The One Ring: Derpening of Mirkwood, Pt 7

We had what I think was my very favorite session of The One Ring last night. Lots of things worked out really well. And we had both our first retirement as well as our first refusal to retire. Terrifying and fascinating. Notes and thoughts in bullet form as always for your bathroom reading pleasure.

* Our dwarf finally got his fourth and final PC-side dark trait: Murderous. And it was so great. The session was 2951 of Darkening of Mirkwood, with Ceawin trying to appease the uneasy spirits south of his lands in the old barrows. Instead of making it an off-screen NPC thing, I had the dwarf himself actually craft the offering to the uneasy spirits: a beautiful and expensive helm to be placed in the barrows.

So they need to get the helm from the dwarf’s workshop (outside Woodman Hall) over to East Bight, yeah? They’ve figured out that the “short cut” through the Narrows is a terrible idea, so they’ve established a fairly safe route down around the bottom of Mirkwood. It takes like 2 weeks by horse to make the trip but whatever, they’re not getting poisoned by the Shadow along the way.

But they are well exposed to bad apples out of The Toft, this creepy town that was once enthralled to the Necromancer. I build the place up to be like a really creepy rural village you might not want to stop in on a long road trip.

So, anyway, since they didn’t really take any precautions to be secretive about their trip, word gets out that they’re moving this expensive bit of treasure. The hobbit lookout gets 3 great successes to spot the bandits, and I give them plenty of time to make a plan: stand and fight, or try to disappear in the woods (which are Southern Mirkwood, which is pretty much the most evil place in Middle-Earth other than Mordor itself).

Well, when they all made their awareness/hunting/whatever rolls to spot the bandits, the miserable Dwarf rolled an eyeball. And his scene was about his Murderous trait.

Something I’ve always been a bit skeptical about in The One Ring is that the GM takes over for the bout of madness. Ehhh…I’ve seen a couple times that neither the player nor the victims seem to really own their actions. When the elf decided to slit the throats of some of Mogdred’s men instead of bringing them back to Ingomer for questioning, that was me. And sure enough, neither the elf’s player nor anybody else in the party really holds him accountable for that. Weak.

This time, I asked the dwarf player who he felt most needed to be murdered in their company. And it was perfect, perfect for the game because he made a choice and everyone knew it.

He chose the hobbit, who has enjoyed a charmed life all game long. He’s never gone mad, he’s been miserable or weary maybe once each, he wisely took Confident as his first virtue when he had the chance, and he’s been extraordinarily lucky in our fight scenes. So the dwarf, overcome with jealousy, is sick of the little showboat’s bullshit as he once again tries to make (entirely reasonable and smart) plans about these bandits. He dives across the tiny campfire and lays into the character with his axe.

* One thing The One Ring doesn’t really do well is PvP combat. Related to that is that the game also doesn’t really handle non-combat actions that well. There are a few baked-in options (awe, inspire, defend, escape) but if you want to do anything other than stand toe-to-toe, well, you need to get creative if you want to stay within the framework.

We ended up structuring the fight around the Dwarf basically being an NPC, with the rest of the company positioning against him. It worked quite well, actually. And there were some great mechanical/story twists within the fight! Like, the dwarf is actually the hobbit’s focus character! So the hobbit’s player does not want the dwarf harmed, because that’ll mean taking a shadow point. So when it’s the Barding’s turn out in the open to try and wear down the dwarf (hopefully not wounding him but you never know, shit happens in combat), the hobbit in defensive drew the Barding’s attack to himself! I couldn’t figure out why that’d be illegal, so we rolled with it. Totally fascinating.

The hobbit’s plan was to draw the dwarf away from the rest of the company so nobody would get hurt. That’s pretty tricky to do within the Battle rules, which as a baseline offer nothing more than positioning for the company to defeat a group of enemies. But what The One Ring does have is its Trait rules, which I’m now convinced are the killer app of the game.

The most interesting Trait rule, IMO, is that you can use a Trait to make a common skill roll where you normally could not. So that’s what they did, injecting skills into the combat sequence where normally they’d only be allowed to make weapon checks (or the special actions attached to each combat position). This is totally genius! Because, guess what, not everyone’s gonna have the right tool for the job. The Barding, for example, is this smooth talker but has literally nothing available to stop a fight and get some words in edgewise. So trying to talk the dwarf down didn’t work. But the Hobbit, well, he’s True Hearted, so yeah, absolutely Persuade the Dwarf to ignore the rest of the company as you run away.

I have more thoughts on just how powerful the Trait rules are, but for now this is my current favorite thing about them.

