Saturday, 9 September 2023

Conversion Crawl Classes 17: MERP: Bree and the Barrow Downs

One of the really nice things about Dungeon Crawl Classics is that it really takes the vibe of Appendix N to heart. It’s therefore pretty natural that judges may wish to use materials designed to emulate stories contained therein. MERP – Middle Earth Role-Playing – was an early game which attempted to bring the creatures and setting of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and others) to the gaming table. Because of the prevalence of TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons at the time, Bree and the Barrow Downs contain a section in converting the material to d20-based games.

At this point, there are three main objectives the would-be converter may have, and they are not always going to align.

First, fidelity to the thing being converted. It is a fact that the more of the module you change, the more work you have to do to both institute those changes and to look out for unexpected consequences for those changes. We only want to make changes to the material because those changes align to one of our other two goals.

The second objective is fidelity to the original literary work. If you absolutely hate how something from the original source material is portrayed in the module, you can and should make changes to better match your vision of the literary source. For instance, my reading of Professor Tolkien’s work is that magic is, on one hand, rare, and on the other all around us. Clearly magic items don’t come up nearly as often as items which make you wonder whether they are magical or not. By contrast, this module fairly drips with enchanted treasures.

The final – and in my opinion, principle – objective is to ensure that the final conversion is both playable and fun as a DCC adventure.


Most of the text describing Bree, Archet, Combe, and Staddle is background which doesn’t take system into account. There is a price list which should be adjusted to the norms for DCC, although there is nothing wrong with allowing some goods to be locally cheaper (or more expensive, for that matter). A good benchmark for items which have no DCC equivalent is to multiply the listed price by 4 (to avoid having to deal with ¼ cp) and then assume the usual 100 cp = 10 sp = 1 gp from DCC.

Cormac the Northman is a local bandit, who according to the text usually has 10-25 archers on hand. You might want to mark this down as 1d16+9 to make things easier for you, and be thankful that DCC uses funky dice!

When we look at the statistics for Cormac and his bandits, we can immediately see that they are inflated beyond the DCC norm. Worse, they all seem to have shields, which would make archery a bit difficult. I would suggest  using the Bandit entry on pages 432-433 of the core rulebook instead. Reduce all archer’s AC by 1 (no shield) and arm them with short sword and short bow to better match the setting. Cormac is a bandit captain, while Eowic is a bandit hero.

For the normal humans and hobbits (halflings) of Breeland that is really the best way to go. Use basic statistics from the core rulebook, and then modify them as required. If a character is important to the location, such as the worthy host of the Prancing Pony, feel free to grant them two, or even three, Hit Dice.

Barrow Wights

For our conversion example, we are going to use the barrow wights of the Barrow Downs.  There are three types of Wight, in descending order from the most powerful to the least: Major Wights, Lesser Wights, and Minor Wights. When we look at their MERP statistics, we can see that they are entirely out of keeping with what we want, so in considering what that might look like in DCC terms we have to keep this in mind.

We are going to start by statting out the Major Wight, and then use that statblock to create its lesser kindred.

Init: We have no idea from MERP how fast these creatures are, but I am thinking that an Init bonus is appropriate for at least the more powerful wights. For the Major Wight, I am choosing +4. This number is really pulled from thin air, but it allows a +2 bonus for Lesser Wights, and a +0 bonus for Minor Wights, and that appeals to me.

Atk: A Major Wight attacks with an evil longsword, and has a +30 bonus. The conversion guide in the module suggests that this is +6, and I have no problem with that. So our creature has an attack of “longsword +6 melee (1d8 plus sleep and paralysis)”. The text also has them casting feat in a 60’ radius, but we can probably include that as a special ability. To make them more in line with DCC, and to match my personal feelings about The Fellowship of the Ring, we will grant them spellcasting ability.

AC: DB 30 is presumably a Defensive Bonus which the conversion information suggests is equivalent to +6. We will make the Major Wights AC 16.

HD: A Major Wight is described as having 170-220 Hits and being a 25th to 30th level creature. This is obviously much too high, even if reduced by half. 8d12 feels right to me. We will give them a +8 bonus to spell checks to reflect this. Remember that 10th level is as high as DCC goes, and, while we can make creatures with higher Hit Dice, there usually should be some good reason to do so. Certainly, nothing in the novel would suggest that the wights be so powerful.

MV: We have no guidance here, so we choose the standard 30’ for a human-like creature.

Act: Again, there is no guidance, so we choose 1d20 as the simplest option.

SP: Right off the bat, the wights are un-dead. Sleep and paralysis also needs a mechanic: (Fort DC 10 + damage done or fall into a deep sleep for 3d6 turns. Upon waking, target is paralyzed until they succeed in a DC 10 Will save [1 attempt per round]). They have a fear aura (60’ radius, Will DC 12 or unable to take any action for 1d5 rounds [once per encounter]). Major Wights also reform in 36 rounds in the text, which we can modify to 3d3 turns. Finally, since we have allowed them spellcasting, we need to choose what spells are appropriate. Based on Fog on the Barrow Downs, I am going to suggest chill touch, sleep, ventriloquism, and weather control.

SV: An 8 th level wizard has Fort +2, Ref +3, Will +5. We modify this to Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +7.

AL: That wights are Chaotic should be fairly obvious.

Crit: Following the table on page 385 of the core rulebook, we get a result of U/1d12.

