Monday, February 27, 2012

Justification for Vancian: REALLY?!?!?!

New Legends and Lore article today.  I've mostly decided to stop getting worked up over these announcements until a playable form of this game is released.  But gorram it they just keep being so bad.

This article implies that Vancian is default, and that alternatives will require feat taxes.  Granted, we don't have all of the information, but consider this line "As a result, we'd like to include Vancian spellcasting as only one type of magic in the game. And according to a recent poll here, a majority of you seem to agree—that we should incude both Vancian and non-Vancian spellcasting systems as part of the core."  This is followed by an explanation of a system whereby casters could gain new "minor" at-will abilities via feats.  The attack example we've seen, Javelin of Fire, sounds like it's basically "Return of the Crossbow:  Reflavored!"  Other examples of feats given in the article would grant Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound or Tenser's Floating Disk.  Again I say REALLY!?!?!?!

A Ritual system (which there has been talk of) would handle these types of things soooo much better; I mean Tenser's Floating Disk is a neat parlour trick but I wouldn't burn a feat to use it at-will.  Then there's the fact that, once again, combat and non-combat abilities are competing for the same slot (but this time instead of whether you prepare one or the other, you're deciding which you're going to blow a feat on to gain at-will).

Then of course there's the issue of feat-based magic not being fully developed out-of-the-box, but then again Monte Cook has a history of favoring the "casters start weak, end strong" paradigm.  As I've described previously this type of "balance" is more theoretical than pragmatic, because the vast majority of the time one type of character is going to be much noticeably weaker than a different types (casters at low levels, fighter-types at high levels).  As someone who absolutely hated being stuck with weak casters at low levels, at which we played almost all of our games and started over before advancing very high, I will flat-out ignore the system if that's the direction it takes.  A player's expectations for how their class is going to play should remain constant across all levels.  A Wizard's power relative to the other classes should be roughly the same at 1st level as it is at 15th or 20th level.  While high level play should definitely feel different, it should change for everyone while still preserving the fundamental functionality of the class.

In short, I want a Wizard with encounter-based options, but it's not something that has been mentioned at all.  The "alternative" magic system appears to be feat-based at-wills, and that seems to be the best that the designers have come up with.  Otherwise other ideas would have been mentioned after the italicized quote from above.  But then again, Monte was in charge of 3rd edition, where the Sorcerer was admitted to have been made weaker because one of the designers (can't remember who off the top of my head) liked the Wizard better, and wanted his favored class to have an advantage.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Words of the Wise Session Summary

Last night I introduced The One Ring to a second group of players, but instead of running The Marsh Bell again I thought I'd take Words of the Wise for a spin.  This was the short demo adventure from (I think) Gen-Con last year.  The session was fairly long (7 hours), which allowed ample time for both character creation and the entire adventure.  The members of the fellowship were as follows:  Lowthesis, Son of Dundin, is a bold and wrathful Dwarven treasure hunter, skilled at the forge (smith-craft) and selling his wares (trading).  He's decked out in a full coat of mail and helm, with a Reinforced Shield.  Grimwine, Son of Grimhelm is a Beorning orc-slayer extraordinaire; both bold and swift.  He's happily taken up the mantle of party Huntsman, and is already well-versed in beast-lore and cooking.  His Keen Greataxe is a troll-bane.  Finally there is the generous Ranulf, a Barding wanderer.  A former boat-maker (boating and woodwright) and an expert marksman, his adventurous spirit and military training (King's Men) serve him well as he explores Wilderland. 

I'll refrain from giving a traditional session summary because I have a lot of other things I'd like to discuss, and the lack of spoilers will be useful if I ever want to run this adventure with my other group.  Because the adventure begins in Rhosgobel, this was the fellowship's starting Sanctuary.  That's obviously a long way from home for 2 members of the company, but I'd prepared a mandatory "hook" for each of the cultures that explains what they're doing in Rhosgobel.  Normally I'd probably announce ahead of time where the party is starting and have the players justify what they're doing there, but seeing as this was the first time the group was playing and their familiarity with the setting and cultures was either low or rusty, I figured this would get us all into the game the quickest.  In any case, this predetermined business saw our company arriving in late fall, and at the request of the Woodmen everyone wintered there.  Perfect set-up for the opening scene of the adventure.


  • This fellowship was a well-oiled machine in combat.  Whereas my last group of players tentatively experimented with stances based on their perceived level of danger, this group had a plan.  Grimwine would stay in forward stance most of the time, with Lowthesis in defensive taking hits for him when necessary.  Interestingly, Ranulf, not Grimwine, is Lowthesis' fellowship focus so he went through quite a bit of Hope this way.  Ranulf would either stick to rearward and shoot with his Great Bow, or move up to open and use the Rally Comrades action to sing a battle chant and keep his allies focused.  Though hope is lost on a failed song roll, because succeeding would directly benefit Grimwine (his fellowship focus) he was able to turn a lot of fails into successes by invoking his attribute, immediately regaining that lost Hope.
  • This group burned through Hope a lot more than the other group.  In the other group everyone made sure that they used Hope as sustainably as possible, ending at maximum and only invoking it in the direst of circumstances.  Last night heroes were using Hope outside of combat quite regularly, including during the opening Hunt.  Ranulf actually ended up spending Hope on 2 different rolls in a row in the encounter with the Elvenking (which Lowthesis soured early on), and though he didn't know it at the time it was the difference between bringing back a small Elven patrol and an entire war party.  
  • While the party was efficient in combat, that was mostly due to a fairly rough start.  In the first battle Grimwine stay in forward stance and Lowthesis was reluctant to spend too much Hope too early.  Grimwine managed to get himself wounded, but then proceeded to remain in forward stance until he dropped below 0 endurance.  Ranulf failed his Healing roll, but I had Radagast give him a second look when they dragged the wounded back.  I believe that by a strict reading of the rules, since another healing check couldn't be attempted until the next day and dying characters need to be successfully treated within 12 hours, Grimwine would have died if not for Radagast's intervention.  Moral of the story - don't fight recklessly while wounded!  The long journey afterwards ended up being pretty lucky for Grimwine, given the slow recovery time of a wounded character.
  • First leg of the journey, and the fellowship already triggered a hazard.  I rolled randomly to determine who it affected (Grimwine was Hunstman, Lowthesis Guide, and Ranulf Scout), and Grimwine "lucked out."  He had stated previously that he was hunting every day to stretch the provisions out as long as possible, so a "hunter to prey" scenario seemed perfectly appropriate to me.  Something found the gut pile from one of his recent kills, and followed the scent back to their camp.  I rolled randomly for what that something was, and it ended up being a Hill Troll!  Grimwine was still wounded (though well on the road to recovery) by this point.  This was when Lowthesis really started to get generous with the Hope!  I notified the (then cocky) party when the troll hit 0 Endurance, saying that "he was moving a little more slowly, but unless you can pierce that thick hide he would keep on fighting."  Ranulf's great bow skill (2 ranks) wasn't reliable enough to get any piercing shots, and the party started looking really nervous.  Then, as luck would have it, Grimwine rolled a Gandalf rune with his Greataxe and the troll was unable to overcome the weapon's injury rating.  The axe sliced open the troll's midsection, spilling its stomach contents and revealing the rabbit guts.  
  • I'll still avoid spoilers, but the party's new efficiency was definitely apparent in the final battle scene.  They rolled 2 Eyes in the first round (which triggered the arrival of more enemies), but they still handily dispatched their foes, and I ended up bringing in more (including a tougher one) later on just to preserve the sense that this was a big battle with foes flowing through the gates, since it was unlikely to overwhelm the party.  
  • After some heavy role-playing investment into increasing Grimwine's reputation, his player was disappointed that it had no mechanical effect on his Standing.  While the rationale for standing as-is makes sense for most of the cultures, the Beornings are tougher to reconcile with the default, given that uniting to keep the lands safe is a large part of what defines the Beornings as a people.  Aside from paying it off later on in the narrative I'm not sure how to handle that.
Anyways, I could probably ramble on some more but I've already said my piece about what was most striking.  I'm definitely looking forward to continuing to run this system.  This group was more outwardly enthusiastic about all of the new mechanics than the other group, but hopefully I'll be able to keep both going (maybe someday someone else can even try their hand at LMing so I can play a character).  Interestingly, as we were packing up Ranulf's player randomly rolled a D20, saying "I miss it," which was a bit of a deja-vu because Bondi's player did the exact same thing in the other session (again, as we were packing up).  They both play Bardings, and Bondi has the Woeful Foresight virtue.  Talk about creepy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Middle Earth Calendar

I whipped up these calendars based on Appendix D of LotR, starting with the Westron calendar and then making a "conversion" to the Shire calendar where the columns correspond to the same days on both. That's why some of months on the Shire calendar end with the 1st of the next month, or begin with the 30th of the previous (makes it easier for players using different calendars to track the passage of time, IMO). In other words, the day that corresponds to the top of the May column is May 2nd in the Shire, but May 1st everywhere else. Another example being that the top of the Oct column is not Oct 1st on either of the calendars; it's Sep 30th in the Shire, and yáviérë in the Westron calendar.