* Eye of Mordor rules, wow, the game is fucking grim now. Since the Enemy has retaken Dol Guldur, I’ve activated the Eye rules from Rivendell. They’re fantastic! Basically you come up with a baseline value for the company based on who’s in it (the Eye ignores hobbits but takes special interest in elves, for example), what they’re carrying (oh all those Famous Weapons you’ve been picking up with your Valor increases, yeah, the Eye finds them very interesting), who they are to the people in the area (helloooo Heroes of the Woodmen!), and so on. Then as the game proceeds, that value gets a bump every time the company gains Shadow, rolls an Eye, uses “magical” virtues (elf magic, dwarven “broken spells,” etc.), and so on. When the chase number equals the target of the terrain they’re in — it’s an inverse of the regular terrain TN table, with free lands having a very high chase value and the darklands obvs being very low — there’s a Revelation. The Enemy takes direct action against the company, or the company experiences supernaturally shitty luck, or whatever.

Combined with my “everything is blighted all the time” rule w/r/t Shadow gain from the terrain, that’s a fucking lot of bad-guy pressure applied to the company at all times.

The net result in our game was that the Revelation happened while the Hobbit recovered from his wound delivered by the dwarf. They’re chilling in East Bight and everyone wants to use their two-rolls-per-day option while they’re just sitting around. Okay, cool. So they’re investigating stories of orc attacks in the area, as well as the lights/voices of the uneasy dead. Then the roll an Eye, the Enemy reveals itself, and a Great Orc with a band of soldiers springs its trap on the company.

The game feels really dangerous now, I think.

* Fellowship phase after everything that went down was bittersweet and difficult and actually pretty amazing. I was saying that The One Ring doesn’t really pump me up but I gotta say I’m feeling pretty pumped now!

The Hobbit, having been nearly killed by someone he considered a dear friend, took the “There and Back Again” option from Rivendell: he left the company, went home to the Shire, and spent it with his family. He gained a permanent Shadow but got back like 6 Hope. Really the narratively perfect choice.

The Dwarf, looking down the barrel at his fifth and final bout of madness and with Murderous, Spiteful, Brutal etc on deck, realized he’d be a terrible danger to everyone. Without apologizing or explaining, he’s withdrawn to his workshop outside Woodmen Hall, his adventuring days behind him. Hobbits are not allowed in his workshop. No idea what the player is taking next, but he’s looking at the cool Rivendell options as well as a straight Woodman (which tbh they should have, given the focus of Darkening of Mirkwood).

The Barding, though, whoo boy. Miserable for almost the entire session, he decided to try and heal his Shadow through craftwork at his home in East Bight (where he’s been married to Ceawin’s daughter and now has a kid). Not only did he fail to do so, he rolled an Eye. While miserable. In the Fellowship phase. Boom, now he’s Treacherous. So he snuck into Ceawin’s hall and murdered him, freeing the clan from weak leadership. I think he’s just taken over the clan, actually. But talk about weak leadership! He’s only got status 2, and there are plenty of clansmen NPCs who surely must have higher status than him. Then there’s the matter of answering, or not, difficult questions about the death of Ceawin: lying and deception gets you 2 Shadow, after all. Tick tick tick.

Oh, and where the dwarf knew enough to retire before he hurt someone? The Barding says fuck that. They basically have a villain in the company now. Yowch.

Other stuff:

* Magical Treasure rules from Rivendell are actually pretty neat. I wanted the elven weapon the hobbit retrieved from Dol Guldur last year to be magical thing, so I built it. And sure enough, he’s really anxious to discover/unlock the two hidden weapon goodies. Hard-pressed to find a Loremaster, though, and they haven’t set Rhosgobel up as a sanctuary yet, so… I’ve got goodies built for everyone else now as well.

* Status rules are starting to make a difference. Everyone has 1 or 2 status now, and they’re all starting to embellish the end-of-year stuff quite nicely. The elf, for example, has started formal patrols in Mirkwood of mixed human and elven troops (with her in command, since she’s Arrogant and all).

* The retirement/inheritance rules are ridiculous. We’ve played 7 sessions and they’ve earned, I think, a total of 18 XPs. The dwarf’s successor will only get 2 free XPs to start! The table goes to 250 XP, which by my calculations is about 100 sessions of play. So, you know, two solid years of weekly sessions to max that out. Come on.

