Monthly Archives: January 2015

One Ring RPG

The One Ring RPG Review: You Can Never Go Back Again

So, a bit of background for context of this review: I’ve been roleplaying since I was 9, back in 1983. Over the last 30 years I’ve played all sorts of games, mostly GMing, but never really got that sense of unbridled joy and creation that I got from playing those games as a kid when we barely understood any of the rules; the more I “learned” how to play RPGs, the less I seemed to enjoy them.

As I got older, I played less and less. Partly this was because of life and career getting in the way but, to be honest, partly is was the disappointment I tended to feel every time I played. I came to believe that being a good roleplayer – and specifically a good GM – was a skill that I simply lacked.

All that changed when I discovered Fiasco in 2012 (thanks, Mr Wheaton). I quickly graduated onto other games, particularly Monsterhearts, go involved in the London Indie RPG Meetup and have been a keen indie gamer ever since. I’ve played more memorable games over the last 2 years than I had in the preceeding 30.

None of this is to say that conventional RPGs are rubbish. I don’t believe that and neither to the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people who play and enjoy them every week. All I’m saying here is that they aren’t really for me. I want to tell a story, I want to get immersed into a story, and I want to do it in a single session or a handful – not over dozens. I don’t want to be a player or a GM and would prefer to be in that sweet spot in between.

At least, that’s how I felt. But after a couple of years, I started to wonder: am I simply being unfair on conventional games? Is it possible to use the techniques that I’ve picked up from indie games and apply them to conventional ones? The One Ring, a game which I had had sitting on my shelf since its initial publication back in 2011, had been calling me – especially with the publication of an exciting looking campaign book which purported to be like the Great Pendragon Campaign only where you got to actually have an impact on events.

I didn’t have the time, inclination or players to try a full 30 year campaign, but I thought we could have a taster campaign of half a dozen sessions or so, to see how it works. So that’s what we started back in October and had our fifth and final session last night. So, did it change my perceptions of conventional RPGs?

The basics

First of all, I recognise that a number of people might object to me calling The One Ring a conventional RPG at all. It’s indie influences are quite clear, especially in the form of Mouse Guard / Burning Wheel (a ludography would have been nice, actually). This is takes the form of the game having a “loremaster phase” during which the adventuring takes place and a “fellowship phase” during which time the players get to regroup, recover and get on with life (I’ll return to this idea later).

The game has been designed from the ground up to better evoke Tolkien, almost as a rebuke to its predecessor Middle Earth RPGs (I can’t comment on the Lord of the Rings RPG from a decade or so ago, but Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth Roleplaying, the second RPG I ever owned, is almost comedic in its trashing of the Tolkien aesthetic). The game utilises custom dice, although ordinary dice would work fine with it: a twelve side “feat die” numbered 1-10, a “Gandalf rune” (an automatic success) and an “Eye of Sauron rune” (an automatic zero, or a complication), and a number of six sided “success dice” with a special rune marking each six to represent some special success has been achieved. Task resolution involves rolling a number of dice according to your skill value, plus the feat die, against a target number.

In keeping with the books it is based on, the game places as much emphasis on travelling and social encounters as it does on combat. Doing stuff in The One Ring, especially when you are starting out, is hard, and you will most likely have to spend Hope points – a measure of your favourable outlook on like – to succeed at things. In fact, my players tended to be a little shy about doing this during our first few sessions, partly because (as storygamers), they were interested in seeing what happened when they failed.

This brings me to my first criticism: failure is, on the whole, not especially interesting. Mouse Guard has a general “succeed but pay a price” rule when it comes to failure. The Hope system seems to replace that but I almost wish the rule had been that if you can succeed with the bonus spending Hope gets you, you have to spend it, because otherwise the GM and players are left stranded.

The exception to this rule is with the travel rules in which a role of the Sauron symbol on the Feat Die results in some kind of hazard occurring. This is okay, but the hazards themselves aren’t terribly interesting and having significantly more examples in the book would have been really useful. Indeed, aside from it counting as a zero, this is the only way the Sauron symbol is used in the mechanics, which is a bit of a missed opportunity in my view.

