Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Great Modules of the Late Terry K. Amthor

 Rest in Peace, Terry K. Amthor

Terry K. Amthor is a name that means a lot to me, even though I've read only very little by him, and played less. His main creation, Shadow World, sits alongside several high-concept setting that I have heard of again and again and that I never found the time to delve into - along with Tekumel, Talislanta and Glorantha (though I've actually found my way into Glorantha a few years ago).

However, back in my early roleplaying days, I was fascinated by his MERP modules Thieves of Tharbad and Lorien. We played some MERP back then, but we never quite figured out how the adventures were supposed to work. To us, they looked like a disjointed mess of NPCs, places and a simplistic "Task" described in five or ten sentences. There was something about these modules that made them enticing to us - part of it were the Angus McBride covers - but in the end, we came to the conclusion that they just weren't very good.

You see, we'd been playing the German RPG Das schwarze Auge a lot, and the published scenarios for that were usually presenting you an actual story you were supposed to reproduce at your gaming table. They were set on rails, and usually, that was especially true of the ending: often, the author envisioned some kind of twist, and as GM, you were supposed to run the adventure in a way that enabled the twist to happen. Some of these actually had sentences along the lines of "if you're a good GM, you'll know how to get your players to do (insert something that makes no sense at all, but needs to happen for the adventure to continue as planned by the author)."

Back then, we thought that's what makes a good RPG scenario.

And we had fun playing them, no question. But actually, we had the most fun when they were going gloriously off the rails.

Much later, I realized that the MERP modules we couldn't make any sense of back then were actually all about providing you with the material to go off the rails, which, in most cases, didn't exist anway. Yeah, you had that usually pretty short section "The Task", which, as a story, didn't seem like much. But in most of these modules, you also had tons of story seeds. These module's weren't quite sandboxes in the classical sense; they provided you with a starting point and a suggestion were to go from there, and a good set of tools for forging forward. They were open-ended, but focussed.

Unfortunately, by the time I realized that, I had already sold off my complete MERP collection because, like I said, I had convinced myself that all of that stuff wasn't very good.

And still, for some reason, I always rememebered two names: S. Coleman Charlton and Terry Kevin Amthor.

By now, I've been able to (re-)acquire some of Amthor's works, including Thieves of Tharbad. I've still not used it at the gaming table (since sadly, I don't play that much these days), but the MERP module as written by Amthor has become a fundamental touching point in adventure design for me. They taught me not to write adventures with twists. Instead, write NPCs with interesting goals and places with cool and unexpected stuff to discover. Don't create a timeline for when the characters have to discover what; never ever make your scenario depend on the PCs not finding out something "too early". Suggest a story, but only in terms of a starting point and a trajectory; NEVER EVER suggest that it needs to end in a specific way.

It's really nothing revolutionary, but it was a revelation to me; and Terry K. Amthor is the name I will always associate with that revelation.

I'm sure there's so much more to thank Terry K. Amthor for; I guess I'll find out when I get some of that more recent Shadow World stuff to finally get a closer look at one of the great, legendary RPG settings.

Still, from me, thank you for that, Terry Kevin Amthor!


  1. He will be missed. Shadow World is one of those settings that I love more and more as I get older. Thanks for all the adventure, Terry, you are one of the greats. May the Lords of Orhan welcome you with open arms.

  2. I really feel that I missed out on Shadow World. I've been aware of it for a long time, I think I read about it in a German games distribution catalog back in the beginning of the nineties. It was a delicious mystery to me ... the world for Rolemaster, which was, as far as I knew, "Advanced MERP". Back then, I used to confuse the Englisch words Shadow and Window, so I thought it was called "Window World", which actually sounded quite mysterious to me. I kept holding out for a German translation, because my English was not good enogh back then to read RPG stuff ...
    Then, as mentioned, I somehow convinced myself that MERP wasn't very good anyway and lost sight of Shadow World.
    Looking at it these days, it feels like exactly the type of Fantasy Setting with an SF kernel that I'm always on the lookout for. Numenera didn't scratch that itch, the setting is just too vague, and Tekumel might, but it seems so terribly inapproachable.
    Shadow World looks like just the right combination of serious world-building and relative accessibility.

    I probably wouldn't use RM these days, but checking SW out with an eye to actually playing it, using either a related system like vsD or HARP or something lightweight, like Fate should be more than worthwile.