* A recurring meta-problem has raised its ugly head again: the fact that my attention span typically limits the game to 10ish sessions. Well, we’re on #7 right now and thus far I don’t feel any itchiness to move on. But maybe! Anyway, that fact kind of fucks up games that rely on loooong reward cycles. For example, the dwarf burning out in 7 sessions: I’m not so sure the game is actually built to do that, you know? But maybe! Dwarves are exceptionally goth in the Tolkien as well as in The One Ring, and he did take the “get a bonus to common skills equal to your Shadow” virtue, so maybe? It certainly played out that the Dwarf blew out first, the human may blow out next, the elf is riding a very fine line and the Hobbit will hold out a good long time.

This happened in our Urban Shadows game as well: one of the players decided to go all-in on gaining Corruption, “knowing” the game wouldn’t last long enough for him to actually suffer for it. That’s kind of a bummer. I have no idea what to do about it. Probably nothing.

<- Part 6 | Part 8->

44 thoughts on “The One Ring: Derpening of Mirkwood, Pt 7”

  1. Intense! Sounds like you really have cracked the bones of the system and gotten to the delicious marrow, even if it took some struggle to get there. I wish I was able to get my TOR group together regularly. I think we’ve played 4 sessions in 6 months… I’m pretty convinced I’m not going to bother again.

  2. It certainly played out that the Dwarf blew out first, the human may blow out next, the elf is riding a very fine line and the Hobbit will hold out a good long time.

    That sounds…pretty accurate compared to Tolkien’s writings. Maybe the human would have gone first in actual Tolkien, but this isn’t far off. The Hobbit holding out is entirely appropriate.

    I am loving the sound of how character development works in this game. I’m having a hard time finding games that give players meaningful choices about turning from good to bad and then making concrete and interesting things happen because of those choices. Sounds like this hits that mark pretty well, especially if you let the player run their own madness scene (which I’m entirely in favor of – losing control to the GM is one of my least favorite RPG tropes).

  3. Dave Turner I’m doing a terrible job of leveraging my #brand to #monetize your #eyeballs. I’m not even sure what a KPI is but I don’t have any.

  4. You’ve missed that window, but maybe you can start charging your players in exchange for being their GM? You will be the one to turn professional GMing into a pillar of the American economy.

  5. Well given the extraordinarily awful things I’ve said to/about folks re for-profit GMing, I’d have to change my name or set up a dba or something.

  6. You’ve been using your encounter hack for a while now. Are you happy with it? Wishing it could do more? I guess its a good sign that its mostly dropped to the background.

    You said last time you missed the mechanical beat of end of session moves touching base with player goals. Do you think shadow points fill that void?

    Your players really seem to bring a lot to their characters.  Does the game facilitate that, or is it more your table style that comes up no matter what game you are playing?

    Your revelation about giving the player the choice of how his murderous trait surfaced, gave me chills.

  7. Adam D something I meant to mention earlier before I derailed my own thread: I feel like our experience playing The Great Pendragon Campaign was vital training for me, at least, to get the most out of Darkening of Mirkwood. The skill I learned there was how to leverage all the year-end context that got layered on. In GPC it’s procedurally generated, which is very cool but wow it’s a lot of overhead (brain cycles, time, system mastery if you’re using Book of the Manor/Entourage/Battle and so on). In DoM it’s largely delivered in complete form by the campaign.

    It kind of makes me want to swing back around on Torchbearer and/or Mouse Guard as well, and see if I can put the town/winter rules in those games to better use. OTOH they’re so relatively crunchy and restrictive that I’m not sure they’d actually prompt new fictional context that much. Maybe! I don’t know.

  8. Paul Beakley Agreed. I think I need to wait for my players to realize that setting aside three hours a week where nerd games are a priority isn’t actually that oppressive a request, so that I can actually play enough to learn those year-end systems.

  9. I know the house management stuff in ASoIaFRPG informed a lot of the early campaign and led to what’s happening now. I really do need to get back to using that stuff because it’s pretty much situation generation and helps focus both players and GM.

  10. Josh Mannon that whole school of design really works for me. I know not every game needs it but the games that have it are games I usually like.

  11. Wow, some great moments in the story there! I’m running the DoM campaign using the Burning Wheel so it’s really interesting to read your observations running it with ToR. Sounds like the system does indeed promote some interesting situations. I must admit I wasn’t confident ToR would deliver in that way, but it’s great to see that it does!

  12. Aaron Berger​​ sorry! I didn’t realize you had asked questions. Okay:

    Encounter rules: they ended up very gently drifted in the end. Also we had a actual failed Encounter, and it’s put my players on notice (since the consequence was getting banned from the Black Tarn). I can go through it all once more if you’re curious.

