Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Antiborea

Patrick Zgarrick


This is not the land of the South Wind. The South Wind lies dead and blameless beyond the Wall.

This is the wind that is beyond the South Wind. This is the wind that snakes down from the spiderwebbing cracks in the sky. And this land is its prison.

This land is cold and desolate, but not so cold and desolate as to grant the mercy of death to all that washes up on its ice-choked shores. It is a twisted and cruel place, dangling misbegotten hope before one's eyes until you are fully in the grip of the things that dwell there.

And yet its captives and castaways insist and persist.


The Land of Antiborea

A continent located on and around a world's South Pole. It is like Antarctica, but Weirder. The coasts and some sheltered inland areas have habitable subarctic climates where mostly recognizable flora and fauna are found. Beyond those refuges, things get progressively more inhospitable the farther south one goes.

The South Pole is located directly beneath a hole in the sky, where strange things bleed in from beyond and the laws of nature start to break down. The cosmic wind that pours down out of that nebula-studded wound scintillates and thrums with energy that can sicken or transform life, and even the land itself.

A few dozen leagues off the coast, a perfect circle of wind and waves forms a wall that hedges the entire continent in. They tower like roiling mountains over any vessel, and their undercurrents reach deep down into the shallows of the ocean, spitting everything back so that nothing can escape Antiborea. By that same token, anything from the outside world that strays too close to the Wall of Wind and Waves is inexorably pulled in and trapped in Antiborea.

Most such unfortunates wind up torn to pieces by the gale-force storm or are dashed upon the rocks, but over the centuries enough survivors have piled up and clung together to call the continent inhabited.


The Antiboreans

Descendants of castaways and exiles from a dozen different distant lands, all scattered across the shores and hinterlands. They tend to congregate in small towns or tribes located far apart from one another, because not even the most fertile coastal regions can support a fixed population much larger than that.

They aren't insular by any stretch, however. People survive in this land by cooperating. Every culture is a fusion of several, their languages patched together from dozens of tongues and dialects. Like rafts pieced together from driftwood, they float precariously on. Outlanders are readily embraced- hostility and suspicion are reserved for those from too far inland, where the wind sours.

A few examples of Antiborean communities:

    Utqaalit- Marine hunters and fishers extraordinaire. They ply the icy waters of the coast in long canoes and outrigger kayaks, casting nets or toggle-heads to bring home their livelihood. Bone is their favored medium for art and artifice, but they also work in shell, leather, and ivory. Their chilling overtone songs are known across Antiborea. Closest to the sea, they are often the first to find newcomers to Antiborea- and the sea monsters nipping at their heels.

    Nasvhas- Traders and travelers whose iconic houseboats are known all along the coast. Their family flotillas slowly bob over the waves and through the ice, bringing news and commerce to far-flung settlements like gluts of cold, sluggish lifeblood. Most are polyglots, and many are entertainers. Amber is sacred to them, and they will search far and wide for it. Their cuisine is infamously hot and bitter with herbs- a welcome contrast to the sodden cold they live in.

    Zawendi- Keepers and harvesters of the squat pine forests, and hunters of the beasts that take refuge in them. The wood they work can be made into things far beyond the capabilities of bone and sinew, but their justified concerns over conservation ensure that the driftwood industry remains lucrative. They are the continent's sole heirs to the secrets of horticulture, and their preserved crowberries are the delight of many a bland-palated child.

    Kherrig- Masters of the windswept tundra and steppe, who goad their herds of ornery, primeval, and oftentimes gamey-smelling animals in search of pasture. They are often seen as having an overly dour cast, but they counter that it is justified when you have nothing but some musky furs and a long spear to defend yourself from whatever evil comes slithering down out of the wastes. They tend to lighten up when the hide tents are pitched and the fermented cheese is cut, though.


The World Beyond

The people who survived passage through the Wall have not forgotten where they come from, at least in a broad sense. Every generation brings a handful more outsiders to them, bearing new skills or news from the outside. None in the wider world know Antiborea exists beyond the ring of devouring waves that many posit to be the edge of the world. Antiborea's denizens, meanwhile, are always hungry for stories of the world denied to them.

Scraps of events and history reach them in this way, vaguely outlining the rise and fall of peoples and places and creating a mélange of myths that frustrate and excite the Antiboreans. Not even their greatest diviners can pierce the Wall, and many have tried. To them, the outside world is a half-formed, murky dream out of which terrible, frozen reality crystallizes and rises like ice on the sea. Some hope that in the end, they will return to it.


Bargaining with Magic

The root word from which the word "magic" is derived in most languages on Antiborea means "deal" or "bargain". This reflects the nature of the supernatural rather well. Knowledge or faith won't carry you alone- one must also be charismatic in order to attract and influence the spirits that govern magic. It isn't clear if the spirits are natural, alien, or even sapient. Some choose to believe they are watchful ancestors, or capricious demons.

Every magical act incurs a cost that can either be paid on the spot, or carried as debt. The spirits often collect on their debts at random, and with appreciable interest added on. If a cost is too high, the offending shaman or magician risks psychic backlash, the opposite of the desired outcome, or even temporary bodily possession.

Possession causes the magic-user to obsess over acts or concepts in line with an exaggeration of the intent behind the spell they wanted to cast; possession by a spirit of lore makes one babble useless information, possession by an animal spirit forces appropriate behaviors and lack of manners, possession by spirits of healing turns one into an overprotective hypochondriac, etc. Possession by spirits of harm and domination tends to go especially poorly for everyone involved, adding to the already heinous reputation of what is deemed "sorcery"- though there is no objective difference between one practice or the other.


Navigation

This far south, cardinal directions are almost meaningless. In most languages, "seaward" is synonymous with the direction north, and has replaced it in common usage. Similarly, "inland" or "windward" take the place of south. Any languages that retain the original word for south often treat it as taboo and forbid it from being spoken aloud. East and west still exist among some people, but they are interchangeable with terms like upcoast or downcoast, or body-relative words like right and left (when facing the sea of course, for none willingly face inland).

The sun is dark and distant, but it has not completely forsaken this land. It can always be seen hanging heavy and orange in the northern sky as it circles the edges of Antiborea. There are long winter months of pitch blackness where it vanishes beneath the horizon completely. Strangely, its summer counterpart is not equally as long or as bright, even if the laws of physics in this world should dictate otherwise. Only a dull twilight sheds itself across the land in between partial sunsets then.

