Feb 8, 2016

LotR LCG: Elves and hobbits

The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.
- Gildor Inglorion, The Fellowship of the Ring

Ever since Rossiel showed up in the Escape from Mount Gram adventure pack, I've wanted to try building a deck around her. Like almost all of the other female heroes in the game, she's a Fantasy Flight original character, because, well, Tolkien didn't really give them a lot of female characters to work with. She's fascinating because of her unique special ability, which makes use of cards in the victory display.


Way back in Road to Rivendell, in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, we got the first card that did something unusual with the victory display: Out of the Wild. Given that that adventure pack also contained what I think is still the single most murderous encounter card in the game, at the time Out of the Wild was pretty much a curious and expensive way of getting rid of that card. The first Angmar Awakens adventure pack, The Wastes of Eriador, also included a Lore side quest that did the same thing.


In addition to Rossiel, Escape from Mount Gram gave us Leave No Trace, which adds itself and a location to the victory display. None Return, from Across the Ettenmoors, did the same for enemies. As soon as I get my hands on The Treachery of Rhudaur, I'll add The Door Is Closed!, which lets us cancel and discard any encounter deck that has another copy in the victory display. So here we have a whole battery of Lore events that will not only let us remove bothersome cards from the encounter deck, but also provide Rossiel with nifty bonuses and give us some cancellation as well. The other ace in the hole, if you're willing to extend that metaphor to seven-card stud, is Keen as Lances.


So basically every card that the above events and side quest deliver into the victory display makes Keen as Lances cheaper, as does every copy of Keen as Lances you play. What makes things even better is that multiple players can include copies of Keen as Lances as well; since the victory display is shared, they all benefit from each other. This has enough potential that I've almost gone and bought a second copy of Escape from Instant Gram.

**

That's pretty much the state of the art for a Rossiel deck at the conclusion of the Angmar Awakens cycle: 15 events and a side quest. I wanted to build a deck around this core; such a high amount of events means that the rest of the deck is going to have to mostly be attachments and allies to avoid becoming completely unbalanced. As ever, I'd be thrilled if this build worked solo, but I'm mostly designing it to complement my partner's Tactics deck. Since Rossiel is a Lore hero with the Silvan trait, I'd like to pair her with another Lore Silvan hero to make use of their trait synergy, and help pay for the various Lore events. To sort of keep my Amazons theme going, I picked Mirlonde as my second hero.


With only three hit points and a defense of one, she's a bit fragile, but she can pitch in on questing and usefully lowers my starting threat. My original idea for a Silvan deck had been to include Legolas as my third hero, but since my partner won't give him up, it'll have to be a Lore elf with a bow instead.


Haldir's hero incarnation lets us make maximum use of Mirlonde's threat-lowering ability, giving a starting threat of only 22. Although his ability to attack at 3 into the staging area isn't brilliant without some choice Tactics attachments to back it up, he's a competent enough attacking or questing hero with Silvan synergy.

**

For the rest of the deck, we'll start with the special stuff. To get the maximum utility out of Out of the Wild, like eliminating nasty treacheries, we'll need some form of encounter deck scrying. A Palantír would be really neat, but I haven't included any Noble heroes, so keeping with our Silvan theme, scrying will be provided by the ever-reliable Henamarth Riversong. Since I hope to know what the encounter deck's going to be throwing at me, I'm also including three copies of Needful to Know for some threat reduction. To finish this somewhat backwards way of building a deck by picking events first, three copies of the mono-Lore must Mithrandir's Advice bring my events total up to 21.


For attachments, I raided my Amazon deck for its copies of A Burning Brand, another card useful enough that I've seriously considered getting a second copy of an adventure pack. Now that we're also being Silvan, Cloak of Lórien also becomes an obvious choice.


With a cloak and a brand, Rossiel has the potential of being one hell of a defender, and because both can be attached to characters, not just heroes, we can also potentially field some pretty tough defending allies. Since, mercifully, no-one in our group uses Snorefindel, we can include Concorde Asfaloth; I'm curious to see if he's worth including on his own!


Since this is an event-heavy mono-Lore deck, I did consider Scroll of Isildur, but most of my events are hopefully going to end up in the victory display rather than the discard pile!

**

That's 33 cards, by the way. Including Scout Ahead gets us to 34. I've understood it's generally thought that allies have a place in decks, so maybe some of those next.


