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Home » Shadow/Corruption mechanic in RPG – What is it and what it’s not? Foreshadowing in Emyn Muil

Shadow/Corruption mechanic in RPG – What is it and what it’s not? Foreshadowing in Emyn Muil

Corruption mechanic helps players role-play in RPG. Describe in just a handful of words what the characters feel as they see a terrible sight or regret a misdeed and you'll see how they flesh it out.
Corruption mechanic helps players role-play in RPG. Describe in just a handful of words what the characters feel as they see a terrible sight or regret a misdeed, and you’ll see how they flesh it out. | Photo by Claudia Ramírez on Unsplash

When I was running my first RPG in Middle-earth, I only vaguely understood the importance of the Corruption (or Shadow) mechanic. Along the way, I’ve learned how to use it and what shouldn’t I confuse it with. Though it was a bit bumpy way, the experience I gained in the session you’ll read about below helps me to GM almost every game I run now.

An Ancient Mystery

Led by fear of their pursuers, the companions found their way to the ruin of some long-abandoned military outpost. They were treading carefully on the stone floor where remnants of tools of war as well as the soldier themselves lied about. Eradom discovered some tengwar glyphs, nearly erased by the wind and water, that suggested the place was, in fact, less of a defensible hold and more of a signaling post. Soon, they also learned that most of the arms found in the ruin were of Gondorian making. And after surveying the horizon, they found two similar rock formations and decided to move to the southeast. They found there some more pieces to confirm their guesses but were not interested in investigating the place’s history any further. Then, the Corruption mechanic played an unexpected role.

The Meta-Game perspective

We need to switch from the in-game to the table point of view. After almost 2 hours of the session, I felt that the game’s pace was getting too slow. I reached for a simple encounter I prepared for the Emyn Muil as an interlude between collecting clues. But throwing a mountain lion into the ruins accidentally brought the Corruption mechanics to the foreground of our RPG.

Looking from the perspective, I now understand that my players didn’t only feel bored. They also remembered very well the previous sessions when the Shadow scores of their characters started to rise. And since I hadn’t introduced them to the mechanic precisely, they were afraid of the Shadow points accruing too fast. Or rather, they didn’t want their characters gaining any of those at all.

A Mechanic For Better Role-Playing?

While I believe that the Corruption (Shadow in The One Ring/AiME RPG) mechanics are great tools for improving the role-play, I wanted to show you how it can vexingly achieve the exact opposite. You see, when the companions encountered the wildcat in ruins, they spent the next 30 minutes (half an hour!) of the session pondering the various ways to deal with the threat. Why hadn’t I done anything to spur them to action? Well, I did.

I set a decorative hourglass I got for my birthday gift on the table to mark the passing time. As the last grain felt, I described the beast’s warning growl and, with another turn of the hourglass – how it prepared to pounce on the closest character. And even a direct attack from the animal didn’t succeed in breaking the status quo. The Rook answered with a spear attack of opportunity from behind Bruni, who was the one holding back from violence the most. But the dwarf and the Barding scoundrel (mere Treasure Hunter doesn’t do Ingolf justice) even more startlingly intercepted him. Why? The players were too scared of the Shadow points for misbehaving (e.g., killing an innocent animal).

Is Corruption Mechanic a Tool of Morality in RPG?

Isn’t it that way what was intended in the game? I can’t speak for Francesco Nepitello, who designed the Shadow mechanic in The One Ring RPG (original AiME is based on), but I certainly don’t understand corruption in RPG this way. My players seemed scared of the Shadow points and not the Shadow they represented. They didn’t want to be punished for bad behavior or breaking the rules.

Instead, I think that mechanics like this are tools to better emulate the inner strife of every character. In Middle-earth, that means every misdeed is never just a personal thing. It’s also another step in the Enemy’s plan to corrupt the whole creation. And the Enemy in Middle-earth isn’t a metaphysical, moral concept but a living person. A person who commands powerful demons and overwhelming armies, too. Doing things his way helps him no matter if you two know each other or not.

How I Use Corruption Mechanic in My RPG now?

