Attribute Decay in RPG Design

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“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”

This isn’t an original idea – I know that in Misspent Youth for example, your attributes change as part of the game – but attribute decay is something I have been using in Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG that I’ve been poking around at forever. I also just brainstormed an attribute-change system for another person’s game, so it’s on my mind.

In brief, the idea is that your attributes, or ability scores, or whatever the name is in the game for you character’s basic capacities, change over the course of the game. In Servants of the Secret Fire, that change is through decay which I’ll discuss below, as an example of this idea in practice.

To begin with, a character in Servants of the Secret Fire has five attributes: Bearing, Grace, Might, Wisdom and Wits. They’re in alphabetical order, but also in order of priority when conflicts arise, and they each interact in different ways that don’t matter for the purposes of this blog post. Those are the five attributes, and many other things in the system derive from them, just like the classic six ability scores in D&D or attributes in 99% of RPGs out there. Not trying to innovate here.

But one of the design goals for SotSF is to model the moral structure of Middle-Earth as Tolkien wrote about it. It isn’t just any generic fantasy world – it is a particular world with particular assumptions behind it. One of those assumptions is that evil is powerful but limited. Here, my mind goes to a W. H. Auden quote from his review of The Lord of the Rings that I love, which includes the following: “Evil has every advantage save one; it is inferior in imagination.” Evil is less flexible, and those corrupted by evil are unable to see beyond their own machinations – and that is how they are overcome.

In order to bake this into the system, I decided that each attribute would decay to a lesser attribute, and that this would reflect moral corruption, or the influence of the Shadow. It would make it possible to see corruption as an incremental loss of creativity and capacity, which I think fits well with Tolkien’s moral universe. (The decay breaks the alphabetical order, but no-one’s perfect.)

Bearing decays into Dread. Where you once had a magnetic personality and a larger-than-life presence that could inspire, you are now only able to coerce and threaten. We see this in the Orcs and the way the treat each other, or in Sauron overwhelming power that only manifests as fear.

Grace decays into Quickness. For Grace, imagine the way that Elves move through the world, both physically and interpersonally. This decays to mere Quickness, like the Orc stabbing Frodo in Moria, or Gollum lunging for the ring.

Might decays into Force. One might use Might to defend the weak, or even as Boromir does to plough through the heavy snows on Caradhras. But it decays into Force, useful only for violence and to impose your will on others.

Wisdom decays into Cunning. As an example, we can look to Saruman of Many Colours versus Gandalf the Grey, and then White. Saruman literally comes from Angl0-Saxon for “cunning man”, and he retains his ability to create engines of destruction but loses the insight and deep lore that made him a Wizard. He still knows how to do things, but not whether he should.

Wits decay into Subtlety. Instead of broadly useful cleverness that would let you solve a puzzle, or a riddle, you only have the ability to hide and dissemble and subvert.

Functionally, each decayed attribute is the same as the previous one but with diminished options.With Bearing, you can do four or five things, but with Dread, you can only do one or two. If this was an Apocalypse-style game, you would simply crossed off some of your moves. Your options narrow, so that you can still be powerful and formidable in a conflict, but you are less of a person.

I like this system, in part, because it reflects my own view of morality and my own experience of the world and other people. People who are evil are so often people who see few possibilities. People who resort to violence often do so, in my view, because of a lack of creativity and imagination. As someone committed to nonviolence in my own life, I have had this conversation many, many times. I say I’m a pacifist, and people ask what I would do in a certain situation, where they can only imagine doing nothing or using violence. My response is that I have an infinite number of options minus two – I can’t do nothing, and I can’t resort to violence. And then I list a bunch of other options off the top of my head, because I’ve practiced this kind of thinking.

Evil is so often justified as necessity, but to me, it is just a failure in the person in question. They have allowed some of their capacities to decay, to become corrupted, until their options narrow and their imagination is strangled. This is so common in the world that I wanted to reflect it in this game.


Back to Some Game Design

My obsession with Tolkien is well documented. There has been a recent lull in editing activity on my other projects, and one of the things that happens at such a time is I dust off an older project and put some more work into it. In this case, that project is Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG. It is a cool game, and I hit a point where I had enough new tweaks and ideas that I wanted to put down another draft. So far, so good – about 5,000 words have rolled out in the past few days, partly by way of iPhone while watching a friend play Red Dead Redemption, so clearly my mind is in this space.

