Reading the Signs

One of my favorite things about really mastering a system is discovering the signals that a well-designed game sends. Examples:

* My most recent discovery: in The One Ring, I’m pretty sure folks who start using their Traits for automatic ordinary successes in lieu of gambling against the possibility of having to spend Hope are ready for the Adventure Phase to be over. 

* If a Burning Wheel player is building up too much artha, that can either mean your consequences are too soft or you’re not running enough scripted conflicts.

* In Circle of Hands, when someone reaches for a character over and over again (as often as the system allows, ie every other session), they’re not really interested in how “someone else” might interpret that character.

* In Urban Shadows, players who chase Corruption as hard as they can have no intention or expectation of playing past about 5 sessions. (Which breaks the Debt economy, but that’s another subject.)

It’s just so interesting to identify these … I don’t know what to call them; second-order market signals, maybe. They remind me of the economists who look at orders for, say, cardboard boxes this quarter as a signal that sales are going to increase next quarter. 

What hidden signals have you identified in your favorite game?

The One Ring
Additional Debrief

Additional observations, now that I’ve had time to sleep on our session:

* The three players who had spent Hope last session were absolutely terrified to spend any this session. The fourth one, you know, he’s new! So he was perfectly okay spending Hope (especially once he got Weary and the failboat set out to sea). So that was interesting. But the ever-dwindling Hope economy is the big reason why I think I was wrong to diddle with the advancement point system: as Hope goes down, I think the incentive to use Traits for non-great successes goes way up already. Messing with the APs just speeds that process up. I don’t love that, because it mirrors similar (boring) results in other games where character capability becomes so fail-proof that rolling is pointless. 

* Feeling iffy about instant-success Trait use. Like, why not just skip the Journey phase rolls entirely if you can be Hearty (or Bold or Herb-lore or whaaaatever) the whole way? Don’t risk hazards, don’t risk extra Hope spends. Counterpoint: I do get that earning Advancement Points is the main reason why players need to keep rolling. And that filling up AP tracks is probably a practical countdown to how long an Adventure Phase “should” be.

I feel like it could easily become an undesirable GMing challenge for me to cook up situations where either Traits don’t really work (unlikely, there are too many of them) or where extraordinary successes are needed.

* I’m feeling dissatisfied with Encounters as written. The more I mess with them the more undercooked they seem. Like…having both the pre-encounter Insight (for bonus) and the Introduction roll feels narratively redundant: two rolls before things start happening? I mean that’s not a show-stopper, it just feels bloaty. And then I’m not super sure what to do with the Introduction roll results. Does failure mean the encounter doesn’t happen? It probably should, right? So then return to falling back on no-fail Trait use. I can’t find any reason to generate great/extraordinary successes in the introduction, other than for advancement purposes, so yeah, that’s probably gonna happen.

Adding up total successes and running a tally against Tolerance also seems pointless. Rolling and rolling and rolling, to my Burning Wheel damaged brain, also feels dumb once you’ve established your intent (which, you know: yay! I’m glad TOR does this). Basically Encounters are an oversimplified Duel of Wits. Boo.

I think that’s everything. Yay insomnia.

The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood 2

Ahhh…that satisfies. Full table, perfect attendance, an early start and a really nice session of The One Ring with good friends. 

This was the first session where I needed to be really flexible about where they might go and what they might do. We added a new player with a dwarf character, the sole survivor of the Werewolf of Mirkwood’s attack on his trading caravan. Despite many scary tales and lots of “are you shitting me with this” from NPCs, they’ve decided to go on a werewolf hunt. In the heart of Mirkwood. Oh you sweet innocent children.

Got to play through the folk-moot of the Woodmen in 2948 at Rhosgobel, the second year of Darkening of Mirkwood. Lots of interesting threads there, and it’s kind of a must-attend event (which I hate, but The Great Pendragon Campaign had them as well so what are you gonna do?). They got to finally meet the bad apples from Tyrant’s Hill as well as the various major NPCs in and around Woodmen Hall. Negotiated to begin the eventual reopening of the Old Forest Road, which they’ll scout out while en route to the werewolf. Things played out nicely there. We’ll have lots of leads to pursue.

Oh lord. So this werewolf hunt, right? I mean it’s not like hunting Smaug or anything but it’s not gonna be easy. And their main lead is the common knowledge that it lives in the caves under the Mountains of Mirkwood. Riiiight in the center of the forest. 

This was their first attempt at sketching out a travel plan, and with no player knowledge of where the good and bad parts of the forest are, they’ve definitely chosen very nearly the worst instant-death course. Calculating the journey wasn’t terrible. Good reason for everyone to take a 5 minute break.

