2013/06/30

Melanda unveiled

Some time ago i asked this.

Basically, i wanted to fulfill your requests, i wrote that post here on my blog but i asked on G+ as well (here).

To sum it up i got:

Swordbearer 2 votes, but it's already covered here)
High fantasy 4 votes, but it's already covered here).
Empire of the petal throne 1 vote

Dragonquest 2 votes
Wizard's realm 1 vote
knights and magic 1 vote
Phantasy conclave 1 vote
Adventures in Fantasy (2 votes, but it's already covered here).
Arduin Adventure   1 vote
Darkus Thel 1 vote
 Melanda 2 votes
 Element masters 1 vote
 Kabal 1 vote
 Challenges Game System 1 vote (already covered on Grognardia website)
 Lords of Creation 1 vote
 Dangerous Journeys 1 vote

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So, not taking into account those games that have already been covered elsewhere,
Dragonquest and Melanda got more votes among all the others.

So i chose Melanda for the simple fact that it is far more obscure than Dragonquest.

At this point i managed to have a long review with one of the men behind this old fantasy rpg, namely Lee McCormick who agreed to give me a LONG interview about Melanda, and he was so kind and willing to answer all of my questions.




#1 - how the idea of Melanda developed? did you have any influences or inspirations which lead you to the writing of the game? Was it just a burst of creativity on your part? Or were you dissatisfied with the games available at the time? Did it stem from a particular circumstance?  

In 1978-79 when I first got into RPGs and met the co-author for Melanda, John Corradin, there were a number of systems available and they were coming out fast and furious.  No one it seems was totally happy with any game mechanic and gamesmasters were constantly making 'house rules' for their campaign (different initiative systems, different hit point systems, etc.)  Most of the new systems grew out of either disatisfaction with an existing mechanic or a desire to bring a new genre to life as an RPG (Star Trek, Star Wars, Runequest, etc.).  Many of the game designers, like the early RPGs themselves, came from wargames and therefore wanted their RPG to be as rule specific as their wargame was.  Many actually had difficulty with any kind of free-form system that encouraged more freedom from binding rules.  
My background was in Theater and improv and John was a teacher of learning-challenged children, so we both naturally tended toward simpler mechanics and less number crunching while gaming.  In the ideal roleplaying environment, the players and the GM (gamesmaster) are not opposed, but are co-authoring an adventure story.  In our hearts of hearts, we want to recreate the emotional impact felt when reading a great adventure scene in a book or seeing it unfold on a movie screen.  No one in a movie ever said "I rolled a 20!  Critical hit!"  So we wanted less number chatter.  We also wanted more 'in character' play and felt we needed a mechanic that made it easier for players to portray their role vocally and in their decisions around the table.  These concerns (not necessary dislikes - we both played MANY hours of D&D, Star Trek, etc.) led to the creation of Melanda.   
As to influences or inspirations - every quality fantasy/sci-fi adventure story or movie inspired us to want to capture and recapture those magical moments that made those art forms successful.  The limit to the book/movie is that every time you revisited, the characters made the same choices and caused the same results. RPGs gave gamers a chance to create a story that doesn't necessarily have an ending, isn't pre-determined to always have to go the same way, etc.  To accomplish this three things were required: mature (in terms of self-awareness) risk-taking players and GM, an understanding that the story was the goal (not any specific characters long-life and/or success), and a mechanic that allowed the flexibility necessary to 'adjust' the rules or abandon them completely occasionally for brief periods to make your story the one you truly wanted to be a part of! 

#2 - did you have specific aims whilst writing Melanda? I mean, were you trying to achieve something specific, maybe in terms of rule mechanics or overall flavour?

As mentioned above the primary aims in creating a new game world/system were simplify the rules, make the mechanic flexible enough to be manipulated by both players and GMs during play to add to the dramatic feel of each scene, and ways to encourage 'in character' play.  I've used the term 'in character' a few times now and should make sure you understand what we mean by it.  Both John and I have done a number of gaming seminars regarding types of play, maximizing the player and GM experience, etc. and finally identified three basic play forms common to all RPGs.  This labeling system is not a brand of value placed on any particular form (John and I have had thousands of hours of pleasure playing in all three, but ultimately, our preference in most instances was for 'in character' play.).  
'Out of character' - most common form of play: players sit about the table kidding and cutting up with one another, discussing real world subjects and referring even in the game to real world comparisons  For instance: "We tore those orcs up - like the Patriots did to the Eagles (two American football teams) this Sunday!" Success is determined primarily by victory over the obstacles created by the GM and character 'leveling'.  Socialization throughout the game session is a big part of the reason for getting together.  Lots of rules and number crunching can work here readily and players are not required to make themselves vulnerable emotionally by trying to act out or through a scene.  Distractions are part of the socialization and encouraged. 
'At character' - 2d most common form of play: players focus more on the scenario story and the mood that the GM is trying to create by minimizing 'out-of-game banter' and real world references.  However, they remain removed from their characters always speaking of the adventurer they have inserted into this particular campaign as 'he/she' or 'my character does this or that'.   For example, the GM tells the players, "You've been down here in the dark and dank passages of this underground complex for so long it has become difficult.  Claudia, your scout hears a scuffle up ahead and possibly a muffled female voice.  What do you do?" 
NOTE: the GM is trying to create some suspense and focus on an important interaction coming up.  If someone tells a joke about McDonald's or some other real world reference, they risk breaking the mood.  Claudia responds: "My thief will motion for the group to halt and stealthily creep up to the corner ahead and peek around it."  It's a subtle thing, but notice that even Claudia has distanced herself from her character making him/her that character up there on the screen while she's here in Bill's living room.
'In character' - least common form of play in the late 70s - early 80s.  (Even today, many RPGs still cater to one of the above forms of play.)  The difference between in character and at character play is that the player tries to truly identify with the character, to become the character in his mind as much as is possible.  No costume is required, all players/GM are still sitting around a table in a dining room or in a living room in the real world, but to a large extent, during the scene.  Using the above example of the GM and Claudia, if this were in-character play, Claudia would say:  "My half-elven eyes have adjusted reasonably well to the dark, although my nose still resents the damp odors.  I raise my hand, the signal for the group to hold position.  Then I begin creeping up to the corner to peek around."  Notice, that Claudia has 'become' the sneaking thief.   