Put altogether, our DCC Major Wight statblock looks like this:

Major Wight: Init +4; Atk longsword +6 melee (1d8 plus sleep and paralysis) or spell; AC 16; HD 8d12; MV 30’; Act 1d20; SP Un-dead, sleep and paralysis (Fort DC 10 + damage done or fall into a deep sleep for 3d6 turns; upon waking, target is paralyzed until they succeed in a DC 10 Will save [1 attempt per round]), fear aura (60’ radius, Will DC 12 or unable to take any action for 1d5 rounds [once per encounter]), reform in 3d3 turns unless banished or otherwise dispelled, spellcasting (+8 bonus to spell check: chill touch, sleep, ventriloquism, and weather control); SV Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +7; AL C; Crit U/1d14.

We can then extrapolate downward for the other wights:

Lesser Wight: Init +2; Atk longsword +4 melee (1d8 plus sleep and paralysis); AC 16; HD 6d12; MV 30’; Act 1d20; SP Un-dead, sleep and paralysis (Fort DC 5 + damage done or fall into a deep sleep for 3d6 turns; upon waking, target is paralyzed until they succeed in a DC 5 Will save [1 attempt per round]), fear aura (30’ radius, Will DC 8 or unable to take any action for 1d3 rounds [once per encounter]); SV Fort +3, Ref +2, Will +5; AL C; Crit U/1d12.

Minor Wight: Init +0; Atk longsword +3 melee (1d8 plus paralysis); AC 16; HD 4d12; MV 30’; Act 1d20; SP Un-dead, paralysis (Fort DC = damage done or paralyzed 1d3 rounds), fear aura (15’ radius, Will DC 6 or unable to take any action for 1d3 rounds [once per encounter]); SV Fort +2, Ref +0, Will +3; AL C; Crit U/1d10.

Example Barrow

In my opinion, there is way too much treasure in these barrows, and way too much of it is magical. For my example, I am going to look at the Mendacil barrow (6.32) in detail. The same level of work needs to be done for every barrow described herein to bring them in line with the DCC aesthetic.

Since they were richer than the Eldanar family, the Mendacil family built a large and elaborate barrow, excavating into the side of the hill, and upon it built a decorative mound. Instead of many small chambers, this barrow contains several spacious rooms to hold the thirty-nine people interred within. It is shorter than the Eldanar barrow, but its layout is more complex and less practical than the other barrow. One major wight haunts the tomb.

Major Wights, as we have described them, are no joke in DCC. I don’t think you necessarily need more monsters here.

A. Entrance. The door of this barrow is made of wood reinforced with steel; the door is a medium (0) maneuver roll to pick. The key rests with the Mendacil family in Fornost.

Pick Lock DC 10 to open; Strength DC 20 to force.

B. Passageway. Eight feet wide and eighteen feet long, the passageway is lined in smooth grey stone. The roof, likse all those found in the passages here, is eight feet high.

C. Steel gate. The lock of this gate is a hard (-10) one to pick. Failure will result in a four foot thick block of stone dropping from the ceiling and blocking the passage. Since it falls quickly, those beneath it will likely be wounded or crushed.

Pick Locks DC 15. Find Trap DC 15; Disable Trap DC 20. Falling block 4d6 damage; Reflex DC 10 for half, no damage on 16+. Can be forced with a DC 30 Strength check, but this sets off the trap, potentially trapping PCs in the barrow.

When we get to area E, the treasure begins. In this area, we can make all items non-magical, with only a 1 in 3 chance of still being usable, except the “sheath that keeps weapons rust-free”, which holds one of the (obviously usable) longswords. The 125 gp worth of jewelry is okay, but as the treasure keeps compounding, you may wish to reduce this to 25 gp worth of jewelry, with an additional 70 gp worth of combined precious objects, jewelry, and toiletries in the chest.

Area F contains two bodies and three chests. The ring is interesting enough to keep; all the other magical items should become mundane, and the value of jewelry can be reduced to 10% of listed. In fact, that is going to be advice from hereon in: Magic items become mundane unless you really like them, there is only a 1 in 3 chance that mundane items are still in usable condition, and the value of gems and jewelry is reduced to 10% of what is listed.

You may allow some items to be superior examples of their kind (-1d to Fumble Die, +1d to damage, etc.) without being magical, and some items have no clear mundane counterparts and can simply be omitted. The MERP magic system doesn’t exactly scream “Tolkien!” or “DCC!” so don’t be afraid to prune this area ruthlessly. Magical dried dog food may be a neat idea to stick in your back pocket for a different setting, but does it really belong on the Barrow Downs?

Bones and rags: the bones are from a dragon and can be ground to produce medicines (10 doses which double one's hits and prevent bone, muscle or cartilage damage for 10 minutes); the rags are actually three Spell Storing cloths which each can hold three spells, but only once.

This was a really need idea, and you could say that there is a Intelligence check (DC 15) for compounding 1d16 doses from these bones, with occupations like Herbalist, Healer, or Alchemist being trained. In DCC terms, the medicine grants 2d12 temporary hp for 1 turn, with all damage coming from the temporary hp first.

The rags can be treated as single-spell scrolls that release their magic when burned (probably for a predetermined spell check result).

Ring of Ringholding: eighth level; allows user 2x power points if Mage; capable of instantly controlling any one ring within 100’ if target fails to resist; can immobilize target or use its powers.

Thematically appropriate for Tolkien’s work, even if not 100% appropriate for a Lesser Ring in that work. In DCC terms, this ring allows a +2 bonus to a spell check three times per day. In addition, the wearer can control any one ring being worn within 100’. The second ring’s wearer gains an opposed Will save to resist. The wearer of the ring of ringholding can either paralyze the other ringwearer for 1d6 rounds or use that ring’s powers for 1d6 rounds. The wearer of the ring of ringholding takes a -2 penalty to Luck while the ring is worn. 

Next: MERP: Moria

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