Review: Moria

Posted: 30 March 2016 in Reviews

“Keep in mind that you do not need to map out every square inch that the characters travel. Instead, create maps that focus on encounter areas and use narrative descriptions to move the action from scene to scene. Just like a book or movie, highlight the important parts of the story. Don’t force the players to navigate an endless series of featureless rooms on their way from one area to the next.” – Moria

Decipher Inc. published two RPGs; Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, both now sadly out of print and unsupported. The LOTR mantle has passed to Cubicle 7’s The One Ring, which I reviewed here, while the closest thing left in print to a Star Trek RPG is Prime Directive, set in the Star Fleet Battles universe which is close to canonical Star Trek but not an exact match. Both Decipher games used variants of their CODA system, whose core mechanic is roll 2d6 + modifiers and meet or beat a target number.

I’ve read both games, but the only thing I managed to snag was Moria, the supplement detailing the titular and trope-making megadungeon. It had some cool ideas which deserve a wider audience, and the game is long dead, so this post will focus on those and encourage you to adopt them.

The product is a boxed set containing Dwarves of Middle-Earth (32 page booklet), Khazad-dum (96-page booklet), 16 semi-geomorphic map tiles each 10″ by 8.5″, a double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with one side showing the countryside around the Hollin Gate entrance to Moria, and the other showing the 15 main regions of the mines and how they are interconnected by tunnels, and another double-sided 10″ x 17″ map with floor plans for six key areas such as the Twenty-First Hall. The text is printed in eye-damaging dark grey on mid-grey; I suspect it was intended to have a colour background and someone decided they needed to reduce the price by printing in greyscale.

I’ll gloss over Dwarves of Middle-Earth, which is the expected mixture of fluff expanding on what Tolkien actually wrote and crunch about enhanced dwarven character generation, the adequate-but-not-outstanding geomorphs, the key area floor plans and the wilderness map; the cool ideas are all in the Khazad-dum book and the Vertical Exaggeration of Moria, which is basically that schematic diagram you see in D&D-inspired games showing how the dungeon levels connect. The book has six chapters and an appendix, which cover respectively the history of Moria in the setting, setting-specific game mechanics, mapping advice, tools for creating the regions of Moria including diagrams of typical homes and workshops , a bestiary, sample scenarios and advice on creating your own, and expanded info on orc subspecies. The intention seems to be for a multi-generational chronicle in which player characters tackle the dangers of the mines through multiple eras, adventuring for a while then passing the torch to their descendants, while the overall story arc covers Moria’s fall, doldrums, and possible eventual recovery. Middle-Earth’s elves, being immortal, keep the same character from age to age; dwarves are long-lived, and can play in two consecutive ages; but men and hobbits can only play in one generation. To avoid penalising the shorter-lived races, however, experience totals are carried over from character to character.

The thing of note on the Vertical Exaggeration is that the boxes representing levels and the lines showing their connections are labelled; for example a trip from Dimrill Dale (surface) through the First Deep (labelled “P15”) to the Redhorn Upperdeeps (“P20”) takes you along a connecting arrow labelled “P15/T6”. P is the Peril target number and shows how likely the PCs are to run into trouble while there, and T is the travel time in hours – thus it takes 6 hours to travel from the First Deep to the Redhorn Upperdeeps. Levels themselves take an hour to traverse, so the dungeon itself is a points-of-light setting in miniature; long, dark, mysterious passageways connecting densely-packed areas of rooms and chambers. The expectation is that the PCs are not “house-clearing” one room at a time, they have a specific destination in mind and are trying to get there by the shortest route possible to minimise the chance of encounters.

The heroes first plot a route, rolling the appropriate skill against a target number and applying modifiers. While trying to follow it, they must make another skill check every hour of travel to avoid getting lost; on an ordinary failure they realise this and try again in an hour (while Gandalf smokes his pipe and tries to remember the way), and on a critical failure they don’t notice and wind up on the wrong level. While travelling, the group must also make tests to avoid becoming fatigued, and in some areas the dark and terrifying atmosphere is itself enough to cause a fear check. Meanwhile, every four hours the characters must make a Stealth check against the local Peril number; in the case of failure, the more they miss the roll by, the more orcs and other vile monstrosities they encounter, while success allows them to evade detection and possibly ambush the wandering monsters. If the PCs are sufficiently tough nuts to crack, they get a glimpse of orcs or hear drums in the deep, and the bad guys they would have met avoid them, massing the forces from multiple encounters for one dramatic strike. (In a generational chronicle, as the PCs whittle down orcish numbers, they make the mines safer for their descendants by reducing the Peril numbers in specific areas; but if cleared levels are not patrolled, the Peril number creeps back up again.)

Moria has a relatively limited monster palette, consisting principally of orcs and the occasional cave troll. To spice this up a bit, the encounters are split into five groups – massed attacks, patrols, wanderers, watch points and camps – and each group has six detailed situations in which they may be encountered; the group you encounter depends on how badly you miss the Stealth check against the region’s Peril number. You might find two small groups of orcs fighting each other; you might find an impassable obstacle and be ambushed by several times your number of orc archers firing from unreachable cover, while orcs equipped for melee roll up your flank. Sometimes the orcs have set traps to make the encounter more dangerous for the party, or there are environmental hazards present; traps have two target numbers, with the PCs rolling against the first to notice it, and the second to disarm it.

There is also a system of creating dungeon levels using map tiles and dice rolls, which gives Moria three broad types of areas; unique and significant areas like the Chamber of Mazarbul in Lord of the Rings, which are designed by the GM; secondary areas built using map tiles and dice rolls for the type, contents and condition of each chamber; and the completely abstracted tunnels connecting levels. An unusual aspect of this system is that the majority of dungeon levels are not stocked; encounters are driven by the Peril checks above.

The bestiary speaks to orcs of various professions, the balrog, cave-trolls, cave-wraiths, rats both normal and giant, bats, and the Watcher in the Water; the GM is encouraged to create unique Moria-themed creatures as well. The adventures chapter has two full adventures and advice on creating your own, essentially create a goal, a hook, a timeline, and a set of events along the timeline, then infuse those with a Middle-Earth tone and turn the players loose on it.

Things worth assimilating:

  • Abstracted connections between levels, with Peril numbers and transit times.
  • Use of Peril checks to replace stocking the dungeon.
  • Multiple encounter situations for common monsters, with preset numbers and types encountered.
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