Which leads into my next point. Because every month on both calendars contains 30 days, there are 5 "leftover" days. In both cases these days are not counted as being a part of any month, but are holidays. The biggest discrepancy between the 2 calendars stems from the fact that the holidays in the Westron calendar fall on the first and last days of the year, the middle day of the year (midsummer), and between Mar/Apr and Sep/Oct, whereas in the Shire calendar the first and last days of the year are Yule, and the remaining 3 holidays are all grouped together in midyear and referred to collectively as "lithe" (with the middle day of lithe being midsummer, or loëndë on the Westron calendar).

During leap years the Westron calendar lacks loëndë, instead having 2 enderi (middle days). In the Shire the extra day is added after the 2nd lithe-day, and is called Overlithe (which is a day of special merrymaking). Year 4 T.A. was a leap year, which makes the first in-game leap year for TOR 2948.

The main use that I see these calendars having is for Loremasterss and/or players (if they're inclined) to check off days as they pass in-game. I would probably strike a line through the columns when long periods of game time pass, such as during uneventful journeys or during Fellowship phases. Perhaps too book-keepy for some groups, but given how much emphasis Tolkien placed on the passage of time I think it's an appropriate way to increase immersion.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Creating Custom Backgrounds

Each culture has a list of 6 background "packages" that players can choose from.  Experienced gamers are encouraged to get creative and use these backgrounds as a baseline for creating their own.  The formula for creating a background is quite simple, and I'll discuss it here.

Overview - What does a Background give you?

There are 3 big choices that you make during character creation that help to define your character.  These are your culture, your background, and your calling, and each provides its own set of benefits.  Your Background is what determines your basic attribute scores, it grants you an additional favored skill, and provides a list of Distinctive Features (Traits) that you can pick from (you pick 2 out of 8).

Basic Attributes

The math behind the generation of attributes is mercifully simple.  You have a total of 14 points that you can split between the 3 attributes (Body, Heart, and Wits), with each attribute having a value between 2 and 7.  For example, some combinations are (5, 7, 2); (4, 6, 4); (5, 5, 4); (5, 6, 3); etc.  Some backgrounds will be more polarized (an example being 7, 2, 5), whereas others are more well-rounded (5, 4, 5).  While there's a lot of room for customization, there are also patterns that each culture tends to follow.  If you'd like a decent score in a weak area for a culture, you'll probably want to go with a well-rounded array.

Bardings:  Generally speaking Bardings have a high Heart score, with the lowest value in a pre-selected background being 5 (most are 6 or 7).  They also have a fairly solid Body score, with the lowest values being 4 and 5 being the most common.  Wits is generally low, with the highest value being 4 and 2 or 3 being most common.

Beornings:  Not surprisingly, Beornings favor Body with no value being lower than 5.  Their Heart isn't too shabby either, with values ranging from 4-6.  Like the Bardings, they tend to have low Wits, with 2 backgrounds each for the values of 2, 3, and 4. 

Dwarves of Erebor:  Their high values in Body are reminiscent of the Beornings, but their secondary attribute is Wits (from 4-6) rather than Heart, which is their weakness

Elves of Mirkwood:  Elves have an overwhelming majority of 6s and 7s in Wits, their highest score.  Only 1 background goes as low as 5.  Body is well-represented also, with mostly scores of 5 (though a range of 4-6).  Like Dwarves they have low Heart.

Hobbits of the Shire:  Not unexpectedly, Heart is their biggest strength with Wits in second place.  Being so small of stature it's no wonder that they tend to have low Body scores. 

Woodmen:  Here is another culture that places a high value on Wits, as it tends to be their best score.  Existing successfully so close to the Shadow of Mirkwood must also require a lot of Heart, because Woodmen have plenty of it.  Relatively low Body is the price they pay. 

Favored Skill

You gain one additional favored skill that is in some way related to your background.  As far as I can tell there's no strict pattern here, though there is a tendency for the skill to be one that the culture has 1 or 0 ranks in.  Still, there are enough examples of skills that a culture has 3 ranks in that I'm hesitant to make any kind of general recommendation.

Distinctive Features

Your choice here will be pretty important, because you'll be invoking traits to earn Advancement Points or to gain automatic successes quite a bit.  I don't have enough play experience to say which traits are flat out better and which are fairly weak, and in any case the list is too long to go over in detail here.  It's mostly a matter of creativity anyways, and I personally prefer to pick traits that demonstrate qualities of the character that I have in mind.  Because that's the whole point, after all.  A player has this idea in their head for a character, and not only having those traits written down, but invoking them for mechanical benefits, is a great way to communicate these major qualities to the other players and the LM.

That said, certain traits do seem to be ubiquitous for a given culture, and I would therefore recommend that any custom backgrounds at least place these traits on the list of choices.  I can't tell without a much deeper examination whether there are any traits that a given culture never possesses, but I would imagine that's pretty flexible, especially if there's a good reason why that trait should be tied to the background.  Anyways, what follows is a list of traits that each culture pretty much always has.  Any adventurer from this culture should have the opportunity to pick these traits.

BardingsAdventurous - Your spirit is attracted by new experiences and challenges, especially when they seem perilous enough to put your mettle to the test.

BeorningsGrim - Your countenance in threatening, and betrays the harshness of your spirit.

Dwarves of EreborWilful - Your confidence in your own judgement makes you deaf to all counsel but your own.

Elves of MirkwoodQuick of Hearing - No sound escapes your attention.

Hobbits of the ShireTrue-hearted - You are sincere, and your words and actions show your honest intentions.

WoodmenBold - You trust your capabilities to the point that you are not easily daunted, readily placing yourself in danger.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Common Skills: Cultural Baseline

The majority of your starting ranks in the Common Skills are determined by your choice of culture.  This provides insight into what professions each of the cultures prizes, as well as what types of opportunities might be available within a culture.  Mechanically, it helps make the cultures more distinctive.  There's obviously still room for customization since you get your "previous experiences" points that you can spend however you want, and as you gain advancement points you'll obviously spend those to upgrade the skills that are important to you.  Specifically, each culture's skill point "value" is 29 (based on the previous experience skill point table) and you get 10 "previous experience" skill points to spend as you see fit.  So when you first create your character, roughly 3/4 of your skill points are pre-selected.  At first I didn't like this ratio since I value customization, but I get why the designers went this route now, and I might actually prefer it this way the more I think about it.  It says a lot about what life is like for an individual of a given culture, and customization is gained through adventuring.

Anyways, the point of this post is to provide a quick reference.  While the skill rank table works very well for building characters, a list would be more helpful for finding out what each culture does well at a glance.  Here is that list.  Key to the skill groups is as follows:  Personality, Movement, Perception, Survival, Custom, Vocation.


3 Ranks:  Persuade

2 Ranks:  Inspire, Travel, Insight, Explore, Courtesy, Battle

1 Rank:  Awe, Search, Song, Craft, Lore

0 Ranks:  Athletics, Stealth, Awareness, Healing, Hunting, Riddle

Bardings tend to be well-rounded with a large amount of skills with 2 or 1 rank(s), which maximizes total number of skills.  They have the fewest 0 rank skills of any other culture.  This opens up a lot of different options, giving individual Bardings a good starting point to specialize in a wide variety of areas.  Given their privileged society, and good relations with both the Dwarves and Elves, this makes sense.  Their specialty is their persuasiveness.  They tend to excel best in the Personality group, with solid marks in Vocation as well.  Weaknesses are Movement and Survival (which, interestingly, are strong points for the other generalist culture, the Woodmen).


3 Ranks:  Awe, Insight, Hunting

2 Ranks:  Athletics, Awareness

1 Rank:  Inspire, Search, Healing, Riddle, Craft

0 Ranks:  Persuade, Travel, Stealth, Explore, Song, Courtesy, Battle, Lore

Beornings tend toward a deep focus in some skills with modest investment (1 rank) in a decent amount as well (if graphed they would have 2 large peaks at either end, having a lot of rank 3 and rank 1 skills).  They are above all imposing, discerning, and remarkable hunters.  They place little value on Custom and Vocation skills, and surprisingly Movement, though to a lesser extent.  No ranks in Battle is very surprising given their way of life (personally I'd be tempted to house-rule a trade between Battle and Inspire).  Perception is their strongest group.

Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain

3 Ranks:  Travel, Search, Craft

2 Ranks:  Inspire, Explore, Riddle

1 Rank:  Song, Battle

0 Ranks:  Awe, Persuade, Athletics, Stealth, Awareness, Insight, Healing, Hunting, Courtesy, Lore

They are the most focused of the cultures, and it fits.  They lean the most toward maximizing ranks, meaning that they specialize in fewer areas but are very talented in those areas.  Consequently, they have the greatest number of 0 rank skills.  Despite this they're surprisingly well-rounded, with a focus (rank of 2 or 3) in 1 skill from each of the groups.  They're best known for their craft, resilience to discomfort, and obsessive ability to find what they're looking for (or a stubbornness that keeps them from giving up).  Some of the skills that they ignore are very surprising given the source material, namely Insight and Courtesy but you could make an argument for Lore as well.

Elves of Mirkwood

3 Ranks:  Athletics, Lore

2 Ranks:  Awe, Stealth, Awareness, Song, Battle

1 Rank:  Healing, Hunting

0 Ranks:  Inspire, Persuade, Travel, Insight, Search, Explore, Courtesy, Riddle, Craft

The Elves are unparalleled in their ability to collect (and recall) Lore, and given their tough, immortal bodies it's not surprising that they are capable of great athleticism.  Their rank 2 list all fit perfectly with what we know about Elves.  They're surprisingly deficient in the Survival category (considering they're wood-elves); I would think they'd get at least a rank 2 in Hunting, and perhaps a rank 1 in Explore.  Their haughtiness and inability to relate with mortals can easily explain the lack of focus in Personality, Perception, and Custom groups (with the obvious exceptions of Awe, Awareness, and Song). 

Hobbits of the Shire

3 Ranks:  Stealth, Courtesy

2 Ranks:  Persuade, Awareness, Search, Song, Riddle

1 Rank:  Travel, Insight

0 Ranks:  Awe, Inspire, Athletics, Explore, Healing, Hunting, Craft, Battle, Lore

Stealth and Courtesy are perfect for the Hobbits main areas of expertise.  Overall they're very well-represented in the Custom and Perception groups.  They're arguably the most polarized culture, however, since they have no ranks in any skills from the Survival or Vocation group.  Everything seems to fit really well with what you'd expect from a Hobbit.


3 Ranks:  Explore, Healing

2 Ranks:  Athletics, Stealth, Awareness, Hunting

1 Rank:  Inspire, Song, Riddle, Craft, Battle

0 Ranks:  Awe, Persuade, Travel, Insight, Search, Courtesy, Lore

Not surprisingly, Woodmen have a heavy focus on the Survival group, with strong showings in Movement as well.  Overall they're really well-rounded, as only Bardings have fewer skills with 0 Ranks.  Like Bardings, they seem to strive for competence in as many areas as possible (tendency toward many rank 1 and 2 skills).  This makes sense given their lifestyle and frugal standard of living; without a formalized division of labor and with scattered settlements, each individual Woodman needs to be able to perform a wide variety of tasks.  Personality is their worst group, with a weak showing in Perception as well (with the exception of Awareness). 

The Flaws of 4E

I just read some posts from another blog on Why 4E Died and an addendum to the previous post.  More interesting than why the edition had so short a life (which I could care less about; I already have my books and can play 4E in perpetuity) were some of its fundamental flaws.  With many of the recent announcements about 5E being less than hopeful, I've been thinking about tweaking 4E on my own.  Namely, providing universal house rules that fix math issues, paring down the rules into an optional simplified version of the game, reducing option glut and re-balancing certain elements, and completely revamping the Magic Items system.  Some of Kris Hansen's (the author of the above posts) thoughts are relevant.

Powers:  I agree that there is a lot of untapped potential here.  Lately I've wondered if fewer powers with more flexibility might be a good idea (this has already been done with the Hunter (Essentials subclass) Ranger).  Also, options that "build" off of previous powers as you level (like a Great Cleave option that you can use in place of an encounter power), and more at-wills in general.  Also, a system to cover "improvised" actions in a way that's more comparable to powers.  Perhaps reducing power redundancy and/or streamlining the power list for each class.  A huge undertaking, to be sure. 

Races:  Cultural options for different races would have indeed been awesome.  Racial utility powers also came into the game much too late.

Classes:  Some interesting thoughts, but I doubt I'd touch much here.  One thought I've had lately was making the Druid similar to the Berserker, with Wild Shape functioning as an on/off switch to go from a controller to a striker or defender.  I may just homebrew a new subclass for that.

Skills:  Flat out disagree with the author here.  I like the existence of skills, but I'd re-do the mathematical details while keeping the basic skill list (which I find waaayyy more functional than 3.xE's).  In short, I hate the +1/2 level scaling of 4E skills and I'd keep DCs flatter across a character's career with less numerical growth (ideally I'd alter the whole game in such a way, but then I'd have to re-write all of the monsters, and no thanks).

Feats:  Obviously I'd bake in Expertise and Improved Defenses for free, but I'm strongly considering scrapping the feat system altogether.  For a simplified version certainly, but in general I'd probably have to just reduce the importance of feats.  After all, without them multiclassing and hybrids won't work properly.  Still, there's a lot that can be done and I don't think it would take much effort.

Combat:  Disagree with the author a lot here, as I think 4E's style of combat is an intentional feature.  Still, a "simple combat" option would be nice (especially for less important encounters), and I think power/feat/magic item tweaks that I would be making anyways would go a long way toward reducing option paralysis.  In short, I can probably get away with reducing average combat length but I wouldn't go so far as to try to remove the grid.  If you don't want to play with a grid, you probably don't want to be playing 4E.  I see the value in both styles (indeed, it's been refreshing to go gridless in The One Ring). 

Items:  Only barely touched upon here, but I'd make the most drastic changes here.  First, inherent bonuses would be the default, and I'd make my inherent damage bonus (which don't stack with item bonuses) standard.  Magic items would, by default, be reminiscent of 1E when they were uncommon and getting one would be special and mysterious.  I might consider implementing the Magic Item Reset from Square Fireballs.  Too soon to tell.  Also, I might flesh out basic implements a little bit; much like a weapon-user can choose between a +2 or +3 proficiency weapon, I might make Superior Implements selectable by default, with an Accurate Implement being the equivalent of a +3 weapon.

So there you have it.  All of this game-design talk spurred by 5E has really forced me to think about the state of D&D, and I think that a (somewhat) heavily house-ruled 4E that fits the preferences of my own gaming group (and possibly others out there) would be valuable.  4E provided an excellent framework, and it doesn't look like 5E will build on that.  Someone should, and I'd like to at least attempt it.

The Problems with Vancian Spellcasting

I'll be frank:  I firmly believe that Vancian casting (at least as it's existed in D&D up to and including 3.5E) is a sacred cow that needs to be put out to pasture for good.  I could use a cheeseburger.

But let's back up a second.  What exactly is Vancian magic?  As defined by TV Tropes, it's basically a "fire and forget" spell-casting system where the caster has a finite number of uses of distinct spells.  In the first 3.5 editions of D&D (as well as Pathfinder) this took the form of long spell lists divided into levels (that didn't correspond directly with character level), and spells had to be prepared ("memorized") at the beginning of each day by choosing which "slot" would be filled with which spell.  If you have multiple slots of a given level available, you can prepare the same spell multiple times.   

Technically 4E didn't get rid of Vancian magic, but made some major modifications from previous editions: 1) powers have different "recharge" times (some powers are refreshed after each encounter instead of each day), 2) normally you cannot "prepare" the same power twice, i.e. a specific power is married to a specific "slot," and 3) the modified Vancian "magic" structure was applied to all classes (even non-casters), which is the key to 4E's exceptional balance.  Because this isn't traditional Vancian casting it's often not even recognized as Vancian, which is fine by me.  The traditional method is what I have a problem with, and so needless to say I was very displeased to hear that it will return in 5E.

Even if non-Vancian modules exist to cater to alternative playstyles, Vancian magic is so inherently imbalanced that its very presence will likely ruin the game (even if just 1 player opts to use it).

The Fallacy of "Temporal Balance"
An argument that is sometimes put forth is that Vancian casters are "balanced" because they're weak at low levels and exceptionally powerful at high levels, thus everyone gets to have their time in the spotlight (albeit not at the same time).  There are some pretty obvious problems with this argument.  A campaign starting at level 1 and going up to the highest levels takes a VERY long time, sometimes multiple years.  It's not fun for someone to play a weak (sometimes completely obsolete) character for weeks, months, or years "until they get better" or "knowing that they used to be better."  The assumption of balance breaks down entirely when a group either starts at high levels (circumventing the Vancian caster's "weakness") or quits before reaching high levels (not letting the Vancian caster ever come into his own).  I'd wager that this is the case for the vast majority of D&D players, and that only rarely is a campaign played from level 1 to maximum (20 or 30).

