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?
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.
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.