Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Maturing of the One Ring - Songbook

Songs are a big part of fantasy literature, especially where Tolkien is concerned. Setting aside whether you like Tolkien's verse, a Middle-earth game must have rules for songs to be complete.

The problem is that RPGs have historically done a terrible job with songs. D&D set the tone early, with bards being relegated to bland buffbots. It wasn't that the rules for songs in D&D were uninteresting (though they were). It's that there was no interesting fiction attached to them. For repositories of oral lore, bards sure weren't encouraged to keep track of what their songs were about.

This has continued right up until the modern day. Songs give buffs (TOR does this; more in a moment) and that's it. You can track your songs or write something in-character about your adventures, but there are scant few hooks to get you to do so, just like in the old days.

TOR was in a similar boat. For being in a world where song is so important, the base rules relegate it to a social skill only. Rivendell fixes this and lashes it to the fiction.

The PCs can now write songs as a Fellowship activity. The process is simple: roll Song to compose it, with the success of the roll determining how difficult it is to actually sing. You then (and this is the important bit) log the details of the song in a communal songbook for reference throughout the campaign. The idea is to create a shared history through the songs the characters write. It's simple, and by no means does it have to be the emphasis of a campaign, but the mere existence of the songbook tells everyone at the table that songs are important.

Each song is of a particular type and the difficulty is altered during the writing, with Traditional and Thematic being harder to write, Elvish more difficult. The song types break down as: Traditional (tied to a specific culture, +2 difficulty for outsiders to sing), Thematic (cannot be sung outside a specific event, like meal-time or marching), or Elvish (harder to write but can be used more often).

So what are the benefits? Like most rules in TOR, there's a theme of leaning on and reinforcing your friendship in the song rules. The party can sing each song in the songbook once per adventure (twice for Elvish). If you succeed, you're Inspired, giving you two extra dice to spend on rolls for the duration of the adventure.

This can be game-changing in narrow circumstances, like a hairy combat roll, but it's not remotely overpowered. And this is exactly what it should be: a nice benefit without being too much, with a deep attachment to the fiction.

It's this attachment to the fiction that TOR does so well. Because the designers seem to think in terms of discrete and self-contained actions (a la a board game, as stated in the last edition of this quick look at Rivendell), they can drum up the "feel" of Middle-earth in very little text.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Maturing of The One Ring - Rivendell

I don't post much here. I'm a bad blogger. But I'm going to fire this up again in the next few days for something which is, compared to my last few posts oh so long ago, fairly trivial. Which is all good by me, since trivial means I'm having fun.

What's moved me is The One Ring, the pen and paper RPG for Tolkien's world put out by Cubicle 7. I'll spare the intro except to say that the tabletop RPGs put out for the license historically have been (and I'm being generous here) a little at odds with the spirit of Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined.

This wasn't really the fault of the creators of the two prior systems, MERP and Decipher's The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. They came around at a time when design goals were different and it was both fine and good to plug a generic rules system into a setting. Decipher did better than MERP in this regard, but it was still lacking, while MERP put out remarkably in-depth setting books attached to a slightly stripped down Rolemaster, an explicitly generic fantasy system.

The One Ring is different. Every rule in the game has been very explicitly inspired by a piece of M-E fiction. It plays in an almost board game-esque fashion; by that I mean that there are distinct moves and phases to the game. This enhances the fiction, rather than detracts from it, by making each one of those moves and phases feel momentous. It's no surprise that the designer, Francesco Nepitello, is both a board game designer and inspired by the games of Greg Stafford, a man who also liked those deep dives into rules as a means of emphasizing specific actions in play.

This isn't really a review of TOR, though. It's not even really a review at all, even though it's going to read like one. TOR recently put out a new supplement called Rivendell. It opens up the game to Eriador and the titular vale of the elves. It also adds a lot of new rules which are elegant and mature.

I keep coming back to the word mature when I describe the book. It's the work of a team who have thought about every nook and cranny of where the rules came from and where they're going. They're remarkably well-thought out and clever, expressing the feel of M-E through hard rules text. The rules breathe in a way I don't know that I've seen many game texts do. And they're not complicated. Quite the contrary, they're mostly simple. But that's why it's so tight and interesting.

So that's why I've come to blog. I'm going to do some periodic short entries, each on a different bit of rules text in Rivendell to talk about why they're so interesting. I'm that jazzed about this one single, not even that thick game book. So let me start with a short one:

Rivendell as Land of Dreams

In Tolkien's text, there's a hazy, dreamy quality to Rivendell for everyone but the elves who live there. That exists in any of the elf-holds which he mentions, but Rivendell is almost a anthropomorphized character in its own right.

But that's hard to model in rules text. Hell, it's hard to describe with enough style that your players fully get it, no matter how good a GM you are.

Francesco leans on his board game background here. The GM is supposed to make very clear that characters visiting Rivendell have a choice, one which has benefits and drawbacks. It's very consciously made. The rules:

1) If you spend adventuring time in Rivendell, the Shadow rating of the characters is considered zero. (Shadow is the measure of how weighed down the heroes are by the ugliness happening in Middle-earth). Characters also heal from physical wounds at a much faster rate.

2) If you do the above, however, you only get 1 experience point that session. Period. If you were set to get 2, 4, or a dozen, it doesn't matter. You get 1. Because time is weird in Rivendell. It passes slowly. You get complacent. It's too wonderful to leave, especially when it's so ugly outside of it. You get lazy, basically.

And that's it. A lesser game might rely on the well-worn fantasy game trope of "make a willpower save to leave" or something equally blunt. Rivendell (the book) presents a firm choice, equal parts good and bad: stay here if you want, enjoy it while you do, but realize that you're risking your competency long-term.