Mini book review: The Elven Blade by Nick Perumov

Art by awesome Jon Hodgson

A while back I wrote about this new book i found: The Elven Blade by Russian author Nick Perumov.

What makes it special is that it is an unofficial sequel to LotR, written in Soviet before the Iron Curtain fell.

SPOILER WARNING!

The Story

The book takes place in the 4th Age, 300 years after the War of the Ring. Middle Earth is different. The Elves have sailed to Valinor. The Wizards are gone.  Arnor have been re-settled and are now known as The Twin Kingdoms – an alliance between Arnor and Gondor. Most of the orcs and goblins have been hunted down and eradicated from the earth. Peace have prospered for several hundred years, and everyone has become complacent. And the Hobbits are the most complacent of all.

Our protagonist is Folco Brandybuck, a late relative of Meriadoc Brandybuck of LotR fame. Like Frodo, he’s tired of being a farm boy, and dreams of the adventures of old. In a secret chest, he has Merry’s old Gondor sword and a copy of the Red Book of West Mark.

One day, a Blue Mountains dwarf named Thorin comes to the village, in search of the famed Red Book that is rumored to be among the Hobbits. He’s looking for historic clues, as Moria has been overrun by something dark and evil from the deep, and the Moria dwarves have been driven out. Again. Thorin is looking to get some information of what the threat might be and is trying to gather a party to go investigate the new Moria threat.

Of course, Folco becomes Thorin’s follower and together they embark on an epic journey, where they find that the Darkness indeed is stirring, not only in Moria…

 

My thoughts

I  can’t speak of the Russian original, but at first I was a bit annoyed by what I felt was teen-ish language. However, after a while it settled down, and became a quite nice read. Physically, the book is about 550 pages, and it became my pool reading buddy the first week of my holiday in Crete. Now, my son and wife are battling who’s gonna be the next one to read it :)

I think the author does Middle Earth justice, and in my opinion it’s a worthy saga for Middle Earth. I especially liked that it is more adventure focused than LotR. No poems, songs or any such things. In fact, it would work quite well as a fantasy RPG adventure. It’s also much darker in style than LotR. The characters aren’t pure good or evil. Rather, they are all shades of gray, and the gloomy Russian literary tradition shines through here and there. Apparently, there has been some controverse in the Tolkien fandom over Perumov’s deviation from Tolkien’s good vs. evil story, towards a morally more dubious world. Personally, I don’t see the problem, but if you expect a Tolkien clone maybe you will be disappointed.

The book is the first in a trilogy called “The Ring of Darkness” (Mörkrets Ring in Swedish). Part two, “The Black Lance” recently came out and is a beast of 700 pages. The third part isn’t available is Swedish yet, but I’m surely going to read them, and I heartily recommend them for anyone interested in fantasy and Middle Earth.

Sadly, the books are only available in Russian, Swedish, Polish and some other Eastern European languages at the moment. Hopefully, they will be translated into English.

An added bonus is that I’ve gotten back the urge to play some traditional high fantasy again. In fact, I’ve started designing a home-brew world for that!

Scary Shit Mechanics in Old School Games – Part 2 – Mental Disorders

The Werewolf of Bedburg, 1589

Since I wrote the first post on this topic, I’ve been trying to figure out the perfect Fear & Sanity system for my Old School games.

Actually, there’s a whole lot of good stuff to find out there, and some good RPGs to nick ideas from:

OpenQuest 2 by d101 games has a dead simple mechanic.

Renaissance by Cakebread & Walton has a simple, yet very playable mechanic built on the one in OpenQuest.

Call of Cthulhu is the original. A bit dry, but good for designing your own system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e has their own mechanic, but basically very similar to both the above. Furthermore, flavorful descriptions of the insanities, and the consequences for the afflicted player, as well as for the GM are included. Good stuff.

I know that I promised “advice” on how to run insane characters. I have also realized how silly that idea was. Instead, I’ll discuss some ideas on how to construct your own ultimate Fear & Horror system.

Fear & Horror system worklist

The first thing is to decide whether you want a Saving throw → direct consequence system, or if you want a Saving throw → Loss of Mental Hit Points (SAN) → direct consequence system.