At sea and along the coast, the wind blows randomly in all directions as the Wind Beyond the South Wind and the air currents of the Wall battle one another for supremacy. This makes sailing unpredictable and difficult, which is why most maritime peoples prefer rowing close to the coast. Only inland is the wind ever consistent, and that is because it always blows north.

The stars are strange over Antiborea. Close to the sea they resemble the night sky elsewhere, albeit squished and distorted. Farther inland, they become wholly unrecognizable and are prone to changing from month to month. They do little to aid in navigation, though some sages insist that certain, obscure patterns can be observed in them over time.


Geography of Antiborea

The continent is approximately round and blobby, with few large peninsulas or gulfs disturbing its shape. Eons of uniform erosion and sediment deposition by the wind may have contributed to this. Its climate regions can be easily visualized as a series of concentric rings:

    The Encircling Sea- All of the water between the Wall and the shores of Antiborea. A few small archipelagos and lone islands dot the sea, but they are mostly uninhabited by people or animals because of the perpetual storms wracking it. Currents tend to rotate counterclockwise around the continent at the moment, but this has apparently not always been the case, and there are regional exceptions. The wind and rain are brutal, but the sea is also bountiful. The shallows are abundant with trapped seafood, both native and pulled in through the Wall.

        Encircling Sea Rumors

  • Strange towers of stone and coral jut out from the Wall at intervals, shining watchfully in the right light.
  • The competing winds are so fierce that localized storms and waterspouts often form. Sometimes they are strong enough to drag sea life into the air with them.
  • Deep trenches are hidden surprisingly close to shore. Their depths are neither empty nor still.
  • A ship passed through the Wall completely unharmed, and now prowls the shallows as if in search of something.
  • A mountain of ice has calved off of one of the glaciers. It weeps strange, rusty liquid as it melts.
  • Several landmark islets have suddenly vanished and reappeared far from where they are supposed to be, throwing local navigation into disarray.

    Coastland- The shore of Antiborea, as well as all the land within sight of the sea. Here, the endless flotsam of the wider world's ocean currents washes up on the continent's beaches. Even heavy wreckage that would normally sink to the bottom of the ocean is regularly brought to shore by the fury of the churning waves. This offers no shortage of resources, baubles, and curiosities to pick through, making the coastland the closest to wealthy that anything in Antiborea can get. The people here scavenge, fish or hunt marine life, and trade up and down the coast in skin boats. In winter the sea ice freezes thick, but the constant movement breaks it up into a million crashing, grinding pieces.

        Coastland Rumors

  • Huge numbers of dead or deformed fish have been washing ashore lately. Their frequency is increasing, and they are being joined by larger and larger animals, all the way up to decaying whales.
  • An entire tribe recently ran aground from the outside world. They walk about in the cold almost naked, and dive into the freezing waters wearing little more than animal fat. Theories abound how they do it- some of them grim and suspicious.
  • Blooms of crimson algae choke a seal breeding colony, making them sick and disrupting the mating season. Things other than seals have been seen skulking between the rocks.
  • Harvested mollusks have started giving huge pearls, but they come in unnatural colors, and the superstitious local traders refuse to deal in them for fear of taint from the south.
  • A fishing village stands empty and abandoned downcoast. Only a pillar of whale bone was left behind, its scrimshaw depicting the destructive scene of a mountain falling from the sky.
  • Someone has been going around cutting precise shapes out of fishing nets. They seem to be following a concerning pattern.

    Hinterlands- All of the habitable land beyond the coast, which in theory extends to about a week's journey inland. Forests of squat, gnarled trees are scattered across the sheltered parts of Antiborea here, bent away from the wind with leaves only on their northern faces. They provide the only native wood on the continent, and are precious and prized. Mammoth steppe sprawls elsewhere, supporting herds of hardy, cold-resistant animals. They may be megafauna previously thought extinct in the world, or entirely new and unusual creatures- it is difficult to say at this point. Nomadic tribes hunt or even herd these beasts, as well as provide the first line of defense against anything coming from farther inland, soured by the wind.

        Hinterland Rumors

  • Several herds have taken ill and are in need of culling before the wind sickness spreads, but their caretakers are nowhere to be found.
  • A bog recently caught fire, and has been ablaze for days. As bizarre and unlikely as this is, it spells very real doom for nearby inhabitants- bogs serve to trap much of the cosmic dust and other corruption blown in from the south.
  • The coast has gotten a little too busy for one community, which has resolved to build a village farther inland. But the hard land is loathe to be homesteaded, especially by amateurs.
  • The bent trees of a dwarf forest are suddenly straightening- and growing.
  • One of the precious few freshwater lakes in the region has become the object of dispute between two clans, who both claim that the same person granted them the right to it.
  • A young, brash nomad is rallying their fellows to go on a hunting expedition at a time when the south is dangerously active.

    Inner Wastes- The vast majority of the continent's interior, too dry and cold to sustain normal life with the exception of lichen, which can stretch in wide blankets over the rocky deserts. Beyond that lie vast glacial plateaus and high, jagged mountain ranges. The only living things out here tend to be creatures that have been turned by the wind, or those hunting them. The aroura australis common across much of the continent becomes especially intense here, and the faintest hints of the broken sky are rumored to be visible deep in the wastes.

        Wasteland Rumors

  • The lichen grows huge in some areas, becoming alike to tall grass or shrubs. It doesn't always let you pass through it unscathed.
  • Holes in the face of a glacier keen endlessly from the wind blowing across them. It sounds like someone playing a huge, discordant flute.
  • Nomad scouts have spotted large numbers of shambling forms crossing the desert north.
  • Freak weather brings showers of stardust down upon the wastes, irradiating anything caught in its path.
  • That mountain range was not there last month.
  • Someone is leisurely strolling through the wastes, claiming that they are on pilgrimage.

    The Uttermost South- Unknown and unexplored. The South Pole at the center of Antiborea would be lumped in with the rest of the Inner Wastes if not for the sheer, nerve-wracking mystique surrounding it. Surely something must be there at the heart of it all, forever bathed in the hellish wind and the lurid radiance of the splitting heavens?

