The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood 5

After a week off, everyone was eager to jump back in on their adventure phase. It involves lots of tramping around Mirkwood, which is just this miserably blighted zone. And we stumbled into the game’s corruption death spiral.

Basically it goes like this: when your Shadow equals or exceeds your Hope, you become Miserable. When you’re Miserable, eventually you’ll experience a bout of madness in which you pick up a new bad trait, wipe your old Shadow, and pick up one permanent Shadow. It’s really similar to how Rot works in MYZ.

Well, so, play the game long enough and you see how hard it is to get Hope back. If you’ve had a bout of madness, you’ve certainly burned your Hope down. But then that damned permanent Shadow is right there, waiting to make you Miserable again and again. One of our characters went from zero to three permanent Shadow points (and three shadow traits, and three really terrible scenes played out) in one session. The dwarf started with one and now has three, and the elf went from zero to two.

On top of the ever narrowing window between Hope and Shadow, those shadow traits! They’re for the GM to hammer you with an additional d12 (take the lower of the two), which is the die that triggers the bout of madness! Eventually the H/S window closes, and you’re permanently Miserable.

I found the process to be surprisingly fast. It’s incentivizing! It’s also quite sudden. They went from “let’s push through to Ceawin’s Hall, heal our wounds, and make Thranduil’s hunt in time” to “fuck this, we’re fucking done, we’re totally fucked, oh my god we’re all gonna die” in a couple hours.

Not surprisingly, I think, this session also featured the most interesting roleplaying interpersonal scenes. Two characters had lovely mirrored bouts of madness in the same scene; another alienated Black Tarn’s clan during a freak out; and the human (who is now haughty, scornful and scheming!) decided Ceawin needs to ally with Lake-Town so seduced his daughter. There goes Ceawin’s plans to tie the clans together through marriage (as well as the Beorning woman who’d taken an interest in him).

From the outside, the fiction is suddenly brutal and intense. Good! I can’t tell how it feels from the inside, though. Two of the players have really keyed into their bad traits, a good excuse to ham up how they’ve already been aiming themselves. The third, the dwarf, is checked out now that he’s cruel and brutal, which doesn’t especially map to his internal vision I think. The rules say the GM plays the character through the madness but I opened it up to the players: they seemed to own their situation better when they were part of it. When I took over, there was enough emotional distance that it felt more like inconvenience than horror.

At this point I’m not sure how they recover. Really, really modest adventure phases for several years I guess? Sequential Fellowship phases? Only the Hobbit bought the Confidence virtue, and he is managing his shadow very carefully: no madness! The others got excited with fancy power-ups and now they don’t have the XPs to raise their wisdom. And maybe that’s okay: over the next two to five years, they tend to their knitting, rebuild their internal reserves, and build the courage to go back out into the world.

Visual Inspirations

A piece of art jeff fearnow posted last week (?) sent me back down memory lane once again to the Terran Trade Authority meta-series. I used to have Stewart Cowley’s original four books (first in the list here: a thousand years ago but I have no idea where they went off to. Too many moves, bad decisions by Past Paul I guess. If you’re not familiar with these — and if you’re not 40+ yo you might not be — they’re basically big coffee table books filled with gorgeous spaceship concept art, with documentary-style text running throughout as if you were holding some future historical artifact. I love it. It’s marvelous.

I was reminded there was a TTA RPG! Which, to be honest, is on my list of dream projects to do someday (along with a Race for the Galaxy RPG, but the licensing might be a very tough nut to crack). Did anyone ever play it? It’s based on “Omni System,” which I don’t know much or anything about. I guess Talislanta 5e is built on it. Don’t know much about it either.

I may need to start getting more coffee table art books so I can freebase the visual stimulation. The Dark North ( is allegedly coming my way someday; thinking it’d be rad as fuck to somehow distribute an Apocalypse World game setup amongst players who key into, or are assigned, pieces from the collection. Maybe hack Microscope into using the material somehow?

What have some of your favorite visual inspirations been? Looking for ideas and leads.

The One Ring

Hey TOR-heads! How are y’all handling treasure hoards? Like…where do you put them, how common are they, etc? It looks like stumbling on a hoard here and there, doing the treasure-hunter thing, is how you get your status up sometime before everyone dies of old age. Otherwise you’re getting whatever an NPC gives you, and/or running a holding (per Darkening of Mirkwood).

So what do you say? The barrows seem like obvious places to go treasure hunting. Do your monsters hoard treasure? That seems more like D&D than LOTR, at least as a universal principle.

Gamescience pound of dice report!

I think my distribution is similar or identical to Martin Ralya​​’s breakdown. Here’s a rough overview of what I got:

21x d4s. They’re all the clipped-points style. One of them is oversized! There’s nearly a complete set of oversized standard polyhedrals in the bag, just missing a d10 and a d6. This assortment is making me lust for an oversized set.

10x d6es. Ehh…They’re okay. Numbers not pips, and I’m a pips partisan. Three of them have custom “1”s.