The next step is to make a distinction between direct consequences of Fear & Horror, and the more long term serious consequences of insanity. I’d make a table of Direct Consequences, which would be the result of a missed saving throw. These could be things like Flee, Soil Your Pants, Rage, Repulsion etc. Also, define the direct game consequences of these afflictions, and their duration.

If you use some kind of Sanity Points system you also need to define the amount of Sanity Points the PC would loose. I’d make an easy list like: 1 SAN for scary but trivial things, 1d4 for more scary things etc. Of course, you will need to scale this against how many Sanity Points your system includes.

After this, you need to define what it takes to make a hero go loco. In a Sanity Point based system this could be when SAN reaches 0. In a Saving throw direct consequence system, Insanity could happen if you roll a Critical Failure (1) on your Save. You now need one (or several) table(s) with different Insanities and their consequences for that PC.

Some games dictate that insane PCs are out of play and handed over to the GM. I don’t agree. Playing these sometimes erratic and random characters are great fun, and present lots of opportunities for rememberable role-playing events. 

So how to create such a table/list?

One way is to look to science. Here’s a list following the DSM-5 system, but much simplified. This is one way of classifying these conditions:

Adjustment disorders – Stress disorders

Anxiety disorders – Fear, worry and anxiety disorders. Phobias are found here.

Dissociative disorders – Disassociation in consciousness, personality including memory/identity.

Eating disorders – Obsessive concerns with eating patterns and weight.

Factitious disorders – Acting as you have an illness, even damaging self.

Impulse-Control disorders – Inability to control impulses.

Mental disorders due to a general medical condition – Mental disorders due to other disease.

Neurocognitive disorders – Disorders that affect memory and cognition.

Mood disorders – Characterized by changes in mood.

Neurodevelopmental disorders – Intellectual disability, autism, ADD are found in this group.

Personality disorders – Maladaptive patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Psychotic disorders – Loss of contact with reality. The classic example would be schizophrenia.

Sexual disorders – Those that impact sexual functioning.

Sleep disorders – Interruptions in sleeping patterns.

Somatoform disorders – Mental disorders that involves physical symptoms without a physical cause.

Substance-related disorders – Related to use/abuse of various substances.

Just by looking at this broad classification system I get a lot of nefarious ideas…

Of course, such a list is kinda dry for game use, but as a source of inspiration or knowledge for the GM it’s a treasure trove, I think. Also, some of these are more appropriate for PCs, while others are hard to link to game events.

Once you have made your list or table, you can of course use it randomly (the gonzo option), or  the GM could assign a fitting Mental disorder (the ambitious option). For example, for the PC that was almost drowned by that Water Elemental, an Anxiety disorder – Phobia vs. water would be a nice fit. Or maybe a sleep disorder involving water would be better. This approach would maybe also allow for the player to immerse in the role-playing better, but of course depends on the thematics of the game.

Your list should also mention the in-game consequences of these afflictions. For our water-phobic friend above, it could mean that (i) he must roll a Save when encountering “watery” situations. If missed, you make use of the Fear & Horror mechanic discussed above. In this case, the insanity makes an ordinary situation into a fear situation for the afflicted character. Of course, there’s the chance of even more SAN loss…

Here’s a more detailed list of diagnoses to help building those tables/lists.

The Saving Throw

For the important Saving Throw I would use the Petrify/Polymorph (harder) or Poison/Death (easier) or Will (FH&W and B&T) saves for Mental Saves. Maybe adjusted by the Wisdom modifier and other mods you see adequate.

Mental Hit Points/Sanity Points

Another question, if you want to use Sanity Points is how many SAN the characters should get. Several OSR games recommend that you start the game with Sanity points equal to your Wisdom score. If so, the Sanity loss couldn’t be that great. Maybe 1-2 points per fear-inducing encounter. Renaissance (above) uses a system where you can go down to negative the positive score. So a PC with SAN 12 could function down to SAN –12. However, there is one list of consequences and insanities when you’re above 0, and a much more severe one that is used when you’re into the negatives. Of course, the potential SAN-loss can be greater, up to 1d6 or 1d8 for really sanity-blasting stuff.