I was recently invited to write for my friend Pete Figtree’s blog, and he gave me a blank slate, so of course I wrote about Tolkien. I have also been reading about Tolkien and listening to the Aldasaga podcast, which is about Tolkien and Norse myth. I think these things build up to a critical mass, and one of the main ways I discharge this extra intellectual payload is through gaming. Since I haven’t yet found a group to play The One Ring with, this is what happens.

It’s also a hell of a lot easier than dealing with a new city, new job, toddler, moving and bills.

The One Ring is hands-down the best Middle-Earth RPG out there right now. I love running it and would likely love playing in a game as well. I can still do better. Now I just have to prove it by actually doing better. If I finish SotSF, I will be of course be giving it away. If anyone reading this has any interest in reading or paytesting it, please contact me and let me know. It probably won’t be ready for beta playtesting for a while (I haven’t even had an alpha playtest yet, honestly), but obviously that’ll need to happen.

Maybe other people have fewer of these, but this is one of those projects that I work on simply because I enjoy thinking about it and working on it. I don’t make it a priority over actual work – Never Pray Again and writing for my new job come first, no question, as do the couple of editing gigs that I have. But there is still time when I can squeeze in even more writing and thinking, and this is it. My fantasy heartbreaker.

I don’t know whether it is better or worse that I realize that and still work on it.

The One Ring Update

Cubicle 7 continues to release information about their upcoming game The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild.

Here’s a link to what a friend just point out: some information on the mechanics of the game and a preview of the character sheet.

From what they’ve posted so far, it seems like they’ve taken some cues from other ‘standard’ fantasy rpgs with their roots in wargaming (you know the ones), a bit of the group mechanics found in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (a game I find very impressive), and some conditions mojo from games like Mouse Guard.  I’m pretty sure the d12 is just a gimmick, which is fine with me – I’m not anti-gimmick.  If there was a custom nine-sided die for an LotR game, that would obviously be better, but you can’t have everything.

So far, it looks like a game I would run.  At this glance, it might be the best LotR game to date, at least by my standards.  Definitely worth checking out, and almost certainly something I’ll end up buying.  Whether it means I drop my Servants of the Secret Fire project remains to be seen.

Origins 2011

Last night I got back from Origins – this year, unfortunately, I was only able to be there for a single day.  I chose Saturday for obvious reasons – if you’re just going to be there for one day, that’s the one.  I didn’t get a chance to do any actual gaming – I only really had the time to go through the exhibitor hall, talk to some people I needed to talk to (more on that later), go to the art room and a couple other things.  Still, I feel like I did a lot, and had a good time.  The convention seemed more subdued than last year, and it was also about 10 degrees cooler (though still warm).

At the very first booth we visited, my wife found something that I just had to buy: the original, out of print boxed set for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game by Iron Crown Enterprises, circa 1991.  Here’s a pic of the find:

I only had a chance to glance through the box, which is in decent condition for something 20 years old.  Inside are all of the books, character sheets, and un-punched cardboard cutouts of the characters and enemies that come up in the included adventure “Dawn Comes Early”.  It is a rules-lite version of the Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP) system, but using d6s instead of percentile dice.

My wife promised she would play a one-shot with me, which is awesome.  That’ll have to happen.

The rest of the dealer room felt very busy, but not packed or claustrophobic.  The room was dominated by a huge Mayfair Games area, including a dozen or so round tables, all of which were filled with players the whole time I was there. As usual, there was no Wizards of the Coast Presence, nor a White Wolf presence to speak of, and if Indie Press Revolution was there this  year, I did not see them, nor HERO Games, which is too bad.

Once again, business brought me to the Jolly Roger Games table.  I finally got to meet the artist for Parsec in person, which was cool, and the three of us got a chance to sit down and iron out the last details of what needs to happen before Parsec goes up on Kickstarter.  Overall, I’m very happy, and whatever happens with Kickstarter, I feel like I’m doing all I can.  I got to go through the contract I’ll have with JRG, and speaking without a lot of experience, it seemed like a great contract to me, so that’s a good thing as well.