From a game design standpoint, "temporal balance" is not good balance; good balance is making sure that everyone is capable of making useful contributions at any given level, because it's the only way of ensuring that balance is relevant in play.  In other words, if you never see certain levels then the fact that those levels provide a type of balance is irrelevant.  Such balance might as well not exist (and in fact, at any given point in time except the narrow "sweet spot," balance doesn't exist.

The Five Minute Workday
Vancian spellcasting is supposed to facilitate a playstyle based on resource management, but in practice this often won't happen.  The casters use all of their big-guns in the first fight of the day, and then force the party to rest so that they can re-gain all of their spells (either by retreating, or using Rope Trick, Mordenkainen's Mansion, etc).  This makes them even more powerful than the designers assume (based on a multiple-encounter work day), allowing them to trivialize encounters and make the classes that favor consistent performance obsolete.  It also makes the DM's job of designing appropriate challenges much more difficult. 

Yes, the DM can set narrative limits such as a "race against the clock," but overusing such tools eventually strains suspension of disbelief, and besides the fact it's not the DM's job to work around imbalances, it's the job of the designers to ensure that they don't exist in the first place

Fragile Balance, Easily Broken
Even if the design team, against all odds, manages to balance Vancian casting with other available options at launch, such balance won't last.  Power creep is inevitable in any system as more supplements are released (after all, why would anyone buy them if they weren't worth using?), and even without intentional increases in power it inevitably becomes more difficult to maintain balance as more options come out.  More options means more possible synergies and combinations, and it's intrinsically more difficult to balance a larger list of variables.  But shouldn't this affect non-Vancian characters just as much as Vancian casters?  No, because Vancian casters improve disproportionately with new and improved options.

Just look back to the 5 minute workday; the better spells a caster has the more he'll trivialize that first encounter, and the greater the incentives to actually pursue a 5 minute workday.  Outside of that, consider a 4E Wizard vs a 3.5 Wizard.  If a new overpowered Daily power is published in 4E, the Wizard can be that much more awesome once per day.  If a new equally overpowered spell is published in 3.5, a Wizard can use all of his available spell slots to prepare it to be that much more awesome multiple times a day.  A Vancian caster is also able (encouraged, even) to have a huge variety of spells that they can potentially prepare, putting them at an advantage when it comes to having a situational spell in their back pocket or utilizing synergies (even those with lower level spells that the 4E Wizard would have long since retrained).  Assuming Polymorph/Wild Shape rules consistent with D&D 3.5E, even power creep among the monsters can be taken advantage of by Vancian casters.

As a final note, my confidence that the lead designers for 5E can achieve even an initial balance is minimal.  Monte Cook was in charge of 3.0/3.5, arguably the most grossly imbalanced version of D&D, and even 4E's balance, with all of its safeguards, went downhill when Mike Mearls was put in charge.  This isn't even the result of new sub-systems too different from the baseline class structure (indeed, classes like the Slayer, Scout, etc. are actually pretty well-balanced).  No, I'm talking about the complete and utter failures like the Binder, Bladesinger, Vampire, and Cavalier.  These largely follow the classic structure but have features (or a lack, thereof) that just blatantly reek of poor design. 

Final Notes On Balance
I should clarify quite clearly here that I don't mean to advocate a naive notion of "perfect balance."  It's impossible to achieve, but game designers should certainly try to achieve the best balance they can.  Monte Cook, on the other hand, wrote an article (the discussion of which I won't even attempt to find on the WotC forums because it was a while ago, and the original article you had to pay for anyways) where one of his major points essentially came down to this:  because perfect balance is impossible, it's pointless to even try to achieve balance, so you shouldn't make it a priority.  What utter trash that reeks of someone trying to justify their own bad design.

I'm reminded by an episode of Malcolm in the Middle (at least I think so; I could be mixing up shows because it's been a while).  Dewey was playing a game simply called "I Win."  As I remember it, it was a card game.  Regardless of what hand everyone got, Dewey would always win because that's the one rule of the game:  "I win."  Obviously this is at the extreme end of the balanced vs unbalanced spectrum, but I think it does a good job of illustrating the point that balance does matter.  If a spellcaster can summon a creature that fights just as well in melee as a Fighter (or Polymorph or Wild Shape into one), and still retains the ability to cast spells, then playing a Fighter is an awful lot like playing "I Win" with Dewey.  Sure, D&D is a cooperative game, but being completely unable to contribute is analogous to "losing."  If your class is obsolete, what's the point of playing?

Such glaring imbalances actually existed in 3rd edition, and are seemingly defended by Monte Cook, the guy in charge of 5E.  I don't have much hope that it will be a game that I'll enjoy playing, but we'll see.  There will be a lot of really intelligent people playtesting this game, and hopefully Monte won't be too stubborn to reverse the direction of "his" game if there's demand for it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

D&D Goblins vs TOR Goblins

Another thought-provoking thread over on the Cubicle 7 forums.  What began as a question about the resting and recovery mechanics soon got sidetracked into a very interesting discussion on morality in Middle Earth.  I'll discuss some of the points brought up, as well as make another comparison to D&D.

Goblins - Same Name, Different Creature

Tolkien's orcs and goblins are pretty much pure evil and beyond repent.  There are countless examples of Elves, Men, and Dwarves killing them without remorse, offering no chance for surrender (not that any orcs ever attempted to do so).  The most striking example of the fundamental differences between orcs and Men are after the battle of Helm's Deep, when all of the orcs were slaughtered but the Men that they were allied with were taken captive, put to work repairing the damage, and then told to go back to their own lands and never again take up arms against Rohan.  Despite the fact that the Dunlendings and orcs were all fighting as part of the same army, Tolkien firmly establishes that orcs are servants of the shadow, pure evil, whereas Men, as members of the Free Peoples, can be corrupted but are nevertheless worthy of moral consideration. 

In D&D goblins and orcs are indeed usually evil, but as with any sentient being with free will this isn't necessarily always the case.  Published modules will sometimes have "good" (or more likely neutral) goblin or kobold NPCs (Splug, Meepo, etc.) that the party can ally with.  And of course Drizzt, the most famous hero from the Forgotten Realms, is a rare good Drow.  At this point in the game's history it's pretty much expected that sooner or later an adventuring party will either contain a good member of an "evil" race, or will encounter one.  Though ignored by many (if not most) groups, fighting even the monstrous races potentially poses a moral dilemma, because such creatures do have a demonstrable capacity for good (even if it rarely manifests, and only among a minority of individuals).  My players have grown accustomed to the occasional goblin or kobold NPC, and even those that are shady characters aren't usually slain on sight (though armed bands of them during a dungeon crawl are).

This dimension should be non-existent in a game of The One Ring, provided that you're attempting to stay consistent with the source material.  Moral dilemmas would mostly be limited to "evil" Men, such as the Haradrim or Easterlings.  There is certainly precedent for that; one of the main themes in Gollum's storyline is mercy for an outwardly wretched and cruel creature because he ultimately used to be a Stoor Hobbit.  Despite what evil he's done, what you are matters in Middle Earth.  Tolkien's orcs function more as plot device more than realistic sentient beings (unlike Gollum), and such servants of the Shadow are simply bodily manifestations of evil itself.  Though readers follow individual orcs on a few occasions and thus may become slightly sympathetic toward them (Grishnakh and Ugluk in Rohan, and Shagrat and Gorbag at Cirith Ungol), nothing redemptive can really be seen in them, and they only keep their respective Hobbit prisoners alive (sometimes fiercely defending them from other orcs) because of their orders.  The best quality they may seem to possess is loyalty, and that's likely out of fear of their masters (for they seem to kill each other fairly readily).

Evil can be killed in both settings with little remorse, but the nature of evil will differ quite a bit.  In D&D (at least by default) any race is capable of evil, though some are much more likely to hold that alignment).  In Middle Earth pure evil exists, but it's embodied by Morgoth (and later Sauron) and their servants, which are irredeemably evil, and it's usually their corrupting influence that causes members of the Free Peoples to commit evil deeds.

Shadow and Character Development

The above discussion ties in very closely with the concept of Shadow points.  On the thread that inspired this post, Azrapse stated:  "Certainly, for me Shadow points are not a punishment, but another way in which the character evolves. They make them look adventurers less like badass action heroes, and more like people dragged into the war by necessity, and in the long run, defeated by the burden of their own deeds."  This was in response to discussion on whether a hero should gain Shadow points for killing orcs that hadn't instigated attacks, killing them after they surrendered, or to leave them in locked in cages to starve to death. 

