Thursday, January 14, 2016

Building My Middle Earth: A Project List

This post may be a little "inside baseball." I want to be better at tracking the steps of my gaming projects so I can accurately assess time budgets later. This details everything I did to prepare for our new campaign, an adaptation of our existing homebrew Action Cards. I've written this for myself, but I hope others find it interesting and/or useful. 

Back in December we wrapped our Legend of the Five Rings campaign. It ran for almost three years and could have continued, but we’d hit a good stopping point. That particular group’s played together for twenty years now on alternate Sundays. Several times Middle Earth came up as a campaign option. We have at least one player who loves the books and really wanted to play there. But it’s been outvoted or veto’d each time. I decided for 2016 I would run a Middle Earth campaign, lasting the full year.

I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan. As a kid I read The Hobbit and made it partway through The Fellowship of the Ring. But it bored me. I didn’t read the full trilogy and Simarillion until after college. I never got everything about the setting. Most of my actual understanding came from reading Middle Earth Roleplaying supplements. That offered a format I could understand, though I still had to flip back and forth between books to get a decent picture. I knew I couldn’t do an accurate Middle Earth game, but I could do one that felt like the setting.

The players agreed to the campaign and I offered them two choices. Either set between The Hobbit and LotR or the much earlier period covered by MERP. They surprised me by picking the latter. I figured they’d go for the one closer to the movies. In that case I’d have used The One Ring pretty much as is. Setting the game in the past meant figuring out another system. TOR’s cool, but incredibly connected to the period it covers and a narrow geographic range. Some players suggested MERP or Rolemaster, but I didn’t want to go down that road. MERP 2e is solid, but hard to find at a reasonable price. It’s also a little crunchy. GURPS and 13th Age also came up, but they have problems. I said I’d figure something out.

I fiddled around with ideas for many days. I knew I wanted to set it in Arthedain, but that was about it. I had four weeks over the Xmas/New Year holidays to put everything together. A few generic systems occurred to me: Savage Worlds (I’m not a fan), Fate (players hate the dice), and Cortex (would require more work figuring out). I decided I would go with Pugbuttah and started planning. I sketched out playbook ideas, tried to figure out if Dungeon World could easily be adapted, and generally mucked around.

Eventually Sherri made me sit down and explain my thinking. She listened to me spin around with my plans. As she always does, she patiently asked "why aren’t we doing it with Action Cards?” I didn’t have a great answer. I’d gotten it into my head we needed to do something other than the homebrew we’ve been playing. She grilled me about my goals for the game. Slowly she demonstrated I’d be better off and happier working with our homebrew. On these things she sees more clearly than I...

At that point we talked about the changes we’d want to make. For one, I wanted a class/ playbook approach. The players should be able to jump into a character mold and get running easily. I also wanted to try a simplified skill system. Skills had changed over the years in Action Cards. They always offered a redraw, but some versions skipped a skill list and let players simply make them up. Others had larger suggested skill rosters. In recent years we’d moved to Skills and Specialties. A skill gives you a redraw, and having an appropriate sub-specialty, nets you a second one. It added color and differentiated the PCs. But it also meant players ate up time hunting through specialties on a check. I wanted to see if the gain in simplicity matched the loss of color. With all of that in mind, Sherri and I built a seven “callings” and divided the skill list among them. Each would get three skills only they could buy the second rank of. The callings would also get unique stunts, a distinct profession skill, and a particular talent.

Each version of Action Cards forces me to think about how players assemble their decks. We’ve had two standard approaches. For longer campaigns we use “Fill In.” Players have a certain number of standard cards they write results in for, plus four blank unique cards they come up with. For shorter things we’ve done “Draft.” Players collectively draft prepared standard result cards and unique cards to fit their character conception. The former allows more tailoring and ownership, while the latter’s faster and takes pressure off the players.

I wanted to try a hybrid with our Middle Earth. On the one had, players would fill in their standard result cards. I retuned those player decks to create symmetry. Each now had eight cards to fill in, rather than 6. That means I created an equal distribution on the fixed cards. This is all foggledy-fook, I know. On the other hand, I had players draft their unique cards. Each would draft an extra good & bad unique, so they could pick which ones they wanted for each session. With that in mind I revised the set of unique cards, removing any that didn’t fit with the setting and tone. I redid card titles, so “Head in the Stars” became “Second Breakfast,” a card representing distraction. I used titles from the Lord of the Rings Trading Card game as inspiration. I also changed the fonts on the cards, which meant playing with the layout for a while. I found several Tolkien-esque fonts online.

I also reconsidered Wound cards. Currently they operate like Fate consequences, with two levels of them. That's had problems. It requires bookkeeping and PC could move them out of the deck quickly. This time each wound card reduces damage by two; players could take as many as they liked against a hit. All wound cards would be the same. But they wouldn’t clear from the deck when activated/drawn. Instead they’d require first aid, rest, or other healing to remove. I decided to make a broader category of “condition cards” with wounds as one type. Players could take up to six of these cards, but having 5 or 6 in their deck opened them up to harder GM hits/moves. Other condition cards would be Weary (from travel) and Shadow (from corruption). I made up special cards for the latter.