It was cool to see the cover art out on the JRG table – one small step closer to A Real Thing.

I’ll be posting about other things I saw at and around Origins this year, but one thing that somehow I hadn’t heard about before is Cubicle 7‘s new LotR game, The One Ring.  (Is it the Chosen One at last, or do I need to keep designing Servants of the Secret Fire?)  I’ve looked around for more information on the game itself, and there isn’t that much, from Cubicle 7 or otherwise.  Here is a site where they are promoting the game by posting characters who will be in it.

From what I’ve read, a few people are comparing The One Ring to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition – a big boxed set that contains all the things you need to run the game, like dice, character sheets, the rulebooks and that kind of stuff.  I personally am both excited and unhappy – excited because I think WFR is an awesome game design, but unhappy because I hope that The One Ring won’t have a price point anywhere near $100 (there’s a reason I really like WFR but don’t own it – I can’t afford to).

The model for the game is clearly it’s own supplement treadmill, which is also unfortunate.  The first game will focus on Wilderland, Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain in the wake of the destruction of Smaug.  Future releases will expand that focus to other parts of Middle-Earth.  One review that I found stated that the game’s storyline assumes that the heroes of the Lord of the Rings do not exist, and explores the storyline in their absence (or, at the least, they are not brought together, etc.).  I think that idea is awesome, and is a game I would love to play, I just hope it isn’t too expensive – and that it’s, you know, a good game.

In August, almost certainly with a GenCon release, we’ll find out.

That’s enough for now – next time, some more from Origins, as well as other Columbus stuff.

Game Design Snapshot: Servants of the Secret Fire

Servants of the Secret Fire is my attempt to do something no one has done before (that I’ve seen) – design a Middle Earth RPG.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been many attempts, including the many books published by Iron Crown Enterprises, Decipher and even Luke Crane (Burning Wheel is much more than an attempt to model Middle-Earth, but it has a hefty dose of Tolkien at it’s core).  I think the best one I’ve seen might be Realm Guard, a hack of Mouse Guard, because it is a focused game that doesn’t try to model everything in the setting.  There was also a person writing Song of Arda, a free game online that I liked when it was available but it’s been gone for about four years now.  There are many attempts out there if you look for them, including one more I just found.  The overwhelming majority are one more crappy D&D ripoff with the serial numbers filed off.  Here and there one can find a sub-system that actually models something Tolkienian.
People tend to think of Middle Earth as being the source of D&D, but this is not the case.  The only ones who kick in doors to take peoples’ stuff in Middle-Earth are the Orcs.  Middle-Earth’s setting, assumptions, magic system and so on are entirely different from the ‘standard’ D&D settings, and the core D&D system has never modeled Middle-Earth, or was it intended to.  As a result of this, every single one of these D&D ripoff games fail entirely.
My thinking on this topic has actually been elevated by the Tolkien Professor.  He has posted many hours of his class lectures on the works of Tolkien – including The Silmarillion, Mythopoeia, Leaf by Niggle and so on. Prof. Corey Olsen does a great job of pointing out what makes Tolkien stand out as one of the best writers of the last century (a claim I’ll happily defend).  He is willing to delve into Tolkien’s theology and philosophy, and while I don’t think he needlessly lionizes the man, he does treat the material thoughtfully.
It’s a live question, frankly, of whether it is even possible to model Middle-Earth with a game of any kind.  Is it possible to create a game with rules founded in the mythological structures of the Elder Edda, the Kalevala and Catholicism?  Are fictional and mythological narratives too far removed from what actually happens at a gaming table?
I’m trying.  I have a rough playtest document at the moment, almost ready to run with a group.  This attempt is semi-simulationist, which I’m sure will make all the indie-types roll their eyes, but everyone knows the Forge was founded to complain about simulationism (said with a smirk).
Late addition:
In listening to The Tolkien Professor talk about the Ainulindale and the fall of Melkor discussion that followed, I like the idea of having attributes that change, becoming more limited, when a character becomes corrupted.  Melkor’s splendor becomes contempt and arrogance; his understanding becomes subtlety.  I like that, in falling, a character is also constricted and constrained.  Both Gollum and Sam are strong for such small people, but what do they use their strength for?  What can they use their strength for?  Gandalf and Saruman have granted powers, but Saruman becomes obsessed and single-minded whereas Gandalf remains versatile and generous.
I just edited the playtest document to work that into the rules.  It felt good.