Overall, task resolution of all kinds tends to involve rolling dice multiple times. It isn’t always clear how exactly this is meant to work; I’m still not really clear what a failure on a die roll for an extended resolution represents (a complete failure, a “reset” where you have to start again, cancels out a success?), and found the social encounters system similarly murky. Fundamentally, I’m not sold on the idea that rolling lots of times makes a task resolution die roll more interesting; all too often we ended up sullenly rolling the dice instead of narrating what was actually happening. The dice weren’t prompting us and it was quite joyless. Compare this to a game such as Apocalypse World where everything is simplified down to a roll of just two dice, and yet the prompts provided for each “move” is such that it does a great job at guiding you towards a dramatically interesting resolution. I really wish this game had had more of that.

The combat system I’m slightly more of a fan of, although I know that view wasn’t unanimous within our group. For myself, I quite liked the system which involves characters adopting either a rearward or one of several close combat stances, and then making difficulty rolls based on the stance adopted (so for example, it is easier to hit if you adopt the forward stance than if you are defensive, but you are similarly easier to be hit). The rules as written don’t apply to every situation, essentially they assume that all the player characters are together in a bunch, but if you apply a bit of common sense, the system works quite well. Or at least, that’s what I felt by the end of our last session when I loosened up a little.

Actual play

So my intention when starting out with this campaign was to run the first six or so years in the aforementioned Darkening of Mirkwood campaign setting, possibly involving the pre-written adventures in the Tales from Wilderland book as the opportunity arose. At the end of the first session, however, I had decided to pretty much abandon that plan.

During the first session I ran the adventure provided in the basic rulebook, the Marsh Bell. I very quickly found I had an enormous problem with this scenario as it essentially railroads the characters to go down a certain path, have an assortment of encounters and then return. There seemed so little opportunity for the characters to have any agency at all. This is of course a basic problem with pre-written scenarios and a hard one to solve. But if I was to retain my enthusiasm for a full half dozen sessions, I’d need something more inspirational.

My alternative approach was to have the players provide me with a list of things they wanted to see in future scenarios. I’d then randomly pick a handful and use them (and the campaign guide) as inspiration for the following session. I used this approach for the following session, and thus set them on a mission to invite a great warrior to King Bard’s celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies. I deliberately didn’t overly prepare each session, preferring to “keep it feral” Monsterhearts-style, and letting the players prompt the action.

For me anyway, this seemed to work a lot better and very quickly we had lots of ideas. Although the path we followed ended up being almost a linear as the initial scenario, it felt less railroady because it was based on the player’s prompts. A bit of reincorporation goes a long way, so a weird vision of a sword in session one ended up forming the basis of a quest which was revealed in session three.

I felt that at times we were still straining against the system to be honest, especially when it came to travel, and there were times when I fudged like crazy. But overall I’m satisfied that in our five sessions we told a fairly satisfying story, and one which despite the decision to end it there, I was interested discover how it continued. This was at least partially because, as a result of the thrilling combat and escape from an orc domain at the end of the adventure, both of our Elf adventurers had worryingly little Hope left and I am curious to see how that would have complicated matters.

Not for me

It pains me to say it, but I’m wary of running a similar game again, certainly not for a while and without certain tweaks. Regardless of system, at the end of the day the relationship between player and GM is simply not one I enjoy that much.

At the same time, this experiment has given me a certain amount of insight into what it is that people get out of conventional RPGs. Up until now, I have tended to buy into GNS Theory, the idea that there are three types of RPG – gamist, narrativist and simulationist, with the fans of a lot of conventional RPGs enjoying them because of an interest in realism as opposed to telling a good story.

While there may well be people for whom that is a concern, I can’t help but feel that on the whole the roleplaying hobby abandoned overt simulationist games back in the 80s with all those 20 volume, intensely detailed games such as Rolemaster. The divide between conventional RPGs and story games doesn’t seem to be a tension between gamists and narrativists either as many story games place more emphasis on “game” than conventional ones. Instead, I think it is a question of where you want your story: in your head or on the table.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a typical RPG session as an experience where the real fun is figuring out what really happened between sessions, and I certainly felt that there was a bit of that with our game (and not just in the case of the really helpful notes that one of my players wrote up each week). All too often, the system informs the story but doesn’t enable it to happen there and then; it requires reflection to sweat the details out. And that reflection often takes place inside the head of the individual players rather than it being a shared experience.

