Elric of Melnibone:

Diplomacy Variants Based on The Young Kingdoms

Mark Nelson and Stephen Agar

This is the tale of Elric before he was called Womanslayer, before the final collapse of Melnibone. This is the tale of his rivalry with his cousin Yyrkoon and his love for his cousin Cymoril, before that rivalry and that love brought Imrryr, the Dreaming City, crashing in flames, raped by the reavers of the Young Kingdoms. This is the tale of the two black swords Stormbringer and Mournblade, and how they were discovered and what part they played in the destiny of Elric of Melnibone -- a destiny which was to shape a larger destiny: that of the world itself. This is a tale of when Elric was a king, the commander of dragons, fleets, and all the folk of that half-human race which had ruled the earth for ten thousand years.
This is a tale of tragedy, this tale of Melnibone, the Dragon Isle. This is a tale of monstrous emotions and high ambitions. This is a tale of sorceries and treacheries and worthy ideals, of agonies and fearful pleasures, of bitter love and sweet hatred. This is the tale of Elric of Melnibone. Much of it Elric himself was to remember only in his nightmares.
- the Chronicle of the Black Sword
Elric was created by Michael Moorcock in 1972 when Elric of Melnibone was first published. This volume contained the map of the Young Kingdoms which is the main source for all Elric variants. The books tell the story of Elric, the albino King of Melnibone and of Stormbringer, his sword. After many books and many adventures, Elric, having been deposed, even connives at the destruction of Imryrr (the capital of Melnibone) with the aid of pirates from the Young Kingdoms and thus brings on the destruction of his own race.

Stormbringer is as much the central figure of the stories as Elric himself, being in fact a chaotic evil sentient being from another plane. It drains energy from all it wounds, eventually draining the very souls of the wounded. At times, the sword takes control of Elric and he goes on a killing frenzy which may include his closest friends. If you want to try one of the books to see what they are like, we recommend Stormbringer, even though it is sequentially the last in the series.

Elric is unlike most fantasy heroes is that he is really a sad and lonely figure who ultimately brings death to all around him. As such, the Elric novels are a refreshing change from the "comparable to Tolkien at his best-cum-fantasy role playing game campaigns" that, unfortunately, dominate the Fantasy market.

The United Kingdom Variant Bank (UKVB) holds four variants based upon Michael Moorcock's Elric books:

     fy02/06 The Age Of The Young Kingdoms Kedge Neuman    30p,
     fy01/07 The Young Kingdoms            Stephen Agar    30p,
     fy03/07 Black Blade                   Rob Nott        40p,
     fy??/07 The Young Kingdoms II         Stephen Agar    20p.
Stephen Agar's "The Young Kingdoms I" has for many years been listed as "The Young Kingdoms III" in the North American Variant Bank (NAVB) catalogue, Ken St. Andre having designed "The Young Kingdoms I" and "The Young Kingdoms II" in the mid 1970's. However, these earlier designs are lost, and the UKVB catalogue accordingly lists Stephen's designs as I and II.

We review here the four Elric variants in their order of publication.

"The Age of the Young Kingdoms" is a six-player variant in which the powers are: Agrimiliar, Lormyrr, Jharkor, Ilmiora, Pan Tang and Melnibone. There are five fortresses in the game, four of which are garrisoned by a single unit, and the other (Melnibone) garrisoned by double-garrison. The only unit types in the game are army and fleet.

In addition Pan Tang and Melnibone have a Sorcerer unit. There are ten different spells; at the start of the game each Sorcerer is randomly given four of the ten spells, and the remaining two spells are hidden by the GM on the board. Eight of the spells are relatively low key, allowing the Sorcerer to attack or support a unit, or to create a Standing Army. Two are much more powerful, Kelmain Horders and Destruction. All the spells may be used once only.

The game starts in 1400, and the victory condition is ownership of fourteen supply centres.

Quick Summary: "The Age of the Yong Kingdoms" is a very simple map/rule change Diplomacy variant with the addition of a simple magic system to recreate the atmosphere of the books.

"Young Kingdoms I", designed by Steve Agar in 1980, is a 7-player variant, the powers being Agrimiliar, Dharijor, Kurfar, Lormyr, Melnibone, Shazar and Vilmir. The game starts in Spring 6480 and there are the standard two seasons per year. All players except Melnibone start with three supply centres; Melnibone has one double-centre, and consequently will usually be playing short. However Melnibone may, "by virtue of its better organisation," have double units. The rules do not specify what is meant by double units. Presumably, you can use two builds to build a double strength unit. However, some questions remain. Does a double strength unit act at double strength when supporting? Does an unsupported attack on a supporting double strength unit cut all the support or just one of the supports? Can Melnibone merge units together to create double units?

In addition to the standard army and fleet units, Melnibone has a Dragon unit. This unit requires no supply centre to support it, has a strength of 1.5, may move up to two provinces per season and can share provinces with other Melnibone units. It neutralises supply centres rather than capturing them, and it may not be rebuilt if destroyed.

