Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The One Ring

Middle-earth RPG
It comes in a slipcase, well my copy did. Way back in 2011 when Cubicle 7 first released The One Ring it was as a nice hard slipcase with two beautifully illustrated softcover volumes and two color maps, one of each labeled either for the adventurers or for the referee (loremaster) and one slipcase to bring them all together and on the shelf to store them.
Some time later Cubicle 7 reprinted The One Ring as a single combined hardcover, which is nice and all, but I prefer the slipcover version. I have a hardcover reprint which I acquired via a second hand book seller, but when perusing The One Ring (TOR) I prefer the feel and convenience of the original printing. (The finish on the softcover books has an elegant, almost soft feel to it.) There is just something very satisfying about a nice slipcase.
What's in the slipcase are some very nicely illustrated products, which are well written, but perhaps a bit more difficult to comprehend than is optimal  due to the rules being split between the two volumes. I was told by a chap at the Cubicle 7 booth one Gencon that reorganizing the rules was one of the main goals for the hardcover reprint. (I call it a reprint edition as what they refer to as the 2nd edition is currently in the works.)
In addition to some nice covers and a hard slipcase, The One Ring has some interesting rules which give me a better feel for J.R.R. Tolkien's world in game form than any other RPG to date. The journey is a big part of both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings trilogy and designers Francesco Nepitello and Marco Maggi make it just so in The One Ring. Fatigue and despair can affect characters who may become weary during the journey. Hope and shadow are at odds with each other as the characters spend hope in order to try for success and the shadow creeps into their being through various points of contact with the dark forces.
The core mechanic uses a d12 and a variable number of d6s (based on skill) rolled and totaled and compared against a target number. The 1 and 12 values on the d12 have special meaning and on the proprietary dice which were conveniently packaged with my slipcase, but have to be purchased separately if you buy the hardcover. Regular dice can be substituted, however.
Encounters are meetings with important folk in The One Ring. Skills include courtesy, riddles and pipe smoking which may be used during such encounters. Part of the appeal for some players may be the chance to role-play an encounter with characters such as Legolas or Balin from the fiction. The end of a journey may result in a Fellowship Phase wherein the characters work on various tasks such as improving their skills, healing and recovering from the fatigue and despair of the journey.
Combat is abstract and theater-of-the-mind and revolves around the characters assuming a "stance" such as pushing forward to aggressively engage the enemy, fighting defensively, or holding back so as to shoot missiles from a distance (which requires that other characters stay between the shooter and the enemy).
The slipcase version of The One Ring, subtitled Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild, is focused on the Mirkwood area of Middle-earth during the time between the events related in the novel The Hobbit and those of The Lord of the Rings. The setting is therefore well known and yet contains many mysteries. I think the choice is a good one, but if players desire more, Cubicle 7 has released a number of supplements which now cover about everything Professor Tolkien detailed in his popular fiction except for the nation of Gondor.
The One Ring assumes (and takes for granted) that the players will be running "good" characters who desire to be heroes, not anti-heroes. This is the way Professor Tolkien described his characters as well and The One Ring clearly aims at giving players a very Tolkienesque game experience. This is not a game about killing orcs and taking their stuff (stuff that may cause you to acquire dread shadow points), but rather an engine for gaming in a make-believe world many of us have a great fondness for. In a word: Nice!

