Grid vs no-grid

This morning I read an article from one of my favourite gaming blogs, SlyFlourish. It is called The Tyranny of the Grid. Basically the author explains how a dependence on using a grid and miniatures can seriously limit the fun of RPGs. Specifically, it argues that an over reliance on grids can inhibit creativity and excitement.

It’s worth reading, but I wanted to address a few of the author’s points:

  • Antagonism: I also agree that using a grid can increase the feeling of antagonism between the players and the GM. I’ve experienced this first hand, actually. It’s as if moving miniatures around a few dungeon tiles taps into a primordial memory of war games. It’s weird
  • Cost: it’s very true that once you start buying things to support grid play, you can get really carried away. I followed Sly Flourish’s advice to get a Paizo flip-mat (they’re really great, actually), but once I finally acquired one I suddenly “needed” others for more varied colours/textures. The same with miniatures/tokens. I got one box set on Kijiji and then I found myself scouring the web for other packs of Pathfinder Pawns. It was harder than I thought to stop!
  • Scope: grids can also limit the scope of battle scenes. It’s as if once the GM draws out the exact dimensions of the cave or room, it can appear a lot smaller or less impressive to the players. They also feel more limited by what is drawn (or not drawn), reducing their perception of what is possible. That’s why I think you need to keep it partially abstract.
  • Railroading: this is a big one. If the GM has already drawn out, or acquired a set of miniatures and buildings to represent a special encounter, odds are that this GM will really want the players to go there. They are more likely to railroad the players. I’ve witnessed this as well (and I’ve been guilty of it!). So don’t spend too much time or resources on planning out an encounter because the players might not even go there!

On the other hand, a roughly drawn out scene with a few pawns to generally represent the  locations of various characters and objects can really help players visualise what is going on. I’d argue that it can make scenes more memorable and immersive.

So I will explain how I do a bit of both: a mix of theatre of the mind and gridding:

  • I use Paizo flip maps, which allow wet or dry erase markers. I only draw out a location if it is required in the game, never in advance (that’s what my GM notes are for). If the players engage a situation leading to a conflict (or straight out battle), I can whip up something quickly.
  • I use Pathfinder Pawns to show where everyone is in relation to each other. I don’t bother measuring 5-foot increments, though. They’re more for general guidance, not strict adherence.
  • I’ll use 4×6 note cards to represent special “zones” or objects of interest by writing things down on them (eg.: “fire”, “cart”).

I’ve found that this flexible use of physical elements at the table helps players visualise, strategize and focus on the encounter. Sly Flourish makes some great points, but I argue that some visual representation of encounter details has more benefits than drawbacks.

NOTE: the featured image includes photos that are not mine; I just hastily Photoshopped them together.

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Review of Adventures in Middle Earth Player’s Guide

This was a delight to read and most of the new rules will become permanent additions to my D&D 5e tool kit. In my opinion, this game very adequately captures the feel of the books and even Peter Jackson’s movies.

I very rarely read through a role playing game book in one “sitting”; that is, trying to plough through every word from cover to cover in as short of time as possible. This book was consumed in about two days; a record for me. I loved reading it!

Considering that this isn’t a stand-alone book (i.e.; you need at the very least the Basic rules or SRD for 5th edition D&D), it is hefty and worthwhile.

Production values

A feast for the senses with only very minor quibbles that I won’t even mention here because they’re awfully nit-picky.

But overall, here are my impressions:

  • A gorgeous glossy cover with a meaningful painting by John Howe: Smaug is dead but Gandalf is looking away, at the reader, with a sombre expression that hints that there’s much more to come. The Shadow is strenghtening and heroes are needed! Hint: you, the players will be the heroes!
  • It has roughly the same width and height as the official D&D 5e core books, but the spine is very distinct and it uses different branding from Wizards of the Coast. While it is a 5th edition product, it won’t look like it on the shelf. Reinforces that it is a separate game.
  • Glossy full colour interior pages with lovely headers and footers (nice looking and un-obtrusive to the reading experience). Money was not wasted on making this book look nice.

Art and layout

Readability was excellent: the text was easy on the eyes and headers were well used to give a hierarchical structure to the content. There were no annoying watermarks interfering with the body text (a major pet peeve of mine) and the fluff/flavor text was far more legible and concise than anything from White Wolf (I rarely read that company’s prose because of it’s usually tediously long and uses overly elaborate font-faces). These bits were short and relevant, adding a great deal of colour and mood to each section.

The tables were also easy to scan and absorb as well. No problems there.

