Social Contract and Practical Play
I think we’ve reached the point in our campaign where there’s really nothing new about the system or the game itself that’s that interesting to talk about. Now it’s just the game we play on Tuesday evenings, aimed into the indefinite future.
I think one thing that has interfered with my ability to run games for a very long time (I know, 10 sessions isn’t that long) is kind of a new development in my gaming life: I run out of things to talk about online! Ridiculous but I’m thinking about it.
Stuff does in fact come to mind, though, after our last session:
* It was a pure sandbox session. Lots of threads to pick up and run with, nothing really special happening in Darkening of Mirkwood year 2954. They could have helped the Woodmen open a safe passage through The Narrows between East Bight and the Black Tarn, but three of the four company members are now new characters, with just the hobbit remaining of the old crew. He’s the “old man” now, eight years a committed wandering adventurer far from home. He’s also got his first Shadow trait — Idle — and has taken to drinking and lazing about Woodland Hall. A minor local celebrity gone to seed.
I like that! I also like the shift in generations. Is the company really the same company? Clearly it isn’t. And the memories of past characters really does add a nice texture to everything. The dwarf who went mad with jealousy and tried to kill the hobbit over imagined slights, well, his replacement (the player was unavailable for three weeks so three years have gone by since anyone’s heard from the dwarf) is a Woodman, Woodwoman?, who’s been told how terrible the hobbit is the whole time by her mentor. But she’s here anyway largely because of shit that went down years ago between strangers.
The other newb is here on orders from the elf who went power-mad and raised an army of vigilantes to “patrol” southern Mirkwood and deliver rough justice: she knows she can’t really live with people any more but she’s still sincerely concerned for the hobbit’s well-being, so she’s sent a trusted Woodman to track down her old friend. It’s really quite lovely.
The only character without a through-line to the first generation is also the one with the most tenuous connection to the Company, and it’s so obvious. Everything going on with him, a Beorning, is cut whole-cloth from the established backstory, and the handwaviest of handwaves between a trusted NPC (Bofri, the dwarf who wants to reopen the Old Forest Road) and the hobbit PC. It’s weak. And in this case, I think it’s actually okay — although he’s kind of a pariah. Hard to be a company with an untrustworthy outsider.
Oh, anyway, since everyone’s new that means nobody but the hobbit really has the Wisdom to tolerate Mirkwood shenanigans. They’ve seen just how fast the Shadow can tear someone’s soul down, so they’re pretty resistant to going in unless they have to. Now they’re finding things to do outside the forest, and that’s cool.
* A really interesting and semi-uncomfortable power struggle cropped up during play between me and, quelle surprise, the Beorning outsider’s player. I’m not even sure “power” is the right qualifier.
The basic situation: we’re in an Encounter with Beorn hissownself. The Beorning PC has Awed his way into an audience, so he’s the only talker. They’re talking about this asshole NPC, Viglund, who has his own little parallel kingdom to the north and has been raiding and enslaving Beornings. Well, the PC thinks he’s gonna single-handedly walk into Viglund’s territory, call the guy out in single combat, and put an end to it. Beorn, who’s been fighting these assholes for years now, is more temperate — he wants the kid (he’s 19!) to gather intelligence.
Anyway, details aren’t important. In the course of the Encounter the player says he wants to talk Beorn into lending him some men. That’s what he says: “Okay, I want to talk him into lending me some guys.” To which I say “Well yeah, but he’s skeptical of striking Viglund anyway so this is gonna be hard. Let’s say TN 18.” And the player pushes the dice away and says “nope, never mind.”
Well…okay so now we’re in uncharted waters. Is TOR a “if you do it you’ve done it” kind of game? Not explicitly, no. Is TOR a “negotiate between players at the table until we settle on something” kind of game? Mmmm no, not explicitly. But Burning Wheel damage has been done with these folks! There is, I think, a constant implication that negotiating is a thing you can do.
Yesssss that’s fine BUT! But but but the cat-and-mouse of the Encounter rules is an important source of tension! Me telling you the TN is an 18 isn’t an offer to negotiate, it’s a courtesy so you can just tell me if you’ve succeeded. But he knows he’s up against the edge of the Tolerance of the whole encounter and doesn’t want to deal with large-scale failure. And so he just doesn’t touch the dice. Pushes them away. Says “no” in a beat of play where “no,” to my mind, doesn’t belong.
It’s weird, right? In one version of the world I suppose I could, you know, just stare him down. Or say he fails, whatever, rocks fall everyone dies. Or I can go along with it, which to my mind sets an unhealthy precedent. I went along with it, but now I’m thinking about precedent. Oh god, the accumulated common law of the game table.
Now, in the future, I won’t announce TNs. But then that raises the specter of “you’re just making up TNs so I fail when you want me to!” To which I then say “Okay then you can make an Insight roll and I can tell you something about the conflict, like what the TN would be for this or say how close to Tolerance you are.” Which is just injecting more rolls, creating more chances to roll Eyes and run up the Mordor track (although they’re negotiating in a sanctuary, so that’s actually a non-issue in this particular case).
But you can see the lawyerly head space this whole thing moves me into. I hate it. It’s one reason, I think, why the explicit procedures of Burning Wheel have worked so very well with some players in my group: they’re predicated on negotiating, on openness, and on mediating player disagreement. That’s hard to set aside even in a purposeful design.
The Encounter rules in The One Ring are specifically built to incorporate gambling, to get them to push their luck. But gambling requires hidden information. It has to be there. It’s fundamentally incompatible with radical transparency.
It’s a problem with few good solutions within the rules themselves. I even brought it up afterward but maybe I need to reframe the conversation a little.
* Hmhmhm nothing else of real interest this session. Just kind of, you know, the shit that’s happening. But if gameplay is going to drift down this path much further — some basic rejection of GM authority — we might have to take a break for a while. Can’t really play a game if you don’t all agree to the rules.