We won't go very far wrong starting with the keystone of Silvan synergy, the Silvan Tracker. They can contribute to questing, are potential recipients of both Cloak of Lórien and A Burning Brand, but crucially, just one Tracker will provide free healing for my entire deck. On the attacking side, an old stalwart of my Amazon deck, the Mirkwood Runner, is a must-have. The damage-bypassing ability is simply excellent.


Unfortunately, most of the other Silvan allies are in different spheres. The only useful one we can include is Defender of the Naith; although useless for questing, the defense of 2 is decent, and their Sentinel ability means we can help out other decks as well. The only real downside is that we can't get A Burning Brand on them. However, with the Silvan Trackers already on defensive duty, I don't think the Defenders are worth it.


That's the end of our Silvan allies! Including Henamarth, that's a measly eight allies. Adding the obligatory Gandalfs only gets us to 43 total cards. Clearly we still need some fairly robust thematic allies to round out the deck.


Three Wandering Ents will fill that niche perfectly. Finally, I'd love to also include a couple of copies of Treebeard, but we didn't own The Antlered Crown yet when I first put this deck together, so in the mean time, I'll fill his spot with two Wardens of Healing to help the other players out. And speaking of ents:


To my shame, I have to admit I'd just plain forgotten how amazing Wellinghall Preserver is. Those stats and healing, all at a ridiculous three resources? Ents it is!

This would make a total of 52 cards, but since our local store didn't have any copies of the Treachery of Rhudaur, I'm still missing The Door Is Closed!, so two Galadhrim Minstrels will temporarily make up the difference.

**

So here's the first version of my Silvan deck:

51 cards; 44 Lore, 6 neutral; 3 heroes, 22 allies, 7 attachments, 18 events, 1 side quest; starting threat 22.

Haldir of Lórien (TiT)
Mirlonde (TDT)
Rossiel (EfMG)

Allies: 22 (19/3)
Mirkwood Runner (RTM) x3
Silvan Tracker (TDM) x3
Wellinghall Preserver (AtE) x3
Galadhrim Minstrel (TiT) x2
Wandering Ent (CS) x3
Warden of Healing (TLD) x2
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 7
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Asfaloth (FoS) x2
Cloak of Lórien (CS) x3

Events: 18 (15/3)
Out of the Wild (RtR) x3
Needful to Know (TRG) x3
Leave No Trace (EfMG) x3
Mithrandir's Advice (TSF) x3
None Return (AtE) x3
Keen as Lances (EfMG) x3

Side quests: 1
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

**

Having built the deck, it was time to test it, and what better test for a new deck than A Journey Down the Anduin? First time around, a deeply unfortunate staging started a threat spiral that knocked out the Tactics deck, leaving me to face the Hill Troll on my own, which didn't go well. Our second attempt was a success! I memorably got to bust out Rossiel's full defensive ability against a Marsh Adder, having previously sent some Wargs to the victory display with Out of the Wild, and also travelled to the only forest location in the whole encounter deck, Enchanted Stream, for a total defense of 6.


We next took on Hills of Emyn Muil to see if we could muster up the questing to pass it with just Concorde for location control, and we did! Fun was also had when I introduced a new player to the game with our Leadership deck, and we decided to try Into the Pit. With some absolutely awful shadow effects around, I was quite pleased to get A Burning Brand on Rossiel! She was absolutely excellent, seeing off Patrol Leaders with a shrug and questing for 4 on our big pushes. Haldir, too, was worth his weight in gold at East-gate. Despite a horrendous logjam of locations and enemies in the beginning, we eventually squaked through the last stage with the Leadership player's threat at 49. So at least my first attempt at a Silvan deck isn't completely useless!

**

Meanwhile, because two separate people showed interest in a Hobbit deck, we went ahead and picked up the Black Riders saga expansion and the Encounter at Amon Dîn adventure pack, which allowed us to put together this Hobbit deck, based on this deck from Tales from the Cards.

52 cards; 15 Leadership, 16 Lore, 15 Tactics, 7 Neutral; 3 heroes, 21 allies, 15 attachments, 14 events; starting threat 20.

