An Unexpected Hobbit

My The One Ring campaign celebrated its 1st anniversary at the beginning of the month. We lost one player due to real life obligations, but the remaining five—which is more than enough for TOR, or so I’ve learned—remain invested in our ongoing tale of fell doings, massing orcs, and mysterious happenstances that suggest larger forces have a hand in the fellowship’s doings.

Our latest adventure took us back over the Misty Mountains to Rhovanion in an attempt to diffuse a war that was brewing between the Beornings and the Woodmen. In preparation for the return to the Wild, I pulled my reprint of the original 1937 edition of The Hobbit off my shelf and started reading through it. It stirred up the urge to do some painting of my backlog of Middle-earth miniatures, this time focusing on some of the characters from The Hobbit.

I broke open my Escape from Goblin Town starter set, which had been languishing largely because of my less than enthusiastic attitude towards the movies, and got to scrubbing down the plastic sprue of Thorin Oakenshield and Company. Once it dried, it was time to get Bilbo from Games Workshop grey to something suitable for the game table.

bilboI have this to say about 25mm hobbits: they paint up quick! In an hour or so, I had Bilbo looking ready to leave Bag-End. A couple more hours were spent waiting for the base to dry, but then a fast drybrush and some static grass clumps and the burglar was ready to burgle something. Only thirteen more dwarves and a certain wandering wizard (or maybe two since I have a Radagast the Brown in that box too) and I’ll be well prepared for the next time I have an urge to take a stab at more faithfully recreating the events of the book than the movies did. All in all, I’m pretty chuffed how Bilbo turned out. I’ll never win a Golden Demon, but I’ve managed to develop painting chops sufficient enough that I’m not embarrassed to field one of my own paint job on the tabletop battlefield.

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.

My Ten Influential RPGs

There’s a meme floating around the social networks asking people to name the ten role-playing games that had the most influence on them. To me, this isn’t the same as asking for their ten favorite ones. The meme is interesting in that it presents the opportunity to examine what certain games taught us—for better or for worse.

I spent some time today thinking about my now (sheesh) soon-to-be thirty-nine years of RPG hobby involvement and almost a decade working on the professional side of things and what games have had the biggest impact on me both professionally and as a gamer. In order of least importance but still impactful to highest importance, here’s my list and why.

10) Gamma World: The first edition of Gamma World was the second RPG I ever owned. While the rules were similar to D&D and the post-apocalyptic setting was a little too different from what you thought the world after a nuclear apocalypse was supposed to look like if you were a kid in the early 1980s, Gamma World taught me there were other RPGs beyond D&D and other settings besides fantasy. I was a fan of Gamma World for many years, but I have to admit it has slipped from my list of favorites these days. Maybe the appeal of a dying world isn’t quite as fun when your world is actually on the ropes?

9) Top Secret: I’ve never been a huge spy fan outside of the James Bond movies, but Top Secret was the game that taught me RPGs could use game mechanics to adjudicate success besides a simple “X in 6” chance or comparing a die roll to a “to hit” table. While percentile-based thieves skills have (almost) always been a part of D&D, Top Secret was the first game that made broad use of a percentile skills not directly tied to a class-based advancement system. To this day, I still prefer it when a game allows you to customize your areas of expertise and advance them free of class progression restrictions.

8) GURPS: I’ve never actually played GURPS. Much like Champions, I’ve made up a GURPS character or two, but they never made it into actual play. Yet GURPS remains influential because it demonstrated to me what a setting splatbook should be. I own GURPS books and mined them heavily for ideas and inspiration for countless campaigns using everything but GURPS. They remain some of the few RPG books I can read for sheer reading enjoyment rather than practical use.

7) Shadowrun: Shadowrun taught me how a single image could capture the imagination and build up anticipation for a game you knew nothing about. Larry Elmore’s cover illustration, used as a teaser in the pages of Dragon magazine, blew the minds of myself and my friends. “Is that an elf with a computer? Are those orcs with guns? A magic-user in Daisy Dukes?!!!” We knew nothing about the game when we saw that art except for the fact we we’re going to play the HELL OUT OF IT when it came out. And we did.