I will continue to use this example in my answer to the next question which is about how we tried to address the roleplaying form and steer it toward the type of play that John and I preferred.  
If the mood holds, the players can get caught up in the situation and the scene and try to make one of those 'movie-moments' happen, it gets tough if the GM's reply to Claudia's plan is "Roll a d20 and tell me what you got."  There is no d20 in the movie!  Any number she responds is a distraction from the mood.  

Your questions: - in terms of mechanics (combat, magic, character creation), do you feel Melanda differentiated from other fantasy rpgs of the same era? To be specific, I read an interesting statement on your part once in which you said: "The more married we became to Melanda, the less compatible pieces were (to D&D)  because of the tremendous differences in gaming mechanics and philosophy."  I think this statement is particularly interesting for our readers, since my blog is focused on old fantasy games other than D&D. So, which were these tremendous differences? 

Since they are related, I'm combining the question above with one of the next questions you posed: In "Heroic worlds" book, (which is often considered the bible of rpgs colectors) Melanda is described as a "fantasy system that was several years ahead of its time". And elsewhere it says: "the combat system is likewise quite original". Again, on this old web page (still reachable here: http://web.archive.org/web/20010414195256/http://www.io.com/~sos/bc/favorites.html#rpg) it reads: "[many years ahead of its time in its magic and character creation systems]"

Response: John and I, working with the Wilmark Gamers (a group of local roleplayers that began as simply folk from Delaware mostly from Wilmington to Newark but grew to include players from many states who traveled great distances to play in our Melanda weekend conventions for a good many years throughout the '80s - 90s) finally decided that Melanda would target the following mechanics that in other RPGs seemed to get into the way of our preferred in-character style play:  

[NOTE: This was not to say the other games were not good games.  We, in fact spent many years playing in or running campaigns based on AD&D, Fasa's Star Trek, West End's Star Wars, etc. and I eventually ran tournament scenarios and mini-campaigns based in DC Heroes, Dr. Who, Twilight 2000, etc.]

  1. Saving throws and challenge dice-rolling systems that put too much emphasis on numbers. As explained in part one of this interview, we were trying to minimize ‘number talk’ during in-character role-playing sessions because of it’s distraction from players thinking/speaking/reacting like the character would be.

  1. Character Creation systems which were randomly rolled or had statistics/characteristics assigned in order to obtain maximum benefit (this would be called meta-gaming today and is a favorite of power gamers).

  1. Combat that came down to a die roll which resulted in either “you hit” or “you missed”. The rigidity of such systems (still common in many games today) doesn’t give the GM the flexibility to reward good character play or strategy that simply added color to the story all at the table were trying to tell! This system also addresses: Hit points/death/etc. mechanics which have been problematic, but are still part of nearly every RPG since the first D&D game up to and including the most modern of RPG systems, computerized or tabletop.


  1. Encounters that enabled players to read a monster manual and know ‘out of character’ what every creature’s strengths and weaknesses were prior to having ever encountered such a being or monster.

  1. Magic Systems which boiled down to spells which were rigidly described (very helpful, even necessary for certain styles of game play from the early days of dungeoning through complex computer mechanics in rpgs and battlegames of present times). Again, please note that our desire to create a game that varied from this type of spell-system or spell list did not mean it was bad, only that it interfered with the flexibility needed in the style game we were trying to encourage.



What Melanda attempted:

First and foremost it is important to recall that Melanda violated the prime directive in most early role-playing: “Rules are Rules”. In Melanda, it says repeatedly that all rules are guidelines meant to get the GM and players thinking in right directions, but intended to be set aside, stretched, or altered for the sake of the story!

#1 – To represent challenges other than just combat (running thru woods with underbrush trying not to trip and slow the party down, opening ancient heavy doors that were locked or simply sealed shut with age, lifting heavy objects under which characters - players or non-players - were trapped, surviving poison from bites or barbs or weapons or clouds, etc.), every game has some system of saving throw or “roll this number to conquer this challenge” mechanic. In the early days of gaming nearly every game had a die roll one had to make to achieve the stated goal - more number crunching and talking numbers around the table. Later games, allowed for automatic survival of certain situations or accomplishment of certain tasks based upon the skill levels characters possessed (Fasa’s Star Trek had one of the best systems for this) without even rolling or declaring any specific numbers and allowing the game to move on.

Melanda was one of the first to assign character statistics a ‘descriptor’ as well as a number. These word descriptors were used around the table during role playing to avoid numbers in situations like this:

Remember Claudia’s half-elven character from the first interview response (character’s name is Ransel Goldenhair) who was about to scout ahead of the party in the dark dungeon and peek around a corner to investigate some noise? The GM understands that Ransel is attempting to be stealthy approaching the corner. In most games, he/she would have to make some sort of stealth role, dexterity check, etc. against a difficulty determined by the GM.

GM: make a Dexterity roll.
Claudia: 10 and my Dex is a 16
GM (Who set the difficulty of making the stealth roll here a 15, acknowledges Claudia’s 10 and adds a bonus of +2 for the high Dex to total 12, oops! Not quite enough): You kick something metallic lying unseen on the dark floor before reaching the corner and it goes clanging out into the hall.

