On the Road in Middle-earth

I’ve run several RPG campaigns over the past five years, but only my two The One Ring games have shown any durability. My players aren’t tremendous Tolkien aficionados (although we have more in the current group than the previous one), but there’s something about the rules and the setting that makes it a favorite of ours.

TOR does a tremendous job of capturing the feel of Tolkien’s stories, as well as the Northern European sagas and myths that influenced them. That’s not really a surprise given The One Ring is an RPG where the rules where designed to evoke the setting and not a setting squeezed into a pre-existing rule set. The game’s central mechanic that covers combat, social encounters, and travel equally also adds to its appeal for my players and me. The rule system is simple enough to make learning to play a quick task and requires little consultation of the rulebook.

As fine as a rules are, however, I feel that travel in the game has the greatest potential for becoming rote and devolving into a series of dice rolls. In doing so, we miss the opportunity for world-building and creating character narrative.

For those unfamiliar with the journey rules of TOR, in short, you make a check of your Travel skill against a target number that depends on the type of land you’re passing through. These checks come at intervals depending on the season (you make them more often during winter than summer, for example) and a failure results in the accumulation of fatigue. Fatigue is hard to recover from while traveling and impacts your ability to take damage and fight for prolonged periods at full strength.

If one of the characters rolls an “Eye of Sauron,” one of two special icons on the d12 feat die, a hazard occurs. Hazards can run the gamut from your old school random encounter with monsters to unexpected delays to a sense of creeping foreboding that taints your soul. Despite their constant presence, hazards aren’t a regular occurrence and even with my group of six players making three or more rolls each per journey, I don’t think we’ve had more than five hazard encounters in nearly a year’s worth of play.

Since the chances of a hazard occurring are 1 in 12, many long journeys become a matter of asking for Travel rolls, making note of who passed and who failed, handing out fatigue to those who blew their roll, then summarizing the next leg of the journey (“The hills begin to rise as you pass east out of Rivendell for three days, the lofty heights of the Misty Mountains forming a wall before you. The clouds cover their tops, but the chill winds remind you that snow still lingers in the High Pass.”).

As you can see, in the hands of a lesser game master, journeys can potentially turn into a series of dice rolls and their resulting fatigue increase. But I’m a firm believer in the adage that it’s not the destination, but the trip that makes things worthwhile.

I decided to use journeys as an opportunity for shared world-building when I begin my latest TOR campaign. The game already allows for sharing the narrative with the players, in effect giving them the chance to become their own game master for a brief period at the end of each adventure. I took this concept and incorporated it into the journey as well.

Each leg of the journey now include another step, one that gives the players a measure of creative control within the campaign world. I call for Travel rolls as normal and assign fatigue to the characters if they fail their travel roll, then I ask if any hazards have occurred. If they have, they get resolved as usual. However, if that leg of the trip proves to be uneventful, I ask each player the same question, “What interesting thing happened on this stage of the trip?”

The player then has the opportunity to tell us all about something the group saw or some small event that happened to the group over the previous couple of days. In many cases, it’s a minor occurrence, like they came across an old campsite a few days ago or they saw a bird that seemed to take an interest in them. Sometimes it’s even humorous, like when one player told the group that another player’s character—our fat hobbit (we have two hobbits)—was chased around a rock by a mountain goat for a short time before the group chased it off.

Occasionally, one of the players introduces something more substantial and it gets incorporated into the setting. For example, on an early journey, one of the players remarked how they kept seeing old menhirs with spirals on them as they came down out of the High Pass into Eriador. Seeing an opportunity, I asked for Lore rolls from the players and those that succeeded recalled that these were raised by the Hillmen of Rhudaur long ago and mark their territory (or where their territory once was). The group now knows whenever they’re in potential Hillmen lands thanks to something one of the players added to the campaign. In another case, our other hobbit remarked how he spotted an old wagon with a faded colorful canvas covering its bed mired in a swamp north of the road. We marked its location on the map and just recently the hobbit returned to check out the wagon during the downtime between adventures. I gave the player to option to either come up with what his character found there or to have me create it. He decided that he didn’t have enough knowledge of Middle-earth to concoct something himself, but suggested some parameters of what he might be interested in finding. As a result, a curious pukel-man statue has now entered the campaign.

The players all know that I reserve the right to veto anything they introduce if it’s too far-fetched or problematic. My boilerplate example of something not allowed is “We met Gandalf the Grey and he became our best friend.” So far, I’ve never had to veto the players’ suggestions and I trust I won’t have to in the future. If you’re gifted with players that are both even slightly creative (and most role-players are) and who can be trusted to stay within the loose boundaries you impose on them, giving them creative control to flesh out journeys is an excellent way to grow the campaign world beyond whatever you can come up with.

I’ve just begun experimenting with another technique to take advantage of uneventful journeys, one that I’m calling “banter” for lack of a better term. This is a simple request for some brief role-playing by the players. In our last session, rather than ask for an interesting event, I took out my phone, set the stopwatch function, and said, “Please give me two minutes of roleplaying. You’re on your journey, stopped for the night and sitting around your camp. Go!”

This technique produced good results. Our elf brothers bickered a bit, our dwarf smoked his pipe and gazed into the flames, uttering the occasional taciturn response, and our Woodman was distracted by the events that are currently affecting his home and focused on preparing the speech he plans to deliver when he returns there. Even better though was the response from the players, who enjoyed the opportunity to get into character a bit and explore their PCs’ personalities outside of the adventuring space. I suspect that we might get more humorous interactions at first, since it’s both the easiest and least personal means of roleplaying and I know my players, but I suspect with time we might see some deeper explorations of the characters’ personalities, quirks, hopes, and fears.

While these two techniques came out of playing The One Ring and are intended to help shore up some potential weaknesses in the rules, there’s no reason why they can’t be used in any other RPG. An old school D&D hexcrawl could implement them when slogging through the wilderness and no random encounters happen or a modern spy RPG might incorporate them to spice up the inevitable times the agents are on board a plane waiting for to do a HALO jump into hostile territory or just taking a long plane trip to exotic foreign locales.

No matter what you’re playing, if you’re confident enough in your own game mastering skills to incorporate the unexpected into your games and have no fear in turning the reins of the game over to your players for a bit, sharing the narrative is a wonderful way of growing the campaign world and building player investment, both of which lead to longer and healthier campaigns.

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