Finally, after much hemming and hawing and unselling myself last year, we are starting The One Ring. We have four characters done but only three players could make the first session: an Elf warden (who is terrible at being social and she’s kind of a douchebag), a Hobbit wanderer (brilliantly on-point as a curious little fellow who gets everyone else in trouble while somehow dodging misfortune), and a Barding scholar (trussed up as a badass knight, which he totally isn’t in practice).
The session was a complete run through Stay on the Path from Tales from Wilderland plus the campaign-level material for Year 2947 in Darkening of Mirkwood. They started in Lake-Town, got a Barding merchant and his son out of trouble, and were hired to escort them through Mirkwood via the Elf-Path out of Thandruil’s halls. Hilarity ensues!
My goal was to get through the entire journey and have a Fellowship Phase at the end. I did it! But it took cutting the final encounter out of Path. Honestly they were so beat up that it was a good “seriously, Mirkwood is a shithole” lesson without being totally punishing.
So I’m … not really a fan of Tolkien’s written work. I thought Lord of the Rings made a way-better movie trilogy than a book trilogy. I kind of even liked The Hobbit movies although I was super-bored by the third and its fifteen separate endings. Haven’t read the texts themselves (and never The Silmarillion) since high school. There, I said it.
I went into running The One Ring relying entirely on the system itself to generate the Tolkienness. My working theory is that if the system failed to do so, then it’s just dressing up a plain old traddy game and it’s really not worth my time. For the record, I have the same approach to running Tenra Bansho Zero: I actually kind of hate anime, but the game performs well on its own merits so I really enjoy it (mostly because players are infinitely less spazzy than anime characters).
TOR delivers the goods! There’s this underlying earnestness throughout everything that’s really charming: when you meet with an NPC, there’s always a formal introduction (Awe if you’re bragging about yourself, Courtesy if you’re being polite, Riddle if you’re being guarded). You can sing or cook as the interaction. There’s kind of a basic assumption, certainly ahistorical but very Tolkien, that anyone who’s an enemy of the Enemy is probably okay so let’s put aside our prejudices.
The Journey phase is grindy and stressful and just about perfect, despite tracking only Shadow/Hope and Fatigue/Endurance (rather than ticking off supplies; it’s abstracted out into “hazards”). I’m thus far unsold on the narrative posturing around Hazards, though, I gotta say. You can describe the hunter wearing herself out chasing small game on the Elf-Path, but it really just boils down to the Hunting roll with a Weary consequence for failure. My understanding is that the Hazard scene is constrained to that single roll, rather than spooling off into a whole big event. That said, Combat phases are played out fully and Encounter phases are played out fully (but only when they’re injected into the journey for plot reasons; I don’t think Encounters ever happen procedurally). So I just kind of shrugged and rolled with it. Which is fine! Don’t get me wrong. The vibe is similar to the stalking one does in Mutant: Year Zero but less likely to generate any additional fiction.
We had a big fight against some spiders, an encounter with a mad hermit, and some quality time with the Silvan elves. Session felt complete and satisfying.
Okay, I definitely experienced the most good surprises around Traits. Traits in TOR are used for three things: earning an automatic (ordinary) success, justifying Advancement Point earns on successful rolls, and narrative interrupts. I totally discounted just how powerful the interrupts would be!
Something all my players have told me they continue to miss about Burning Wheel is that roleplaying problematic character stuff is a way to engage the reward cycle: if you’re Curious and create a whole scene around your curiosity dragging you off to explore something, you get paid. Well, so there is a similar-ish reward cycle buried in TOR’s Traits as well! If you’re Curious (like the Hobbit is), you can interrupt a scene to do something that your curiosity demands (for example). If you’re Proud (like the Barding is), you can interrupt the normal social niceties of elvish courtesy. And so on. That feels more like Burning Wheel than I expected, I have to say: rather than getting a fungible currency for later use, you’re getting fictional benefits right now. You can’t keep score with it (like some players do in BW, via end of session artha tallies) but there’s a similar little serotonin hit for engaging your roleplaying bits.
There’s also this thing where earning Advancement Points gets harder and harder throughout the adventure. It’s very subtle and maybe one of the game’s killer apps: the skills are arranged into six skill groups, and you earn APs by skill group. The first point is just for succeeding at one of the skills in the group, the second is succeeding either with a “great” or “extraordinary” success (ie how many 6es you rolled – it’s totally an intermittent reward, Vegas-style and psychologically very powerful) or if you can point at one of your Traits after the fact, and the third is for both rolling one or more 6es and invoking a Trait after the fact. So if you want to earn AP, you shape your fiction around your Traits. That’s solid and smart, although it also leads to inevitable AP grubbing and trying to stretch Traits too far. GMing this game sometimes means being a strict parent.