Killing evil creatures you are at war with wouldn't generate Shadow points, as that's just a fact of adventuring.  Such killing is often done in self-defense, and with noble purpose.  However, at some point a hero can go beyond a mere quick killing out of necessity, and resort to cruelty.  Whether or not cruelty is directed at an evil creature or not is irrelevant for the purposes of gaining Shadow; it's the willing act of cruelty itself that darkens a hero's spirit, earning them a Shadow point. 

I think another poster, Jakob, does a great job of explaining the necessity (or rather, the inevitability) of Shadow on an adventurer:  "I think this is interesting, because I would imagine that a lot of the Rohirrim suffered corruption for their cruelty in their war against the orcs. That doesn't necessarily mean that they were acting wrong, only that they were fighting a brutal war and that this was bound to have an impact - and probably a negative one - upon their heart and soul.
I wouldn't consider shadow points for certain behaviour as a "penalty" for not choosing the right course of action - there just may be situations when every course of action is cruel. It's a tragic element that fit's quite well with a lot of Tolkien's stories - just read "Children of Hurin", you'll see that Turin is a quite interesting example for a hero tainted by cruelty. "The good guys did it in the books, therefore it can't be cruel" isn't a good argument, I would say, because the good guys may very well do cruel things and have to suffer the consequences."  

For the purposes of generating interesting, tragic characters I think the Shadow mechanic does a superb job.  It also exemplifies more wholly the actual consequences of going out and adventuring in ways that D&D or similar games don't (without heavy roleplaying specifically for that purpose).  The risk of death is obvious, but the mental and emotional stress is often overlooked.  In a way it's similar to a military veteran coming back from a war with PTSD or other psychological maladies (and we know these things happen, so it's interesting to factor them into an RPG). 

As a final note, it's ironic that the system that supports the mechanic is also the one where orcs are pure evil, and thus the argument for guilt-free killing is more reasonable.  The fact that the guilt is still there (at least in the case of heroes being cruel) is a strong statement.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Combat in The One Ring

There was a thread on the Cubicle 7 forums that highlights the advantages of the abstract, grid-less stance system very well.  This was in response to a post inquiring why Parry rating doesn't increase with experience, and the general consensus is that the game assumes characters will tend toward the Defensive stance more and the Forward stance less, since that base TN of 12 will be easier to hit as your weapon skills increase.  In other words, a starting character will tend to favor Forward stance because that's the only way he can reliably hit things.  Defensive stance for him is almost like going "full defensive," and this character is doing everything in his power to protect himself even if that means giving up hitting.  Meanwhile, as the character gains more experience he doesn't need the reckless Forward stance; he can manage both an effective offense and defense.  Assuming you want consistent offensive output, favoring more defensive stances as you gain weapon skill ranks is effectively like increasing your Parry (but you still have the option of taking a more risky stance to practically eliminate your chances of missing altogether).  Thus, higher level characters become better at combat overall since they can protect themselves without sacrificing much offense.

I'm not sure if this will mean that stances mean less at higher experience levels (in the one session I've run the beginning players were pretty much all over the map in terms of which stance they were in), but even if this is true I'd wager that variety probably increases nevertheless thanks to a tendency to have a greater array of virtues and rewards.  It would also mean that offensive output can be equalized between characters that prioritize weapon skill increases and those that prioritize Wisdom and/or Valour; even characters that don't cheese out their weapon skills can always assume more aggressive stances.  The widest array of options is actually available to such characters, since stances will be more meaningful with their lower weapon ranks and they'll have more virtues/rewards. 

Practical mechanical considerations aside, the combat system also affects how a player conceptualizes the action, as highlighted by Throrsgold in that same thread:

"An example of how I explain it is this, "Stances are NOT locations on the battlefield, , but an ATTITUDE your hero has about fighting ... he's in Open Stance, he's more aggressive ... putting himself out there, so to speak. He's in Defensive Stance, he's being cautious ... watching for safer ways to engage his opponent. You want a combat advantage over that Enemy? Use one of your extra dice the company got with the Battle rolls at the start of the combat, describe to me HOW you're using it, and we'll go from there." My player who still has trouble understanding always wants terrain effects implemented, flanking bonuses, or to employ dirty tricks (yes, he's a D&D/Pathfinder player) ... but won't get off of Hope or use the extra Battle-roll dice to actually implement ANYTHING. IMO, I should not be handing out freebie bonuses, when he already has the tools to make those bonuses happen.

VERY simple and elegant. AND, it has the added benefit of giving the players much more control over events as they are capable of ACTING rather than REACTING during combats than is available with other game systems (D&D, Pathfinder, GURPS, etc.). That is, they tell ME more about the battlefield that I have already described and interact with it. They do NOT see a battle mat/board laid out with a grid, move their miniatures about within the grid, using the terrain that is printed out and acting according to what is there and immutable ... can't quite move far enough to get that flanking bonus? Too bad. IMO, that's REACTING. Instead, they "see" a terrain I have described and interject additional terrain features ... describe maneuvering so that they get an opponent between two allies, providing a needed distraction to take 'em down. All accomplished by utilizing extra dice from Battle rolls and Hope. IMO, that's ACTING. So far, I have seen no need to house-rule a thing.

I'd also like to point out that TN modifiers of -2 or -4 are discussed in the LMG for general circumstances when the attacker or defender is in unfavorable circumstances.  For example, if a hero is fighting an orc that's waist-deep in water, that orc will suffer a +2 modifier to TN when attacking (the hero is harder to hit), whereas the hero will probably get a -2 modifier when he attacks the orc (since the defending orc is hindered).   This is another way in which the flexible (abstract) system can accommodate a wide degree of variation in a very simple way if the players and LM take advantage of it.

I especially like Throrsgold's point about acting vs. reacting, and it's notable that a character's ability to act (i.e. take advantage of terrain effects and the like) will increase with level provided they buy ranks in Battle.  Of course the combination of simple mechanics is ultimately dependent on 1 thing - the imagination of the players.  In a highly tactical game like D&D 4E where everything is laid out very clearly it's easy to adjudicate results, but it's also tougher to go nuts with creative description.  A TOR player can use an extra die from Battle, or a point of Hope, to narrate that he pushes a foe backward to cause it to trip over a tree root and fall to the ground; in 4E D&D such maneuvers are available if you have a push + prone power, but they're also only situationally useful.  In other words, you're pulling these stunts off to gain a tactical advantage, whereas in TOR you're describing events in this way to justify your open-ended numerical bonus.  One system rewards a player for understanding the tactical nuances of the grid, positioning, movement, powers, and synergies between the various elements, while the other facilitates building an exciting combat scene in your mind through flexible mechanics that facilitate artistic license.  4E rewards tactical thinking but removes you from creative, narrative thinking (since your mind is elsewhere and combat is long as it is), and TOR rewards imagination but doesn't offer the tactical options of 4E.  I won't claim one is superior over the other, but I'm making the comparison simply to illustrate the differences.

I guess the catalyst for this whole line of thinking was that during my TOR session, players more often than not declared "I hit him with my sword" (or, in jest at the system for invoking traits "I eagerly/swiftly/etc. hit him with my sword").  Perhaps not surprising due to months of playing D&D, but it doesn't take advantage of the system's strengths.  Of course I was still getting the hang of the system as LM, in addition to teach it to everyone else, so perhaps this will get better as everyone gets more comfortable with it.  At the very least I'm going to make a point of requiring a narrative explanation for using extra Battle dice or spending Hope, and hopefully it'll catch on in general.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Marsh Bell

I got to run The One Ring (TOR) for the first time today, and overall I'd say it was pretty successful.  There were 3 PCs - Edrahil, an Elf (Warden), Lofar, a Dwarf (Treasure Hunter), and Bondi, a Barding (Scholar).  It took about 2 hours to explain the basics of the game and to create 3 characters (with 1 book).  Then we played through The Marsh Bell, which took about 4 1/2 hours.  I'm not used to running published adventures, but my players assured me that it ran pretty smoothly.