My handling of the Shadow mechanic in the Brown Lands campaign lacked its proper introduction to the players and the description accompanying its instances throughout the game. I can summarize it like this:

  • Introducing the mechanic The players should know – if only in broad strokes – how the given mechanic works. And by that I mean telling them what, when and how happens both in-game and on the tabletop. You should explain it at the very begining of game or at last in the first instance of the given mechanic. I know it may seem obvious but it not always is. I ommitted few details about the Shadow during the character creation – only told the players when their characters can get Shadow points. Wanting to keep rules short, though, I hadn’t told them what are the consequences of accumulating too much Shadow (gaining Flaws and how they come to play). Thus, they feared the unknown and didn’t know what to do with the information about their character’s corruption.
  • Describe the mechanic as it resolves The second thing I didn’t do about the Shadow mechanic was to describe properly its influence on the player-characters. I rarely refered to some emotion-evoking images while assigning the companions Shadow points. Usually, I simply cited the rules, saying something to the effect: This is a frightful sight/misdeed/etc., you get 2 Shadow. Hardly a surprise that I didn’t make my players feel their characters’ inner conflict. Instead, I could have describe in just a handful of words what they feel as they see that terrible sight or regret a misdeed. In time, they would flesh it out themselves.

Other RPG’s With the Corruption Mechanic

Recently, I have run quite a lot of Call of Cthulhu games (coming to the blog shortly!). And there, the analogical mechanic is called Sanity. The characters slowly lose track of reality. It’s central to bringing up the main theme of the so-called Mythos setting. I always try to follow a Sanity loss by a character with at least a hint at why and how the character felt that loosening connection with the normal world. I also worked a bit on a homebrew system for the Warcraft setting. Corruption is also an essential theme with warlocks, demon hunters, and death knights. It was fun to play around with the idea, and I hope to share my concepts with you someday.

I’m curious, though, what are your experiences with the Corruption mechanics in RPG? What other systems have you tried that implemented such an aspect of role-playing? And – if you’ve played AiME or The One Ring – how has it affected your gaming experience? Do you like it or see it more like a burden?

2 thoughts on “Shadow/Corruption mechanic in RPG – What is it and what it’s not? Foreshadowing in Emyn Muil”

  1. Extraordinary article, my friend. Well-written, great insight. Thank you.

    The only thing I can think of that would improve the use and FEEL of Shadow in The One Ring, is trying to convince your Players to work together with the LoreMaster to flesh out those experiences. Many Players do not have the capacity to describe what’s taking place “behind-the-scenes”, in their Character’s minds, when they are faced with a mechanic like Corruption/Shadow. However, working with them can achieve a couple of related things…

    1) help them to flesh out their own imaginations by use of descriptive terms, and
    2) help them better see the world through the LoreMaster’s eyes, as the two work together to resolve the imagery.

    Those were just thoughts evoked by your article, here and, honestly, they are things I, as a GamesMaster, have NOT thought of for YEARS. I’ve been doing this a LONG time and I’ve lost some of my edge with regard to it. I’ve been running Torg Eternity more than anything, and the fantasy realm within that game has a Light/Darkness mechanic, where what your Character does can provide a few points of Darkness or Light, dependent upon their actions, all the way up to gaining new aspects for your Character for the good or ill they have done, and I am already imagining just how difficult it is going to be to run an adventure-campaign in that reality.

    Thank you for this, again. 🙂

    1. You’ve made a great point about engaging the player in fleshing out their character’s inside. In a few actual play podcasts I follow, I heard some professional actors doing this and it really makes a difference in the terms of how their characters are seen. Such descriptions – even a couple of words about what the character feels besides declaring their actions – don’t contribute much to the plot itself but make for much, much more depth. I lately started a campaign as a regular player and tried doing this myself a few times and it did exactly what you’re writing about. I felt like the game became more of cooperation with the Lore Master and helped me get a better feeling of my character.
      And I’ll check out Torg Eternity for some ideas. It sounds like this system’s features about the character’s Light/Darkness development are something I’d want to emulate in my other games.

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