Next I went through the Stunt list. I used the lists I created for Masks of the Empire (a fantasy game) and Sky Racers Unlimited (a dieselpunk game) as the basis. They represent my most recent thinking. I’ve been changing and cutting stunts based on their use at the table. After integrating and trimming the MotE and SRU lists I had a decent assortment and only had to revise a few names to make them fit. Since I had some new skills (Travel) I developed several new ones. I also tried to rebalance some skills. In the past Athletics had a lot of the cool stunts, while Physique seemed limited. I shifted strength/endurance stunts from the former to the latter
In parallel with creating the stunts I built the callings. We’d settled on seven:
  • Animist: Either a druid/nature type or a crafter. Focused on using rituals to create things ahead of time. I took some inspiration from DFAE’s approach.
  • Bard: A specialist in travel and entertainment. Doesn’t have magic, but instead access to songs with some abilities.
  • Envoy: Diplomat, merchant, and spy. Knows people everywhere and has insight into political alliances and group dynamics.
  • Fighter: Warrior, soldier, guardian.
  • Hunter: Scout, woodsman, tracker.
  • Mage: I thought hard about this. MERP gets flak for its relatively high level of magic. I think that’s reasonably true; mage-types feel more like D&D wizards there. But I wanted to have magic, and there’s reason to think magic hasn’t yet been lost in this time period. I ended up with a flexible approach: on-the-fly casting with a cost. I also established that the standard hard bargain for success with magic would be a Shadow card.
  • Thief: Burglar, Con Artist, Rogue.

Each calling has a Profession Skill. Usually they will use these with their talents and common actions (Performance for Bard, Wizardry for Mage, Theft for Thief). In two cases, it didn’t make sense to have a distinct skill, so instead those ranks allow picking additional bonuses (Fighter, Hunter). I gave each calling an individual talent (like casting magic for the Mage). Next I went through the stunt list and lifted four unique stunts for each calling. Other callings could take these but at a higher cost. I tried to distribute the “always taken” stunts among those. Then I went back and made sure each base skill had at least five associated stunts. Finally I added a checklist for character creation at the end of each calling playbook as well as an example image.

The One Ring has a cool and detailed system for resolving Middle Earth travels. It isn’t exactly crunchy, but does has several steps and stages. It also makes a point about play in that setting: journeys offer important challenge. I’m a GM who has usually handwaved those moments in recent years. In the past I’ve relied on simple survival rolls. But I’ve rarely measured hard distance or ever done a hexcrawl. This time I wanted to give this a try.

I have the TOR pdf, so I copied the text into a document. I went through and considered how to simplify this and make the mechanics fit. Most of it came easily. I shifted some of the numbers to reduce the overall number of checks. I have failures on travel tests generating Weary cards. I think I’ve got the number and frequency right, but we’ll see in play. The One Ring uses a 1 in 12 result on a die to trigger hazard episodes. I opted to set one of the players’ unique cards (“Play the Draw”) as the trigger. That’s 1 in 24, but redraws raise that chance. Finally with the mechanics done I crafted new stunts related to the system.

In previous Action Cards versions, I’ve stuck with the standard Fate approach: High Concept, Trouble, plus 2-3 additional aspects. Players generate those additional ones either in a phase trio or on the fly. I’ve found players either hit their high concept all the time or not at all. I’m not sure why that is. For this version I decided to have just two aspects players could build or pick during a Q&A relationship (or Fellowship) phase towards the end of character creation. They could also come up with those and even their trouble aspect on the fly if they wished. We’ll see what effect that has.

I also wanted to try out something Rich Rogers suggested. He mentioned adding Keys (from Shadow of Yesterday and Lady Blackbird) to campaigns. I decided to try that. I assembled and revised a list of Keys from those games, as well as other LB hacks I found online. In my version, you hit a standard key for 1XP or hit a major key for 3XP. Players can also buyoff a key and gain 10XP, but then have to wait a couple of sessions to take a new one. I’m starting them with a single key for the moment. That’s another factor I’ll have to track; should they have more?

After that I dealt with the final mechanical details. I opted to stay with diced damage in this game, given the players' familiarity with it. I tweaked the numbers, in particular increasing the spread of armor success numbers to make damage a hair more common. I also approached shields differently (just damage reduction now). I wrote up the rules for damage and condition cards, including how healing worked. Deciding on experience point costs took some time and I went back and forth on numbers. Ultimately I opted for simplicity over detail. I made stunts and skills cost the same and eliminated any X for Y cost structures. Since Action Cards decouples stunts and refresh (as opposed to Fate), I decided to try some limits. I capped Refresh at 4 and raised the cost to increase it. Players can still trade out refresh for more initial stuff. I also set the rule that players couldn’t buy a new stunt without a significant failure (i.e. “Learning Experience”) to trade in. Finally I wrote a quick reference sheet for skills and a worksheet for assigning results to cards.

I made a list of all the details I thought players would need to know at the start of the campaign. You can see that full write-up here. I tried to keep things short and tight. Ideally I don’t want to bog down in minutiae. When we play I won't to assume players have read this, but I'll direct them back to this doc for further info when I explain something. Tolkien’s trickier than something like Star Wars, especially set as far back as this game is. I needed to establish a canon baseline. I hope to have players establish facts in play and not feel constrained by the world.

With this in hand on Saturday evening, I sent everything off to be printed for Sunday’s game. Binding cost too much, so I had them three-hole punch everything.

Almost done. I finally sat down to do the character sheet Sunday morning. I changed formatting a little, running the complete skill list down the right hand side of the page. I played around with the page elements, trying to give priority to those things referenced most often. In the end I opted to put weapon and armor stats at the bottom. I’m hoping that by putting it in a significant place (“check the bottom of your sheet”), players will learn to move their eye there instinctively when they look for that info.

These last things I did on Sunday afternoon. I sketched a quick list of the character creation process and what we would do at the table. I sorted my Backstory Cards for use in the phase trio. I pulled out my big map of Middle Earth as well as some from The Lord of the Rings RPG. Finally I printed, cut, and assembled maps from some of the MERP supplements.

Actual Writing of Project Begun 12/26/15. First session 1/10/16

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