Instead of building a standard unit in a Winter season, players may order the build of a Mercenary unit. These units, which may be either army or Fleet, may be built in one of 15 designated provinces, two of which are neutral supply centres and one of which, Sequaloris, is a garrisoned neutral supply centre. Provided that the build province is vacant the mercanary unit appears after the Summer retreats. In order to create confusion as to the ownership of the mercenary unit, the build order is not listed in the game-report, and orders for mercenary units are listed at the end of the report. However, unless two, or more, players are playing one unit short, ownership will be apparent from the Winter builds (or rather, the lack thereof). Each of the designated provinces can only support one mercenary unit at a time. The rules do not cover the circumstance in which two, or more, players order a build in the same province. Neither do they say whether a Mercenary unit built in Sequaloris is sufficient to capture this garrisoned supply centre.

The victory condition is ownership of 17 supply centres, with Imrryr being a double supply centre. Four of the supply centres are garrisoned, two of these (Imrryr and Tanelorn) have double strength garrison units. The rules do not say what happens to the garrison if the supply centre is captured by a hostile power; the usual rule in these circumstances is that the garrison is destroyed and that it may not be rebuilt. In addition the rules do not state whether garrisons may be supported nor if the strength of the garrison is added to the strength of any defending unit in the province.

In addition, the "Abstraction" Army/Fleet rules are used. When the game was originally published Steve wrote, "The central feature of the board is the predominance of sea spaces, when you use the "Abstraction" A/F rules it [the game] becomes very fast. For example, in the first year Melnibone can have a supported attack on a home centre of four of the other six powers, and an unsupported attack on a home centre of the other two. You will find that it is as easy for a power to attack another country across the ocean as it is for it to attack its next door neighbour. This fluidity should raise the level of Diplomacy. Careful building of mercenary units can make any well planned stab more effective, for you will be able to control units behind your victim's line of defence, forcing him to fight on two fronts. Stalemate lines do not exist on this board."

Quick Summary:Simple Map/Rule change variant using A/F and Mercenary build rules to add excitement, fluidity and to break down stalemate lines. Several of the rules should be clarified by the GM before starting a game.

"Black Blade," dated January 1986, is a seven-player variant in which the powers are Ilmiora, Jharkor, Lormyr, Melnibone, Pan Tang, Pikaryd, and Vilmir.

Rules 2 through 7 recap several ideas from "Machiavelli":

  • players receive revenue from the provinces they own,
  • the amount of revenue produced by a province depends upon its status (city, land province, sea province or capital province),
  • capital, city and land provinces are captured whenever entered, whilst sea provinces generate revenue only if occupied at the appropriate time
  • there are Assassination, Bribe and Counter-Bribe orders
  • garrisoned cities have to be captured by an uninterrupted siege of two seasons duration,
  • it is possible to destroy and rebuild cities,
  • money may be borrowed from a money lender, and
  • an army (fleet) unit that is in a city may convert into a garrison and subsequently convert into a fleet (army). In addition, it is possible to support a support, in which case a single unsupported attack does not cut the support.

    Rules 8 through 22 flavour the basic Machiavellian stew with exotic flavours based upon the book. Units in this game are either army, fleet or garrison, but Melnibone has a triple fleet, known as the Battle Barge, and Jharkor a double army, representing the White Leopards. Although Melnibone, an island, has several provinces, enemy units can only enter at Imrryr, although they may order attacks on other provinces of Melnibone to cut support. The province of Imryrr is immune to standard bribe orders.

    There are also rules covering the Dragons of Velra, Mordaga's Castle (the Chaos Shield), the Duke of Chaos (owned by Pan Tang), the Marshes of Mist, The Silent Lands (Dharzi spirits), Tanelorn, The Weeping Waste (The Desert People act as Mercenary armies which can be bought), Rlin K'ren and A'a Kaneloon (which is Home of Myshella the Sleeping Sorceress).

    Perhaps reflecting the designer's penchant for free-form role-playing, this variant has no victory criteria and there are no rules covering the the naming of the turns. A game of this variant was started in the RPG postal zine Gingwatzim but it was abandoned after a few seasons of play. It is possible that it was played in LSD, Rob Nott's zine.

    Quick Summary: A "Machiavelli"-based game with some exotic rules to reflect the world portrayed in the books.

    "Young Kingdoms II" is, in the words of the designer, a "total redesign" of "Young Kingdoms I." The rules and map for the Young Kingdoms II are available via The Diplomatic Pouch's variants page.

    The game remains a seven-player game with two changes in the player powers; The Isle of the Purple Towns replaces Agrimiliar and Oin-Yu replaces Kurfar. The Purple Towns is a two province island, a single supply centre and a double supply centre, with starting units of a Fleet and an Army/Fleet.