The character has a high statistic and may have stealth training as one of the best in the land – hence her being chosen the group’s scout, but a lousy roll of the die and the story takes a very different turn than it might have. Enough lousy rolls in one session and the group may stop trusting Ransel to be stealthy for very ‘out of character’ reasons. (Han Solo is a great pilot whose skill at handling the Millenium Falcon should not be minimized to some player’s bad day of dice rolling.)

In Melanda, Claudia’s stealthy rogue type character has an Agility of 14 which is described as Exceptional. The interaction in most cases would go like this instead (note the absence of die rolls and number chat):

GM: OK, Ransel, how agile are you?
Ransel/Claudia: I’m “exceptionally” agile.
GM: (who set the difficulty of making a stealthy walk thru this section of hallway in the dark dungeon as exceptionally difficult, meaning one needed to be Exceptionally agile or better to achieve stealth): You make it to the corner and peek around to see… (to be continued)

This system leads to automatic success or failure for most challenges and eliminates lots of die rolling and keeps the story rolling. It also allows for ease when the GM is designing scenarios in that he only needs to address specific challenges by assigning a word descriptor to the difficulty of the challenge. (e.g. GM puts a heavy, old door which is stuck due to age and the humidity in a dungeon design that is meant to slow the players and possibly force them to make some noise alerting folk up ahead to their presence. He says it would take Remarkable Physical Power to open the door and then goes on with his design. When the party encounters the door, he knows that they need a character with Remarkable or better Physical Power (or that they need to get two characters of Exceptional or better) or need to affect the door with the equivalent of Remarkable Physical Power (spell casting perhaps?) to muscle the door open, etc. The party may figure a way to (thru magic possibly) shrink the door enough that it is easy to open or remove (which might be quieter than muscle options and not alert folk up ahead based upon the story needs)…who knows? Every GM has had players outsmart him/her at some time or another or do something clever that he/she was not expecting, but that should work. In a heavy system-balance mechanic, this could be problematic. In Melanda, it is one of the ways that good character play adds to the story everyone is co-authoring and challenges the GM!

Occasionally, die rolls will be necessary and Melanda has a number as well as a descriptor for each statistic and success or failure can be determined in that way. More often than not, however, good GMs will keep the difficulty secret and after considering the players plan, capabilities, AND the quality of their role-playing can simply decide that they succeed or fail in order to reward or punish or further challenge the players in this part of the story. This is why I said early on that Melanda is not for everyone and requires a certain maturity level in order to run and/or play responsibly. The goal was to minimize rolling and number chat and this does that.

#2 – Character creation in most games boiled down to rolling dice to determine a character’s statistics (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, etc.) and then determining a character type or class, before rolling dice for beginning $$ and equipment or special talents or spells. AD&D, Runequest, early Warhammer RPG, etc. all followed some form of this system except that most games tried even early on to rid themselves of the Character Class concept used by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (then, and still today). This concept came naturally out of the wargame/boardgame background which spawned D&D since everything in those types of games were based on rigid, balanceable mechanics. Often a player rolled dice for ‘stats’ only to find that he could only play a fighter or thief because he didn’t have the pre-requisites needed to be the spell-caster or paladin or whatever he truly wanted to play. This works for a purely ‘out of character’ tabletop experience, but can inhibit ‘in character’ style gaming (although I have seen great examples of players who were talented enough to live with the die rolls and throw themselves into ‘character-izing’ the poor fighter with the great strength and condition to pound and slash things all day long, but lacked the intellect to determine who were the good guys and who the bad, or who lacked the dexterity to keep from tripping when charging the enemy). One game, Space Opera (a fun game to play that was very rule heavy, but extremely well designed otherwise), went step by step through a character’s history – determined by die roll from chart after chart and after 20-30 minutes of fleshing out an interesting hero, you could roll that the character died on one of his missions and now you have to go back and start all over!

Today, in many computer games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, etc., players are required to choose a base ‘class’ from warriors to stealthy types (scouts and rogues) to arcane power wielders. Many other computer RPGs (such as Kingdom of Amalur or Fable) allow characters to specialize in one of these types of skill/power character paths or to choose powers and skills from any of these types to create a more well-rounded character who will never be the best Mage or Rogue in the game, but may have enough varied skills to have something to try in almost any situation.

Melanda asked that the player, with his GM (who knew where the base storyline was being set and the type of game he/she was hoping to run), chose the character’s race. (Perhaps there were no forests in the campaign world and therefore the GM was disallowing any kind of forest-dwelling race for this particular story.) Those races were identified by non-traditional names in Melanda (Wandel – sea coastal dwellers, Lyradel – forest dwellers, Gisadel – jungle dwellers, Baladel – mountain dwellers, Omenwedur - the last born race during world creation in the Melanda history, and Uridos – little people). Although these races had some characteristics in common with elves, dwarves, men and Halflings appearing in most fantasy games, we redefined/named them because we didn’t want players bringing their pre-conceived notions about ‘what a dwarf can do’ or ‘what an elf looks like’ based upon other games with them. This creates flexibility in descriptions, clothing styles, skin colors, etc. that can add to storytelling.

Determining the race also defined the character’s basic statistic numbers (Physical Power, Physical Condition, Agility, Manual Dexterity, Learning & Recall, and Mental Prowess). Then the player chose skills/talents for his character from a list designed to suit that race (there weren’t too many sea elves who were studying iron mongering skills). These skills reflected time spent during the character’s youth developing into a young adult about to go adventuring. Time spent this way would also naturally be reflected in the character’s physical and mental development. Ergo, the skills chosen raised basic statistic numbers (lots of agility skills meant that this character is probably more agile than some of his/her race). There are no random factors in any of this character development process unless the GM chooses to add something (such as granting a special item or achievement during this process that may enhance statistics further). This is creating a character that the player had in mind that he/she wanted to play and ending up with a few gaming numbers.