By contrast, story games are all about experiencing the narrative there and then (in that sense, Ron Edward’s definition of “story now!” is quite correct). There certainly is reflection, but it tends to be based on a lot more open information and a much greater attempt to develop some level of consensus around the table as it happens.

In short, I think that conventional gamers get the same kick out of roleplaying that I do, just in a slightly different way and at a different time.

There is also a question of timescale within the fiction itself. Characters have agency in conventional RPGs; it’s just that their influence on events is more akin to steering a supertanker than a London cab. The Darkening of Mirkwood is a great example of that. I’ve read about half of it and what peaked my influence really is good. It effectively tells a story in which the actions of the player characters in year five might have enormous repercussions in year twenty-five. This is awesome. It is also something that I am unlikely to ever have either the time or patience to experience.

In this important respect, The One Ring is not thematic. The Lord of the Rings, certainly, has chapters which span decades as opposed to days, but they are just that: chapters. Cubicle 7 have yet to publish an adventure which has the feel of an epic quest such as the one told in either the Hobbit or its sequel. Yet that is what my players expected and wanted, and I’m sure they aren’t alone.

What would be more thematic, for me anyway, would be a system which allowed for both the Loremaster and Fellowship phases to be much bigger deals. So you would have bigger adventures spaced out by longer periods of downtime. The existing Fellowship phase system is simply not equipped to do this; even during the shortish periods it is designed to cover (by shortish I mean anything from a few weeks to a year), it is a bit of a damp squib. The Fellowship Phase options listed in the basic book and its supplements amount to little more than preparation for the next adventure. With some exceptions, they don’t really represent complications in a character’s life at all.

It would have been a great system if, during the Fellowship phase, characters might encounter some adversity, fall in love, lose a loved one, get sick, retire and pass the torch; anything to add a little more flavour and colour and definitely something that is not entirely in the control of the players. Allowing the players to flash their cash or hang out with a patron simply isn’t the same.

The bottom line is that the Middle Earth RPG that I want to play would be more epic, more dramatic and hand over a much greater share of narrative control to the players. I’ve come away feeling that despite being worlds apart tonally, Apocalypse World (but probably not Dungeon World) would form an excellent basis for this. At the same time, this game has given me some insight into what fans of conventional RPGs are getting out of it. I respect that, but for me what people enjoy about a game like The One Ring are a chore for me, and I don’t think that any amount of tweaking can fix that.

How we lost The Great Egg Race

So my wife and I were talking about old TV programmes this evening (to be honest, this was more me fulminating about how no-one seems to remember the TV programmes I used to watch as a kid on account of my great age and policeman getting younger every day, you get the idea), and our conversation settled on The Great Egg Race. I decided to show her a video of it to demonstrate how it had The Best TV Theme Tune Ever, but we ended up watching the entire episode. It was oddly compelling:

What’s interesting about this programme is that it marks an era when people could be intelligent on television without having to apologise for it. The basic format is essentially the same as any other modern “reality” show such as Masterchef or the Apprentice in which a group of people are set a challenge with limited resources and a limited amount of time and then get to square off against each other in a final contest. But beside that basic format, all other resemblances end.

Much of the programme consists of boffins muttering to each other under their breaths about how they plan to build their contraption, followed by Professor Heinz Wolff and his expert guest having discussing the week’s challenge without worrying especially about whether the audience was keeping up or not. The presenters do a rudimentary job at explaining things, but the viewer is pretty much left to it. There’s no Sean Pertwee sexily explaining what’s going on every thirty seconds. Neither is there much in the way of conflict; it is possible that they had their own equivalent of the Baked Alaska scandal, but I’m not aware of it.

The most striking contrast is with The Apprentice, and I think it says a lot about how our society’s values have changed over the past 30 years. While widely mocked as a piece of car crash TV, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons The Apprentice continues to be popular is that the corporate executive is now what we are meant to believe is what the ideal job to aspire to looks like. We might not all buy The Apprentice’s portrayal of corporate suits behaving like idiots and stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, but we at least buy into it as being a caricature of something real.