The artwork is very nice too and most of it doesn’t scream “this is a digital painting!”. I recognise some of the artists, including the venerable John Howe. A delight to the eyes.

I fully admit that Alan Lee, John Howe, the animated Rankin Bass and Weta Workshop interpretations of Middle Earth have forever altered my visual expectations of this world, but the art within worked. Some was obviously a bit inspired by the Jackson films, but the vast majority wasn’t.

Content

Here are highlights about the various main chapters.

Cultures

There are no races in this game: only cultures. Obviously if you’re from the Woodland Realm, the Shire or the Lonely Mountain you’ll be an elf, hobbit or dwarf, respectively, but the differences are not as extreme as the races in D&D. They’re much more about the habits and societies of these peoples. This is an approach that I prefer these days.

There are eleven cultures. Some are very familiar, others I didn’t really know about (Bardings, Beornings and the Woodmen of Wilderland) so it was fun to expand my knowledge of Middle Earth.

What I find really cool is how there’s a matrix table of relationships between each of these cultures. The majority of them are neutral towards each other, but some are leaning towards being positive and at least one negative (hint: elves vs dwarfs).

This has practical application in the game’s rules: any time you wish to rest and recuperate in a settlement, the degree of sanctuary will depend on the characters’ diplomacy (Traditions) skills and etiquette. So it might be best to let the Dunedain make introductions to King Thranduil rather than the Dwarf.

I like how none of the races have absolute dark vision: even elves see in complete darkness as only Dim Light. Dwarves can’t see in complete, utter dark and need some sort of light source.

Each Culture has a standard of living which affects how much they need to spend in a settlement on lodgings and food. To do otherwise leads to being miserable. I really like this because it isn’t about class but culture. A really nice touch.

I actually prefer this game’s interpretation of “races” over D&D’s, to be honest. There are so many ideas here that are great both in flavour and as game mechanics. I’m very impressed.

Class

There are six new classes here. A few of them are revisions of D&D classes such as the Barbarian, Bard, Fighter, Ranger and Rogue. They’ve been tweaked to better fit the setting. Each one has a few sub-variants.

The equivalent of the Ranger is something that I’ve been wanting for a while: a wilderness character type without magic. I’ve never been satisfied with the way others have tried to tackle this concept. This one is just about perfect.

Most interestingly we find the Scholar. As an aside, there are no spell casters in this game. Magic is more subtle in Middle Earth, or, if it goes big, it’s more epic like in the books and movies. The Scholar is a healer and expert in many fields. It sounds mundane, but it’s actually very interesting. At higher levels, its abilities may not be as momentous as a traditional D&D character but within Middle Earth it’s very suitable and within the expected tone. One of my favourite character classes ever for 5e.

As I mentioned with Cultures, I prefer many of these classes over the ones in the core 5e rules! Maybe it’s my dislike of Vancian Spellcasting applied everywhere in D&D in an effort to provide new abilities to each class. I don’t know, but I like this far better.

Gripe

Some of the abilities featured in this chapter, as well as in the next (Virtues; see below) are kind of boring in execution. In theme they’re very cool, but I’m not happy with special abilities that boil down to: “make an ability check at a mildly high difficulty; if successful, you can make another skill check with Advantage”. The more that you roll the higher chance you have of failing, so I would like to find a better system for this. Not sure how, though.

Virtues

These are sort of like Feats in D&D, but these are directly tied into Culture.

Some are really fascinating (eg.: Ravens of the Mountain, where a Dwarf has a raven companion), some have very cool mechanical effects (Stinging Arrows, where an Elf can sped a Hit Die to make a ranged attack an automatic critical), while others are pretty dull (“once per day, get one re-roll” or “when fighting underground, you get +1 AC and +1 to Dexterity saving throws”).

Again, very impressed, I like how these feel different than regular Feats and reinforce the themes of the setting.

Gripe

The “fluff” descriptions are almost always good but the rules are sometimes very uninspired or under-powered compared to others. When I run this, I may tweak a few (if not mechanically, with aspects that have effects on the world beyond the roll of a die).

Background

Just like the ones in D&D 5e, the backgrounds are what I consider to be the last third part of what makes your character concept (the other two parts being Culture and Class).

These ones are all very much inspired by a lot of characters featured in the Hobbit and in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For anyone who is well acquainted with these works (as I think one should be if they play this game to get the most out of it) there is much here that is immediately familiar.

Because of the way the rest of the character creation process works in Adventures in Middle Earth, the Backgrounds “feel” more significant to me. You could have an entire party of characters from a single culture and the choice of Class plus Background will make each character very, very distinct.