    Melnibone no longer starts with an army, a fleet and a Dragon in Imrryr, but instead has an A/F and the Dragon starting there. This is a sensible change, to create more fluidity at the start of the game. The rules for the Dragon Unit are the same as in "Young Kingdoms I," whilst the concept of Mercenary Armies has been replaced by Chaos Units, which are described below. Melnibone still has the problem of only having one home supply centre, but is no longer "sufficiently well organised" to merit double units. The game starts in Spring 6480.

    The victory condition is ownership of 18 supply centres, with Imrryr and Fortress of Evening being double supply centres. Four of the supply centres are garrisoned. The rules now cover the possibility that garrisoned provinces may be captured by hostile powers, and also state that garrisons may be supported. They do not state if the garrison adds to the strength of any unit occupying the province.

    "Young Kingdoms II" introduces an Elric personality unit into the game. Any power who is not allied to Elric may build a Chaos Unit in one of three specific provinces, provided that any Chaos Unit previously built in the chosen province is no longer on the board. The rules do not cover the possibility that two players order a build in the same province. The Chaos Unit has to be supported in the usual way. Chaos Units can change into a fleet or army at will, they may not be part of either a multiple unit or an A/F, they neutralise supply centres they occupy at the end of an Autumn season rather than capture them, and they are the only unit type which may enter The Silent Land, The Sighing Desert and Kelmain. No combat is permitted within these provinces and Chaos units in these provinces may not offer support into adjacent provinces.

    Elric is a personality unit which starts the game hidden in a neutral supply centre determined randomly by the GM. The first power to discover Elric has the option of allying with him. Elric is a 0.5 unit which can capture supply centres. He may not share a province with a Melnibonean unit, and will neither support a Melnibonean unit nor ally with Melnibone. If Elric occupies Imrryr, the Melnibonean player is eliminated, the Melnibonean units are eliminated (including Melnibonean Chaos units if appropriate), the provinces of Imrryr, The Caves and Tanelorn become permanently neutral and impassable -- occupying units have to retreat -- and the victory condition is reduced to ownership of 16 supply centres. Control of Elric is lost either by renouncing him or if he is forced to retreat; in either instance the GM randomly hides him in one of the neutral supply centres.

    Elric, Elric-led units, and Chaos Units are the only units which may enter Tanelorn; Chaos Units destroying Tanelorn in the process.

    Quick Summary: Simple Map/Rule change variant using the "Abstraction" A/F rules and Chaos builds to add excitement and breakdown stalemate lines. The Elric personality unit is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the book.

    Which of the three basic designs is best? "Black Blade" will appeal to those who prefer the Machiavillian economy to the supply centre based economy of regular Diplomacy. It also goes the furthest in the creation of extra rules to recreate the atmosphere of the books. The use of the "Machiavelli" economy means that this game requires the most book-keeping by the GM.

    "The Age of the Young Kingdoms" is a simple map and rule change variant, reflecting the prevalent fantasy style before "Downfall" achieved prominence in the 1980's. The use of spells reflects the attempt of several variant designers of the 1970's to merge Diplomacy with "Dungeons and Dragons." Although old, it is by no means either a poor design or an unplayable game.

    Since "The Young Kingdoms I" has not been play-tested postally, it is not clear which of the rule changes in "The Young Kingdoms II" represent an improvement in playability. "The Young Kingdoms" variants are the only designs to make use of the possibilities offered by the A/F rules on a map which contains a large central section of water; the A/F rules could easily be included in the other designs.

    In order of complexity we rank the designs:

    1. "The Age of the Young Kingdoms"
    2. "The Young Kingdoms," and
    3. "Black Blade"
    although none of them will require constant reference to the rule book.

    If Mark ever came out of retirement from Mastering to run one of these variants he would be happy to run either "The Young Kingdoms" or " The Age of the Young Kingdoms," with the addition of the A/F rules to the latter. If he came out of retirement as a player, he would prefer the former.

    As for Stephen, he thinks it is about time the rules of "Young Kingdoms I" and "Young Kingdoms II" were clarified in "Young Kingdoms III," taking out Oin-Yu as a power and replacing it with Pang Tang.


    The novels by Michael Moorcock:

    Elric of Melnibone
    The Sailor on the Seas of Fate
    The Fortress of the Pearl
    The Weird of the White Wolf
    The Vanishing Tower
    The Revenge of the Rose
    The Bane of the Black Sword

    This is the order in which the events happen, but the series is not one you have to read in order. The series wasn't planned as an octology; Moorcock has written new books whenever he needed the money. In addition to the above, there is Elric at the End of Time, which does not fit into the above time sequence.

    You can draw inspiration for your press releases by either reading the books and/or listening to the music! Hawkwind released a double LP based upon the Elric novels called Live Chronicles which was recorded live on the "Chronicles of the Black Sword" Tour in 1985.

    We acknowledge the help of former UKVB Custodian James Nelson ([email protected]) during the writing of this article.

    Mark Nelson
    University of Leeds, UK
    ([email protected])

    Stephen Agar
    ([email protected])

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