        Southmost Rumors

  • A city of clayed stardust stands at the South Pole. Shimmering waves of radiation rise up over its organic spires to obscure the step pyramid rising tall from its heart.
  • The earth breathes here, rising and falling like huge lungs, or perhaps the slow beating of a titanic heart.
  • The rip in the sky is only one of a mirrored pair, and the other ingress bores deep into the earth- maybe even deeper than the Wall can reach.
  • No matter what direction one approaches the South Pole from, they eventually come to the shore of an impossibly wide sea, its gently lapping waters murky and warm like amniotic fluid.
  • You've suddenly been turned back around to the exact spot where your excursion into the wastes started. Wait... how many years has it been...?
  • An adventurer, heavily mutated by wind sickness, claims they carry knowledge vital to the safety of the coast and insists on safe passage north. This is a taboo the nomads will not allow broken if they find out.
  • Space and physics begin to fall apart. Living things crumple under the weight of their own skin. Pebbles rocket into the sky at the slightest disturbance. Left is up, and backwards is inside-out.
  • An ancient civilization of squamous, eldritch creatures once thrived here- and not even they stood a chance against the wind.
  • A massive chasm yawns in all directions, and gravity contorts around its edges to allow easy passage into the hollow world beneath.
  • The innermost mountain range is actually a huge caldera that contains a steaming, reeking jungle of writhing plants and fey animals.
  • Nothing. There is nothing down here. Only a perfectly flat, featureless plain.
  • The Perantique Ones have been sighted again.

History Excerpt: The Perantique Prisoners

Antiborea is in fact a prison, and the denizens of the Uttermost South are its prisoners. They sometimes refer to themselves as True or Old Antiboreans, for though they despise their cage and are loathe to consider it anything other than a temporary residence, they will take any opportunity to differentiate themselves from people whom they view as lesser- which is to say, everyone.

The prisoners are a small remnant of an ancient threat. Millennia ago, their people forged a sorcerous empire that stretched across much of the southern hemisphere. They were driven to conquest by an ideology of xenophobia and zero-sum thinking, mixed with a healthy dose of supernatural fearmongering and golden age hubris. At their height, they waged a war against the entire world.

In time, the empire crumbled. Awful logistics ground its military advances to a halt, then reversed them. At the first hint of blood in the water, its pernicious hierarchy tore itself apart- one cannot have a pyramid with an ever-expanding base and an ever-shrinking top for very long. Hounded by liberators and vengeance-seekers, their last remnants eventually retreated to Antiborea, once a worthless backwater in the empire.

There, they struck their bargain.

The barrier between this world and the next was always thin above Antiborea, but with a little applied occultism they punched a hole right through it. They entreated the denizens of the place beyond the broken sky to come down and serve them, to smite their enemies and help them reclaim their rightful place at the throne of the world.

The denizens did not take those demands lightly.

Instead of coming down to serve, they broke those would-be sorcerers in mind, body, and spirit. The Old Antiboreans became servants of the outer powers, physical instruments played to the tune of the wind that now howled down out of that tear in the sky. Generations of obsession with blood purity came to naught as they hypocritically took that otherworldly taint into themselves, becoming something eldritch and decidedly inhuman. The wind swept over the world, bringing unearthly horrors of light, sound, and thought with it. It threatened to overrun the world, and would have if not for the timely intervention of another.

The details of what transpired are as lost to time as the rest of this ancient war, but another entity drawn to the world by the rift chose to side with its peoples. Perhaps it pitied them, or perhaps it had some ulterior motive on a much larger scale than most can imagine. Whatever the reason, it lent its own wind to check the otherworldly advance. This was how the encircling Wall of Wind and Waves was formed, to make Antiborea the prison it is today.

Ages passed, history turned to myth and was lost, and now most of the world is blissfully unaware of what lies trapped and brooding at the heart of Antiborea. The old prisoners' impotence has only made them more cruel, and they often target the vibrant and diverse communities of the coast for no other reason than to vent their resentment and aggression. 

They are old and dwindling, but they are not content to die peacefully. They abide in their home below the pole, scheming almost in vain to undermine their prison. If they could just widen the rip, or perhaps make a hole in the Wall, the world would once again know their malice...

        Old Antiborean Rumors

  • They steal away people suffering from advanced wind sickness and turn them to their cause.
  • They make many more forays out across Antiborea than most believe, hidden by sorcery.
  • If they leave the vicinity of the broken sky for too long, they lose their magic and die.
  • All of them died long ago, and are now mindless puppets of the denizens above the sky.
  • Even after all they've lost, they continue to compete and conspire against one another. A silent civil war threatens to spill over across the continent.
  • They look...
    • Tall, gaunt, and pale.
    • Stocky, bent-backed, and fish-eyed.
    • Like nebulae clad in old robes.
    • Entirely alien and monstrous.
    • Like human skins stretched over roiling masses of matter.
    • Conventionally beautiful, and unnaturally symmetrical.
  • One of them has recently misplaced their tome of eldritch lore. It would be disastrous for it to fall into the wrong hands- or anyone's hands, really.
  • The spirits whom shamans and healers jockey with are deceased, or perhaps merely unfleshed, Old Antiboreans.
  • One of them has looked past their blinding hate and begun to regard the other Antiboreans as coequals- or tried to, anyway. Their reanimated corpse has been sent by their former fellows to scour the wastelands of all life.
  • They still possess that old world magic called metallurgy, and they use it to craft some of the deadliest weapons and arcane instruments on Antiborea.
  • Some have decided to forsake what is left of their humanity entirely, and aspire to join their masters between the stars by building a mighty engine.
  • The old emperor who struck the bargain still lives, if the form it currently exists in can be called living.

Friday, September 3, 2021

GLOG Class Attempt: Praying Mantisling


Mantis Monk, Creature Quest
I know the arms are wrong, but oh well.
Mantisling
Reroll: DEX
Bonus: Can blend into wooded terrain while standing perfectly still.
Weakness: Cannot wear armour on chest or limbs.
Industrious and self-reliant people. Rumors of post-coital cannibalism are greatly exaggerated.


The sight of these insectoid folk ambling down the roads or sitting in statue-like prayer is common along the edge of the woodlands. Most seem to pay no one any mind, for their respectful nods are usually indistinguishable from the way they constantly bow and sway. Occasionally they will beg for raw meat in return for prayers on the giver's behalf, or give odd good luck baubles in trade.