 Part 1 - Where Noisome Waters Pour

The Marsh Bell is the adventure in the back of the Loremaster's Book, and I particularly like it because it's based on one of Tolkien's poems, The Mewlips.  It begins with an encounter with Gloin in Esgaroth, so I had the players come up with a reason for why they were all in the city and how they knew each other.  Lofar is a procurer and trader of rare treasures, and he often comes to Bondi's small library in Lake-Town to do research and to get appraisals for his finds.  Edrahil is somewhat of a bodyguard-for-hire, and has accompanied Lofar on expeditions in the past.  Lofar's player was very intrigued with his "Dragon-sickness" Shadow Weakness, and started off the game trying to sell a worthless trinket to a shopkeeper as a valuable treasure (he failed, and got his first Shadow point right off the bat for lying and deceitful behavior).  Bondi was disapprovingly waiting outside of the shop, and when they got back to the library there was a messenger with a summons for Lofar (from Gloin).  I'd created a vague history between Lofar and Dain, and decided that Lofar owed "community service" to the kingdom of Erebor for "past deeds."  His service would be to find out what happened to Balin and Oin.  On the way to Gloin's, they ran into Edrahil, who had just come back to Lake-Town after a patrol in Mirkwood.

I'm not sure how I feel about the encounter rules.  The encounter with Gloin had a Tolerance of 3 (1 base + 1 since he's eager for help + 2 for Lofar's Valour -1 for the presence of Edrahil).  Strike 1 was that the PCs all decided to introduce themselves individually (which irks Gloin as written), and to boot they all failed their Courtesy rolls.  I believe that by strict reading of the rules that would be encounter over (failing 3 rolls), but I just counted it as 1 knock against the Tolerance.  Only Bondi passed his Insight check to determine that Gloin was more concerned that he was letting on, but he wasn't able to use that at all in his interaction with the Dwarf.  Lofar managed to annoy him some more with questions about the reward, and I had to shoot down the metagamey questions inquiring if Gloin had a son because the players were curious whether Gimli had been born yet.  I'd actually planned a remark regarding Gimli, but decided that Gloin was too put-off at this point to be even remotely friendly with the company (they went a few bad rolls and missteps below the Tolerance of the encounter).  But, this being their first try and all, I didn't deny them Gloin's patronage.  They got the free boat and everything.

Part 2 - A Long and Weary Way

Edrahil managed to score a great success while planning the route, so he reduced the TN for his own travel rolls and shortened the journey by a day (plus he invoked his Mirkwood-Lore trait for an AP).  The players then rowed to the Stairs of Girion in a light drizzle which abated by midday, and fared much better with the porters.  Edrahil wanted to row through the night, but Lofar and Bondi insisted that they needed sleep.  So they hung out with the porters, traded news, discussed the details of Balin's journey a week ago, and attempted to entertain the Lake-Men.  Bondi failed his Riddle roll, but I still had a few riddles exchanged.  Edrahil rolled a 12 for his Song attempt, and I ruled that it was good enough since the Lake-Men were eager for new blood (justifying the "easy" TN).  So he sang a song of Elvish adventure, and one of the porters brought out his father, who would "enjoy the song very much!"  This was Nerulf, and he yammered his gibberish until reciting the warning about the gallows-weed.  I had the players make song rolls to recall the relevant stanza of The Mewlips, and Bondi invoked Rhymes of Lore to get an AP.  They talked with the porters until they retired for the night, and then in the morning were escorted down the Stair of Girion.  Edrahil failed his Awareness roll to notice the place where Balin and Oin had camped below the stair.

It was during this day's travel that I had everyone roll Fatigue tests (I think everyone failed, but no hazards triggered).  I had Edrahil lead the company to a straight, swift-flowing channel through the marshes that bypassed the meanders of the main river (saving them an extra day from the successful Lore roll).  I had Lofar to use Travel to steer the boat instead of Athletics, since that just made more sense to me and that's the skill that the Guide tends to use.  Rolls to notice signs of the Dwarves all failed, and all Awareness rolls to notice Galion and the other Elves following them failed.  So the company was never aware of them, shaving off that whole encounter.  I ended up giving the Scout and Look-out a bonus roll in the evening as a last chance to find the camp, and they finally were successful.  Lofar was the one who searched the camp, and his regular success was enough to reveal the treasure box (since he's a Dwarf).  Another point of shadow, lol (I think he ended the session with 5, and his total Hope is only 8!).  I had the company automatically notice the swamp lights before deciding on watches, but they decided not to do anything about it during the night.  Edrahil investigated in the morning, and I'd decided that the forest canopy was dense enough to block the sunlight, allowing the Stone Troll to actually show up.  Edrahil succeeded in his Awareness roll to avoid being surprised, and got a free volley with his Woodland Bow.  The others immediately rushed in.  The Troll's hatred toward Dwarves was fun to play (especially with Lofar in the Forward Stance!), though eventually Bondi wounded the troll with his Longsword and attracted his attention.  Luckily for the troll, after being wounded and with his endurance nearly depleted he scored an extraordinary success against Bondi, knocking the wind out of him (he took knockback to reduce the 18 damage to 9).  Lofar finished him off with an arcing slash of his axe to the kneecaps.

Part 3 - Beside the Rotting River

The company had asked multiple times already if they noticed any plants that could be gallows-weed, and once they were forced to go on foot and I started describing the old, knotty willows they asked again (exactly when the plant would show up!).  So they got to avoid that hazard.  Bondi was able to find the wrecked boat after a little exploration, and soon they came to the first ruins (which Bondi invoked Old Lore to learn was a trading village of the northmen near the Old Forest Road).  I had everyone roll Awareness shortly after, and oddly enough Edrahil succeeded and the other two both got Gandalfs.  So all at once they looked up to notice the Gore-crows, and I revealed another Mewlips stanza by invoking Bondi's Rhymes of Lore trait.

When the bell started ringing, only Lofar passed his Wisdom test.  He tried to restrain Bondi, but was unsuccessful.  Bondi and Edrahil both disappeared into the pool, and Lofar dove right in after them.  He couldn't wake them from their enchanted sleep in the flooded chamber (to be fair I don't think Song was a terribly intuitive solution), and so decided to explore the rest of the ruins by himself.  He noted the claw marks on the wine cellar door but didn't attempt to get in, instead heading down the passage to the treasure chamber.  Given that he was the only character conscious, I ignored the Corruption test that could have dazed him into a stupor at the sight of the treasure.  The horde of mewlips was bad enough!  As he ran down the passage back to his companions, I eventually just had his stomping noises arouse the Dwarves in the cellar, causing them to make some noise that Lofar could notice without needing to roll Awareness.  He headed to the door, found the Dwarves, and then they all dragged Edrahil and Bondi into the cellar just as the mewlips were emerging into the main chamber.  I had Balin mention that he roused Oin with an old Dwarven dirge, and Lofar actually got a good roll with Song to waken his companions after that.

With the mewlips scratching at the door, the company and the Dwarves decided to wait them out despite extremely low food supplies and virtually no more water.  They spent a night barricaded in the wine cellar, and then carefully peeked out the next day.  At this point the players discussed possible options for a fairly long time, despite the fact that their only two choices were to head for the flooded chamber or the chimney.  Finally after wondering whether or not he should "waste it" Bondi's player invoked his Woeful Foresight virtue, and I provided his character with a vision of the company trying to escape through the chimney, but the rope only rang the bell and with as long as it took the first PC to escape that way, the others were devoured in short order (they hadn't even checked the chimney yet, so didn't know that the bell was up there).  So I went easier on them than I normally would have when they decided to make for the flooded chamber (and good thing, too!).

I had 8 mewlips set up in the main chamber, and Edrahil was the only one who succeeded his Athletics check to get across the chamber quickly and so faced the majority of the creatures (but also got his free volley).  The party divided up amongst their foes, with Balin and Oin cowering in the corner waiting for an opportunity to flee.  A few enemies were felled, but eventually Edrahil took a few nasty hits and was reduced to just 2 Endurance.  He fell back into rearward stance and fled the next round with the Dwarves.  Too bad, since he's the only one with Athletics ranks worth writing home about.  Lofar managed to get lucky and roll well enough to flee, but it took Bondi 3 or 4 attempts.  He was 1 attack away from falling (after reinforcements arrived from the treasure room), but managed to get away in the end.  Earned him an Advancement Point for his heroic rear-guarding.