Hilariously, just 3 days into the forest they rolled a Hazard, which affected everyone, and was a combat encounter. Oh lord. Literally the worst possible outcome. They got to meet another NPC! A leader of a band of outlaws running away from an orc horde. Unfortunately they also got to meet the orc horde. Good fight, very exciting — I’m sold on how The One Ring handles combat. Lots of interesting choices, good sense of drama. Super-tank dwarf in his 5d of armor, oh yeah, that dude got weary fast. I wonder if he’s gonna rethink the armor situation after this? No idea.

They ended up barely defeating the orcs, and hobbling back to the outlaw camp to stop, rest, and restart their crazy journey. There are like 40 days of travel left ahead of them and they’re all gonna end up shadowed out and crazy.

A couple observations:

* I’ve made a mistake by easing up the requirement to earn advancement points. At first I thought it wouldn’t be bad to let players earn their APs in any order they wanted, i.e. if they were able to shoehorn a trait into a successful roll, well sure, no problem, go ahead and fill in the second AP spot. It’s pretty clear to me now that it screws up other bits of math! Specifically, it makes locking in all three AP spots in a skill group pretty easy, which means players fall back on just using their Traits to bang out ordinary successes for things (like their Travel rolls during a journey). That in turn means fewer Hope points get spent to nudge needed rolls. I think the harder AP earning scheme needs to be there to entice folks to just roll the fucking dice already and not rely on their Traits so much. 

* Felt super iffy trying to structure the Encounter(s) at the folk-moot. Couldn’t tell when one encounter stopped and if another started. Tracking successes seemed pointless. Tolerance was completely irrelevant. In fact the whole “roll until you run out the Tolerance” system seems…not well thought out. Maybe there were some lucky rolls, but my players just kind of shrugged and stopped rolling once they hit seven earned successes (the most that “matter” in an encounter) and no failures. I think the whole thing cost a Hope.

Well, it was pretty fun and the sandbox has plenty of sand in it now. Pretty stoked to see how many years into Darkening we can make it.

The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood returns!
More Sandplot Talk

Tonight is the triumphant return of Tuesday game night, woo! I cannot express how much I just need some normalcy in my schedule again. Past couple weeks have left me unsettled, moody, generally shitty toward and about everyone and everything. Apologies if you’ve been on the receiving end of that.

So we haven’t played The One Ring in a month. A fucking month, which is way past my normal 2-week window after which the fizz escapes the bottle. Everyone is allegedly stoked. We’ll see.

We had only one session prior to this, and that was mostly to get the company injected into the Wilderlands, out in the world and doing stuff. There’s hardly any momentum there, either to disrupt nor to rely on. It’s basically starting over.

We’re bringing a character into the company this evening as well, because the player (who was present to make characters) couldn’t attend the first go. This same player also missed our first session of Urban Shadows, and bringing his storyline into that game was tricky and a little disruptive. Not terrible! And US relies on interpersonal stuff way more than TOR does, of course. They don’t talk about how to add new characters in TOR but I assume players can reorganize their characters’ fellowship focus at whim. Probably with a little explanation of what’s happening in the fiction to rationalize it.

This session is also the verrrrry beginning of my experiment with kinda-sorta sandbox/sandplot play in the Wilderlands. They’re away from home at Woodmen-town, and we’re playing through the backdrop in Darkening of Mirkwood. Sooo, you know, maybe they’ll go check out the folk-moot that’s laid out in the campaign! Or maybe they’ll wander around the map. The planning and prep to manage this feels absurd, at least until I’ve mostly memorized the content of Heart of the Wild. There has to be a better way.

This is pretty much the grail of total-freedom trad play, right? Create and maintain a living world outside the PCs that feels credible and interesting no matter when or how they engage with it? Really it’s no wonder, as a practical matter, that PC-centered nar play (build a relationship map, start pressing on unstable triangles, occasionally produce external threats) and railroading (build a physical map, provide narrow and explicit choices, occasionally produce external threats) are such well-defined modes of play. 

I think, really, the only successful sandbox/sandplot game I’ve ever run is Mutant: Year Zero. The plot was buried in the sandbox creation procedures and the premise had no particular timeline, other than what was driven by threats to the Ark (random) and food/water/bullet grinds. Unfortunately when you have a Darkening of Mirkwood or Great Pendragon Campaign type setup, the tick-tock of the clock itself is what’s supposed to generate urgency. 

Reporting back in tomorrow with results. Fingers crossed.

Liberty or Death

Second Attempt

RPG night fell through but in my desperate bid for normalcy I pulled together a head-to-head go at LoD.

I played the entirety of the Rebellion (Patriots and French). When I tried this with Fire in the Lake there was just too too much to think about. But LoD is much more manageable. Fun to coordinate the factions, and you’re almost always involved. Sometimes COIN downtime can take a while.

Anyway, we played the medium scenario again and it took about 5 hours. Now I’ve played every faction except the Indians. Still a coupe plays away from really understanding the factions, or extending my planning horizon beyond my own shit.