Few people ever notice how the mantisling mendicants molt into progressively stronger and tougher forms, or discover the deep forest shrines to the gods whom they emulate. Very rarely, a non-mantisling will take a keen interest in them and their unique fighting style. Such obsessives are taken in and trained as curiosities for however long they last. Ironically, they are the ones who popularized the monks in the wider world.

Only mantislings and people suffering from advanced mantomania may become Praying Mantislings.

Praying Mantisling

Starting Equipment: prayer beads, raptorial whetstone, chitin dye.
Starting Skills: Meditation and Religion.

A: Deific Arms
B: Praying & Swaying
C: Menacing Mendacity
D: Trickster God's Own

You gain +1 HP and Stealth for every Praying Mantisling template you possess.

A: Deific Arms
Your raptorial arms enlarge and grow sharp, scything blades or spikes along their insides. You can use them as Light weapons. If you grapple a target with your arms, you can make one free Attack roll to inflict damage on them.

B: Praying & Swaying
You master the defensive art of swaying back and forth as you stand with your chitinous arms held out, ready to deflect oncoming blows. Any round where you do not act, including surprise rounds, you gain +1 Defense per Level.

C: Menacing Mendacity
You can splay your arms, legs, and vestigial wings in a multicolored threat display while chanting mantras and harsh, grating mandibular clicks like some wrathful deity. This may force your enemies to take a Morale check or Save vs Fear. You also gain a +2 to Save vs Fear.

D: Trickster God's Own
Your devotion earns you the favor of a wily god. If you spend an hour applying new colors and designs to your exoskeleton, you can blend into any one type of terrain while standing perfectly still. Your wings also grow stronger, allowing you to fly for up to 1 minute every hour.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

New System, New Face: Bumbling through Rolemaster's Geeky Little Sibling, Middle-Earth Role-Play

It finally occurred to me that I should
head these posts with an image of the
actual game.


Ye gods, I miss Warhammer- and not for the setting.

At least in WFRP I felt some intuitive grasp of the mechanics as I worked through making characters.

Here, I've written an entire post and I still don't know what to do for Middle-Earth Role-Play.

Fortunately its initials perfectly match the noise that flaps out of my mouth when my eyes glaze over at the fact that over half of this 270-page tome is made up of appendices needed to explain each part of the first half:

MERP!

Alright, that's my last awful joke for the moment. Let's dig in, shall we?

Game/Context/More Rambling

MERP was yet another d100 skills-based fantasy game spawned by the 80s, with the notable distinction of being licensed to use the world of Lord of the Rings as its setting. There have been several other Tolkien Enterprises-licensed TTRPGs over the past four decades, including Cubicle 7's current work on Adventures in Middle-Earth, but MERP was the first of the bunch, published by Iron Crown Enterprises in 1982 and updated with a second edition in 1993.

MERP runs on an apparently simplified/streamlined hack of the Rolemaster system, also designed by the people from I.C.E. Rolemaster is chunky. It's crunchy. It places emphasis on granular, lethal combat where weapon and armor types interact differently, crits and fumbles have pages of tables, and you can earn XP per injury taken. It's a weird thing to pair with LotR in terms of execution and tone.

Of course you don't need a perfect system to be able to tell the story you want, since story flows from the storytellers involved rather than the mechanics they're using, but it certainly seems more difficult to do when the two parts are tugging in opposite directions.

Characters progress via a leveling and class system unlike the other games I've looked at so far here. There are six classes or "professions" that are roughly analogous to both AD&D character classes and to the roles embodied by many of the famous characters from LotR- warrior, ranger, scout, bard, animist, and mage, arranged in descending order of combat ability and ascending order of spellcasting ability, though pretty much anyone can conjure a trick or swing a stick if direly needed.

Yes, magic is a thing PCs can acquire in this game. It's rarely anything as flashy as the few attack or utility spells Gandalf throws out there in the books, and there are mechanisms in place to restrain both rampant spellcasting and the intent behind it if you want to remain a non-corrupted protagonist. Different spell schools or "ways" are highly specialized and limited by class. There's one way dedicated to walking or running on different surfaces, and another strictly dealing with staunching blood loss. But limitations aside, it is still conspicuous supernatural power learned and wielded by mortals (and elves) that is not conflated with sorcery originating from darkness, as Tolkien tended to treat it.

Tolkien hated describing things as "magic", and anything that looked that way from the outside was generally explainable as being just really high skill, craftsmanship, or a gifted blessing from a higher power of some sort. In my experience Tolkien purists dislike it when games make that jump to accessible magic, but many more people enjoy it because using magic is something people commonly find appealing in fantasy. Despite how often I prattle on about the universe or hyperlink to Tolkien Gateway like an appeal to authority, I am decidedly not a purist, so I have no qualms with the stylistic choice.

The default setting for MERP is, well, Middle-Earth, but not in any time period extensively touched upon by the books. Most of the modules take place a few years after the Great Plague of T.A. 1635, or year 1635 of the Third Age for those of you who at least occasionally see the light of day. The War of the Ring isn't for another 1,400 years in this era, and the Shire is a brand new community, founded barely four decades ago.

It's a time when the profound emptiness of the lands of Middle-Earth that we see in the trilogy has just truly begun, thanks in part to that aforementioned plague that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The population will only dwindle further from here, until barely any towns or cities exist for Sauron to try and take in a millennium-and-a-half. Salty Dan made an amusing observation from atop his Throne a little while ago about how weak and unimpressive this makes Sauron and how wonky it makes Tolkien's sense of scale and history when you take any time to think about it, but I'm getting ahead of myself now.

For now, it's the last hurrah of party-based adventuring in Middle-Earth. Let's populate it with a fresh new face or two.

So. Many. Tables.

After slogging through the first 77 pages of the MERP rulebook, you finally come to Part V: Designing A Character. That should give you an idea of how dense the rules are, simplified ruleset or no. The ten steps of character generation, as given by the book are:

  1. Decide in general what type of character to play.*
  2. Roll and assign your character's stats.*
  3. Choose a race for your character.*
  4. Choose a profession for your character.*
  5. Determine role traits and background.
  6. Develop your character's adolescence skills.
  7. Develop your character's apprenticeship skills.
  8. Outfit your character.
  9. Total your character's penalties and bonuses.
  10. Develop a persona for your character.
The asterisks mean these steps are all interrelated with one another.

