Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The One Ring RPG

I threw in the towel on D&D (3, 3.5 and 4, plus Pathfinder) a couple years ago and switched my roleplaying energies to Gumshoe, a decision I'm quite happy with. But, as is usual with these things, I didn't bring along all the friends I game with. For players who like the tactical combat, detailed character building, and the die-rolling of D&D or Pathfinder, Gumshoe is not going to be in their wheelhouse.

The One Ring RPG, from Cubicle 7
So I'm always on the lookout for somewhere we can meet in the middle. A game, probably a fantasy game, that has interesting combat with plenty of die-rolling but doesn't get bogged down in minutia and can be enjoyed more in the quick-playing, systems-light style. Something that has plenty of skills and feat-like-things, but that still taps into the more improvisational RPG aesthetic. The One Ring looked perfect.

Not that I came to that conclusion right away though. I picked it up after it got some buzz from GenCon 2011 despite the fact that Tolkien roleplaying games in general have a rather sorry history, mainly because of my Tolkien fandom and because it was through Sophisticated Games, which has a good track record with licensed products. Unfortunately, The One Ring's two core books are incoherent: rules presented in almost random order, topics split between sections and between both books and fully explained nowhere, paragraphs that give up their meaning only after intense textual analysis – it's really terrible. After doing my initial read I shelved it feeling like it was making the right noises, but having little idea what the game was trying to do. It was only once I picked it up again six months later and plowed through it on a mission that I figured out what the game was about.

It's a nice blend of ideas. The skill check system is straightforward: you roll against target numbers with a single d12 Fate die, plus one regular d6 for each rank you have in the skill. There are a few nuances built in to the custom dice: the d6s have a Tengwar rune for an exceptional success on the 6, and the 1-3 faces are shaded and count for zero if you are weary. The big variance on the Fate die makes it possible for more or less anyone to succeed (albeit rarely) at many things, but it takes skill to get the exceptional successes that trigger bonuses. The probability curve is rather nice and gives you real flexibility as the GM with target numbers; there are big differences between how characters with various ranks in skills will feel about targets of 10, 12, 14, or 16. The rules for Weariness, zeroing out your d6 rolls of 1 through 3, are very clean but impactful, and make tasks a lot harder but don't make impossible anything you could accomplish when well-rested.

This solid skill check system then works quite well in combat, which is abstract but has good texture. Each combat round you choose how closely you are going to engage, which affects both how easy it will be for you to hit the enemy as well as how easily they hit you. Each range bracket has a special action associated with it (intimidate, rally, protect, aim), and there are other standard combat options (called shots, accepting knockback) which provide some choices and are thematic. Additionally, it's nice to see attention to workable rules for disengaging and fleeing from combat, a common occurrence in the books. Also nice is that enemies have a Hate rating which both powers their special abilities and is a proxy for morale, giving the GM an explicit cue for when the bad guys break and run away themselves. Still, despite the solid mechanical support here, combat is still pretty abstract and nowhere near as tactically detailed as many would probably like. Gumshoe has always relied on the players to be a little more imaginative than just saying "I shoot him. I'll spend 2 shooting points. I hit. I do 6 points of damage". You don't need involved narration for every combat roll, but it's in the hands of the players to bring the action to life. The One Ring gives players much more support than Gumshoe does in terms of structure to hang some narration on, but it will still get repetitive and feel flat unless players can engage with it and flesh it out through colorful description.

This is all good and well-designed, but where does the players' real narrative authority kick in? Characters in The One Ring have Traits (which can be Specialties, which are like backgrounds, or Distinctive Features, which are more like personality traits), which serve some of the same game functions as FATE's Aspects or Gumshoe's investigative skills. They are little bits of description that if you can integrate in to what you're trying to accomplish with a skill, you get a significant bonus – sometimes an auto-success, sometimes an extra experience point. There is no token economy backing this up as in FATE – you can earn the bonus as often as you can do it – and neither is as integral to the system as Trail of Cthulhu's Drives which have a hard link to a character's Sanity. It's more akin to the Technothriller Monologue and similar cherries in Night's Black Agents. Give a little narration that invokes your trait and pleases the GM and the other players, and you get a bonus. My only complaint is that I think a number of The One Ring's pre-packaged Traits can be problematic. Some of them are just hard to work into adventuring sorts of actions without straining something (Fishing?). Others, while perhaps thematic, are problematic from a game perspective as they can feed bad group dynamics (Secretive, Suspicious, or Wilful will be grabbed immediately by your player who enjoys hosing the party or abusing the gaming social contract).

