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 Mutant: Year Zero.
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.