As I went through each step, it ended up being simpler or much less significant than it was presented above or throughout the rest of the book, and the whole list could easily be reordered and condensed into half the above steps. That long-windedness throughout the book is a thing I think I can attribute to it being a crunchy '80s RPG- short, efficient instructions weren't the norm yet, and my mindset needs time to readjust to the delivery of information.

And here I thought I was an expert on rambling, inefficient writing. Oh well.

Step 1 also knocks out steps 3, 4, and 10 in my case. I want to make a female dwarf scout of the Blacklocks clan who's had one hell of a trek west into Endor- a refugee turned survivor, far from her ancestral home in the Orocarni.

I do want to give a shout-out to the sheer number of cultures characters can come from in MERP. Every variety of elf is available, plus dwarves and hobbits, as well as every human culture from Dunlendings to Easterlings to the people of Far Harad- even the Variags of Khand, those one-line wonders from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, get fleshed out with licensed fanfiction into a playable background. And that's not even counting the optional orcs, and trolls of all groups!

I really appreciate this. If I ever get back to my On the Trail of the Blue Wizards campaign idea about peoples of "darkness" finding heroism, I will definitely use much of the fluff of MERP's culture entries.

Back to our girl, though.

Her name is Grid, derived from the Old Norse name Gríðr, which could mean vehemence or peace depending. I figured that would be appropriate for a Tolkien dwarf when virtually all of their names are Norse in origin, but I also thought it would be grimly amusing if the way the name was decided on was because her workaholic architect dad couldn't be bothered to look up from his workbench when she was born, and he just jammed on the first thing his eyes fell upon- the blueprint grid.

Next comes rolling the 7 stats; Strength, Agility, Constitution, Intelligence, Intuition, Presence, and also Appearance- yes, this game shows its considerable age by having an objective physical hotness stat, and yes the higher your stat is, the better your initial reactions from people are.

I wanted to say that also feels tonally inconsistent with the setting because initially deceiving appearances and "foul seeming fair" are recurring tropes in Tolkien, but then I thought about how 90% of the time the other Tolkienian trope of exterior matching the interior results in goodness being innately beautiful and evil being visibly ugly, so I guess a mechanical beauty stat is only inappropriate for the setting if the character is a total monster without a shred of magical glamour to their high beauty score, or the utterly heroic character is conventionally unattractive- and I don't mean just being a little scruffy and unbathed like Aragorn at the Prancing Pony. But I digress again.

For each stat you roll d100 and as long as it's a 20 or higher, you're keeping it. 10-24 gives a -5 penalty, 25-74 is a flat 0, 75-89 is a +5, and the ever-narrowing ranges above that eventually top out at a +25 from rolling a perfect 100, with 101 (+30) and 102+ (+35) being theoretical but hard to achieve. These modifiers are used for pretty much all rolls, skills and combat maneuvers included.

On my first roll I managed to smash it out of the park with a 99. Not so much when the second came up 23. Next came 88, 87, 66, and 77. I decided my dwarf lass would have the array 99 Strength, 23 Agility, 66 Constitution, 77 Intelligence, 87 Intuition, and 88 Presence. By itself this would give her the mods +20/-5/+0/+5/+5/+5, but thanks to a rule allowing you to raise your profession's primary stat to 90 if it's lower, my scout can raise her Agility up to an even 90 to turn that -5 into a +10.

All of this is before cultural modifiers, of course. Dwarvish stoutness and gruffness means that Strength gets a further +5 to the mod, Agility takes a -5 hit, Constitution gets a massive +15, and both Intuition and Presence take -5. Thus, our mod array looks like +20/+5/+15/+5/+0/+0 for the moment, and normally that would be the final tally.

Ah, but next we have Background traits...

Childhood? There's a table for that. Awkward teens? Table for that. Xenophobia? Table for that!

Background options are the specific bonuses available through your character's culture, including skill ranks, extra stat buffs on top of the above, randomly rolled special abilities, access to certain schools or "laws" of magic, and even starting with magic items in one's possession.

Since my dwarf ain't magic and has been roughing it a couple hundred miles now, I declined both magic and magic items. Maybe she still has a really nice hair ornament in her beard, but it's quite mundane. I decided to go all in on stat boosts, since you can't purchase those after character creation. The actual numbers we rolled for stats become almost worthless after creation outside of some dramatic occurrences or magic, after all- it's all about those incremental modifiers. You get 4 background options, so I put them into +2 to Strength and then three iterations of +1 Agility/Intuition/Presence, mostly just to raise the latter two up to a +10 base bonus.

Her almost!final stat array becomes +35/+5/+15/+5/+5/+5. Sure, the scout is meant to be about stealth and, if need be, ambush and thievery, but that doesn't mean she can't also be an absolute beast of a unit too. Besides, she needs every edge she can get in this shallow, superficial world after getting an Appearance of 32, bumped slightly by her Presence modifier to 37.

Role Traits are a fancy way of dressing up stuff like personality type, character motivation, and moral alignment. Instead of giving a few examples as a guide to coming to one's own conclusion for their character, you're instead encouraged to pick from the given lists in order to fill out a prescribed part of your character sheet.

Personality is exemplified by a long list of poles arranged in opposition to one another, like Meek vs. Proud or Optimistic vs. Cynical. It seems you can pick several if you wish, as long as they don't directly oppose one another.

Motivation is why your character adventures at all. A surprising number of the 20 motivations are either self-interested like wealth accumulation or doing it for fun, or negative motivations like hatred, fear, or a desire to destroy X. X can be expected targets like Darkness or specifically Sauron's forces, individuals you have a vendetta against, or some more problematic choices like entire countries, cultures, or species. Earlier on in the book, playing an orc or troll is explicitly discouraged, but it seems that choice wasn't intended to limit a PC's capacity to be evil.

Alignment is weird. It's another collection of supposedly opposed traits, of which Good vs. Evil is only one, but the way all of the other dichotomies are arranged underneath them seems to imply which are also kind of good or bad without making it clear. The book then proceeds to bring in real-life examples that further date it in a way I found damn uncomfortable.