[NOTE: Characters were not rigidly held to a class with rules as to what they could not do purely because of game-balance necessity. D&D players, remember your 1st level mage character with only 3 hit points? Once you use your spell of the day, you might as well hang a sign around your neck “Weak Porter for Hire” since you couldn’t fight or defend yourself, dodge very successfully, etc. for the next 24 hours! You were forbidden to wield a sword or carry a shield or wear armor of any kind because of game-balance. I believe were I in that situation (and in-character play demands that I imagine myself in the situation of my character) I sure would have picked up a shield and hid behind it hoping for some sort of protection or put on that armor the dead gnoll was no longer using even if I wasn’t skilled in its use – it had to be better than nothing between me and enemy arrows or daggers! I could always take it off later when I got my spell back and needed to be unarmored to cast it to help the party.]

Naming your character (with the guidance of the GM so that the name fit the world your character grew up in) became part of this history you were fleshing out for your character as was deciding what armor/clothing colors and types of gear you chose or chose not to give your character to adventure. This also eliminated names that are funny and great for ‘out of character’ play like Redshirt, the Expendable, DF (short for dragon fodder) #1, or HotBabe, etc. Again, it is easier to remain ‘in character’ and think like the character if the name, equipment, history, etc. all fit the world in which you are gaming. The more history one created, the less the player would have to hesitate when deciding what would his/her character do or say in this situation and then doing or saying it! (See “Character Cards” Below)

#3 – Combat. It was almost impossible to remove rolling dice in combat and we knew this going in. However, just as in #1 above regarding saving throws and challenges, combat could be seen as simply another challenge and word descriptors could be assigned to the difficulty of successfully damaging monsters/opponents and combat could be (and has been when I GM, especially when an experienced hero was simply ‘wading through’ mindless minions) sometimes handled simply with describing the action until a specifically challenging opponent or situation was encountered.

For instance, let’s continue our example from above. Claudia’s rogue Ransel peeks around the corner and sees two orcs leaving a cell door in the hall beyond dragging what looks like a Baladel (mountain dweller, pseudo-dwarf) between them who is struggling.

GM: What do you do?
Ransel/Claudia: Moving as quickly as I can while still trying to be somewhat stealthy, I try to catch up to the trio and backstab one of the orcs.
GM: Exceptional agility, eh? (decides that because she’s moving more quickly he would normally assign a penalty difficulty moving it to Remarkable which means she either fails automatically or must make a roll to remain stealthy. However, he realizes that the Baladel struggling and the orcs grumbling makes it harder for them to notice her creeping up behind lowering the difficulty once again to Exceptional). The goblins are using their darkness vision and no torches so the corridor is still very dark and the three of them are making some noise, so you reach them in short order.
Ransel/Claudia: I stab the goblin to the right of the Baladel and twist my longknife as soon as it penetrates its back going for max damage.
GM: (the goblins are normally only an Average defensively and Ransel has major bonuses with her stealth, training in the longknife -Remarkable strike rating - so he decides to allow her initial attack, knowing she will need to follow initiative and roll for combating the remaining goblin – and to avoid a stupid one-time lousy die roll from spoiling a great scene in the adventure) Ransel is surprised at how easily his longknife penetrates the goblin’s soft hide armor, he drops the Baladel and tries to reach behind himself with both of his ugly, filthy hands to get at whatever is impaling him. As you twist he arches and gurgles loudly as blood rolls from his mouth and his eyes roll back into his head and he drops. The Baladel rolls to not be under the dead goblin as it falls forward. How Physically Powerful are you?
Ransel/Claudia: I only possess Average Physical Power.
GM: Your longknife is lodged in his back and will take some work to retrieve it. The other goblin sees his comrade fall and finally sees you. He sputters “Killer of Gnish Gnak.” As he draws an dark metal scimitar. Let’s determine initiative.

Now die rolling will commence. Since we had to resort to dice to determine what happens next, both John and I decided we wanted our “to hit” system to address a problem we had with D&D-like game mechanics. Say you ended up needing a 13 to hit a particular opponent. Whether you rolled and added your bonuses for training or magical weapon, etc. to total 13 or a 28 your attack did the exact same damage. Most ‘house rules’ I experienced in early D&D campaigns and many games that came later all added some sort of critical or bonus damage for great rolls.

In Melanda, each character has a strike rating with a weapon or weapon type. This takes into account basic combat coordination, combat experience, skill with that type of weapon (e.g. dagger, hand axe, etc.), and any bonuses given for the specific weapon one is using (e.g. quality dagger, magical hand axe, etc.). This is what the character needs to equal or best in a die roll to successfully damage an opponent with a defense rating of “0”. Defense rating includes basic combat coordination, experience with combat, dodge or parry capability (greater if defending only), armor penalties/bonuses the opponent may have (miscellaneous adjustments - magical or size or special resistance to daggers, whatever).

This defensive rating may also be raised or lowered based upon the situation. For instance, a mother beast defending her cubs may get a bonus to strike rating or defensive rating at the GMs prerogative. Brave warriors who outnumber the player characters may be extra cocky which might make them sloppy for a penalty to strike or defense ratings or it could boost their morale giving them a bonus. Later in the same fight when the five heroes have dwindled their foes in number from 20 to four, they may not be so inspired losing the bonus or receive a penalty as they consider surrender or running away.