6) Star Wars (West End Games): I played a lot of Star Wars in high school and in college and it never bothered me that I wasn’t playing the heroes of the movies. The Star Wars universe was so huge that there was plenty of room to tell other stories with heroes just as capable and daring as Leia, Luke, and Han. While seemingly a no-brainer when it comes to game design, The Adventures of Indiana Jones would stumble over this very issue. When we sat down to design DCC Lankhmar, a world with its own large-than-life heroes, I made it clear from the beginning that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were intended to be either not present or second bananas to the player’s PCs.

5) The One Ring: Say what you like about Tolkien’s work and whether you like it or not, but The One Ring is an exceptional example of using game mechanics to convey the feel of an existing work rather than modifying an existing work to convey the feel of a setting. MERPs is an example of what can go wrong when you’re dealing with the second case. In comparison, The One Ring was built from the ground up to invoke Middle-earth and succeeds admirably. TOR has become a favorite among my regular gaming group and its mixture of old school dice mechanics and new school narrative story aspects is scratching all the right itches. It might even be higher on my list one day should I ever get around to experimenting with adapting its rule system to similar non-Tolkien genres like historical Dark Ages Europe or other analogous campaign premises.

4) Vampire: the Masquerade: The Storytelling system introduced me to both the concept of “succeeding at a game mechanic without the need to roll dice” and taught me how to look at adventure design as story design. While that’s anathema to some old school RPGers, who prefer emergent storytelling, as I get older, I appreciate the need for creating concise campaigns with a beginning, middle, and an end. Doing that keys heavily into the same skill set as writing a story or designing a story-arc adventure. V:tM also kept me in the hobby for nearly ten years when I was ready to drop out of role-playing for good.

3) Mind’s Eye Theatre: I went back and forth on whether this belongs under the rubric of V:tM, but ultimately decided the lessons learned and the influence it had were monumental enough to be its own entry. Despite a brief dalliance with the SCA in my freshman year of college, I never had much desire for Live Action Role-Playing, which back then was largely hitting each other with sticks. Then The Masquerade, the first MET title came along and I was certain I’d seen the future of role-playing games. The rock-paper-scissors mechanic was brilliant and the fact that it was socially driven meant that you could get dressed up in cool clothes and engage in scintillating conversation with other people—especially those of your preferred gender for romantic liaisons. While it’s been a long, long time since I did any LARP gaming, I’m still known to get people standing up and away from the table when playing out a scene. The lessons I learned in designing MET games has also served me well in tabletop gaming. Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without my experience in putting characters at cross-purposes and how effective introducing a secret agendas can be.

2) Call of Cthulhu: I was a relative latecomer to CoC, picking up the 4th edition as my first version and not actually playing the game for many years afterward. Despite a late start, CoC remains one of my top five RPGs. Until recently, the game saw minimum changes, demonstrating exactly how solid a game design Sandy Peterson created in 1981. As I mentioned above, any game with a percentile-based skill system is going to have me rooting for it and CoC’s skills and progression mechanic was miles beyond Top Secret. Call of Cthulhu also features “average people” as the heroes and it’s far more satisfying to beat the bad guys (or at least stave off the end of the world for another week) when you’re the underdog.

1) Dungeons & Dragons: Without D&D, there would be no RPGs—at least on the level of exposure the world knows them today. And while the rules have changed and design goals vary from edition to edition, to me they’re all manifestations of that thing which is Dungeons & Dragons. Every edition from 0 to 5—and all those retro clones in between—has taught me something about not only our hobby, but myself and those who share my enthusiasm for it. It might not necessarily be my go to game these days, but it will never be surpassed for the influence it’s had on me.

I find it curious that out of these ten titles, I only currently play three of them. The rest have fallen to the wayside and the reason in every case is my growing older. I couldn’t imagine trying to play, let alone run, a game with mechanics like Shadowrun’s dice pools or Top Secret’s baroque array of modifiers to base skill chances. I might play Star Wars again one day, but frankly the Galaxy Far, Far Away is feeling a little oversaturated ever since Disney acquired it. I’m burned out on Star Wars, but may change my mind once my nephews get a little older. Vampire will always be an old love, but one I’m not likely to shack up with again unless the conditions were perfect.