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Art of the Game

Pacing, Humor & Courtesy
The art of the referee or game master is a broad topic. There are various styles of refereeing that support the many styles in which role-playing games are played and enjoyed. Some aspects of the referee's art are particular to certain systems and styles and some are more universal. Pacing seems to be one of the latter. The flow of the game, fast, slow and in between can be adjusted to dramatic effect almost regardless of system.
The Burning Wheel offers three systems for conflict resolution. There is a very fast single dice roll mechanic when crunch is definitely not desired. It is recommended for situations when the dice are deemed appropriate to use, but a very quick resolution facilitates moving the pace forward. The verses test involves a bit more complexity as several additional factors such as tools/weapons and armor are taken into account along with other factors. In a Burning Wheel verses test several dice rolls may be necessary to get to a conclusion and this mechanic sets in the middle between really quick and rather slow. The most detailed and slow paced of the combat mechanics in the Burning Wheel involve the range and cover and fight systems. These are highly detailed and are used to focus the game's attention on a highly important conflict where slowing the pace down and building tension is desired.
The idea of speeding up or slowing down the pace of the game in order to create an effect at the table is a good one that can be used by a skilled referee to help players to enjoy the session. Some things that happen in a game deserve to be show-cased and lingered upon for dramatic effect, mush like close-ups and slow motion in film. For other scenes, a quicker effect is more in keeping with the intent. The speed and excitement of fast furious action is best recreated at the table with swift mechanics and rapid results. Pacing is one of the tools available to the referee.
Humor is another tool. Periods of intense action or horror are more effective when balanced with periods of brief humor during which our mental muscles can relax and we can take a few deep breathes and calm ourselves. A mental re-set, made possible by sharing a couple of humorous chuckles, prepares players for the coming challenge which may again involve some intense game-play.
The effective use of humor and the importance of not taking the game overly serious is a take-away lesson from my experience with Ken St.Andre's Tunnels & Trolls. T&T is arguably the 2nd in line behind ODD as being the first published role-playing games. The T&T story is an entertaining one and the fact that the game is still in print and still largely the same mechanically is testimony to the consistent good work of the folks at Flying Buffalo Enterprises who have continuously published T&T since 1975.
I have learned many different lessons from playing a number of different game systems and all of those games have taught me something about how games can be played. Borrowing ideas and adapting them to your current game is one way to improve your skill as a referee. Whether the craft of the referee is approached from an artistic stance or a scientific practice, exposure to a multitude of ideas can only improve the results. Having many tools at our disposal allows the referee to pick and choose among them in an effort to orchestrate the best gaming experience for all involved. Some lessons only come with experience, however and there is definitely an advantage to spending as much time as possible in the referee's chair. I will close this post with one final thought; if the goal is to have fun, then nobody wins unless everyone plays nice.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Rules or Rulings

What if it's not in the game?
In his Afterword to the Original Role-Playing Game, Gary Gygax wrote:
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will often have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun.
Note that he indicates, "...building should be both easy and fun." A key component of the old school approach as I interpret it is adding to or altering the rules and setting of the game. This is under the control of the referee, who is encouraged to work with players to develop new content for the game that will reflect player interest, but no unbalance the game. Balance is primarily focused on having long-term fun and maintaining a believable milieu, one that is flavored with lots of warriors and priests and not overpowered by magic users.
Keeping it believable requires attention to the passage of time so that torches burn out and rations are consumed, so that injuries require downtime to heal if they are not cured by magic, and that starting characters are much like real people except a bit more heroic. It is only through a voluntary suspension of disbelief that players can become immersed in the shared fiction and make the game come alive in their imaginations. Otherwise it is just another game.
A large part of the appeal of the original three little brown books that come in the white box is that as referee I am encouraged to create. First a setting, dungeon, and/or wilderness, then adding procedures for play, the need for which may become evident during play of the game. The "framework" provided by the written rules is just that and some see this as a criticism of the original edition, but I see it as an opportunity for expressing my creativity and making the game just as I would like it to be. I freely admit that it is fun for me to make things up as I go.
How we answer the question, "What if it's not in the game?" can be used to define two very different approaches to role-playing. To say that "if it isn't covered by the rules, it isn't part of this game" is one interpretation. Players who adhere to this motto often prefer a rule system that strives to cover as many possible situations as possible. Players are encouraged to look to the rules for guidance on what is possible and how to resolve the outcome.
Another approach altogether is to say "tell me what you would like your character to do and I will suggest how we can resolve the outcome" is a much more open and imaginative approach to game play. It requires a degree of trust in the referee, who by definition is an impartial arbiter with regard to the game rules. Fun and balance should be foremost in the referee's mind when rulings are made. Consistency in applying rules should be striven for, but not at the expense of flexibility, which is one of the strengths of such a system.
It really boils down to personal preference. Some game designers, players and referees prefer having written rules that govern lots of things that may happen in a game setting. Others are happier with a framework of rules and the freedom to make ad lib rulings.


