The One Ring
Effing Encounters

Okay, I’ve thought through all the bits and bobs about Encounters that bug me and I’ve got some ideas. Specifically, the main issues I want to address are the lack of tension, lack of choices, and over-mechanization of the process.

And here we go.

My goal here is to hew as close as possible to the RAW and bring in every tool at the game’s disposal to squeeze some life out of what is, IMO, a lifeless, tension-free, decision-free mechanical exercise.
I’ll make notes as I go indicating where I’m veering off RAW, by how much, and why.

1)      Opening Insight roll to generate bonus dice: remains unchanged. (RAW)

2)      Set the Encounter intent: it needs to be explicit and it needs to be a call to a single action (semi RAW). If the NPCs have their own goals, state them here as well (to help figure out future compromise; NOT RAW).

3)      Introduction Rolls: TN varies by the NPC’s customs and traditions (RAW)
     a.       May make a Lore test to determine which skill will have the lowest TN (RAW)
     b.      Ask the company how they’ll be introducing themselves, then GM declares TN (RAW)
     c.       Establish clear consequences for failing the Introduction (typically but not always means the encounter can’t take place).
     d.      Notes and limitations of each Introduction option:
               i.      Awe: made by a single hero, and only that hero will be making Interaction rolls. Usually but not always a sign that the NPC’s Tolerance is Valor based (semi RAW). Usually but not always the required Introduction when the Encounter starts unfriendly. No other Introductions can be made (semi RAW).
               ii.      Courtesy: made by any hero who wants to participate. Usually but not always a sign that the NPC’s Tolerance is Wisdom based (semi RAW). Usually but not always the required introduction when the Encounter starts friendly. Any hero who wants to participate must roll.
               iii.      Riddle: made by a single hero, and only that hero will be making Interaction rolls. Failure doesn’t end the Encounter but counts as the first failure against Tolerance (not RAW, but based on a reasonable interpretation of the text). No other Introductions can be made (semi RAW).

4)      Establish Tolerance: remains unchanged and depends on who is talking (take all participating heroes into consideration). HOWEVER, some clarifications.
     a.       Tolerance is set in secret and is cued to the players through roleplay (RAW)
     b.      Breaking Tolerance (i.e. failures = Tolerance) almost never carries with it an inconsequential outcome, but at the very least means the entire Encounter ends in failure (NOT RAW). Let It Ride is in effect, though, and the same request cannot be made should the Encounter end in failure.
     c.       I’m tying Tolerance failure outcomes to the Shadow level where the Encounter takes place (NOT RAW), with the Free Lands being the least consequential and the Dark Lands being the most. Rough ideas:
               i.      Free Lands: polite close to conversations, barring specifically offensive failures within the Encounter itself. TN16 for future Introductions.
               ii.      Border Lands: shunning, further Encounters in the area more difficult (TN18 for future Introduction rolls)
               iii.      Wild Lands: immediate expulsion, TN 20 Introduction rolls in the future (assuming someone’s Trait can create an opportunity at all).
               iv.      Shadow Lands: threats of violence unless the heroes leave immediately, future Encounters outright impossible at this level and higher
               v.      Dark Lands: immediate and unreasonable escalation to extreme violence

5)      Interaction rolls
     a.       Every roll must have an associated intent and failure consequences. If you don’t have an intent in mind, you can’t make the roll. No rolling just to generate Encounter successes! (RAW) Keep the Encounter’s overall goal in mind when setting intents, and don’t set one where failure makes the Encounter impossible.
     b.      GM decides if the roll is passively or actively opposed by an NPC. (Semi RAW)
               i.      Passively opposed = roll against a TN. Determine the difficulty as normal (TN 14 by default, as low as 10 or as high as 20 based on how much is being asked, set by the GM) (RAW)
               ii.      Actively opposed, ie the NPC wants something related to the task/encounter as well = Opposed Action! (semi RAW). Set the TN as above, active character rolls. On a fail, challenging character automatically succeeds. On a success, challenging character rolls against same TN. Break ties in the usual way: number of 6es, then the Feat die. If the active character (PC) doesn’t win, this is also a failure and is counted against Tolerance (semi RAW).
                iii.      Let it Ride (Repeating an Action, p148) is in effect as always! Pay attention! (RAW). However, the GM may decide a task (passive or active) requires a Prolonged Action (semi RAW in the case of an opposed roll). If a task takes 3 rolls, reduce TN by 1; 4 or 5 rolls, reduce TN by 2; 6+ rolls, reduce TN by 3. Count additional successes on any given roll toward the total # of rolls required to be made. Good way to reduce the TN of an excessively difficult ask. # of required rolls = # of earned successes for determining the outcome (NOT RAW).
     c.       Intent determines the required skill, set by the GM. Start with intent, move on to task (RAW). See the typical list: insight, inspire, persuade, riddle, song.