Once the defense rating is determined by the GM, he tells the players and they subtract it to their strike rating to determine their true target number to damage the opponent. The player rolls the d20 and declares either “I did not hit effectively” (or some such words - “a glancing blow that dealt no damage”, etc. meaning the roll was less than the adjusted strike rating or the strike rating affected by defense rating), “I believe I damaged the beast” (I rolled exactly what I needed to hit), or “I scored a great hit” (followed by “Hit plus…”, see example).

How it sounds in game:
GM: Defense rating for the other goblin presently is 4. You are attacking simultaneously.
Ransel (would have had the initiative advantage, but had to change weapons since forced to temporarily abandoning the longknife and has drawn her longsword which has a strike rating of 12 with the sword with all adjustments, subtracts 4 to represent the defense of the goblin, so she needs an 8 or better to damage her opponent, she notices the angry Baladel shaking off rolling into the corridor wall when dodging Gnish Gnak’s corpse and sees he intends to attack the goblin as soon as he can. She chooses to attack in order to keep the goblin’s attention on her.
Claudia/Ransel rolls a 19 and declares: “I sliced into my opponent – hit plus 11” (yes she had to say a number, but a hit plus 11 is more damage than just a hit would have been so Claudia is happy).
GM: (Goblin has a strike rating of 14 also with his scimitar. Ransel is defense rating 5, so he needs a 9 to hit normally but Gnish Gnak was his brother so there is hatred behind every blow so the GM assigns a bonus of +2 to his strike rating meaning he only needs a 7 as long as his rage carries him. GM rolls a 10) “The goblin and you traded a flurry of blows this round and you were surprised how well this smelly, grunting creature wields his scimitar. After two parries between you, you tricked him with your intended target and he missed his parry, but did manage to knick you with a hit plus 3.” (We like that a higher roll means something since it is instinctive when rolling dice to hope for high rolls!)

At this point, the weapon damage table is consulted by weapon type – both attackers are using Type III weapons and the “hit plus so many in each case determines damage to their opponents”. This damage is in PEPs (Personal Energy Points) and don’t represent hit points in the traditional game sense, but blows that weaken an opponent. This continues until one opponent surrenders, flees, or collapses and can no longer defend him or herself…unless there is a critical hit!

Most hits are considered to be the knicks and dings associated in combat with ‘almost misses’ except the effort of keeping those slices and bashes from being more serious drains the combatant of energy (PEPs). We’ve seen above that armor can be a penalty in combat because one has to overcome its weight and awkward joint cover, etc. in order to defend oneself. It is, however, a big bonus once it’s been determined that you’ve been hit. The amount of damage done gets adjusted by the amount of armor protection to determine if the hit simply ‘hurt’ or scratched, or if it caused serious critical damage.

GM: [Orc above has armor equivalent of 2 points of protection. Ransel’s ‘hit plus 11’ did 15 points of damage resulting in a critical hit. Ransel wears 4 points of armor protection and the Orc did 6 points of damage resulting in a critical hit as well. These critical hits can be described (based upon weapon being used and how much damage was done over the armor protection) in colorful – scene/story enhancing ways. Since Ransel took only 2 points over protection it can be seen as a ‘lesser critical’, but the orc took 13 points over protection meaning lots more is going on here than mere PEP drain.] Ransel takes a strike from the orc to her off arm which opens a wound. Your defense rating goes up one and you will sustain extra bleeding damage each round until tended. Ransel’s mighty slash with the longsword ripped thru the hide armor all across the chest of the orc drenching both combatants in blood. The creature stumbles backward dropping its weapon and clutching at the gash trying to stop the bleeding. He waivers and falls to his knees. his eyes losing focus. Before Ransel can advance, the Baladel comes up behind the orc and brings the chains joining his wrists viciously down across the back of its head! The orc dies before hitting the floor of the tunnel!

The specific nature and location of the critical hits were chosen by the GM for color and story purposes but could have been hits to the head or gut, etc. They could also have been determined using the location hit chart provided as an optional tool to be used in the game. If the die roll to determine location of the orc hit had been rolled, it could have resulted in a hit to Ransel’s head which may not have any armor and therefore could have been much more costly to the adventurer.

The party members have a chance to catch up, help Ransel with the wound, and encounter the Baladel to keep the story moving forward (perhaps there is valuable info or something to be gained in chatting with the Baladel – who may become an ally – or in searching the holding cell he was removed from)…

We like the personal energy point system because PEPs can also be taken from characters for exertions (fleeing from enemies…uphill…cross rivers in heavy armor or while carrying burdens or from casting spells as you will see in the Magic system comments below.) It is possible in Melanda for characters to surrender because they are too weak to fight (or even stand), or their PEPs can limit their choices of things they can do in a certain situation, or player/characters can choose to use their Mental Prowess (similar to Will, but more) to get off a spell of desperation or a final attack (or heroic effort) when their strength is nearly gone to help/save the party knowing they will have fried themselves and they will be lying helpless, unconscious on the ground after this deed – imagine what those scenes add to your story!

Location hitting, as mentioned above, is an option and Melanda comes with a % die roll to determine a random spot struck by a critical wound. This can be used and the description of the battle takes on more specifics (some of which may affect combat – e.g. a critical hit to a leg might remove any agility bonuses to defensive rating, to an arm might reduce strike rating, etc.). Like all rules in Melanda, the location chart may be used merely to suggest to a GM a possible scenario twist (a hit to the head of the group’s mage rendering him/her unconscious, temporarily blind, with strange memories or no memories at all could all be exciting adds to a good adventure tale) but if used strictly as designed can sometimes lead to silly number crunching stuff that interferes with the story – for instance, how boring or unlikely is a fight where both opponents only ever hit their foe in the foot!