Sam Gamgee (TBR)
Pippin (TBR)
Merry (TBR)

Allies: 21 (9/5/5/2)
Bill the Pony (TBR) x3
Keen-eyed Took (THoEM) x3
Naith Guide (TDT) x3
Gildor Inglorion (THoEM) x2
Barliman Butterbur (TBR) x3
Beorn x2
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM)
Farmer Maggot (TBR) x2
Gandalf (Core) x2

Attachments: 15 (3/7/3/2)
Hobbit Cloak (TBR) x3
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Elf-stone (TBR) x3
Fast Hitch (TDM) x3
Dagger of Westernesse (TBR) x3
Song of Kings (THfG)
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 14 (2/3/6/3)
Sneak Attack x2
Take No Notice (TBR) x3
Halfling Determination (TBR) x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3
Hobbit-sense (EaAD) x3

Multiplayer sideboard:
Dúnedain Cache (TDM) x2

As with the Tales from the Cards deck, the idea is to get the super-expensive allies like Gildor into play via Elf-stone. In the case of Beorn, he can Sneak Attack in for the combat phase to do his berserk thing as usual, and make use of Merry's readying ability to attack twice! In multiplayer, Dúnedain Cache will let Merry use his ability to ready Legolas.

A couple of the cards, like the single copies of A Burning Brand and Descendant of Thorondor, are there because we had single copies of them hanging around; Song of Wisdom could be used to get A Burning Brand on Sam.

Should none of these shenanigans come together, the rest of the deck should still provide a broadly functional whole with lots of cheap cards to make the tri-sphere build work even without resource smoothing or generation. The hobbit heroes themselves should be able to make a significant contribution, and most of the events and attachments only cost 0-1 resources.

I have to admit I wasn't particularly interested in Hobbit decks at first, but building this one for other people to use got me excited to try it myself!

**

For the moment, though, we got a new player to try the hobbit deck. A four-handed swing at The Hunt for Gollum turned out to be a salutary reminder that Eleanor is a really, really good hero. Our first attempt didn't get far when Old Wives' Tales exhausted all of our heroes in setup, followed by Massing at Night. Our second try ended in consecutive pairs of Goblintown Scavengers and The Old Ford. Terrible luck, but at least the art is nice.


Having been utterly annihilated by Hunt for Gollum twice, we gave it a third shot and pretty much sleepwalked through it. If the previous two attempts highlighted the value of treachery cancellation, this was a pretty good example of how the difficulty scheme developed over at Tales from the Cards is so much better than the official difficulty level system. This quest, for instance, is very easy, but also very random; it doesn't really require specialized deck-building. Conflating these three considerations into one difficulty number isn't very informative.

Having surprised ourselves by succeeding at Into the Pit earlier, we took the hobbit deck along for an attempt at The Seventh Level. My expectation was that we'd struggle here because of the massive number of enemies with low engagement thresholds, which would negate many of the hobbit deck's advantages and simply swamp us in goblins. We got off to a terrible start, drawing two copies of Watchful Eyes on the first turn. At least Book of Mazarbul allowed Rossiel to quest, but Mirlonde ended up sitting out the rest of the scenario. Despite this inauspicious start, we actually did remarkably well; undaunted by the swarms of goblins, the hobbits took out a Cave-troll in a single attack! We worked our way through the encounter deck until a final massive questing push saw us through, and we won. I have to admit that I'm very happy with both decks.

**

Based on what we've done so far, the hobbit deck seems to be working all right. As for the Silvans, for whatever reason I've never really managed to use Needful to Know, or for that matter make any proper use of Henamarth, either. Another card I could try for scrying would be Ravens of the Mountain, which inexplicably depicts a Mega-City Judge hanging out with a bird.


Given our recurring trouble with locations in The Hunt for Gollum, though, I'm seriously considering an old standby, Strider's Path, to help out with stuff like The Old Ford.


I'm still waiting for our local store to restock the Treachery of Rhudaur; when it shows up, Elf-friend might be a good card to add as well to extend some Silvan Tracker healing. The Nin-in-Eilph would provide Wingfoot for Haldir, letting me use him for questing as well. On the whole, though, I'm really happy with this deck!

**

The moral of this story is that deckbuilding is great fun! Coming up with a deck is a good intellectual exercise in itself, and putting together a deck for other people to use can be really rewarding. It bears repeating that on of the great qualities of this game is that deckbuilding is never about identifying the best cards and shoving as many of them as possible into a deck box, but rather about figuring out what you want a deck to be able to do, and trying to come up with the best combinations of cards for that task. I do feel that the game could do more to enable diffeent styles of play, especially ones that don't focus prominently on combat, but as it is, there are almost always different ways to tackle a problem.