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Plot Hook

How to get the adventure started.
I have been reading one of my favorite RPG books, the Burning Wheel, and thinking about how I would like to run that system. In the Burning Wheel the referee pitches a situation idea to the prospective players prior to even setting up the game. My thoughts on this topic started with the Burning Wheel, but they are applicable to most any system as a way to begin planning an adventure.
In the Burning Wheel the situation is discussed first so the players have a better idea just how to build characters (in game terms this is "burning" your PC) to better fit the specific situation. The Burning Wheel campaign ends naturally when the situation seems resolved.
The Burning Wheel does not include a setting, but it is set up to facilitate the traditional Tolkienesque milieu. Life paths include humans based on medieval European history and elves, orcs and dwarves are possible PCs. In the Character Burner section of the Burning Wheel there are life paths specifically tailored for those character types. Beliefs, Instincts and Talents play a significant part in earning character experience in the Burning Wheel and knowing the situation ahead of character generation can help make the system work smoothly.
Places of mystery, rumors of villainous activity, opportunity comes knocking, these are all ways to start off a game using any system. For the Burning Wheel my first thought is to ask players to burn characters who are all presently in a certain small town. The town is troubled because conflict is opportunity. The current conflict started when the new mayor began bullying the populace. He recruited thugs to enforce his will and levied taxes to support his administration. He is currently looking for a new "wife" to replace the one he set aside when he became mayor. His eye has fallen on a young girl who is quite frightened by the prospect of becoming Mrs. Mayor.
I will ask the players to create characters who have some investment in the town. They should have established relationships with a few named residents and a belief about the current situation. This engages the player characters with both the milieu and the conflict and gives the referee the opportunity to make the game about something the characters care about. Engaging players is what the Burning Wheel is all about. It is also a great way to enjoy most any role-playing game.
I will provide the players with a short list of townsfolk they might want to include among the people they have contacts with, such as the young maiden being courted by the mayor, her family, the mayor's estranged wife, town guardsman, merchant or guild (maybe even the mayor, himself?).
Just what-all the mayor has his sticky fingers into can be adjusted based on the interests the players express through character generation. It's always a good idea to connect the setting with the characters and the Burning Wheel practically makes this a must. When the author says something like the wheel revolves around the characters he is referring to the characters being the actors who create the story that develops from play. As referee, making the game about the characters should be a goal.
Whether the situation is "There is this hole in the ground rumored to house monsters who guard treasure." or "There are these cultists hell-bent on destroying the world." or even "Here you sit in a crowded tavern down to your last copper..." a situation is an opportunity for play. It is the responsibility of the referee to set an interesting situation so the players can take some heroic action through their characters and that is how the game often begins.