[NOTE: Critical hits lead more quickly to kills than extended combat which usually results in one opponent killing his prone enemy or taking advantage of the break in fighting to flee and/or heal him or herself.]
The noises of the charging party members and the sounds of combat may summon more goblins (which in this case was pretty short). All of these choices are story choices, not game mechanic choices. Yay!!
A last note on combat: The GM may have a reason to keep the defensive rating secret from the players, at least in the beginning of a fight. Perhaps he doesn’t want them to realize that their opponents are being helped magically by a priest or sorcerer hidden somewhere near by or far away, having enhanced their fight capabilities. In this case he simply tells the players some number lower than the real defensive rating and then adjusts the character’s ‘successes’ by the difference. In his description of the battle, Ransel may declare a hit plus seven leading to the GM to state: “What looked like an incredible shot to the shoulder of the beast at the last instant merely grazed him and he is now grinning hideously at your surprise.” This will raise character suspicion and they will eventually figure out that there is something special going on here that they may need to deal with.

#4 - NPCs/Creatures & Beasts/etc. In Melanda, we provided 16 pages of pre-designed creatures and creature types to be used for quick-start games without the GM having to create his own. More importantly however, to avoid the creation of a definitive ‘Monster Manual’ that anyone can read, we provided a system for creating variations on the beasties provided and/or creating totally new creatures on your own. It’s a quick and easy system for generating monsters that are either generic to this GM’s game world and could appear anywhere, or specific monsters that are scenario/campaign specific and may exist no where else! We include examples of standard beasts (eagles, bats, etc.) and whole classes of non-standard monsters with samples of history or colorful stories about their origins/behavior/etc. This means that only the GM knows how these creatures attack/defend, what their strengths/weaknesses are, etc. and can keep the players on their toes! We could always release further supplements with new creatures that have been created by us or by other Melanda GMs in the future, but the basic tenet is “GM, build your world – its geography, its history, its flora and fauna, and the legends hidden within!”

#5 – Like with creatures, Melanda’s take on magic, magical effects, magic schools or systems, etc. was to encourage the GM to create his/her own systems. I myself created schools of magic and magical items and special magical spells/effects nearly every time I designed a scenario for my players. It’s so easy with the PEP system to simply define the effect, prescribe what it cost for that particular spell (or group of spells) to cast or what it cost to maintain that effect or even to overcome it! After more than a decade of play, you can imagine how many different ways to be a magic caster or how many different items which possessed/cast magic I had created. The newness and/or unpredictability of magic throughout Melanda became one of the most attractive facets of the game, I believe.

We did include some pre-designed magical systems with the basic game and could have released more in the future but we never intended to provide every mystical mechanic and item in Melanda because that would defeat the purpose of the open-ended design. Magic and Science have often been ‘confused’ throughout our real-world’s history and so we intentionally ‘confused’ them in Melanda. Our science of alchemy or herb lore allowed players to collect and combine ingredients to cause/cure a myriad of effects/ailments. In the hands of a prestigious Herb Lorist from a recognized college of Herbology, these functions were ascribed to the results of a studied science. Practiced by a local, gnarled aged woman or man in some rustic village, the same functions might be viewed as magic – witchcraft or even evidence of demonic influence!

The ability to summon and/or at least converse with spirits could prove valuable in many adventure scenarios, so why not have a Science/Magic based upon just such skills? Melanda does. The most popular (in our experience) science/magic system provided as an example useable as is in games or as a starting point for expanding/adapting for any GM’s game world, was Rune Science. The basic concept involves the ability to inscribe runes (mystic symbols) in an order toward some specific purpose and then to imbue those runes with power and activate the ‘spell’.

Runes represented varied nouns, verbs, and modifiers and were put into spell phrases such as “Bind Enemy”. These were scratched into the earth or written upon an object or being. Then the Runist put power into them and when ready, commanded the power to work! Of course, this could be a powerful spell if it worked as intended and tied up or immobilized some enemy! However, there were many things that could go wrong which is why magic is so dangerous and why Runists have to study and to apply all they’ve learned every time they use their skills.

Criteria such as the time invested making the runes, the specific intention the caster has in mind at the time of casting, whether or not the runes have been ‘linked’ to the subject in any way, etc. are all critical in successful rune magic. Therefore there are stages of rune casting, each of which can strengthen the spell if performed correctly, but can cause problems if not:

Intention: It is important that the Runist have a clear intention in his/her mind when inscribing the runes. The enemy in question may be a ferocious rogue bear that seems to ignore normal weapons. The caster should have the bear in his mind when etching the ‘Enemy’ rune or the power that goes thru the rune may attach itself to some prior enemy of the ‘mage’. Is the mage hoping for some nearby rope to suddenly wrap around the bear, or vines from a nearby tree, or the appearance of totally magical bindings of some kind. The clearer the intention, the better chance of chosen result.

Inscription: If the Runist has lots of time to prepare each rune using quality materials and tools, to make sure every loop and squiggle is exactly right, this can increase the control he/she has over the casting. If, however, the ‘mage’ has to scratch them suddenly in the dirt, during the raging bear’s assault on fellow party members… well accuracy could suffer and one or both of the runes could be wrong. This could result in no visible result (once power goes into the symbols and is activated – something happens somewhere), or in an unintended result. [e.g. assume ‘Bind’ is correct but ‘Enemy’ isn’t – a party member could be bound (possibly ‘to the bear’!) or some random binding could occur nearby, etc. Or suppose ‘Enemy’ is the rune which is correct but imagine that the Bind rune turns out to be closer to ‘Hasten’ or ‘Alter’… now the spell is Hasten Enemy or Alter Enemy. Now one could be lucky and accidently ‘Ignite’ the bear or ‘Diminish’ the bear, but who wants to risk that.
One could try to be more specific if the caster actually had the rune for ‘Bear’ or added modifiers such as ‘Black’ if the bear was black or ‘Strong’. The spell could now be Bind Strong Black Bear. This is more descriptive, may help the caster’s focus. However, the more runes used the more that could be inscribed wrong if the spell is done in a hurry. Once an effort to ‘Summon Horse(s)’ seemed to have failed when an exhausted, wounded party was trying desperately to reach food and shelter in a town still some three days distant. Had it gone horribly wrong, they might have summoned a herd of horses that ran them down, so they were relieved. However, part way through the second day, the party encountered a group of equally exhausted, sweaty, pissed ladies of the evening who had been trying for some inexplicable reason to find the heroes ever since they’d been ‘summoned’ magically from their house of ill repute. It was an extremely comical result imagined by a GM who figured out that the second rune was only mostly right and allowed that ‘Summon Whores’ was pretty close.