I like the special features and traits in these backgrounds; they are structured in the same way as in the core 5e books, but they’re a bit more interesting than “Sailor”, “Outlaw” and “Noble”. There’s something more to them.

Each has a specialty that adds a nice extra detail about the character. Some are practical (“you can always build a fire no matter what”) and some are more for flavor (“your songs are famous”). I really like these, because they add a bit more to what makes your character… er… special (sorry).

Again, I’d like to use these more than the ones in the 5e Player’s Guide. You know what? This review is starting to sound repetitive. I would like my readers to assume that my fondness of the character creation system in this game surpasses that of the core D&D game.

Equipment

Here we get a bit of a better explanation of the different living standards (which you determine by choice of Culture). This not only explains roughly how much it costs per year but how it might affect interactions in settlements between classes (not Classes, I mean in the social sense). It represents not how much you spend in town but how you appear to others. Someone with a Poor Standard of Living will look rough and dirty, for example. A Martial character will have good gear but will have a rough or battle-weary look.

Gripe

I was a bit disappointed that the Standard of Living has no effect beyond role playing when characters go into a settlement. I would tie this into Culture and Shadow a bit more: after all, a Hobbit expects good food and a comfy room after a long journey; if they can’t for whatever reason, they’ll become miserable. So that’s another tweak that I’ll make (somehow) when I run this game.

The lists of weapons and armour are similar to those in D&D, but narrowed down to represent items actually featured in Tolkien’s works. The standard equipment table is similar: stuff that you’d find in the prose. It’s all very complete and self-contained (you shouldn’t need to use the lists in the 5e Player’s Handbook).

There’s a bit about special gear forged by Dwarfs, which is cool because not only does it make their crafting abilities have more value, but it’s limited to the kinds of things Dwarfs like to make and use. If you want them to make something unconventional to their culture, it will cost more.

I like the detail that smoking a pipe, especially Hobbit leaf, actually aids a character if they’re pondering on how to handle a challenge. A nice touch!

Gripe

I wish there had been a section on Elf Forged gear. After all, some of the best parts of the books involve Elf swords (Sting and Glamdring anyone?). Perhaps in a future supplement? Also: no Lembas bread?

Most interesting in this chapter are the Herbs, Potions and Salves. These provide several different beneficial effects. Their use replaces the traditional need of Clerics and other magical healers in D&D. Really cool practical uses for these items.

Lastly there are some Cultural Heirlooms which work a bit like magic items, but are not necessarily magical in nature. They’re just very special, like a Rohan Spear or a Wood Elf Bow. Acquiring them should be a special occasion and should they be lost/destroyed, you can acquire a replacement (assuming that proper conditions are met in terms of reputation and relationship with the culture in question). They’re pretty cool, actually and the rules behind them are satisfying to my expectations.

Journeys

This was the part I was the most excited for. I own most of the PDFs for Cubicle 7’s One Ring RPG (thank you Bundle of Holding website) and the Journey Rules were my favourite part.

The Journey rules are a game within a game, really. They require the participation and strategy from everyone at the table, a good map of Middle Earth (the ones int the book are perfectly hexed and colour coded) and some rolling of dice on encounter tables.

What’s cool about this system is that it predominantly features the 12-sided die, which I feel is often neglected in RPGs. The use of the d12 gives this part of the game a unique feel. All of this is great.

I won’t go over it in detail, but it basically has three parts: preparation, the journey itself, and the arrival.

The first phase is preparation (or Embarkation). It’s when the player characters figure out their destination and assign roles (there are four of them and if any of them aren’t filled the journey will be more difficult). The GM gets to figure out how perilous or difficult the journey will be based on the Guide’s abilities, accuracy of maps, harsh terrain and how much the Shadow is present in that land. The outcomes of this phase will affect the other two phases.

I like this part because it sets the tone of the journey and gets everyone at the table involved.

The second phase is about the journey itself. Basically, it’s where the encounters are rolled after determining how many there will be (based on how far the journey is in miles or hexes, and how well the Embarkation phase went).

This is when players will be making dice rolls. The encounters trigger these rolls and different roles will be called upon. Some of these encounters can really wear the party down (imposing Shadow points or Exhaustion); some even involve combat. Others are just plain old good roleplaying.

I haven’t read all of the encounters in detail because I want to keep some of them as a surprise when I finally get around to playing this. But the few that I have read were cool and fun.