10x d8s. One oversized! One glittery. Four opaque, and one of them is really cheap/soft with clipped corners.

27x d10s but lots of face variety. Since they’re uninked, it’s hard to eyeball what all is in there. Three 10-50s, four 00-40 (?), a couple 10-00, six 1-5s, and two blanks. Blanks! I have no idea what to do with them but they’re pretty. The rest are standard, with one glittery one. You can get close to a complete glittery set!

21x d12s, one of them oversized. They all look standard. No glitter, this is the missing link.

31x d20s, two of them oversized. Two glittery ones and they’re unreadable without ink. The majority (15, so a plurality I guess) are of the 1-10/+1-+10 style, 9 are the (0-9)x2 style (never got the point, just roll a d10), and the last 8 are standard d20s. There are a couple glow in the dark ones! Again, a set I didn’t know I needed but I sure do now.

9x itty bitty d20s, all different colors, all ‘dorbs and all in the 0-9 style whyyyyy.

A complete polyhedral set in kind of a tiger eye style. Quite beautiful.

And a selection of dWTFs: two d24s, four d16s, a d14 (with the days of the week above the numbers!), a three sided “rock paper scissors” die (?), and an extremely clever d5 that doesn’t look like it should produce an even distribution but maybe it does? Looks like a fat triangle, and sure enough it lands on an edge as often as not.

Some really weird dice in there!

TFW the USPS tracking code says your big order of Gamescience dice was delivered yesterday, but it’s nowhere to be seen. :-/

We have an exceptionally bad mail delivery person in this neighborhood. Not the first time something’s gone mysteriously missing. If it’s not here today, I guess it’s time to start hassling someone.

Eclipse Phase

I’ve been reading through Eclipse Phase the past few days. I really like the setting and the premise and the way the game handles transhumanism. Very accessible, feels an awful lot like Morgan’s Altered Carbon stuff as well as Reynolds’ Revelation Space work. 

The books are free (they’re distributed by the author at the link). They are dense with text. So so much text.

Unfortunately, the game system itself is utterly unremarkable: percentile roll against whatever the GM says, succeed or fail. That’s it. It’s like…placeholder text. The one killer idea that’s also the core conceit of the game is that your mind/identity is a digital asset that can be fitted into a “morph,” something designed to hold your mind. Might be a grown body, or a robot, or a digital entity designed to operate on the “Mesh,” their ultrafuture internet thingy.

I almost wish he’d just left procedures out, you know? The whole series is like this. The fictional stuff, the premise, the extrapolations — awesome. Seriously. If you like transhumanism in the download-into-any-body mode, this is the setting for you. But what’s up with the game system? It’s not just trad, it’s lazy trad that relies entirely on the GM to do whatever the GM will do.

Happily, I think, there are a zillion hacks available. I mean, apparently, you can play EP as a Fiasco scenario (although I’ve seen Fiasco bent into some very strange shapes, so I’m not sold this is a good match). There’s a biiiig Fate adaptation, which I think is probably worth looking at. Someone did a Cortex Plus/MHR hack, which honestly looks kind of iffy but, man…maybe? I think Cortex Plus could be a really nice platform for this game.

The fussy technical detail of the game makes it daunting to hack, either into another format (like some flavor of Cortex Plus, god so many traits to write), or just to strip out the details. That may be me. It always feels to me like those details are important for some players and some premises — if gearing up correctly is important to succeeding at a mission, then just saying “I’ve got the right gear, let’s get on with it” is kind of unsatisfying.

So who’s playing this? What are you using? Thematically and fictionally it’s definitely something that interests me. But lordy the system is just killing me.

Eclipse Phase PDFs

Prompted by a recent post by J. Walton where he mentions something called Dungeonhearts in passing, I thought I’d take a swing past drivethrurpg and see what all’s out there these days in the PbtA world. 

There are 404 items tagged with “Apocalypse World Engine.” More than four hundred! Granted a loooot of those are one-off playbooks for AW or DW, and quite a few of them are weird things like drawings of “post-apocalypse survivors” for $2 or whatever. But even taking all that into account, there are probably easily more than 50-or-so titles.

The vast swath of iffy supplements is interesting to me. I suppose it’s really no different at all than the swaths of iffy OSR supplements or whatever. Does anyone actually make a buck selling a $4 playbook?

On the one hand, it’s a little intimidating. As I look at my own potential future design work, it feels like riding the PbtA train is useful for brand and audience reasons. On the other hand, how on earth do you stand out? So many titles. My god. So many titles. On the other other hand, heck, maybe I oughta just throw some half-assed design doodles up there and charge $5. 

Folks kept yelling at me to “publish” something more complete for Tiny Dragons. Is this what they were talking about?

The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood 4

Fourth episode of our TOR game is in the books. It was very satisfying! I’m smiling at myself that “satisfying” is now my benchmark for success; dunno if I will ever have, really need, or should ever again aim for “fucking awwwwwesome!” again. Satisfying. Yeah.