Power Up phase: Caster ties the spell to his current PEPs to feed the magic. Perhaps the spell is so powerful (altering time/space/10,000 enemies/etc.) that it exhausts the mage, but the cost will be determined by the power of the ultimate spell cast.

Activate: Cast the spell. Not much can go wrong with this phase unless the caster is injured just before or during it, or if the spell is not properly prepared and random magical power is released, or… (hmmm, guess a number of things can go wrong).

There are other ways to make the spell more specific to a particular target which can add to the chance of spell success. If you were trying to affect a specific door in a dungeon and can inscribe the runes on the door in question that eliminates some ambiguity. If you wish to affect an ally who is not present, but you have something of theirs to tie the spell to, this can help. You can see the benefits of cleverness in the hands of a rune scientist (and the possible chaos that can result from hastily cast attempts to affect an immediate encounter/danger).


In summary, a spell like ‘Locate’’Ally(s)’’Now’, with the intention of finding the rest of your party as soon as possible could be a very handy magical casting. If the caster takes his/her time with each rune for accuracy, is well rested with plenty of personal energy for the casting (PEPs), and casts the spell with no interruptions or distractions, this should be very effective. If you can inscribe the rune Ally(s) with some of the blood of each party member… 

#1 - How would you describe Melanda should you try to summarize it in a single phrase?

“a unique attempt to create structure and flexibility for roleplaying games.”

#2 - So, our readers are surely curious and eager to know: in what this originality consists of, in your opinion? Where did it stem from?

John and I came from totally different backgrounds (his was education of learning-
disabled youth and mine was acting/entertaining) and when we first started role-
playing, enjoyed it as it could be rather than as it was designed to be.  It took us a while to discover that we were playing these games differently than many others were.  I remember after reading the AD&D Players Handbook for the first time (I’d never seen, much less played a game.).  I created a character and came back anxious to do this ‘role-playing thing’.  I’d created a 1st level elven mage, gone out and bought a small notebook into which I put my 1st level spells (including casting notes on all the mechanics such as range, area of effect, etc. and original rhymes to use during the casting process).  When I joined my first game, I took lots of notes (so I could understand the ‘setting’ of this drama we were creating as well as remember all the characters with whom I might come to interact), spoke with an accent to try to sound like what I felt a highly educated elf might, and engaged my co-players and all the NPCs we encountered in in-character dialogue only.  (You can imagine the funny looks I got from those who had no grasp of what I was doing, but others soon ‘played along’ as it added to their fun and ability to imagine the scenes we were part of more like a movie.)  I never referred to the handbook since I didn’t think my character would have had one.  I tried to not use any info I wouldn’t have in-character while decision making.  When I was called on to cast a spell, I stood and moved my hands while reciting the little rhymes I’d created before pointing to the grid sheet to show the target ‘hex/square’ for my spell effect.  (The looks increased greatly, some folk even mocking me aloud.  But since I felt I was getting more out of their game than they were, and was encouraged by the attempts of others to play ‘my game-style’, I never hesitated.  I’d been on stage enough that being heckled was nothing new.

John stressed creating maps, NPCs, and storylines that emulated the feelings inspired by his favorite fantasy books/movies.  He ran his games trying to NEVER let the system get in the way of a good story.  He played his characters with acting quirks/hooks that made his ‘x-level fighter’, or whatever, seem different from any other similar character in this group or that the players might have experienced.  He was always seeking unique, creative solutions to the challenges GMs placed before us – stretching the game and challenging the players around him to do the same.  And, he was always a generous player helping anyone in the game who seemed to be making an effort at ‘in-character’ play or unique decision making even at the expense sometimes of his own character.



#3 - Which were the major differences between the 1st and the 2nd edition of Melanda?  - The cover art of the 1st edition of Melanda is somewhat "faery-like" with that image of the unicorn and the colours used. Did you try to convey a specific atmosphere with these illustrations?

Game expansion, more explanation, and higher production standards.  We literally printed the first edition ourselves with the help of our wives and hand collated and bound all the copies.  The second, though it still needed some editing and prep work, we sent out to be professionally printed and bound.

As to the artwork, the cover on Melanda 1 was actually based upon the very special creature that was the subject of the first published adventure In Search of Starfax, the magnificent horse pictured upon the cover, who was a very mystical steed.  The second book is more world-focused hence the focus on the cover on a ‘wondrous’ place somewhere on this mysterious world.  The artwork throughout the inside of the book was primarily by a young lad from John’s school.

#4 - Can you tell us something about your background in the rpg field and hobby at the time of Melanda writing? Which rpgs were you used to playing before embarking on your project as an rpg designer?  Did any of these other rpgs exerted an influence over you in particular? 

I discovered Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the Fall of 1978.  Although I played in a number of games run by others, primarily, my first love was GM-ing.  In 1979 I started a campaign based upon my imagined version of the Fourth Age in Middle Earth (beginning a few decades after the death of Aragorn and Arwen in Tolkien’s books).  It (the campaign) ran for four years during which I often sacrificed class time for gaming time as I managed to keep track of 72 player characters, most of whom ran with one other or in very small groups.  