Since we were short on time at this point, I fast-forwarded the return journey (didn't even bother with Fatigue tests since that would be cured in Esgaroth soon, but I did force another Corruption test on the way back through Mirkwood, and everyone failed).  I also gave a really hasty explanation of the Fellowship phase, and I don't think that the players really "got it."  Bondi was interested in raising his Standing but didn't have enough treasure by a long shot (Gloin gave them each 5 points).  Edrahil made 2 attempts (since Esgaroth is a sanctuary) to heal his Corruption through Song, but failed them both (unfortunately).  Lofar was interested in seeking a new Patron, but the player misunderstood the point of the undertaking and basically just wanted to get rid of some counterfeit goods (hello, Shadow point).  It didn't help matters that this whole adventure only lasted 1 session, so nobody could really do anything with XP or AP.  Oh well.  I'll probably start the next session with a "re-do" of this Fellowship Phase.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Battle of Greenfields

I've read a few actual play (AP) reports for The One Ring, and one thing that struck me was the effort that many players went through the really bring the setting alive.  Specifically, in most of the reports one or more players actually composed songs or poems to go along with their characters Song skill (songs obviously appear very frequently in LotR and The Hobbit).  Which got me thinking.  Battle cries are a common way for players to roleplay in combat in many different RPGs, but TOR allows you to perform the Rally Comrades action while in the Open Stance.  This action calls for an Inspire or Song roll to allow allies to recover a small amount of Endurance, which got me thinking about how awesome it would be for a player to have an actual battle song prepared for the Song roll.  This was all going through my mind this morning, and so in true hobbit fashion I composed parts of this Hobbit battle song in my head while eating breakfast.  It refers to the Battle of Greenfields, being the only battle occurring in the Shire until the Battle of Bywater in Return of the King.  An orc host from Mount Gram invades the Shire, and the famous Bandobras "Bullroarer" Took (tall enough to ride a horse, it is said) leads the defense, personally killing the goblin king Golfimbul.  If Hobbits have any songs about battle, this is the one they're bound to refer to.  Anyone running a Hobbit character in TOR can feel free to use this.

The Battle of Greenfields

Though our foes be twice as tall
We'll come to blows, we'll make them fall!

Like a flood over the downs
They came for blood from goblin-towns.
In the rain the fields they burn,
But they'll be slain, they won't return!

For Bandobras, “Bullroarer” Took
With shield-emboss'd, courage un-shook
Leads Hobbits from across the Shire
To goblin-targets of their ire.

Arrows nocked, in clouds they flew
Their foes soon shocked, Took's aim was true!
King Golfimbul he killed that day,
Orcs appall'd, they ran away!

Though our foes be twice as tall
We'll come to blows, we'll make them fall!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Character Balance in The One Ring

With all of the recent D&D 5E talk going on, I've been thinking a lot about game balance.  I was recently in a debate on the WotC forums about spotlight balance (different characters shine in different situations) and the possibility of it co-existing with combat equality (all characters being of roughly equal competence in a fight).  I was arguing that the two were compatible, while another poster insisted that spotlight balance required some characters to be better at combat than others.  Different editions of D&D handled this differently, with 3.0/3.5 having characters with drastically different power levels in combat (note that this edition didn't achieve spotlight balance, since oftentimes the strongest classes in combat also dominated out of combat (OoC) (which is to say, Clerics, Druids, and Wizards).  Earlier editions came closer to the spotlight balance concept, for example in 1E the Thief wasn't all that great in a fight, but he was the only one who got skills.  In 4E the whole notion was done away with, as a major design goal was having all classes being (roughly) equally valuable in combat (though obviously in different ways).  The Bard exemplifies this very well; it's one of the strongest classes in 4E so Bard players clearly don't have to sacrifice combat ability in order to be a skill monkey (most notably an extremely capable social character).  For all its combat equality, however, 4E doesn't do a particularly good job of highlighting OoC utility (or at least there aren't any classes that specialize in it to a great extent; for example, the biggest mechanic is Rituals, and every class can get them). 

But enough about D&D.  None of the editions have done a particularly good job of achieving spotlight balance.  The One Ring, on the other hand, seems to hit the mark pretty well, and what's more it seems to be designed with the principles that I was arguing for in mind - spotlight balance without sacrificing combat equity.  The big disclaimer here is that I haven't run a game yet, as I just recently purchased the books.  I have, however, read through both core books, and went back to read some of the more important sections several times.  I've had enough time to digest the mechanics, build some sample characters, and research the experience of others so that I have a pretty clear idea of how the game generally works.  Also, balance was at the front of my mind as I was reading through a lot of this.

So how exactly is balance achieved in The One Ring?  For starters, I think it will be helpful to briefly describe the combat and OoC mechanics.  Pretty much anything that a character does (in terms of rolling; obviously narrative role-playing adds more dimensions not necessarily covered by mechanics) is achieved through the use of skills.  The Common Skills are usually used OoC, but in certain situations may be used in combat.  There are 18 of them, so there's plenty of variety.  Common skills are organized in a grid, with columns corresponding to the 3 basic Attributes (Body, Heart, and Wits) and rows defining the skill groups (Personality, Movement, Perception, Survival, Custom, and Vocation).  In other words, there's a skill associated with each attribute in each of the 6 groups.  In combat you rely on your Weapon Skills, which are self-explanatory. 

Each culture is balanced against each other by virtue of their starting ranks in the different skills.  A couple of Common Skills are specialties of a given culture, and characters start play with 3 ranks in those skills, while other skills important to that culture are given starting ranks of 2 or 1.  For example, Hobbits get 3 ranks in Stealth and Courtesy, Woodmen get Healing and Explore, etc.  Each culture has a handful of skills that have 0 ranks by default.  Though the specific specialties of the different cultures vary, each has a few areas where they innately shine.  Pretty straightforward spotlight balance.  A Hobbit is naturally great in situations requiring stealth, while a Dwarf is better off staying behind so as not to give the group away.  The Dwarf is much better at Craft, though.  What is very interesting, however, is that all cultures start out roughly equal in their weapon skills.  Each culture has a choice between 2 skill sets, which is usually 1 rank in dagger, 1 rank in a secondary weapon, and 2 ranks in either a single favored weapon or a cultural weapon group.  For example, Beornings can choose to start strong with all axes (axe, great-axe, and long-hafted axe) or just Great spears as a favored skill.  Going for the more specialized choice of the favored skill isn't always the best choice since it might not be the best weapon for everyone (for example, a Beorning who wants to use a shield would be better off with cultural training in axes to wield a L-H axe 1-handed, and such a character would also have a ranged weapon for opening volleys; the secondary weapon for the Great Spear specialist is an axe, leaving the character with no ranks in a ranged weapon).  But I digress.  The point is that each culture makes a similar choice; even Hobbits start out with 2 ranks in a primary weapon, 1 in a secondary weapon, and 1 in dagger.  No cultures have a tradeoff of fewer ranks in Weapon Skills for more ranks in Common Skills, hence spotlight balance with combat equity is achieved.

I should mention that all characters get some free points that they can use to add skill ranks as they choose at character creation (so a Dwarf can start out with a good Stealth skill, if the player wishes).  The amount of points is relatively small compared with the starting ranks that your culture gives you, but this is one area where a player can choose between combat and OoC, since these points can be used to raise any combination of Common Skills or Weapon Skills (though weapon skills are more expensive). 

What really ensures a clean division between combat and OoC (common and weapon skills) is that as a character gains experience, the two kinds of skills are improved through different pools of points.  Experience Points can be used to increase your ranks in Weapon Skills, or to increase Valour or Wisdom.  Each new point of Valour grants you a new Reward, and each new point of Wisdom grants you a new Virtue.  Whether you're getting weapon skill ranks, rewards, or virtues your XP is usually going to directly affect your combat abilities (there are a handful of virtues that are non-combat, but by and large you're going to become a better warrior by spending XP).  Conversely, Common Skills are improved by spending Advancement Points, which are awarded during play by actually using your skills to great effect.  By improving combat and OoC options through different pools of points the two systems don't directly compete with each other, so you'll rarely have to sacrifice your skills as a fighter in order to be better with your Common Skills. 

Without playing it's tough to say whether this balance is successful in practice.  There's a lot of variety in the different Rewards and Virtues, and some will inevitably prove more useful than others.  Sometimes it will depend on the type of campaign, or even the creativity of the player (the virtues in particular seem to be more open-ended).  Some are situational (better during long journeys, in certain environments, or against certain enemies).  The value of your Valor or Wisdom rank itself also adds a layer of complexity, and it's still unclear to me how that will affect a character.  For example, failing Fear tests (based on Valour) will be a disadvantage in a specific combat (cannot spend Hope), but failing Corruption tests (Wisdom) usually means you get a point of Shadow, which limits the amount of Hope that you can safely use (dropping below your Shadow score makes you miserable, and VERY bad things can happen when you're miserable). 

So as with any RPG, the amount of variables precludes the possibility of perfect balance, but that's ok (and expected).  The One Ring does a good job of striving for as much balance as possible, with the apparent goal of promoting spotlight balance while ensuring combat equality.  From what I've read so far, it seems like the endeavor was largely successful and I'm very impressed with the system overall (not least because it aligns with my own preferences in a game)! 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The One Ring RPG: First Impressions


I recently purchased The One Ring, which I'd heard about several months ago (it was published just this past October) but forgot about until reading a reference to it in one of the myriad D&D 5E discussions.  After reading a handful of reviews I ordered it (closest I get to an impulse buy).  I'd given Middle Earth Roleplaying Game (MERP) a brief look in the past and was extremely disappointed (basically a D&D variant with semi-Tolkien flavor; there should not be spell lists in a Tolkien game!).  Rest assured that TOR is nothing like MERP; the primary goal seems to have been evoking the "feel" of adventuring in Middle Earth, with mechanics that support Tolkien's style and themes very faithfully.  For now I'll just provide a brief overview, but I'll undoubtedly be writing more about this game in the future, and hopefully I'll put together an actual campaign soon.