    Player goals: actually this was a really interesting evolution. The game really emphasizes The Company, and you only get xps for pushing the Company’s agenda. It’s the game’s fruitful void: there really aren’t rules for forcing your agenda onto the group, so they’re forced to talk things through. They pursue their own stuff mostly in Fellowship and everyone tries to do a little of their own stuff as long as it doesn’t jack up their XPs.

    Roleplaying: at this point I think the system is giving the players all the right prompts. The chain of Shadow Traits is really potent, for example. Traits in general are quite effective. The Hope/Shadow struggle is perfect and very difficult. I’d say my players are largely being prompted in ways they respond well to, if that makes sense. By comparison, at least one of my players just cannot connect with a PbtA type character at all.

    Getting the players to own the madness is awesome. Not every player will want to own that, but if they want to chew the scenery, there’s no better chance. The Darkest Self rules from Monsterhearts produce a very similar vibe.

  13. Dan Hall oh yeah, Burning Wheel would produce quite a different game. TOR is kind of the anti-BW in some important ways! Specifically, I think, in how the Company is so dominant. You could mandate every character take a Company related Belief and maybe replicate that. No idea at all how you’d do the Shadow stuff. Probably a custom emotional attribute. Are you bothering? Middle-Earth in TOR reeks with radioactive evil.

  14. Paul Beakley Yes, I’ve encouraged players to make a “fellowship belief”. Mostly that works well. The plot has enough traction now that most of the beliefs are heavily tied to the situations at hand (we’re up to year 2962 this weekend).

    I did start with Shadow as an emotional attribute, but I soon realised that Grief, Greed, and a slightly modified Corruption for mortals would do the trick anyway, and that seems to be working pretty well so far. It is a slower burn, though, than what has happened in your game.

    As far as replicating the accumulation of shadow from journeys within the wood itself, I’ve just made really high stakes for failed orientation rolls. Sometimes I’ll throw specific Greed, Grief, or Corruption related encounters at them in the forest. Usually pretty severe consequences in encounters (a large group spiders are pretty awful to deal with in BW), or by taxing their Health (which really sucks, setting them up for failed recovery tests later). Those things seem to have built a reasonable amount of dread about even entering the wood, but I suspect not in the same direct way as with ToR.

    So, yeh, evidently different. It’s cool to see the comparison! I like hearing stories from the same campaign. It’s a cool campaign and your ideas gives me ideas about how it should run. But also interesting from a game design point of view. I’m fascinated by the different experiences the systems might deliver.

  15. Dan Hall I did something similar with Adam D​, who was running GPC with Dramasystem (which I still think is/was crazypants).

    Someday I’d love to sketch out how different games prompt different creative contributions.

  16. Sounds awesome! We’re going at a much slower pace through Tales and only the Elf has started to really build up shadow.

    I really do feel the extra mechanics in Rivendell are the missing piece of the puzzle. Magical Treasure and the Eye of Mordor really make the game zing.

    Oh and Rangers too. I let one of my players be a Ranger and they are NOT to be fucked with.

  17. Andrew Kenrick yeah, I’m very satisfied with the pace. Any slower and I’d despair of ever getting through the campaign; any faster and nothing would feel meaningful.

  18. So from playing Paul’s TOR game I will have to tell you that lack of complex beliefs in the character burn was hard to adjust to. They felt very broad and undefined. My main trait, curious felt very vague. Turns out that is the fun of it. Turns out that a vague undefined trait sets up for a lot of fictional freedom. Now when i want to interact with the story I’m curious and roll (if possible) my way into the scene. Great mechanic

  19. Meanwhile, my players keep making stupid salacious jokes, and seems to be more eager to abuse NPC’s weakness than to help them…

  20. Ara Winter do you like the performative quality of having the chase tokens on display? I was wondering about that; it’s implied in the rules as well. Feels like Static from Lacuna: you know something terrible is coming but you don’t know when or what.

  21. I prefer the ramp up be secret. I don’t like when people try to game that
    kind of count down. They look at the pile and say we can take some more
    shadow no worries

  22. Robert Chilton haha if they actually convince themselves to take more shadow, I’m all for it. Maybe try it once? Consider that you guys haven’t actually tried to suss out the region types/levels that closely on the map (other than Southern Mirkwood and the mountains being a no-go zone!), and that’s what you need to know to understand the danger you’re in.

    I’m kind of intrigued!

  23. Paul Beakley Well, they only discuss, as players, never in characters, about “fun” stuff they might do to NPCs; suffice to say I have a few issues with my players (and am trying to deal with it)

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