Misdeeds and the Modern Mind
My other surprise, not so good as the Trait surprise, was in how Misdeeds play out. Okay so you can earn Shadow points in uh…five ways, right? Bad shit that happens to you (nobody’s fault), wandering around blighted lands (like Mirkwood!), owning tainted treasure, letting your Focus character get hurt, and via Misdeeds. Misdeeds aren’t rolled: if you do a bad thing, you’ve done the bad thing and you get a Shadow point. In the other cases, there’s a Corruption test where your Wisdom can resist the influence of the Shadow.
Okay, so. Many of you probably see where I’m going with this. This system requires the GM adjudicate just what exactly a Misdeed is. In some cases, the list is pretty explicit: threatening people, lying (again that Tolkienesque earnestness!), stealing. You know, basically standard Tabletop Roleplaying Adventurer bullshit. But in other cases, whoo boy. Get ready for some very interesting conversations.
The big one last night was the nature of cowardice. It’s a Misdeed worth 3 Shadow, which is very punitive. The scene basically is: the caravan owner has wandered off into Mirkwood toward some ruins and the Company needs him back. The Elf warden leaps into action! The Barding wants to stay on the path (as ordered by his new bestie back at Thandruil’s hall) and insists the Hobbit stay back as well.
So is that cowardice or sensible? Is cowardice the absence of bravery? Is bravery the absence of cowardice? Does it matter what your motives for a decision are? From the player and I assume character’s POV, staying back with the caravan to protect both the goods and the merchant’s son is absolutely reasonable. From the audience – ie me — POV it looks like self-preservation. It doesn’t help that the Barding is actually sort of terrible in combat.
When I called it cowardice, oh lord the pushback. The player was not happy. He reads my posts sometimes so I hope I’m being fair in my characterization. So anyway, later, when there are spiders fucking pouring out of these Mirkwood ruins and the characters are thinking about withdrawing, and I don’t call out the first one to escape for cowardice, he throws his hands up in disgust. Something along the lines of “oh so he can run away but refusing to run willy-nilly into this is cowardice?” You can imagine, I’m sure.
Ultimately this resulted in a super fruitful conversation. It also was, for me in the aftermath, unsatisfying. Because it feels like modern, rational, materialistic and pragmatic values grinding up against these older, perhaps irrational values. My practical solution is to turn decisions about misdeeds over to the table and let everyone agree that something is cowardice (or an abuse of authority, or manipulation).
Company goals work as advertised. I felt myself wishing for a more robust Experience Point system other than “did you show up” and “did you chase the thing you said you wanted to chase?” Although the company goal did help everyone stay on-task for at least one scene, maybe more. It’s there, a very subtle little nudge.
There’s this rule about “bonus XPs” at the end of an adventure phase but whoever wrote those rules is bad at math: it’s just a multiplier on the number of sessions, which uh…that’s the same as “did you show up?” So instead of 1 XP per session, it’s really 1.5 XP. I don’t know how else to read that so I just shrugged.
Hope: Threat or Menace?
I thought the Hope economy was way loose: the players had 4 Fellowship points (3 characters + 1 hobbit) and they really leveraged the “free Hope spend when you’re helping your Focus character” rule. Which, by the way, I really loved in practice at its most visible – that is, when everyone’s fighting and the Defensive stance folks can spend Hope to pull attacks onto them. It felt like Hope was a slower burn than I expected; only the Elf became Miserable this session, although everyone was close-ish by the time they got to the Fellowship phase.
The players, however, felt like Hope was tight as hell and really scary. One player told me that nearly every spend of Hope was a calculus of “can I reach a Sanctuary in time to take care of this Shadow? How far down can I burn my Hope?” So probably the truth is somewhere in the middle: it’s not as terrifying as it seems but Shadow will creep up on you. Just not within a single session.
Bleeding off Shadow at a sanctuary – the characters wintered at Woodman’s Hall (I gave them the sanctuary for free for returning Wolfbiter to them) – made me realize that more Adventure Phase time probably needs to happen between Fellowship Phases. But I really wanted to run through one complete cycle in an evening, which we did. Future sessions will certainly see more time, at the very least so they have time to actually accumulate spendable experience points.
Overall the cognitive load of the game isn’t terrible. Much lighter weight than Burning Wheel, maybe a tad more involved than Mutant: Year Zero. There are enough new-school twists buried in an otherwise old-school game that everyone will take a few sessions to really ease into the game and feel fluent. Every player forgot about or misused their various blessings, virtues and traits at one point or another, and that’s fine. Reaching a Sanctuary and having a Fellowship phase on the first session definitely felt like the right decision, so that everyone can see the full cycle of play.
I enjoyed it! I think actually I enjoyed it more than I thought. And there are now enough leads and ideas after session one that I think it won’t be hard to open the game up a bit and start adding sand to the sandbox.