6)      Encounter outcome: Assuming Tolerance has not been met (NOT RAW), add up total successes. Compare per the existing table: 1 success = compromise (semi RAW), 2-4 = Success, 5-6 = Great Success (intent and a bonus), 7+ Extraordinary success (intent, bonus, and a complication due to overshooting – semi RAW).

* * * * *

The overall theme of all this is to slow the process down and make the individual rolls matter more. I think, for me, the big problem is that it’s sort of implied that the rolls don’t matter, that they’re just color as you grind toward the final # of successes you’re trying to earn.

The other deal is that I skipped a couple important things about Encounters, specifically the fact that Tolerance is a secret number. That’s a big deal. Pushing your luck really needs to be at the center of the system

Okay, TOR heads, tell me where I’m tripping over myself or how I could make it better. Again, my goal here is to stay as close to RAW as possible! (Which is why I didn’t go with Tolerance = the total # of rolls you get to make, which I think is elegant but is way off RAW).

The One Ring
Derpening of Mirkwood 3

Last night’s session was dedicated almost entirely to hunting and fighting the Werewolf of Mirkwood. Despite being, basically, 2+ straight hours of fighting a single monster, it was a surprisingly satisfying session.

Some thoughts!

* I have moved from being meh about the Encounters system to actively disliking it. It’s dumb. It doesn’t work. Given the extraordinary popularity of the system, I tend to think I’ve missed…something. I don’t know what! OTOH it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve discovered a fatal flaw in something and stood as the lone voice of reason howling against the fandom hordes. 

My gut is undecided on this. My most likely scenario is that my NPCs need to be pushing back in Encounters, making their own personality rolls. The game is totally unclear on how binding or effective NPC social effects may be. Can an NPC Persuade (via “personality”) a PC? No fucking idea. But this would, at the very least, allow for compromises and partial victories. As it stands, between the one-way nature of social conflict in TOR and the stupid Tolerance system, the characters don’t ever face possible failure or even compromise. I hate it. It’s broken.

TOR veterans, please tell me how you’re working Encounters. I need to see how it’s been drifted into something functional.

* I used the Hobbit Tales deck to generate hazards. Works okay. A little generic but also a little faster than rolling on two tables. I’ll use it again. The illustrations are nicely inspiring, at least. Allowing these hazards to play out into full scenes (and not just one-off resolutions, depending on the mood at the table) is healthy and good.

* Everyone’s finally earned enough XPs to up their Wisdom/Valor and get new Virtues/Rewards! Fun. After the godawful beatdown of hunting and killing the Werewolf of Mirkwood, they went straight to Fellowship and just blew off the rest of the year. The Hobbit, who through player bravery and some lucky rolls ended up being the one to kill the Werewolf (amazing, really), bought himself the Confidence virtue, and just in the nick of time: he was down to 2 Hope and 1 Shadow after the fight. Of course he won’t be buying Confidence again for a very long time.

Everyone took the title “Hero of the Woodmen” as their Fellowship action, which is just perfect. I’m loving that they can build and maintain their Standing across multiple locations via Titles, clever and smart. So now they have homes scattered across Woodmen territory. Neat!

Meanwhile, the players think it’s weird that the only thing Treasure is really good for is buying Standing. Since they don’t have any, it’s hard to illustrate the difference in the fiction between having roots in a community and being an untrustworthy wanderer.

Gonna try and get at least a couple of the characters involved in Holdings (per Darkening of Mirkwood). I think that’ll be interesting.

* Reverting the advancement point system to RAW was absolutely the right call. In fact my player who really wanted to just use Traits for everything saw it immediately. “But I like leaning on my Traits!” he says. And I’m like, go ahead, nothing’s stopping you! And sure enough, he looked at his APs and saw the work ahead of him. So, yay, correct diagnosis and an easy fix.

*Also on the Trait front, regarding the extreme ease that players can opt out of the Journey system entirely by spamming a good Trait (i.e. Bardings and their Hearty trait): my ad hoc ruling is that you can use any given Trait once per Journey. That makes for an interesting gamble, especially if they’re going somewhere new on the map and don’t know how hard it’ll be. It also helps mix up the fiction a little more.

* There’s this thing that wears me out, maybe more than anything else at any gaming table for any game: when a player maths out solutions with a complete disregard for fictional consequences. Turning a fictional situation to make a character statement into a math problem to solve just bums me out. Maybe it shouldn’t! But it also feels like taking the player at their word and letting them live with the fictional consequences is kind of passive-aggressive bullshit on my part. I’d prefer my players just talk honestly when these situations arise. But then there’s the investment and the winning. :-/

Ugh, agendas. Also Agendas. 

The big one last night was the point at which the company has to decide whether to venture into the Mountains of Mirkwood — the single most evil place in all of Middle Earth, right alongside fucking Mordor — or possibly turn back (which of course is a completely false dilemma: someone else suggested setting a trap and using their brains and, hey, awesome idea). When I heard “well, I can take four bouts of madness and still survive,” I had to scratch my head. Really? That’s your criteria? Your character isn’t saving the world, he’s on a critter hunt. Yeezus.