Next time: the Dwarrowdelf cycle.

Feb 1, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 17: The Clouds Burst

Next day the trumpets rang early in the camp.

For a second time, Bard and the Elvenking have come before the gates of Erebor to negotiate with Thorin. This time, though, Thorin's cockiness dies in his throat when he's offered a trade: the Arkenstone for a share of the treasure. Dumbfounded, he demands to know how the besiegers got their hands on it, and is enraged when Bilbo fesses up. If not for Gandalf's presence, he would've murdered Bilbo there and then; as it is, he's content to call him names, and agree to give Bard Bilbo's share in the treasure in exchange for the Arkenstone. Bilbo leaves with Gandalf; some of the dwarves are sorry to see him go, but Thorin threatens to shoot him if he doesn't get going.

Spurred on by raven messengers from Thorin, Dáin's forces arrive the next day. Incidentally, the standard equipment of Nethack dwarves is based on the description of Dáin's troops:

Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh, the secret of whose making was possessed by Dain's people. The dwarves are exceedingly strong for their height, but most of these were strong even for dwarves. In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a roundshield slung at his back. Their beards were forked and plaited and thrust into their belts. Their caps were of iron and they were shod with iron, and their faces were grim.

The dwarves mean to go straight on to the Mountain, carrying piles of supplies, but the Lake-men and elves block their way. A standoff ensues; Bard is happy with the besiegers' positions, but the Elvenking urges restraint, not wanting to fight a war for gold. Heralds are sent to Thorin to arrange for the handover of the treasure, but the dwarves inside the Mountain shoot at them and drive them off. Now that Dáin has arrived, Thorin no longer has any notion of negotiating: on the contrary, taking advantage of the hesitation of the elves and men, the dwarves attack them, opening fire with their archers and charging.

Just as the battle is about to begin, Gandalf steps in front of the dwarven advance to announce that a goblin army is nearly upon them; as he speaks, the swarms of bats flying above it are darkening the sky. The dwarves reconsider what they were doing, and the elves, humans and dwarves barely have time to redeploy before the goblins are upon them, and the Battle of the Five Armies has begun.

I have a confession to make: I find battle narratives incredibly boring. Usually the events themselves are profoundly uninteresting, and the action is scripted through a terrible suddenly this, suddenly that rigmarole. This one's decently written, but suffice to say that everyone fights a bunch, and it isn't going great for the defence. We get a sort of split perspective between the omniscient narrator and Bilbo's point of view; the decisively unwarlike hobbit spends the battle invisible, trying to not get killed. As things are starting to go badly, he has a bit of a moan by himself about how he should have stayed home, until he spots the eagles in the distance. As he capers around, shouting about the birds, someone throws a rock at him and he's knocked out.

**

Having been told several times that Tolkien glorifies war and violence, I tried to find examples of this in the battle narrative, and couldn't. The narration is somewhat sparse, and doesn't really interject any particular ethics into the story: the flow of the battle against the goblins is told as matter-of-factly as the dwarves' lunatic assault on the elves and men. The only real value judgements we get are through Bilbo's experience, which is miserable and abruptly over. The battle is described as his most dreadful experience, and he most emphatically feels that all the dragon's treasure isn't worth seeing his friends killed. Having actually read nauseatingly patriotic battle narratives gushing with honour and glory, this is no such thing. While it's true that the goblins mostly appear as a horde of faceless enemies, they're not completely dehumanized by modern standards either. The whole episode is actually more than a bit sordid: people are murdering each other over loot. Also, while a grand battle of armies is very much in the tradition of heroic epics, the protagonist of this story is anything but, and he spends his time hiding and trying to not get killed. So while this chapter is pretty much entirely dedicated to killing goblins in battle, it's brought to us from a distinctly unheroic viewpoint that sees nothing glorious in it.