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Different Game

In Celebration of DIY RPG
Without reservation I can state I am an old school role-playing gamer. I believe my age alone qualifies me... I started playing White Box as a freshman college student during the 1977-78 school year. My introduction to the role-playing hobby included a lot of figuring it out on my own (with the assistance of several friends who didn't know much more than I did). Fortunately I had prior experience with wargames which was rather assumed by the authors of The World's First Role-Playing Game. Learning and playing White Box involves a lot of do-it-yourself because by design not everything needed is spelled out in those three little brown books.
White Box refers to Chainmail, which does not come with the game and to Outdoor Survival which is a board game published by Avalon Hill. I had neither. Nor did any of my gaming friends. The combat system from Chainmail is the default way to handle combat in White Box. We made guesses using our wargames experience on what Chainmail's combat system might be? We also made our own substitutions to the rules. We adopted a do-it-yourself approach from the very first game trial and that attitude stuck with us even unto subsequent editions.
We discovered the alternative combat system in White Box that uses a d20... whatever that is? I had access to percentile dice through wargaming with miniature figures, but those consist of two different colored dice (mine were red and white) each marked 0-9 twice rather than 1-20. I used poker chips marked 1-20 in a brown paper bag, I rolled a d20 and a d6 control die (on a 4-6 add 10 to the d20 roll) and finally I colored in the numbers with two different crayons (silver and white) on the red die to give me 1-10: white and 11-20: silver results.
The authors of White Box imply there is a sequence to a combat round - who goes first, when spells are cast, when movement occurs - but they don't spell it out. There is some guidance in Chainmail for these aspects, but again we were guessing what that might be? If the new game wasn't so incredibly appealing, we probably would have given up on it, but we soldiered on, filling in the gaps with our own home-brewed ideas. Our experience wasn't unique as I later learned. Many others in the new hobby were going through a similar learning process as I was to discover later in 1978 when I first attended a Gencon, then held at the University of Wisconsin at Parkside near Kenosha where I was living that summer.
There is a little bit more here than an old gamer's memories, so please indulge me a bit longer. That do-it-yourself approach to the game led each referee, being the person who interprets the game rules just like all referees do (or the judge as they were sometimes called back in the day) to develop their own unique way of playing White Box D&D. The original game books present many guidelines, suggestions really, and also leave a lot up to interpretation. I, and a lot of other folks, grew to really enjoy this game - this style of refereeing - where we are in charge of interpreting and applying the rules as we think they should be. Following the advice of author Gary Gygax, we imagined how we would like the game to be, and made it just so.
This was a singularly creative time for the hobby with lots of referees adding to the White Box game, altering things and applying the design-it-yourself principle. The Advanced Game which grew out of this situation is an attempt to codify and standardize a fantasy role-playing system to facilitate play that could be very similar irregardless of who the referee is. (Many of us who started with The Original Role-Playing Rules, however, play Advanced just like we learned to play White Box, picking and choosing, house-ruling and doing it to suit ourselves.)
As the years, and editions, and altogether new systems have come and gone, a style of play based on rules-as-written evolved. In some ways this design philosophy definitely benefits the hobby. There are many players who like to read rules, design their characters with knowledge of how the game should work, and play using a system that places limits on the freedom of the referee to make rulings by fiat. To me, this style of play differs significantly from that with which I started the hobby. Game written with such expectations are different games to me requiring a different mindset on my part as a player and as a referee. Not better, not worse, just a different kind of role-playing game.
Today I enjoy playing a variety of different games, mostly while sitting around a table among friends who also enjoy those games. I enjoy some role-playing games written with expectations that the rules as written will cover most all things that will happen in-game, and that those rules will be judiciously applied as written. I also enjoy sports games, strategy and wargames, card games and board games of many genres. And I continue to enjoy my beloved do-it-yourself White Box where rulings take precedence over rules.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Referee as Creator

In the Beginning...
So we are going to build a game world, but where do we start? As referee, I have started several games over the years. Each of us who acts as referee, game master, etc. has experienced this a number of times over. A new "campaign" or even a one-off game is in the making and before play starts many decisions must be made. This can be done incorporating input from the prospective players or it can be a solo endeavor involving only the referee.
Before the game begins, before the players create characters, the referee has some designing to do. What is the game going to be about? There are a number of ways to address this question and the answers will determine much of what is to come. Does the game fit a genre? Is it expected to be long term or a single session of play? What is the theme? What about power level?.. technology?.. magic? These are often quick questions that are addressed by the choice of game system or inspiration being used. Are we recreating a setting from a book? Or using the default or implied setting of the rule system? If so, many of our decisions are made for us in advance.
Setting is one of the most important decisions in role-playing. The players need to know something, many things actually, about the "world" in which the characters will be adventuring, investigating, or surviving. The world setting or milieu is the stage on which the players act out the developing story, but it is also the assumptions which guide player decision making. Do things work like they do in our real world? What tools and resources can be expected to be available in this fictional setting? How much knowledge of the "world" do the characters have?
As a referee I tend to treat the setting as my character in the game. I imagine the setting as a real place filled with real beings, weather, terrain features, deities, magic, technology... The list is long, but the better idea I have of the fictional setting where the game action is taking place, the better able I can be at describing the milieu and answering player's questions. Rule #1 for the referee is to know your setting!
As referee, you draw your map, leaving blank areas for ideas that will come to you as play evolves, you flesh out the world you create with beings, some people, some monsters, some divine, some mortal, giving some thought to how they survive, organize themselves and what motivates them? What are the sources of friction, conflict or struggle in this world? How are the player's characters expected to fit into this world and what opportunities might interest them? A short list of creative tasks might include:
  1. Think about where the players will start. What is the first scene you will be describing to the players?
  2. What do the characters know about the setting? What questions are likely to be asked...even before play starts? This will involve fleshing out a lot of the large scale details of the setting with a focus on what the characters will know. Of course, there will be much that is unknown.
  3.  What can be expected to happen during the first session? Try to imagine what the players are somewhat likely to do, and be ready for it. That may consist of a pretty well defined setting like a dungeon or spaceship, or it may be a couple days march on the world map.
  4. Prepare to go where your players take you. These days I referee most games in a sandbox/ quasi-open world style allowing and encouraging players to follow their interests. This requires that I have a pretty firm mental concept of the character of the world setting, at least in the immediate environs of the opening scene.
  5. Have an idea where you might like for the game to go, if the players cooperate. I find it helps to present players with some options rather than just to give them no direction. Rumors are great for this sort of thing. 
  6. What is the goal of the session? Is it the start of a longer campaign or the first of a multi session module, or just a one-off single session of play to provide an evening of shared entertainment? Having a goal may help everyone know when to end play for the day.
That's it, my short list of creation. The details come out of answering these questions and from ideas brought about during play. World creation is an ongoing task, some occurs before the game starts, some occurs during the game, and if a second session is planned, some will occur between game sessions. World creation is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a referee and I am finding there will never be enough time to explore (during play) all the worlds I can imagine.




Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Importance of Hobby

My Hobby is not a Job
An amateur, a hobbyist, is one who is not in it for the money. Doing something for the fun of it, for the enjoyment, and for sharing an interest with others is awesome. A hobby can be the source of many friendships and often brings great value to our lives. It can cost us money (and time) as well and sometimes we think about making some money off the hobby, just to help support our hobby. These efforts are often amateurish and not the same as marketing and producing for profit as in forming a company, but they can become work-like.
What happens when our hobby becomes a job? I can only share my own experience and what I have learned talking to and observing others, but it seems that doing so changes things significantly. Having deadlines and the resulting stress is antithetic to the concept of having fun. Things that detract from our relaxation and enjoyment of the hobby creep into the scene when we endeavor to make money at our hobby. It starts to feel like more work and less fun and may lead to us disliking something we once loved.
It is easy to imagine the prospect of having a fun way to make money, but it hasn't been my experience when doing so. I will share just a couple of examples. My first delve into monetizing my hobby came during a period of under employment and consisted of starting a painting service. Working for others, for money, is very different from working for my own enjoyment. That quickly became not fun and seriously affected my enjoyment of painting my own miniatures.
Designing and writing for publication has had similar pitfalls. I find the task of pleasing others, as well as myself, fairly easy when refereeing a game, but write it all down and put a cover on it and suddenly everyone becomes a critic. What the group enjoyed as a made-up, do-it-yourself game somehow becomes "not good enough" when offered up in a published format. (Not to mention all the writing, and rewriting, play testing and work that goes into designing makes it personally not as much fun as just running it for your friends.)
My Hobby is not a Community
Well, it is and it isn't a community. (A quick search will get you a definition of "community".) First off, a hobby can be something you do all by yourself. Speaking of the tabletop role-playing hobby specifically, yes, we share a common interest in the games we play. There is a feeling of fellowship with others that results from sharing some common goals and interests. That is where I would agree that the hobby is a community.
Where the hobby differs from a community is in terms of organization. Communities like to define themselves, those inside the community, those outside the community. The way I see the hobby is we are always looking for new players, new referees and new product designers. Communities like to organize themselves. They tend to develop leadership and rules, implicit or otherwise, taboos and so on. I don't see this as an essential part of the hobby despite the several attempts over the years various people have made to "organize" the hobby.
The hobby I see myself as being a part of is simply composed of all folks who share an interest in playing some role-playing games at a table. It is simple, unorganized and do-it-yourself enjoyment. Of course my definition of the hobby is going to differ from others, that is part of my definition! Each of us defines our own hobby.
My Hobby is Healthy Fun!
The benefits of having a hobby are many and the tabletop role-playing hobby offers me just the right mix of intellectual stimulation, creative outlet and exciting game-play. Reading about and discussing ideas connected to the game gives me lots to think about and learn from. Designing my own materials and imagining the action at the table allows me to express my creativity in writing and drawing, through verbal means and mental images. Thinking about future games gives me something to look forward to and sharing all this with others who also enjoy the hobby allows me to form many good friendships that enriches my life well beyond playing the game.
My hobby is about sharing an interest. It is about giving, and receiving from the generosity of others, but that is my own definition. Your hobby is whatever you want it to be. And that, my friend, is what makes it special.