As if it needed spelling out, Dear Burrowers,
real life religious communities are not
diametrically opposed to one another.
Also I don't think we use "Moslem" anymore.

Grid's just gonna be Neutral for now.

Next come adolescence and apprenticeship skills, which are similar to background options except they're unique to your character's growth and development as a person prior to taking up adventuring. Both of these steps have a full page of tables dedicated to them too, because when you merp, you merp hard.

Being a dwarf means Grid's childhood trained her 1 rank in Unarmored Movement & Maneuvers, 1 in Rigid Leather Armor, 3 in Chain, 4 in One-Handed Concussive Weapons, 1 Thrown, 1 Climb, 1 Pick Lock, 1 Disarm Trap, 2 Perception, 3 Body Development, and 3% chance of learning a free spell list- I rolled a 77 on that, so that's a hard and fast no. Grid also gains 4 extra ranks to spend on languages- probably evenly divided between a smattering of some Elvish and nearby Easterling dialects.

Apprenticeship implies she was formally instructed by a master scout, but fortunately there isn't any sort of table where you roll the master's effectiveness as a teacher to affect how much your character learned during their apprenticeship or some such- though I wouldn't be surprised if that's a thing in true Rolemaster. Instead, we'll just say Grid picked up her extra skill ranks by sneaking around the dwarf hold, observing others, and reading or practicing in her weirdly spacious subterranean bedroom.

With all of this sorted out, or nearly so, we finally begin to get a clearer picture of Grid- by which I mean I frantically make stuff up to accommodate what the dice tell me.

Grid spent most of her life indoors, since only about 1/3rd of dwarves are female and they tend to be cloistered as a result. She is also quiet and reserved among outsiders out of unfamiliarity. She was tacked onto a delegation sent west by the Blacklocks because her father no longer believed the house's home was safe for her, what with all the troubles brewing in the east. The delegation dwindled until only Grid remains.

She has been kept alive this long by her adaptiveness, and her ability to put into practice the wide range of topics she read about while utterly bored back home. She wishes to bring aid to her people, but she might leave out the part of the mission where she was to be handed over for safekeeping. Being constantly misgendered by non-dwarves was and still is a confusing annoyance, but if it allows her to travel freely without being badgered by overprotective menfolk, she will allow it to continue- or perhaps even consciously try to 'pass' if the situation requires it.

Wrapping Up.

The last major step of character generation that isn't just review is Outfitting. After spending minutes flipping back and forth between the Outfitting page where limits and stipulations are set in place, and the Dwarf page (147) where the actual list of stuff offered, and the Equipment table on 255 where the weights are offered, I was finally done with Grid.

For some reason MERP dwarves don't have any starting ranks in one-handed edged weapons so they can effectively use axes, one of their most culturally important weapons. But Grid has likely just scavenged whatever gear she can from her dead traveling companions, so I doubt she'll turn down a shortbow and club that happen to be handy. Weirdly enough, she's way more graceful in mail armor than leather, so she gets a set of chain. She gets a set of clothing, probably weathered and travel-stained, plus some personal effects like a grooming kit- the beard needs to stay looking good, regardless of circumstances.

She also gets 2 gold pieces to spend on other gear, but since there's an entire section on economics in Middle-Earth and there are five currency subdivisions that fluctuate in value depending on time in the Third Age, I'm just going to treat the basic utilities as met. Grid is also going to have a donkey saved from the last cart of the ill-fated expedition so that she can carry most of her things without being subjected to a weirdly discriminatory encumbrance rule.

Carrying limits are determined by height in this system, with strength serving to offset some of the penalties for going over the limit. While height varies quite a bit between species and cultures, women are consistently one height class shorter than their male counterparts, so female PCs can carry less across the board. Shockingly enough there're no random table for height and weight rolling, so the gender averages given in each species' writeup are pretty much what you're stuck with.

There is a rule meant to offset this, giving female characters a +3% to either Agility or Constitution (I ended up going with Agility), but it's buried deep in the optional materials section toward the back of the book, sandwiched right in between Martial Arts in Middle-Earth, and a percentile table for how a character's blood proximity to the royal family of Númenor affects their ability to use Athelas as a healing herb.

No, I am not making this up.

I know Aragorn's prowess in the Houses
of Healing was ambiguously supernatural,
but surely they didn't mean this.

The end result of this whole experiment was not what I was expecting, but then again I went into this whole thing not knowing what to expect. I hope I haven't (completely) trashed MERP for anyone out there, because it does seem to be a common consensus that character creation is the first boss of the game- once you get around to the actual playing part, it becomes much smoother, simpler, and more fun.

For those who would want to play without generating at all, I have very good news that the book comes with 16 premade characters with level-up tracks included.

Then again, if any old LotR game by I.C.E. is what you're interested in, consider trying LoR, their later product that was actually designed as a simplified introduction to MERP. The designers recognized at some point that their game was too daunting for beginners, but instead of finding a rules solution in the system itself, they wrote an entire transitionary game designed to be played for a few weeks or months before moving on to the big leagues of the d100.

LoR had its own following, surprisingly, and at least one fan wrote an expanded homebrew ruleset for it called the Middle-Earth Adventure Game. MEAG is set somewhere in between LoR and MERP in complexity, but it's packaged in a mercifully svelte 30-page PDF that you can download for free on the website, which was last updated back in 2010. Yes, it has been a while, but at least it was in this millennium.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Orc God Generator

(Format borrowed from TLN.)


It is well-known that the gods hate orcs. It is equally famous that orcs hate the gods, and will spite them in a variety of ways ranging from risky death-bargaining to outright annihilation. What is less well-known is the character of those gods, who are so often lost as individuals among the laughing, mocking throng.


They may be uniformly wicked and inspiring of misotheism, but they are not generic and dull. Each hates different things, and in different ways and intensities, and knowing their differences is essential to surviving any dealings with them- or better yet, avoiding them altogether.


