Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Back Again and There: Wrapping Our Middle Earth Campaign

On Sunday we wrapped our 28th and final session of our Middle Earth campaign. We’d begun at the start of 2016, aiming for 26 sessions bi-weekly in one year. I knew we’d lose a few games, but it ended up pushed back even further than I expected due to scheduling clashes, illnesses, and the general trauma of being adults. The ending felt at once awesome and bittersweet. Despite our session gaps especially towards the end, it finished coherently and with emotional impact.

But we also finished the campaign down one player. This group has been gaming on alternate Sundays continuously since 1995. We have four players who’ve been there since the start. One of those had to drop, as he’s relocated for work. I’d really hoped to have him present for the final session, but his last week was the game before. The timing could have been better.

I posted a little on the campaign when it first began. You can see some of the system material here. The short version is that we used Action Cards again, our homebrew heavily influenced by Fate. I redrafted the mechanics to give us “archetypes” with niche protection (Wizard, Thief, Animist, Ranger, Bard, Envoy, and Warrior). We got all but the last two classes to the table. Overall some things worked and some didn’t with the campaign.

I gave the players a choice between the time period of The One Ring rpg (between The Hobbit & Fellowship of the Ring) and that of Icon Crown’s Middle Earth RPG (so 1640 in the Third Age). They chose the latter. If they’d gone with the former, I’d have just run TOR rather than hacking Action Cards. The extra work was worth it because I like this time period and the ICE sourcebooks for it are particularly awesome. The line has some garbage and the art shifts weirdly between editions, but it’s generally good. You can see why used copies sell for a lot these days.

That time period gives interesting choices, especially since Sauron is in hiding. There’s darkness but to the people of Middle Earth that consists of petty corruption and smaller dark foes. I chose Arthedain for my campaign. It’s the last bastion of the great Dunedain Kingdoms remaining in the North. It also the ruined lands the Hobbits travel through in Fellowship of the Ring. I liked being able to show the world before it fell. Some things had already been lost- to plague, to the Kin Strife, to an invasion by the Warlock. So Weathertop lay in ruins, but that fall had happened within people’s memories. It gave extra weight to these events.

Spellcraft’s always a question with a Middle Earth game. I played MERP for many years and managed to get around the cognitive dissonance of firebolt slinging elves in Gondor. The One Ring takes the opposite approach. PCs don’t really have access to “magic” as we’d think about it. They have some abilities reflecting the world, but they’re not going to tomes or recopying spell books.

I aimed for a mid-point because I like magic in my fantasy. I justified it with the timeline. Since our campaign took place in the past, I imagined it came before magic had been reduced and ground away by centuries of corruption, forgetting, and apathy. As it was, within the party we had only three characters with access to magic. Among the NPCs and foes, only a few had anything like spells. They more often dealt with supernatural foes than enemy wizards.

That being said, I wasn’t that happy with the magic system. The Bard class worked, with simple effects and changes based on performances. That felt right. But the Wizard and Animst weren’t great. They were fun to play and functioned in the context of this campaign. But that’s because I shifted things on the fly.

The Wizard had open spell creation, with many possible effects. Spell casting had costs: spending resources, not using the same effect twice, requiring fictional justification for the spell. It worked with one Wizard PC, but wouldn’t have with multiple Wizards in the party. I need to come back to my perfect magic system in another post.

The Animist worked less well. I imagined it as something between a Druid and a Craftsperson. As a result, the class lacked focus. More importantly the system I’d created for Animist effects was too loose and uncertain. I’d adapted some of the ritual magic ideas from the Dresden Files Accelerated. But my version wasn’t clear, didn’t lay out cleanly what the Animist could do, and had a lot of handwave-y parts. So our Animist, quite rightly, didn’t engage with those mechanics that much. Instead they became a secondary focus. If I wanted to do that again I’d make major changes. It’s worth noting that the ritual magic in the final version of DFAE is fairly different from the original, so they also saw problems.