The third phase is the Arrival. This will determine the status of the party after it’s all over. This is affected by the previous two phases and the difficulty of the terrain itself (i.e., a journey through evil marshes will wear the party down in both body and spirit far more than a trek through the rolling grasslands of Rohan).

Overall a really cool system that isn’t too hard to figure out and use. Very thematic and really delivers the game designers’ promise that the journeys will be hugely important in this RPG.

I will be using this in other games etc… etc…

The Shadow

Even without the One Ring, plenty of characters in Tolkien’s works were shown that they were susceptible to corruption in some form. Quickest that comes to mind was Thorin. The game tries to represent this with the corruptible influence of the Shadow.

Each character begins with a Shadow Flaw: the “hook” that the darkness uses to corrupt them. These are major concepts that can consume a character completely if left unchecked. Dark and doom-ridden, but they look like fun to roleplay.

The system is simple: characters can accumulate corruption points from a variety of sources: deliberate misdeeds, travelling through corrupted terrain, witnessing awful acts, carrying tainted items to name a few.

Once those points reach a certain level in relation to a character’s Wisdom score, trouble is brewing. They gain a level of corruption that sticks with them. There are four such levels and at the end their character will likely retire or become a villain.

It reminds me a lot of the dark side in Star Wars roleplaying games, albeit with a slightly different edge. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a cool system.

Audiences

The ability to respect other cultures and having a good sense of etiquette are important in this game. When the characters reach a settlement, they are expected to introduce themselves formally and get on the good side of that location’s rulers. At least, if they want to use that settlement as a reliable sanctuary where they can rest, recuperate and re-equip.

It’s in this chapter where we see the relationship table matrix between cultures. This can adjust your character’s interactions with other cultures. As mentioned earlier in this review, certain peoples have stronger ties than others. The vast majority, though, are either apathetic towards each other or unknown.

This “rating” will affect interactions between characters and settlements. So it’s very important.

I’m eager for the Loremaster’s Guide, which has more information on converting settlements into Sanctuaries. We get a little bit of info here, but there’s more to it.

Gripe

The rate of “Unknown” or “Neutral” on this table is kind of dull, to be honest. I’d recommend that a GM add a greater variety by going beyond what was established by Tolkien. Otherwise this whole Audience thing could be sort of stale. Or maybe not… I need to actually play this game.

The Fellowship Phase

This is when the player characters get some down time. It reminds me of Mouse Guard or Pendragon, where each year the characters do an adventure or two and then relax during the off season (i.e. winter).

Characters can develop, train and other things during this phase. There are optional rules if the campaign style is more continuous (as in, more frequent adventures over the course of a few months).

Good stuff here as well. This is something that I often find lacking in a lot of RPGs: a sense of accomplishment between adventures and letting the characters develop themselves and their relationships. You can even gain Titles from various cultures if you’re on really good terms.

I like all of this because there are more tangible rewards than just levelling up and earning money to buy loot. This scratches an itch I’ve had for a while with most roleplaying games.

Conclusion

This is a great book but as a GM I really need the upcoming Loremaster’s guide. There are no creature stats and while one could just use entries from the D&D Monster Manual, they just don’t feel right. Example: the Orcs in D&D are very different than Tolkien’s.

I’m very, very impressed by Cubicle 7’s endeavour and I hope that others notice it too. I’d like to see other campaign worlds get this kind of treatment. I might even make one myself (Koru: Island World being a major one that’s been on the backburner far too long).

I recommend this book to anyone who runs D&D 5e, even if they never plan on running adventures in Middle Earth. There are so many good ideas in here.


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Upcoming projects

Sorry for the hiatus: life happened. Kids kind of preoccupy me these days. Anyhow, here’s a quick announcement about upcoming game modules that I’m working on:

Sepulchre of the Abyss

This is a fleshed out version of a One Page Dungeon that I had submitted to the titular contest; and for which I was one of the 2nd place winners!

This module takes place in a sinister monastery at the bottom of the sea dedicated to the Bodhisattva of the Dark Light. Many treasures, riches etc… but will risk the heroes’ bodies and souls.

Curse of the Grey Isles

A sandbox adventure with many paths and possibilities. It is a merger of two other projects: Curse of the Warlock and King of the Grey Isles.

Many previews of the characters, monsters, locations and artwork for this module can be found in this blog under the tag A to Z challenge.

Here are some related posts:

Conquerors of the Cosmos

A module for the Crimson Dragon Slayer RPG, but could be used for just about any sword and sorcery game that can be used to emulate Masters of the Universe and Sectaurs.

Gonna be hella cool…

Stay tuned, friends!