Conversely to the journey rules in AiME and TOR RPG, I didn’t quite grasp the purpose and possibilities of integrating encounters (as the councils were named in 1st ed) into my game. I have to admit – I saw them as a bit of a stretch, an unnecessary complication. BUT – while they may be so if applied to most social interaction, they have an excellent potential for adding another layer to the session and making important non-combat scenes engaging. As my party of the Brown Lands campaign approached Meduseld for seeking Rohan’s help against bandit raiders, I felt pretty nervous about how it will play out.
One thing I couldn’t resist was the way to describe the Golden Hall of Meduseld. Notably, after the players got used to the frugal setting of the Noman-lands, I wanted to impress them. I hinted about something glittering atop the hill where the capital of the Mark stood. Then, when they approached the city, I described a golden, shiny roof of the building towering above. And with the guards mentioning “Golden Hall of the king,” I saw my players feeling as their characters would. A bit out of place, awe-struck by the majestic royal house. Speaking of guards, let’s look at one part of the councils in TOR RPG’s 5ed D&D version.
Starting Attitude in AiME/TOR RPG Councils
Although the Councils/Encounters rules in AiME were substantially shortened compared to TOR RPG ones, they have one element I liked very much. That is the table of Starting Attitudes. A straightforward tool at a first glance, but it adds variability to the encounters throughout the campaign. It also emphasizes the player-characters origin. When we were starting the first such instance at our table, the players were very engaged in choosing one of them for being a spokesman. And they listened carefully to the Rohirrim’s differences in attitude towards their distinct cultures.
I think that introducing this element to the TOR RPG campaign could also work out well, adding another layer in which narrative translates to game mechanics. The gradation of the possible reactions depending on the initial attitude is also an exciting idea. It cuts the possibility for a fortunate roll resulting in the NPC agreeing on unreasonable requests.
How To Make Councils/Encounters Enticing?
So the company of Rook, Eradom, Ingolf, and Bruni had their first try at negotiating with the guards at the gates of Edoras. They were introduced to the importance of the initial attitude and made their way uphill to try to reach king Thengel’s hall. I enjoyed weaving “The Lord of the Rings” fragments into my descriptions. It was a very atmospheric moment, evoking many connotations with the books. And the look on the players’ faces when they realized that the roof wasn’t made of actual gold but golden straw was very satisfying. I think it was thanks to taking prof. Tolkien’s text for what it would mean to the characters. I described Meduseld to the players to reflect what the characters in the books thought about the place. And thus, they re-lived that experience.
Rise the stakes
One thing that should be kept in mind while reaching for the Councils/Encounters in your game is that they don’t govern more casual interaction. I like to use the Starting Attituted or Introduction-Interaction pattern in most of the “talk” scenes. It keeps the rules consistent and add more tools for the players. But The chief reason for introducing full Council structure is running more formal or official gatherings. I’ll sum up what Francesco Nepitello, game’s lead designer, wrote on one of the TOR RPG groups about that. There should be some conditions met for the Councils to be introduced in full that may be described as:
- The gathering’s purpose is to hear out the player-characters.
- The characters have a clear agenda and goal they want to achieve through the interaction.
- Characters’ objective is something that the NPCs involved wouldn’t provide spontaneously. There is some kind of resistance or doubt on their side.
- The NPCs are important persons in some sense. They don’t have to be lords or queens but they should have some influence. Or be just the community that the PCs address.
The above means that in any Council, the participants clearly define challenge to be overcome by the heroes. And they meet specifically for resolving that. That objective is also important for both the player characters and ones with whom they speak. All that makes the scene more intense and engaging through compete against the system kind of interaction.
Rolls or Role-Playing?
I’m curious what will you think about the below paragraphs as I see the rolls vs role-playing a common question raised in the RPG community. What speaks to me for the Council rules in TOR RPG is this: They make social interaction a part of the game in its own right. I mean, the role-playing of the characters is at the core of all RPGs. But when you look at the Table of Contents of most of the RPGs, you’ll see a disproportion. Combat rules, with the relevant talents/feats/virtues and descriptions of arms, damage and other conditions may be pretty extensive. Handbooks specify surprise attacks, special attacks, initiative, ranges and available skills with great detail. At the same time, they often barely mention social interaction parts.
Councils in TOR RPG As a Combat’s Counterpart
This is a dilemma of many Game Masters: Should we resolve actions like convincing somebody or understanding their motives with real-life acting or with dice rolls? Most rely on a mix of both. In Councils, good role-playing and choosing words may make the rolls easier. While at the same time, you have to beat some challenges mechanically to succeed. You may know that from the real life. You know the right thing to say, as does the player speaking for their character. But will you or the character deliver the words in a convincing way – or even speak up at all – is a whole different matter.
But that’s only one part. You don’t need a specific rules sub-system for doing so. What Councils introduce to TOR RPG is the whole structure to which you stick during given scene. You, the GM describe the characters involved and ask for the players to declare their characters’ intentions and actions. Then you all check whether the actions succeed or not and what would everyone do in that context. Then, you repeat the process until the characters exceed the Tolerance (number of rolls allowed) or achieve their objective. From my experience – and not only AiME Brown Lands campaign – it makes a lot more engaging experience than a simple talk.
The King Speaks
I mentioned above how the players felt a bit nervous about approaching King Thengel’s hall. And they incorporated that into their role-playing during the Council. Bruni the scholar spoke first, followed by the Rook. Others joined through observation and advising. The king was reluctant to take action and the companions felt that they were loosing their only chance to get help. There were only two rolls left and more successes required for having the plea fulfilled.
But then, Eradom reached for an obscure bit of lore I had dropped a couple of sessions earlier, with the handouts depicting Gondor’s history and wars with the Wainriders. For anyone familiar with the Tale of Years and the background mentioned in The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, it’ll be obvious what would come next. Hearing that his realm’s border may be endangered by the Easterlings again, the king of the Riddermark started to change his mind – I granted Eradom advantage on his roll for Persuade. The outcome, however, was rated as mediocre. So the king ordered only one of his marshals to send an éored beyond Anduin.
Thus, the mission of the company in Rohan was complete. They received three of the Eastfold’s Marshal’s men as guides and were told to wait for the Rohirrim to at the ford of the Undeeps. Feeling of reassurance mixed with tension. They reached their objective but only by a last chance. And they knew that the confrontation was drawing close.
How to Use TOR ROPG Councils Mechanics in Other Games?
I wonder what are your thoughts on the Councils and similar mechanics? Do you find them useful and enriching the game? Or perhaps it’s the other way around and you and your players feel restrained by those additional rules? I’m starting a completely new campaign in my home-brew setting lately and plan to experiment with this approach. Thus, I’ll be most interested in hearing any of your experiences in bringing more complexity or nuance to the social interaction mechanics. Let me know of anything about those!
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