I mean maybe, right? Do I take a player at their word? Do I stop the proceedings and try to have a heart-to-heart? In the moment, I hate this. As a practical human matter, it’s really fine as long as everyone in the conversation is participating honestly. Boy that last part, though. Hard to know for sure.

The Darkening timeline proceeds to the next year! My feeling is that, like The Great Pendragon Campaign, the passage of years is important enough that I should be keeping the Adventure phases of each year short and snappy, and focus more on the heroes’ lives during Fellowship.

A bare minimum of belonging to a community dedicated to a specific game is knowledge of that game’s basic rules. I seriously can’t count how many communities I leave based on nothing but “I’m too lazy to read” posts. I also concede that the line between basic rules and in-depth mastery isn’t the same for everyone.


Urban Shadows
Who Ya Gonna Call?

Ran the second session, and our first “real” session, of our side Urban Shadows game last night. My wife, plus another couple, total of three characters. To recap, there’s an Aware, a Hunter and a Spectre. As always, thoughts and reflections!

* The game is set in El Paso/Juarez, with a really heavy dose of Cartel style tension at work on both sides of the border. Our previous US game was set in (dark) Phoenix, which everyone knew perfectly well. This time I hit Wikipedia and a slew of alt-journalism sites that cover border news. The news is an interesting and tricky thing on the border, which anyone who lives here knows. On the Mexican side, the cartels will murder journalists who don’t cover (up) the news as they wish, so the mainstream outlets are dubious at best. And on the American side, the corporate and economic development interests are so obviously influencing the news that, again, one should be dubious about what they have to say. So that brings us to the alt-journalism world, where folks post news with questionable grammar under assumed names. IOW the facts are kind of a free-for-all.

I confess I was a little itchy about setting the game somewhere I didn’t know personally. After my research, though, now I feel like knowing your setting too well is constraining the same way as being a total canon-slave can be in Star Wars. So instead of trying to get things factually right, I aimed to get them thematically right: the war between Juarez and Sinaloa cartels looks like it mostly wrapped up in 2010, with Juarez allying with the Zetas and Sinaloa allying with Gulf and some others; reported crime is way down in Juarez but it’s almost certainly going underreported; El Paso is largely oblivious to what’s happening 2 miles away. Stuff like that. I think it worked! And it was certainly less generic than first session’s “a desert city, kind of like Tucson but maybe more DEA presence?” type vibe.

That said, I think learning your way around research to nail down thematically interesting stuff is a learned skill. But whatevs; I’m not gonna fault folks for researching wrong.

* The Spectre is a really tricky playbook to engage with, I think both as a player and as a GM. They are, practically speaking, immune to consequences beyond inconvenience. They’re also not great at affecting the fiction beyond information-gathering, making the Spectre somewhat redundant with the Aware. I think it takes a huge amount of player buy-in to agree to care about what the ghost cares about, and it’s easy to play it safe. I suppose it’s true of all the playbooks, but the Spectre can fairly trivially opt out of both the debt and corruption economies. Well I suppose I should say it’s easy to let happen and you need to facilitate with that possibility in mind.

Combined with the Spectre’s Corruption move — they take corruption if they walk away from victimization — it’s a very tough GMing challenge for me. But I’m trying hard to read the play charitably! If the player can’t actually let victimization slide because it’s just not worth the corruption, well, then I guess that’s why the ghost has held on for 230 years.

Feature or bug? Uncertain. I’m learning a lot. I think/hope the player is reading the incentives in the same way — that not owing anyone anything and never taking corruption is how a ghost survives forever, and he’s making a choice by not choosing — and not in an “every choice sucks” kind of way.

* I started the session by fleshing out the immediate lives of both my mortal PCs, and that was a huge help. Learned that the Aware, an Iraqi refugee, is torn between living in the Western world but having lots of family deeply committed to traditional Islam — interesting! Learned the Mexican-born Hunter has a huge extended family with a million cousins and aunts and uncles — dangerous for a cartel enforcer, which is also excellent. 

Then we hit the Start of Session move once more, to get the ball rolling because it’s been 3 or 4 weeks since we had our first setup session. Worked quite well just to get everyone re-invested in the situation, although boy it puts new players on the spot early to cook up creative stuff. It could probably use some kind of warm-up exercise (which, this time, the “tell me more about your friends and family” I think did pretty well).

I’m liking the Mortal storylines quite a lot, and they’re starting to entwine nicely. 

* This was also the session where I amped up the supernatural woo-woo in the setting. The Hunter discovered a stripper club that’s also a hardcore werewolf den, and the Aware stumbled into the local embassy of Arcadia’s Winter Court. 

I find myself constantly checking my creative urges against the (perfectly reasonable yet terrible) urge to explain terrible human behavior as “it’s the supernatural!”

So! I feel like the gears are nicely in motion now. Probably I won’t run a start-of-session move for the third session, just to keep focused on what’s going on already instead of constantly filling the relationship map with new circles and arrows.