D2 Modus Operandi

  1. Brutally Cunning

  2. Cunningly Brutal


D4 Power Level

  1. Godling

  2. Lesser Power

  3. Greater Power

  4. Ineffable


D6 Wakefulness

  1. Profane Dormition. Often sleeps through both day & night.

  2. Listless. Sleeps regularly during the day. Occasionally naps at night.

  3. Average Sleeper. No more or less active than an ordinary hateful godhead.

  4. Fitful Slumber. Awakens briefly and at random during the day.

  5. Insomniac. Regularly stays awake well past high noon.

  6. Blear-Eyed Sentinel. Always watching. Always waiting.


D8 Hostility Level

  1. Cold Indifference

  2. Wry Schadenfreude

  3. Naked Disgust

  4. Violent Opposition

  5. Ruthless Bellicosity

  6. Gleeful Sadism

  7. Omnicidal Malice

  8. Yes


D10 Manifests as...

  1. Humanoid Avatar

  2. Graven Idol

  3. Meteor Shower

  4. Image of their Symbol

  5. Voices on the Wind

  6. A Hole in Existence

  7. Invisible yet Palpable Presence

  8. Roiling Orb of…

    1. Blood

    2. Fire

    3. Shadows

    4. Limbs & Animal Parts

    5. Light in an Alien Color

    6. Rusting Metal Fragments

  9. Sacred Animal

    1. Musk Ox

    2. Spitting Lizard

    3. Buzzard

    4. Hyena

    5. Blood Wasp

    6. Dire Zood

  10. Natural Disaster

    1. Thunderstorm

    2. Earthquake

    3. Tornado

    4. Flood

    5. Insect Plague

    6. Wildfire


D12 Craves

  1. Widespread Fear

  2. Grief & Depression

  3. Toppling of the Mighty

  4. Cessation of Existence

  5. Upended Hierarchies

  6. Grinding Oppression

  7. Pointless Cruelty

  8. Desecration of Holy Sites (except their own)

  9. Savage Conquest

  10. Insidious Betrayal

  11. Transgressed Taboos

  12. Breaking of Friendships

  13. Excessive Sacrifices of...

    1. Blood

    2. Bones

    3. Raw Flesh

    4. Fat & Sinews

    5. Yet-Living Things

    6. Wealth (i.e., Skulls)


D12 Despises

  1. Contemptible Weakness

  2. Enviable Strength

  3. Foolishness

  4. Excessive Cleverness

  5. Humility

  6. Pride

  7. Social Mores

  8. Peacetime

  9. Gentle, Painless Deaths

  10. Loyalty (except to them)

  11. Priests (including their own)

  12. Moderation


D20 Domain*

  1. Death

  2. Dying

  3. Fecundity

  4. Famine

  5. Disease

  6. Opulence

  7. Flames

  8. Beasts

  9. Hope (Lies)

  10. Darkness

  11. Blinding Light

  12. Manipulation

  13. Strength

  14. Artifice

  15. Sky

  16. Cunning

  17. Earth

  18. Non-Orcs (this deity is everyone’s problem)

  19. Roll for 2 domains, ignoring 19s or 20s.

  20. Roll for 3 domains, ignoring 19s or 20s.

*Note: There is no “War” domain because that is a given for all gods here.


D100 Quirks

  1. Recently lost a ton of followers by conversion to another god who said they were their friend, and is feeling very insecure right now.

  2. Doesn’t actually exist in between encounters. The god is destroyed and created anew out of the ether every day.

  3. Does not actually exist, at all, ever. The god is just a collective hallucination created by a very aggressive strain of ergot.

  4. Always has the juiciest gossip on the other gods.

  5. Was so frustrated at the “chicken or the egg” dilemma that they ate the metaphysical concepts of both, and that’s why chickens are a type of mythical creature now.

  6. Gained the power to return from the dead by seeding a portion of their power among several unkillable orcish champions and indestructible artifacts. Orc-cruxes, if you will.

  7. Constantly sends minions and other challenges to test its most faithful. Emaciated from lack of prayer as a result.

  8. Is an amortist- they don’t believe in the existence of mortals.

  9. Will only accept sacrifices that have been stolen from other deities.

  10. Designed that misbegotten, pig-headed variety of orcs as a sick joke.

  11. Requires that an idol of their likeness be given a high office among its followers. The actual, mortal holder of office ritually marries the idol and acts in the deity’s stead as their “spouse”.

  12. Has a skin condition that causes them to regularly slough off divine abominations that terrorize the world.

  13. Determines its mortal champions by arm-wrestling contest. The deity’s current champion is an unassuming wimp with a killer wrist technique.

  14. Invented that loud, discordant new type of music that young people listen to, and despises monotheists for giving credit to their own devils.

  15. Spent most of its energy sending a prophet down to spread the True Word centuries ago, but the prophet promptly died in obscurity.

  16. Regularly organizes massively corrupt competitions between the gods and their champions.

  17. Cheated like hell in a recent deific competition and still managed to lose.

  18. Enjoys swapping their sacred relics and ancient artifacts out for mundane junk at random.

  19. Insists that tusks were their invention and contribution to the orcish species, and encourages their followers to elaborately decorate their own. Massive, impractical prostheses and extensions abound.

  20. Their mind flutters unraveling in their wake, like a fraying scarf whose threads are magic and dementia.

  21. Never gives a good omen without pairing it with an awkward, uncomfortable, and utterly mundane revelation for the recipient to deal with.

  22. Was once killed and torn apart to create the world and/or heavenly sphere. May or may not have since gotten better.

  23. Poses as a Great Old One or Outer God to seem more edgy.

  24. Is a major proponent of the “you are what you eat” proverb. Followers have decimated the local wolf population.

  25. Looks upon mortals with the same confused, out-of-touch disdain that rich people afford the poor.

  26. Rips a permanent tear in the fabric of reality wherever it manifests.

  27. Missing an eye or limb, either literally or metaphysically. Blames another god for losing it.

  28. Only accepts prayer delivered in the form of aggressive yodeling.

  29. Slowly subsumes their high-priest’s identity until they become a deific vessel.

  30. Secretly created the orcs and instigated their torment in the hope that they will someday bring about the end of all things, gods included.

  31. Every millennium the deity tries to manifest a child into the world. The mountain-sized godling is invariably stillborn, and it soon petrifies into a new piece of topography.