This is strongly underlined by the astonishing fact that the Battle of Five Armies actually starts as the Battle of Three Armies, with the dwarves attacking the men and elves. Let's take a moment to consider how fucked up this is. Had the dwarves succeeded in killing Thranduil and defeating his army, this whole episode would have become as vile a dwarven treachery as the murder of Thingol; without the goblin host, Thorin Oakenshield would have gone down in history as one of the great villains of the Third Age. The Council of Elrond would have looked different without Gloin, and the Fellowship would have set off without Gimli. The decision to attack is insane. If Thorin and Dáin lose, they lose everything; if they win, they've slaughtered most of the fighting population of Lake-town, almost certainly meaning its end, and declared war on the Wood-elves. The Desolation of Thorin would have ranged wider than the Desolation of Smaug ever did. At this point, Thorin really has become the dragon: a monster driven to murder and destruction by his avarice. He's only rescued from insanity and infamy by the arrival of the goblins.

Reading Thorin's metamorphosis, it's impossible to understand how anyone can seriously maintain that Tolkien's world is populated by absolutely good and absolutely bad characters, and admits no nuance. I don't know what these people have read, because it isn't the book I've got, much less the Lord of the Rings. Thorin may be the villain of the piece - as Gandalf puts it, "[y]ou are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain" - but even the Elvenking seems to mostly have shown up for the loot, and if Bard really intends to set up as Lord of Dale, then besieging the Mountain his future wealth and security will depend on really doesn't seem like the best idea. So the dominant theme of this chapter isn't the Battle of Five Armies, but greed and corruption. In this sense, it's not actually the winning of the ring that's the strongest foreshadowing, if you will, of the Lord of the Rings, but the glamour of the dragon's treasure.

**

Next time: the aftermath.

Jan 25, 2016

CKII: A tribal experiment

After the depressing sudden death of the Ua Cheinselaig dynasty of Dubhlinn, I felt like I needed to try something totally different to recover. I wasn't ready to take the plunge with The Old Gods quite yet, as I don't quite feel comfortable enough with the basic game, so I decided to go in pretty much the opposite direction.



So I've gone from playing an Irish Catholic feudalism to a Nubian Miaphysite tribe.



That's us down there:



And this is me, Chief Gabriel of Kassala:



With literally no family and nothing but the grooviest county title in the game to my name, this might be a little challenging.



Here are our immediate surroundings. To the south, the Kingdom of Abyssinia. To the north, our Nubian brothers. To the east, the Muslims.



First things first, Gabriel gets a dynasty started:



**

The basic goal of a game as a tribal ruler, at least for me, is to settle the tribe down and become a feudal ruler. If I had the Republic DLC and were on a coast, we could theoretically become a merchant republic, but neither condition applies, so this is what we're shooting for.



Building that fort's going to take some money, though, and we're not exactly rich out here.



Meanwhile, Gabriel is acquiring an enthusiasm for the dynasty.



Speaking of which:



Unfortunately, our succession laws don't permit women to be chiefs; I suppose I could try to change that, but I think I'm going to be an optimist and hope that Gabriel also has a son. Changing laws always comes with penalties, which I'm not sure we could afford right now.

And speaking of vassals...



Seriously, no sooner do I have a daughter, who doesn't even threaten the succession, and my designated heir wants me dead.



**

I suppose technically I could just sit here and wait for the money and prestige to build up, but if we're going to be tribal, then let's go raiding.



With Abyssinia fighting its eastern neighbor, this is as good a time as any to figure out how these mechanics work. We're not exactly making a killing here, though:



We try a couple of other provinces, when finally the Abyssinians mobilize.



Gabriel takes this pretty hard.



But hell, there's less of them than there are of us, we can take them!



Only our forces are almost entirely light infantry and skirmishers, while theirs is a better-balanced army.



Turns out we can't take them. Oh well, I think we came out on top anyway.

**

Having tried raiding, I think it's high time we found Ńašša a husband. Gabriel's not so young any more, so it might be best to see if we could put together a matrilineal marriage. That's usually not a very popular proposition with anyone, so I'm not optimistic.



Wait, what, really? A kid from an actual Greek dynasty, with a heritable Strong trait?



Really?



Apparently! I wonder what little Philotheos's parents did to the Emperor to deserve having their kid shipped off to the Nubian desert. Also, "vivacious" is a really nice way of putting it. Long live House Hadendoa!

**

Or not, as it turns out. The very next thing that happened was that my spymaster had me assassinated.