In practice, while Traits are simple, work, and I like them, nonetheless they didn't exert much pull on the imaginations of my fellow-players. Perhaps the off-the-shelf ones were too vague and not generally useful enough, or the benefits of using them are not as crisp and clear as FATE's Fate points. I suspect a combination. If you have a group that likes and has some experience with these sorts of player narrative hooks I'm sure it'll be fine, but I suspect for groups trying to make the switch form D&D, GURPS, or Call of Cthulhu there might not be enough direction here.

More practical and useful I think are a few conventions and pointers for GMs. One key bit is that skill checks are resolved in a somewhat non-traditional way: first, as a player state what you are trying to accomplish; second, roll the dice; and finally, narrate your character's actions and the outcome, maybe with the help of the GM. This is a simple thing but makes for a much more satisfactory narrative, especially for social skills. How often have you framed, say, a Diplomacy check by narrating a suave approach and a persuasive argument only to fumble the die roll? It becomes hard to climb down at that point and narrate an interesting and plausible failure. This is a good habit to get into with any game I think, but The One Ring's easy skill check details for extraordinary successes and fumbles supports it especially well. It also allows the characters more narrative control over both how they succeed and how they fail, which can be fun. Watch out though for the players who are too possessive and have a hard time narrating failure for their characters, instead trying to twist a failed die roll into an uncomplicated narrative success, but I suspect we can agree not to blame the system for that.

Beyond these core ideas, The One Ring provides a lot of mechanical support for adventuring in Tolkien's world. There is a nice journeying sub-game for long trips which folds into the weariness system and provides a good way to hook in "random" encounters along the way when players blow rolls. Hope gives a way for characters to boost rolls, but spend too much Hope and you may gain a Shadow-Weaknesses, a Trait that works more to your disadvantage. The mix of wounds, weariness, and loss of hope inflicted by combat is much more thematic and interesting than just tracking hit points. The advancement system is point-buy, but the way experience points are awarded is quite clever – you get them for skill checks, but you can't rack them up for using a single strong skill, you need to use a range of skills of different types. While the game is definitely what I'd consider lightweight, there is some detail to it. Unfortunately, I have to come back to the wretched books which make the game seem far more complicated than it really is. The first time we played, we were frequently flipping pages (and thrashing with the useless index) to find simple concepts. I ended up having to read both books cover to cover a third time, taking notes, to build up a reference card with a summary of all the systems just to make the game playable. It was only one page front and back in a large-ish font – this is a simple game with a truly terrible ruleset.

The last thing to talk about is the inherent difficulty associated with gaming in the worlds of J R R Tolkien. I think The One Ring has done a good job in hewing to the feel of the books, and I think focusing on the period and style of The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings is the right choice. The Hobbit makes more fertile ground for lighter, fun, action-adventure games, while The Lord of the Rings is complicated by its truly epic scale and the fact that anything you might do is vastly less important than whatever the Fellowship is up to. Still, even focusing on The Hobbit, the problem is that like the Cthulhu Mythos every reader finds something different in Tolkien and decades of bad knock-offs have polluted the environment, so it can be hard for everyone to be on the same page style-wise. How many battles do the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings actually initiate? None as far as I can remember – they're all defensive engagements, or running battles with the heroes trying to escape. But a million D&D set-pieces where dwarves and elves and men take the battle to the bad guys (and loot their stuff) makes balancing expectations complicated. I really enjoy reading the parts of the Ashen Stars and Night's Black Agents rules where Robin Laws and Kenneth Hite talk quite specifically about how stories are structured in their game worlds, what the themes are and how to keep the characters moving. Something along these lines for The One Ring would have been hugely helpful, as the modules provided in the rulebook and the Tales from Wilderland sourcebook are mediocre. Tolkien is not about escorting hapless two-bit merchants through Mirkwood for a flat fee. Perhaps an equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos' "purist" vs. "pulp" would be helpful here.

Bottom line for me: as a person intrigued by game systems and how they tweak players and enable different play styles, I liked The One Ring a lot and it overcame my inherent skepticism about the gameability of Tolkien. The dice system is terrific, the combat system is light-ish but thematic and interesting and with some subtlety, and the game is faithful to the books. Unfortunately the supports for the good game mechanics are not very good. The books are atrociously put together. The adventures are at best OK. The vital Traits are a mixed bag. There is little help for the GM in terms of the nitty-gritty of designing adventures, and crucially little practical guidance on the complicated questions of style and how to game Tolkien in a way that's fun. As good as the game system is, and as I much as I hope The One Ring can find a niche in my roleplaying rotation, these practical obstacles are significant and I fear I need to keep looking for something reliable to fill the gap between D&D and Gumshoe. Maybe 13th Age will fill the bill.