Ugh. As Sherri can attest, sometimes I fall in love with mechanics that don’t work at the table. I dig the journey sub-system from The One Ring. It has cool options and models the ‘long travel’ focus of the stories. TOR stresses time on the road, strange incidents, uncertain meetings, and the dangers of the wild. They’re evocative and cool rules. They also have a lot of book-keeping, granularity, and rolling.

Or to be precise: more than our group usually has at the table. Despite those complexities, I rewrote the rules pretty straight, adapting those procedures to the skills and systems of our games. I made travel skills important and added stunts related to those. For the first third or so of the campaign I used those rules straight. They did what they intended: made journeys felt like adventures and risky expeditions. But eventually that got boring and tedious. I found that wasn’t the focus I or the group wanted. It was nice to have at the start, but eventually I faded that to the back.

It comparable to how I used to run Vampire the Masquerade. At the start of the campaign, I spent time on feeding and survival. How they hunted, the moral choices involved, the risks it invited. But eventually I took it as a given they had that in hand and I moved the game to other areas. I could still call back to those elements, but they weren’t central to every session.

I still think The One Ring’s journey mechanics are dynamite and I’ll probably borrow them for one-off travel in the future. But they aren’t something I want to be juggling regularly.

The profession system generally worked. It meant players began with a strong focus and got moving quickly. Essentially each one had unique stunts and access to the higher level of their class skills. Other players could still buy these, but they cost double- making them effectively off the table until late in the campaign. I’d worked hard to balance the classes- giving each one at least one common combat and action skill. I’ve run enough with the system that I know which stunts players gravitate towards. I made sure I distributed those especially attractive ones among the professions. I’m not always going to use classes for Action Cards, but it worked here.

I wish I’d seen the final version of Dresden Files Accelerated before created these rules. While I borrowed some from DFAE, mantles weren’t as fully developed in the playtest pack. I especially like the way the final version gives unique resources and condition tracks. That’s something I would have adapted and it might have made the magic and travel system stronger. 

A little before the midpoint of the campaign, the players travelled to a gathering of the nobles of Arthedain, including King Argleb. We had several good sessions there, with them foiling the plots of a dark Bard and agents of The Shadow. I’d taken the Arnor supplement and done up material on the internal politics of the nation. We had several families working at cross-purposes, ties to some of the PCs, and various requests on the table.

While the players followed up on several of those threads (the theft of items, plots against the King), that ended up being less important in the final third of the game. I wish I’d found a way to call that back during the conclusion. But we’d had so many breaks between sessions, I didn’t want to reincorporate too many elements and distract from the tasks in front of the players. That’s something I need to think about for the future: did I put too many plot threads out there and could I have handled them better towards the end?

(Inside Baseball System Stuff for Action Cards. Skip as needed).
Costs: One of the things I dig about PbtA is the clear line for “success with consequences.” Fate has that too, but often I forget about in the heat of the moment. The same holds true for Action Cards. I really need to get better at that: framing difficulty “as you need X to get it with a complication, Y to do it free and clear.” To do that I also need to make changes to at least one of the base cards, maybe more.
Damage: We used a slightly different system for damage in this game. I lowered the # needed to do damage, set a limit on the number of wound cards players could take, and had a more restrictive healing system. It isn’t perfect, but I like the way that feels now.
Points: We had a table discussion a while back about advancement costs and power creep in Action Cards. At least one of the players thinks we need hard caps on raising card results. I can see where he’s coming from. I think Stunts are too cheap as they are right now; an accelerating cost for them seems best solution. Maybe I can do the same with card results? Anyway that likely means nothing to you-- the short version is I need to re-examine the costs for buying things up with experience.

In the end, I dug the campaign. I’m proud of how we managed to maintain the feel of LotR. I made a point of saying- “OK, that’s outside the genre” when off-kilter things came up. We still went off on the usual tangents and jokes, but we swung back to the table quickly. Because we’d been explicit up front about what kind of game and feel we wanted, we could make that shift easily. No one objected if someone X-Carded a particular line of conversation, we just steered things back. Sometimes I’d call things out, “In another game we might see X right now, but that material’s not in Tolkien’s world” – things like extreme gore, strong romance, bodily functions, etc. That ended up becoming a running joke, but one that helped reinforce the feel of the setting.