The Great Egg Race on the other hand is about engineers being set a similarly impossible and ridiculous challenge, who go about it by working together collaboratively and just getting on with it. They aren’t steered by the nose by producers who desperately want to drag a narrative into it all, and in the final challenge even the losers have a certain amount of dignity; they might have failed – they might even have failed badly – but even the biggest loser emerges from The Great Egg Race with a degree of dignity.

And they were engineers! A profession which our modern culture appears to simply ignore. Scientists are of course lauded, especially if they’re pretty ones like Brian Cox (sorry Heinz Wolff), but engineers seem to be pretty much invisible. Yet somehow our transportation systems, computers and widgets continue to get built.

There is, to be fair, a continuation of programmes which emulated the Great Egg Race. In the 90s we had Robot Wars, in which amateur engineers to pitch their robot creations against each other in a Thunderdome style arena. It was never really about the engineering however as much as it was about the occasional metallic carnage. It was an interesting programme to follow as both the robots and their builders evolved. You got to see the robots get slowly better over successive series and the builders become more and more up their own arses as their minor celebrity statuses (which appeared to involve opening the odd village fete and visiting children’s parties) reached their peaks. You would see them slowly coming out of their shells, wearing increasingly extroverted clothing. Some of them even (gag!) started to flirt with presenter Philippa Forrester (believe me when I say that this lead to some of the most excruciating television ever broadcast).

Scrapheap Challenge was perhaps more of a true spiritual successor to The Great Egg Race, just on a somewhat bigger scale. In so many ways, where The Great Egg Race was tweed and elastic, Scrapheap Challenge was METAL. With the number of bikers who took part in the latter, despite the years separating the two series, the amount of hair on both was about the same – they just wore t-shirts rather than suits.

But Scrapheap Challenge was ultimately a lot more like a modern reality TV show as well. Aside from the narration, there was a much greater focus on controversy and conflict, both inside the teams and between them. It did indeed have it’s own share of Baked Alaska Incidents. It was, to be fair, better at explaining concepts than its predecessor, but it was ultimately much more self-conscious about the fact that what it was ultimately about was a “boring” topic like engineering; it was certainly dressed up more. You can sort of see this in the team names; while the teams on The Great Egg Race were simply named after their place of work (Kontron Electrolab Ltd), the teams on Scrapheap tended to have jokey, ironic names like The Anoraks. I enjoyed it as a series, but it ultimately came across as a much less simple pleasure.

What am I saying here? Nothing more than that I feel that in the 20 years between The Great Egg Race and Scrapheap Challenge we somehow lost the ability to celebrate cleverness for its own sake and to simply take delight in people working together to do a good job under trying circumstances. Whether “we” have lost it or TV producers merely perceive we have is of course a moot point, but watching that episode did leave me feeling oddly nostalgic.

Can’t a gesture be just that? #jesuischarlie

Yesterday, when news of the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office was just emerging, my main reaction was simply to feel extremely sad. Fortunately I’m not a politician, a journalist or even much of a blogger these days so I’m allowed to feel that way without having my motives examined for signs of possible racism or bigotry.

Over the last day of so I’ve made a number of comments and shared stuff on my usual social networks using the hashtag #jesuischarlie. What I meant by it was merely “there but for the grace of God go I” – a simple statement of solidarity.

Apparently that isn’t the case however. According to countless righteous people who have been all too keen to leap on the bully pulpit, I used that hashtag because I’m either a crypto-racist/islamophobe or hopelessly naive, thinking of Charlie Hebdo as some kind of bastion of western satire when in fact it is a scurrilous rag and not even very funny. And apparently I’m an idiot for thinking that this was about cartoons when it was in fact about much wider issues. I’ve even read suggestions that any act of solidarity must automatically mean I’m in favour of cracking down on the very civil liberties that yesterday’s murderers were attacking.

As it happens, from what little I knew of it, Charlie Hebdo did seem pretty scurrilous, insensitive and unfunny. As it happens, I’m not so stupid as to believe this is simply about a drawing of Mohammed. And needless to say, the last thing I want to see as a result of this attack is a crackdown on civil liberties or the end of multiculturalism.

It is too much to ask for people to not use atrocities like this to advance their own agendas. Indeed, that can be useful. But is it really too much to ask that people don’t insult everyone else’s intelligence whilst doing so, inferring far more into a simple expression of grief than it warrants?

Thank you. As you were.

Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.