  32. Could probably be convinced to start acting nice ironically.

  33. Is recently deceased, but not all of its facets and emanations know that yet.

  34. Keeps mutating living things, including their own followers, into crabs.

  35. Is said to lie waiting and dreaming at the bottom of a shifting, maze-like dungeon Below an island.

  36. Perceives the world through inverted senses. They unknowingly punish that which they try to reward, and vice versa.

  37. Is even more hungry for sacrifice than most gods. There is a wave of famine and a food desert growing in the wake of their cult.

  38. Actually a hyper-powerful wizard pretending to be a deity.

  39. Really is a deity, but pretending to be a powerful wizard pretending to be a deity as part of a long con.

  40. Inevitably drives all their priests insane with their endless rambling about how the world is a four-sided cube that experiences four simultaneous days.

  41. Granted magic to mortals to spite another deity.

  42. Is on the run from their own followers, who want to capture them and use them as a divine battery.

  43. May or may not currently haunt the moon.

  44. Too bestial and non-sapient to communicate directly with mortals.

  45. Too eldritch and hyper-intelligent to communicate directly with mortals.

  46. Originally a non-orc deity, expelled from their old pantheon out of petty shame.

    1. Goblin

    2. Swamp Dwarf

    3. Ogre Flea

    4. Graft-Elf

    5. Mer-Maggot

    6. Night-Wind Ghoul

  47. Was originally the god of a city-state, but then the city got gentrified and the whole cult was priced out of the area.

  48. May be soothed and appeased by awful puns.

  49. Turns anyone who rejects their amorous advances into an animal. This does not necessarily mean the advances stop.

  50. Has a distressing number of demi-god children.

  51. Guards an ancient, cursed city- not for any especially nefarious reason, but because they don’t want anyone to see the city’s murals that depict the deity in their awkward teen centuries.

  52. Sends most of its divine blessings and punishments to a completely different plane of existence by accident.

  53. Spreads its cult via memetic information that can infect a mortal just by sight or sound.

  54. Genuinely cares about the orcs and their plight, but hides their pity because an even greater cosmic force than the gods would punish it severely.

  55. Accidentally created trolls and goblins by mashing together and splitting up orc prototypes. Humans were created when ████████████████████████████.

  56. Completely unrelated to all other dogma, the god holds that the world is actually an egg that will soon hatch.

  57. Recently misplaced its afterlife and all the souls therein.

  58. Demands agonizing personal sacrifices of their followers before telling them it was ‘just a joke’ at the last possible second.

  59. This god’s totem animal is somewhat less fierce than others.

    1. Sugar glider

    2. Pika

    3. Mola mola

    4. Juvenile pangolin

    5. Extra-fluffy silk moth

    6. Tree frog the size of a pinhead

  60. Has an exact twin. Both are enraged by being confused with the other.

  61. Has a polar opposite twin whom they hate. They’re both equally nasty though.

  62. Is agitating for a good old fashioned god-war and is looking for a pantheon to challenge.

  63. Occasionally answers prayers with the message “we have been trying to reach you about your chariot’s extended warranty”.

  64. Shapes reality as an elaborate form of fanfiction.

  65. Carries an entire civilization inside their vacant mind.

  66. Presently exists somewhere as a small, squid-faced worm in the care of a mannequin.

  67. Is infatuated with another deity and expresses that attraction immaturely through childish pestering and meanness- this takes the form of continent-swallowing religious wars on the material plane.

  68. Knows the location of a hidden tree that bears the sour fruit of immortality. They already ate them all, though.

  69. Demands that its image be spread far and wide- urban worshipers have made the deity and their symbols popular subjects of graffiti.

  70. Is the fusion of two separate gods with similar-enough portfolios that they were conflated by mortals. They are in constant agony, and are actively looking for a way to split themself apart.

  71. Fills their followers with an irrational urge to find a way to punch the moon.

  72. Currently operates out of their cosmic parent’s stomach after the latter tried some things to avoid a prophecy being fulfilled.

  73. Formerly a demon from another pantheon who went freelance and made it bigtime.

  74. Is weakened by prayer, and diverts those energies into exploitable proxies.

  75. Gains strength from the hatred and anti-prayers directed at it.

  76. Is easily offended, but instead of smiting people they just get very passive-aggressive.

  77. Never got the memo that spikes of villainy are out of style.

  78. Has hypnotist-priests who control the minds of large groups of people to pray to the deity briefly. The affected have no memory of the event, and are often confused to find themselves kneeling in a circle.

  79. May always be appeased by offerings of sweet things- honey, candied fruit, orphans, sugar, etc.

  80. Recently agreed to worshiper-swap with another deity. Neither sect approves.

  81. Locked in combat or a game of wits with another deity right now and will send most prayers to divine voicemail. Please leave a message after the mocking cackle.

  82. Seems to have recently split into multiple personalities that each jockey for dominance.

  83. Everyone within a hundred miles of their point of manifestation tastes orange for a week- the color, not the fruit.

  84. Regularly grants mighty, albeit temporary boons to the absolutely most wretched, pathetic, and lowest of the low just for the laughs.

  85. May or may not be the figurehead of a religious pyramid scheme.

  86. Always manifests alongside a distinctive, often distorted leitmotif.

  87. Recently struck out on a solo career to create a monotheistic faith and is considered to have sold out by most other gods.

  88. Has just now suffered a major setback and is much weaker than usual.

  89. Has just succeeded over a rival and is much stronger than usual.

  90. Really doesn’t enjoy or “get” the whole blood sacrifice thing, but goes along with it for appearances.

  91. Invented the orcish double-axe as a sick joke. They still can’t believe how far it went.

  92. Sends blessings via a winged messenger. No post on weekends.

  93. Was born when a conspiracy concocted by maltheistic ur-priests got a little out of hand.

  94. Invests a secret police force of their priests with considerable abilities in stealth, miracles, and psychic powers. Nothing is more damning than sending Thoughts & Prayers after someone.

  95. Has gone catatonic from hunger and won’t stop gibbering about a spider.

  96. No one has ever heard of this god before just now- are you sure you didn’t just make them up?

  97. Is so bemusingly average for a cruel, distant god that they have no Quirk.

  98. Changes so dramatically in between appearances that this entire generator must be rerolled before their next appearance.

  99. Actually just one part of a conjoined triumvirate of gods. Use the god generator two more times, ignoring rerolls of this Quirk.

  100. This god’s away on business.