scale, but these named warriors, kings and merchant princes often don't last very long, often discarded in a bare sentance once their part is done. And of course (spoiler alert!) everyone dies by the end. It's a dangerous place.

A menagerie of monsters

The rulebook seemed odd to me when I first owned it, in terms of the shear variety and diversity of the creatures it presents. No longer - it's simply a listing of what Elric encounters in the saga! In terms of a novel it's a bit jarring - some new creation appears without rhyme or reason, sort of like when I sat down to populate my first dungeon many years ago. Except that comparison does Moorcock a great disservice of course; not only does he have to first imagine his creatures, but also he's trying to convey the multitude of planes that are out there, and the breadth of the sorcerors' arts. It only works at all because Elric, as the primary focus of the books and the most powerful sorceror of the age, can recognise these creatures on behalf of the reader, and can and remember their particular weaknesses or the rite to summon their sworn foes.

For it to work in a game I think two things are necessary - firstly to tone things down a little, after all hopefully the characters won't have made quite as many powerful enemies as Elric has. And again, have the characters be reasonably well travelled, or to have studied the arcane, so that they have at least some rumours of the creatures they're facing. But a diverse range of dangerous things seems to me another core theme to bring out.

Globetrotting (and plane-trotting)

Elric and his associates really do get around a bit, not just in the Young Kingdoms but on various planes too. The Young Kingdoms are well connected and varied, so it seems to me a campaign should make the most of this - chasing a quarry, searching for an artefact, or otherwise touching on a wide swathe of the world. My WFRP background makes me think of plots involving local interactions with interweaving factions but that wouldn't really fit the spirit of the saga, which is far more broad-brush.

A bit of planar travel is important as well. With the wide variety of creatures and environments available just in the Young Kingdoms this risks becoming a bit too much to get across without all becoming a bit blurred.

Alternatively there's the option of just starting off in the Young Kingdoms and then moving to a truly planar campaign - maybe not a bad idea given what the planet has in store. But that's another genre entirely - it's noticable that Elric always manages to find his way 'home'.

The eternal battle is central

The Lords of Chaos are ever-present in the saga, and although again Elric is a bit special any long adventure should see the impact of this struggle. It's difficult though to know where to strike the balance if characters are active agents of Law or Chaos - on the one hand the Lords do actively intervene (when it suits them), on the other Elric acts directly against his patron demon on a number of occasions without apparent repercussions. They are distant and mysterious, so maybe the patron's true goals and wishes are unknown, but there's more to it than that.

It's a long way from your typical D&D or WFRP experience where a cleric receives their powers directly from their god and suffers real consequences if they sway too far from the tenets of their cult. An agent of Law or Chaos may have a patron, but also deals with other more minor demons so in a strange way although direct manifestations of the Lords are apparently more common than in other settings, the relationship is also more distant.

Plenty of pulp

Elric may have been conceived as the antithesis of Conan, but the saga is pulp high fantasy all the way. Even setting aside the creatures you have boiling seas and perpetual mists, not to mention a literal edge of the world. Quests end in fantastic castles containing puzzle traps, or tunnels and caves with overt supernatural features. Despite his demeanor Elric himself is a swashbuckler in deed even when not powered by a glut of souls from Stormbringer - in pitched battle he becomes superhuman.


I had and have reservations over the Young Kingdoms as a setting - it has much to recommend it but overall I'm not quite sold. It doesn't call to me as somewhere I want to play, unlike Middle Earth or Warhammer's Old World. I think though I'd like to give it a go some day - but if I do there's one question which I would need to answer, which is where or when to set the campaign.

A big concern with the setting in game terms is the heavy hand of Fate - Elric is firmly on a railroad, the end of which is very much The End. Presumably the entire world is on the railroad with him, which doesn't immediately appeal. It seems there are 7 or so years between the sack of Imrryr and the end of the world so if you do want to adventure in the timeline of the saga then there's scope for that, but not a great deal!

To my mind there are 3 other possibilities -
  1. Set the campaign in the past, with Melniboné still a recognisable Empire. However you can't go too far back without redrawing the map, as the Young Kingdoms are called that for a reason. Perhaps in the youth of Sadric, Elric's father. It gives you longer, but...
  2. Take the multiverse concept to its first stage. The campaign is set in the Young Kingdoms, but with slight, perhaps barely discernible differences. You probably should let on that this isn't the Elric's world, but maybe not...
  3. Go for the full treatment, and slightly rename all the places and people. This though seems the weakest option - why is this a Stormbringer campaign at that point?