Format and Setting

This core set takes place 5 years after the events of The Hobbit by default; next year a second core set, Errantries of the King, will expand the game geographically and culturally, as well as assume a later "start date," with the final core set The War of the Ring supporting adventures taking place during the events of LotR.  The assumed timeline is actually pretty perfect; 5 years after Smaug has been killed Dale, Erebor, and Esgaroth are (mostly) re-built, and Beorn has abandoned his solitary lifestyle to become a great Chief of Men, founding the Beornings who keep safe the lands between the old ford of the Anduin and the pass over the Misty Mountains.  Wilderland (which is where this core set is restricted to) has thus had enough time to grow relatively prosperous, trade has started to become re-established between the free peoples of the region, and many evil creatures have been reduced or driven off after the Battle of Five Armies (making this a more forgiving place for beginning adventurers).  Ten years after the Hobbit (and five years into the default campaign) is when 3 Nazgul reclaim Dol Guldur for Sauron, bringing the Shadow back to Mirkwood and ramping up the difficulty.



Players can start the game as a member of 1 of 6 different cultures, and choice of culture has the biggest mechanical impact of any other choice at character creation.  The 3 human cultures are the Bardings of Dale (Bard the Bowmen has been crowned King), the aforementioned Beornings, and the Woodmen (of which only the briefest references are mentioned in Tolkien's work, but they live on the edge of Mirkwood and Radagast the Brown lives among them).  Then there are the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Wood Elves of Mirkwood, and Hobbits of the Shire.  Obviously the Hobbits seem out of place since the Shire is nowhere near Wilderland, but it's a Middle Earth game so it makes sense that Hobbits would be available for play (perhaps some of the more Tookish young Hobbits, upon hearing Bilbo's tale, were eager to strike out on their own and retrace his steps).  Culture determines your Cultural Virtue (a unique trait that all members of that culture possess), the majority of your starting ranks in the Common Skills (though you have some "free" points for further customization), and 2 sets of weapon skills, of which you can choose 1 (usually the choice for primary weapon is a cultural weapon group, so all types of axes for example, or a single favored weapon, such as a long-hafted axe). 

Backgrounds and Callings

Backgrounds further flesh out your character and determine your starting attributes, and while these are organized by culture the rules explicitly encourage experienced gamers to invent their own.  There are also 5 Callings, but unlike backgrounds these are universal.  Their mechanical impact is relatively minor (you get 2 favored skills, and a new trait) and basically describes what your motivation for adventuring is.  There are Scholar (learns things), Slayer (kills things), Warden (protects things), Treasure-Hunter (finds things), and Wanderer (goes places).  More importantly, your calling determines your Shadow-weakness, which describes how you can be corrupted by the Shadow. 

Character Development

Each culture also gets their own special set of cultural virtues (for raising your Wisdom) and rewards (for raising Valour).  Virtues are neat little abilities, combat or non-combat, whereas rewards are new items (or item upgrades; the "fluff" is up to the player), which are only rarely non-combat.  These provide a good amount of customization, and will largely determine what makes one Dwarf different from another, for example.  When you create your character you decide whether to favor Valour or Wisdom (and thus whether you start the game with a Virtue or Reward), though you're free to improve them as you please when you gain XP.

You can accumulate shadow points throughout the game, and if your hope points (a valuable resource that can turn failure into success when called upon) ever drops below your shadow score you become miserable, which is bad because when you have crappy rolls you may suffer a bout of madness, which nets you a permanent shadow point and a flaw based on your shadow weakness.  Succumbing to the shadow and progressing fully along this track is just as bad as dying, if not worse (your character essentially becomes an evil NPC).  The Shadow mechanic portrays the psychological effects of adventuring in Middle Earth very well, and does a great job of emphasizing some of the more prominent themes in Tolkien's work (power of friendship, overcoming or succumbing to corruption, good vs evil, etc.). 


Dice Rolls

The game comes with specialized dice, but normal dice can be used as long as a few rules are remembered.  The D12 is your feat die, and is numbered 1-10 with an Eye of Sauron (11) and a Gandalf rune (12).  Gandalf is an automatic success, and bad stuff happens when you roll the Eye (opposite for monsters).  Every die roll uses the feat die.  For every rank you have in a given skill (common skill, weapon skill, wisdom, valour, or protection test) you also get to roll a D6 (to a maximum of 6 ranks).  1-3 on the D6 are un-filled, because they count as 0 if you're weary.  There's a tengwar symbol on the 6, and rolling 6s will determine your degrees of success.  By spending a point of hope, you can add your relevant attribute to a die roll (after the result, so you'll know whether or not it will change the outcome).  And that's the basics.

Note that weary occurs when your endurance (HP) drops below your fatigue score (determined by the encumbrance of your weapons/armor, and modified further by failing Fatigue tests during journeys).  Traveling light is thus rewarded, which definitely fits the flavor of Tolkien's work (note that Dwarves can get away with carrying heavier stuff).

Adventure Structure and Social Encounters

The game is structured into 2 major phases, the Adventuring Phase (where most time is spent) and the Fellowship Phase (downtime with specific emphasis).  You can spend XP and Advancement Points to upgrade your character during the Fellowship phase, and you can also attempt an Undertaking (cure shadow points through the Craft or Song skill, secure a new patron, open a new sanctuary, etc).  The adventuring phase has 3 main mechanical areas - combat, journeys, and encounters (which are social).  Social encounters are pretty typical, with PCs using a combination of narration and skills from the Personality and Custom skill groups.  Encounters are set to a certain Tolerance (modified by the valour/wisdom of characters, their standing, and any prejudices the NPC might have), and that determines how many rolls you can fail.  I've seen an intriguing house rule that uses a modified Tolerance mechanic to simulate mass-combat.


Combat is tactical, but abstract.  No grid or minis are needed.  Characters choose 1 of 4 stances, and that provides a base for their target number (TN).  For example, Forward Stance is the most aggressive, with a base of 6.  This means that you only need to hit a 6+enemy's parry rating when you attack, but enemies can hit you on a 6+your parry rating.  In contrast, Defensive Stance has a base TN of 12 (tougher to hit things, but it's also tougher to be hit).  Only PCs get to fiddle around with stances (monsters just react to whatever stance the heroes are in).  Each stance also has its own special action that can be taken (intimidate, rally comrades, protect ally, and prepare shot for forward, open, defensive, and rearward stances, respectively).  Hits reduce endurance (HP), but if you roll your weapon's edge value or higher on the feat die you get a piercing shot, which means that the enemy must make a protection roll or be wounded.  Monsters are (usually) killed at 0 endurance or from 1 wound.  PCs are knocked out at 0 endurance, or if they take 2 wounds (and killed if their second wound also reduces them to 0 endurance).  Protection rolls are determined by the armor you wear.   Edit: I forgot to mention that you can also make called shots, but you have to both hit with your attack and get a great or extraordinary success (great success is 1 6 on a D6, extraordinary is 2+ 6s).  Without those 6s, even if you meet or exceed the TN you still miss, so it's risky.  Success means that you get the normal benefits of a hit, but also do something special depending on your weapon group; axes and mattocks break shields, swords disarm, and bows/spears get automatic piercing blows regardless of the number on the feat die.  Called Shots work a little differently for monsters; when a PC misses and rolls an Eye, the next monster attack against them is automatically a called shot.


Journeys are the most interesting part of TOR in my opinion, because I haven't seen such mechanics in other games and obviously journeys are important in Tolkien's work.  PCs assume 4 different roles for journeys (Guide, Scout, Look-out, and Huntsman), each requiring different skills.  A hex map with details on type of terrain allows the GM (called Loremaster, or LM) to easily calculate how long a proposed route will take.  Season and journey length will determine how many fatigue rolls the party must make, and failed fatigue rolls adds to a characters fatigue score (albeit temporarily).  A failed fatigue score that results in an Eye on the feat die triggers a hazard, which one of the roles will need to deal with (random encounter, getting lost, bad weather, etc).  LM-planned events may also require rolls from the different roles (and usually does).  For example, you can carry a week's worth of food usually, so on journeys longer than that you'll need a good huntsman.


Anyways, that's all for now.  This is already longer than I meant it to be.  Once I actually get to play the game I'll post more!