Our company was finally faced with a wide-open “soooo what do you want to do?” Fellowship phase aftermath. I talked through what all had happened through the end of 2948 and the beginning of 2949, set everyone up with stuff-at-home momentum, created a few new NPCs to start tapping into. The plan ended up being “let’s swing south to the Black Tarn and check out the progress on their new hall, look into Ingomer’s “bloody ghost” story, take a long hard look at Mogdred’s setup down there, then swing through East Bight, rest at Ceawin’s, then up north to Thranduil’s royal hunt.”

It’s great! Very open-ended. I love that everyone in the company gets a little of what they care about, and they all stick together and help each other out. Nice. 

Anyway, I had a chance to roll out my modifications to Encounters, and I would say they were quite successful. I talked through them all, and the players raised some good concerns. Anyway, to re-outline with additional thoughts:

* Roleplaying through figuring out what the NPC is about = Good! This is pure RAW and will set both Tolerance as well as the best way to introduce yourself. The players ground up against the “awe is for a single awesome spokesman to represent the company” rule, mostly because the Dwarf is terrific at Awe but suuuucks at social skills. So they have to decide, you know, whether it’s worth pulling in Courtesy or even Riddle just so everyone has a chance to talk, even if those are not the preferred introduction modes. That whole system really worked well.

* Setting the high-level intent for an Encounter and holding off until it’s nailed down, that’s good. It’s hard. It’s a best-practice thing that feels an awful lot like “so what can you ask for in a Duel of Wits?” It also intersects badly with the rest of the system unless you bundle in Ralph Mazza​’s Boons stuff. I didn’t do Boons but I’m going to try it out next time. 

* Secret Tolerance is GOOD, especially when combined with “meeting Tolerance means something terrible happens.” Not RAW I think (Nicholas Hopkins​ you’re playing correctly), but the cat-and-mouse freakout about nudging up against Tolerance, that’s very nice.

Stuff I want to nail down tighter:

* Probably roll Boons in next time. That reorganizes the system around actual achievables, and sets up compromises. It’s good. In fact I think this is all I need to roll in, because this will fix other issues I have w/r/t the Encounter’s intent, Tolerance, and just what non-talky successes/failures look like. As written, I think, successes and failures of any rolls during Encounter count toward success level as well as breaking Tolerance. It feels very abstract, i.e. you roll Lore to gather info about some new shit that has just come to light, and you fail, and that…looks like it’s pissing off the NPC, even though it’s something entirely inside your own head. 

We also had this awkward bit where a failed Lore roll split the company on whether to pursue their original intent — Amadeola helps us hunt the “bloody ghost” versus the belief that Amadeola cooked up the “bloody ghost” story to cover for internal badness (murrrrder?) at the Black Tarn. This is kind of where the Duel of Wits also falls down: you’re committed to this thing, even though your thing may reasonably change shape in the course of argument. I think Boons may fix this as well, esp. if they’re renegotiable along the way.

After a lengthy Encounter at the Black Tarn, they decide to head south into superbad forestland looking for Tyrant’s Hill. Amadeola’s folks never go that far south, because South Mirkwood is a bunch of scary bullshit.

We finally had our first bout of madness, which was pretty wild. The corruption tests started stacking up pretty bad against both the elf and the dwarf. The dwarf took a cultural virtue last session that I’m totally in love with: your standing Shadow counts as a bonus on all Common tests. Holy shit! So he’s up to, get this, 12 fucking Shadow. Oh my food. But he also doesn’t really care, since all, all of it goes away as soon as he goes mad. Meanwhile it’s a really sweet carrot. Who doesn’t want +12? It’s clever.

But it wasn’t the dwarf who broke, it was the elf. Her curse is power, so now her first negative Trait is Resentful. So flexible. So perfect. She also is in the middle of this love triangle with the Barding PC and this Beorning trader lady I introduced over the fellowship phase. They’ve already been catty toward each other, but now with Resentful? Niiiice.

The elf’s bout of madness was marvelous and scary and was entirely the player’s idea. They had stumbled onto Tyrant’s Hill and started evaluating Mogdred’s force disposition. And then someone fumbled their Stealth test and they stumbled onto a small patrol. They had a fight, didn’t kill anyone but did knock everyone out of the fight. The brave little hobbit got wounded, augh! But during the fight, the elf rolled an eyeball.

After the battle, they’re gathering the prisoners they’ve taken to start asking them questions. And the elf starts quietly slitting their throats. And since the GM gets to play the character, gosh yes I start spending Hope to avoid the PCs who are trying to stop me/her! She’s a fucking elf, totally at home in Mirkwood and an unstoppable killing machine when she needs to be. Yeah, they all died. The company is horrified.

So we ended the session sincerely torn between backing off to the Black Tarn and recovering the hobbit’s wound, or pushing forward through the narrows and resting with Ceawin’s folks. If they back off, they’ll miss Thranduil’s royal hunt. If they push on, the Narrows are no treat either.