During those first few years (Melanda came out in 1980 & 1981), I played D&D, AD&D, RuneQuest, Boot Hill, Bunnies & Burrows, Tunnels & Trolls, Gamma World, Villains and Vigilantes, Traveller, Rolemaster, Space Opera, Top Secret, Champions and Call of Cthulhu.  At conventions, John and I sold out many seminars and demonstrations on Role Playing, In-Character Play, GMing (not just DM-ing which was controlling a map of rooms and the monsters and treasures within, but Mastering one’s Gameworld and using that mastery to encourage players to write great stories in your setting), etc. 

After the release of Melanda, we still continued to play in some of the older games and avidly took to many of the newer titles as they flooded the market.  In 1981, I opened a gamestore with a budget of $7,000 and struggled for a year to make it viable.  John took over management of the store (I then worked for him for the next 18 years) and turned it into the success it is today (still going strong through all the changes in role-playing, collectible card games, the strong growth of European board games, etc.!). 
John and I both still play table top role playing and some live-action role playing (larp) as well.  We have both written and run tournaments, weekend-long gaming stories for both table-top and ‘larping’.  John is very active in the production of two gaming conventions annually and plays in a number of others across the country besides running any number of board/card tournaments through the game store (The Days of Knights).  I have written so many environments, created stories on fictitious maps, etc. that I was finally convinced to publish my first fantasy adventure novel (From the Ruins, available so far only electronically through Smashwords.com)

As to influences, many games inspired us to create Melanda, but mostly by having too much mechanic or being inflexible enough to get in the way of good in-character play at one time or another.  The commercialism of many game producers also ‘inspired’ us to NOT be concerned with how much we could make off of future additions, revisions, etc. to our game and to make it pretty much self-contained from the get-go.  To be fair, however, our desire to role-play was fed  by all the efforts of the games I’ve listed above and all the great players we encountered while playing them. 


#5 - How was gaming in those years? Do you feel the playing style has changed over the years?  Many of the original players were wargamers who were following the trend to still participate through carefully prescribed game mechanics the re-enactment of battles or combat challenges, but on a small scale.  That truly is how Dungeons & Dragons came into being.  So many of those gamers wanted, even needed, all the rules.  They spent hours and hours scouring the books, seeking out some advantage based upon the knowledge of each system mechanic and every spell definition, etc. 

These number-crunching, rule-craving gamers were joined by people seeking something else – something more flexible and less mechanic-intense through which they could re-live some of the feelings they got from movie or book scenes.  A lot of good role-players were driven off by the early games and their system-competition.  Still a lot of new ones were attracted by the wide variety and massive amount of growth in the gaming industry. 

Today, we still have some of both schools of gaming mentioned above still playing.  In many ways, you can tell who is who based upon which game systems they are playing or by listening to a session and seeing how much out-of-character/in-character play is happening.  But things have definitely changed.  There are far more females involved in role-playing today…especially in live-action gaming because of the costumes and characterization without any strict emphasis on complex mechanics.  This is not a reflection of intellect, but rather one purely of interest on the part of these female gamers.



#6 - What do you think about the OSR? (old school renaissance) and the re-surfacing of
old fantasy rpgs of the past to a wide audience? 

I always enjoy anything ‘old’ being revived to expose a wider audience, but often
find that the reception ‘old’ books, movies, games, etc. get is a reflection of the
times during which the revival occurs.  It is truly difficult to manage the attitudes
necessary to see these games (or other entertainment forms) as they were seen
when they first emerged.  This is reflected in the failure of so many genre films
for instance that only a few can truly appreciate.  Specifically, games were created
often due to dissatisfaction with the games existing at the time and the belief that
“I can do that, but better.”  Many of today’s games are more flexible and
encourage/allow for more storytelling in a more open-minded and mature way. 
This means that it will be difficult to imagine why someone should change their
current game in for something that was only an ‘improvement’ in its own time.

#7 - Are you going to republish Melanda in some way? maybe a PDF version? 
John and I have discussed re-doing Melanda.  There are too many editorial
changes and mechanic improvements to make to simply produce a PDF version of
the old game and put it out there. (And, besides, John still has copies of the
original printing yet available for sale.)  However, if John and I could find the
time (no small feat nowadays) to actually re-write, re-think, and re-do Melanda, I
would not be adverse to such an effort.

P.S. I noted that I forgot to mention the character cards in my part 2 response as I promised within that material.  This was one of our most novel concepts and one of which we were very proud.  The concept was to create a character sheet that was two sided.  On one side was a worksheet of all the choices made during character creation that literally determined one’s abilities and capabilities.  Then the other side was two half sections so that the card could be folded between them and stand on the table in front of the player.  On the side facing away from the player was all the descriptive info that the other players around the table would know and some game mechanics.  In this way, anyone in the game could look over and be reminded of your character’s name or apparent gear eliminating the need for ‘out of character’ questions “What’s your guy’s name again?”  “Are you the one with the two-handed sword?” etc.  On the side facing the player was more private info such as adventure skills, spells, wealth, etc.  Things that the other players might not know but that could become important for the player to know during play without too much research.  These worked great! 

3 comments:

Alec Semicognito said...

Great interview! I can only wonder what my old buddies and I would have done with Melanda had we came across a copy back in 1980 or 81. I think we would have argued even more than we did over D&D (being kids), but we probably would have learned to collaborate a lot better.

Michael Parish said...

Do you have a PDF of Melanda 1st edition? I've been dying to read it.

Catacomb librarian said...

Are you looking for the 1st edition or could you be interested in the 2nd edition as well?

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