The Tolkien Professor and My Tolkien Game

Sill working on Servants of the Secret Fire, my slow-burn Middle-Earth tabletop rpg project – more lately than usual because I have recently discovered The Tolkien Professor. The Tolkien Professor is Doctor Corey Olsen of Washington College in Maryland. He is a scholar of medieval literature who teaches courses on, among other things, all of Tolkien’s works. He also posts his class lectures to his website and via iTunes, as well as supplemental lectures on Tolkien and his sub-creation Middle-Earth.

Unless you are lobotomized, this stuff is fascinating, and I am assuming that anyone besides Google reading this blog is likely at least a little bit interested in Tolkien and his works. I can easily recommend any of the supplemental lectures Dr. Olsen has posted as a starting-point, since his class lectures aren’t as interesting if you aren’t reading the books as you follow along, or don’t have them fresh in your memory.
Now back to thinking about what to do with a Middle-Earth rpg with no licence, original artwork, budget or collaborators.

Servants of the Secret Fire – Middle Earth RPG

I’ve taken on a challenge that’s been on my mind for years and years now – I want to design a Middle-Earth RPG that actually has something to do with Middle-Earth.

There have been a few attempts in the past – the two big ones that come to mind which have taken on that liscence are MERP and the attempt made by Decipher. Of course, thousands of fantasy RPGs owe a huge amount to Middle-Earth and some, like Burning Wheel, have in some ways tried to do Middle-Earth with the serial numbers filed off, so to speak. Frankly, none of them have satisfied me. Some, like MERP, use another system and tack on Middle-Earthy stuff. ICE actually had very well-researched supplements for MERP with lots of interesting extrapolations about the setting, but the core system was still Rolemaster, which isn’t particularly Middle-Earthy.

Decipher’s own attempt was the Coda system, which is fucking D20 with the die-type changed to protect the innocent. Their big innovation? Use 2d6 instead of a D20 and change…almost nothing else. I frankly had to buy the base book, and I think I was bamboozled into getting one more when the company ended the RPG line because it was cheap and I’m a sucker for Middle-Earth stuff. The book was actually well put-together. In changing the names of Feats from D20, they gave them names that referenced the films and the books. The book was relatively well written, and they gave the magic system a better stab than MERP for sure. But it was freaking D20 for crap’s sake.

Burning Wheel has a lot of cool stuff about it, but what you end up with is sort of Middle-Earth through a distinctly Luke Crane lens. It definitely has a lot of interesting aspects, and picks up on a lot of the color and setting material in subtle ways. Burning Wheel is a great system, and probably the best attempt yet. Still, while it is a good game, it is definitely its own creature. You get something interesting and fun, but it isn’t Middle-Earth.

The Song of Arda, which is now defunct, was an attempt to have a Pendragon-esque Middle-Earth RPG. It was never finished, and the site has long since been taken down. I was following its progress with a lot of hope, but…well, I definitely know about games not being finished. Song of Arda would have been freely available online, which would also have been nice.

This brings me to Servants of the Secret Fire, which is the working title I have for my own system for a Middle-Earth RPG. I plan on finishing the playtest document, playtesting it, and then getting together a complete game document that I’ll then distribute for free to whoever wants it. I just…I want a good Middle-Earth game to be out there.

Anne Lamott said once in an interview I believe – “Write the book you would want to come upon.” Others have said similar things – design the game you want to play. So that’s what I’m doing right now.

It’s pretty likely it’ll come to nothing, but I’ll get to play it, and my players will get to enjoy it, and I can give this idea a rest. I’ve feld like I should write this game since I first picked up a copy of MERP many years ago and ran it and had that feeling of missing the mark but not knowing why or how. I now feel like I know a lot more about the how and the why, so we’ll see where this goes.