A last remark

The use of a Fear & Horror system must of course be adapted to the style of the game you wish to play. I would definitely tone it down in a high fantasy or gonzo style of game, while for a darker fantasy game I would definitely use it.

Personally, I use Jack Shear’s system from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque for my OSR games. It’s in line with those types of games, and dead simple. And free.

Writing this gave me some cool ideas, and maybe, if I come up with something cool, I’ll publish a PDF with my Fear & Sanity rules. Also, stay tuned for part III of this series – about insanity in medieval times and how to cure your insane character. 

Book Tip: The Elven Blade by Nick Perumov

 

The Elven Blade by Nick Perumov

The other day I went to the bookstore to buy some good pool-side fantasy books for my upcoming holiday in the sun with my family.

I didn’t have time to go to the Sci-Fi Dork Shop, so I went to my local bookstore, where the range of books offered aren’t all that great.

Then I found this. “Alvklingan”, or The Elven Blade in English. This book takes place in Middle-Earth 300 years after the War of the Ring!

Of course, I had to buy it! I later Googled the author, and found out that he’s Russian. Apparently, he had translated LotR back in the Soviet days, when it was considered forbidden literature, and longing for more adventures there, he had started to write his own fan fiction just for himself. The manuscript spread in the underground fantasy world of Soviet, and after the Perestrojka in 1991, he got an offer to publish the book. Which he did. And now it’s published in Swedish, Polish and some of the Baltic countries. But not into English, so that’s unfortunate for you English-speaking people.

I started reading yesterday, and I must say I like it. It’s not Tolkien, but darn close, and this guy knows his Silmarillion. I think it’s a tad darker than Tolkien also, but I’ve only started so we’ll see where this goes.

But it’s cool! Back in Middle Earth on NEW adventures!

How they have sorted this out with the Tolkien estate, on the other hand, I do not understand.

The Rules Cyclopedia

Rules Cyclopedia

I just love this book. Despite the crappy layout, invisible page numbering and the super dorky art.

When a game is missing a rule, this is where I go to see how it was done before. And it’s there. In one place.

We used RC to play Caverns of Thracia and it worked just fine. I also remembered why I didn’t like race-as-class before. The 36 levels + 36 more in “Wrath of the Immortals” is also just too much, so I probably won’t use the rules as is again.

But as a rules reference it’s simply the best.

Note to self: Somewhere down the line I must do a “Flavors of the OSR”-review on this one.

You lucky, lucky bastard… On luck mechanics in Old School Games

You lucky, lucky baaaastard…

The first RPG I played that included luck was Cyberpunk 2013. At the time I liked it a lot, but I never thought to port it over to other games.

Lately, I’ve come across some kind of luck mechanic in Mongoose RuneQuest (now Legend), OpenQuest 2, RuneQuest 6, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 2E and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

I think it’s kinda cool that the player can use his luck to influence his fate, at least to a degree. Call it Fate, Luck or like me…Karma.

Why, you might ask, would I ever want this for my games?

If you, like me, loathe “Sticks of Healing”, “Shoes of Wishes” and other magic ass-saving items, this is a way to give the PCs some control over their fates, while not having to hand out all those magic items all the time.

And the would-be-dead PC will still be badly hurt, but miraculously not dead. And the hopelessly insane Dwarf will still be insane, but curable given the right circumstances. For me, it fits the less magic, and much darker tone I strive after these days.

Here’s a simple system you can bolt on to your OSR Game of choice:

At character generation, all PCs get 2 Karma Points. No more.

These can be used to:

  • Re-roll a botched roll (be it a Save, To Hit or Skill Check).
  • Downgrade the effect of such a roll (for example downgrade a Fumble to just a miss, or a Death Result on that Crit Table to a Serious Damage instead).
  • Make another player, or the GM to re-roll a dice roll (for example a Critical Hit on your character).

Downside is, though, that ONCE GONE, KARMA POINTS STAYS GONE.

So use them wisely, Adventurer!

______

If you like, of course you could use Karma as a serious reward from the Gods after they have managed a Brütal campaign, foiled that über-boss Demon or whatever you deem fit. However, I’d recommend that the amount re-gained in these circumstances would be  1 (one) Karma Point and not more.