So my foray into tribal rule ended up being pretty darn short. I'm a bit bummed we never got to see what would have come of the great Greek-Nubian connection, but there we are. In all likelihood, if I'd tried to reform our succession laws, they'd just have killed me sooner. Next time I play as the lord of a more settled locale, I'm going to remember to appreciate courtiers who don't immediately murder me!

Jan 18, 2016

Rogue Trader: The Emperor's Tarot, or divination in role-playing games

Divination is criminally underused in role-playing games. To fix this problem, I'm going to talk a bit about different kinds of divination and how I think they could be incorporated into tabletop role-playing games, and then introduce my own version of the Emperor's Tarot, which we're using in my ongoing Rogue Trader campaign.

**

To most of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East, where so much of Western cultural heritage comes from, there was no such thing as coincidence. Events in the visible world were the result of decisions and events in the invisible, supernatural world. This way of thinking combines two fundamental malfunctions of human cognition: our tendency to see agency and causation everywhere. In such cultures, if you wanted to understand what was going on in the world, and most crucially, gain any kind of insight into the future, you needed knowledge of the supernatural world. This knowledge was obtained through divination.

Most of these cultures recognized two different kinds of divination: technical and non-technical. Non-technical divination was the "divine madness" described in Plato's Phaedrus: prophecy, dreams and visions. To the Hebrews, prophecy became the only legitimate kind of divination when the casting of lots started to be frowned upon, and some of this prohibition survives to our time in Christianity. Especially in the charismatic forms of the faith, God may well send visions and prophetic dreams to believers, but ouija boards and tarot cards are considered demonic.

Techical divination, on the other hand, relied on inductive reasoning. Patterns would be found in the stars, in the fall of lots, or in the entrails of sacrificial animals, and the will of the gods would be deduced from these. To our sensibilities, this seems crazy, but in a way, technical divination is one of the forerunners of science. Some cultures, especially in the ancient Middle East, developed corps of technical diviners and elaborate institutions of divination, like astrology and haruspicy, with standardized practices and extensive documentation.

**

In the clearly magical universes of most fantasy stories and games, divination tends to be conspicuously absent. Gods are either considered withdrawn from the world altogether, or even when they aren't, their purposes and plans are so inscrutable that trying to understand them is futile. At best, most characters seem to be deists: even if they believe a god or gods have created their universe, it still essentially functions according to secular, scientific logic. In order to intervene, even gods will often need to physically manifest themselves and become directly involved. In general, fantasy worlds follow a very modern logic.

In my personal opinion, this is because none of us outside closed mental institutions actually believe in the supernatural any more. There's a wonderful Geoffrey Chaucer blog on the net with a medieval version of Snakes on a Plane, called Serpentes on a Shippe. It's a comic retelling of the movie - up to a point. What follows is technically a spoiler, so if you haven't done so already, do read the story.

In the movie, the protagonists use their various abilities to defeat the snakes. In the medieval version, they realize that mere humans can't triumph against evil on their own, and pray to God and Saint Patrick, who smite the snakes and rescue the protagonists. This is an authentic medieval ending: the point of the story is its sensus spiritualis, which teaches the reader that real power is only wielded by God. Imagine a Hollywood movie with that ending! Or, for that matter, try running a tabletop role-playing campaign where the player characters can't defeat their enemies by force or solve mysteries and puzzles by logic, but must prostrate themselves before a god and beg for divine intervention, and give thanks when they get it. Most of us would consider it a terrible campaign.

Some of this is an effect of our storytelling conventions; we like stories about exceptional individuals who triumph over adversity thanks to their personal qualities or skills. But so did our ancient and medieval forebears. The key difference is that unlike them, we don't believe the world is governed by the supernatural. (If they even did; we really know almost nothing about what ordinary people thought in the distant past.) The protagonist or player character needs to make their way through the woods by their skill in orienteering, not through divine guidance. If the climactic shootout in a western ends in God smiting the bad guy, we feel cheated of the proper resolution of the story, and it just rings profoundly false to us. We know that in real life, gods don't smite anyone. Some of us say they believe otherwise, but if you look at the way they live their lives, they follow a completely secular, worldly logic in all practical things. Our problem-solving completely rejects the supernatural.

In terms of the dual processing theory of reasoning, in formal problem-solving situations like a puzzle or mystery in a tabletop role-playing game, we use our analytical reasoning, which is highly resistant to the errors of the primary system that make us assume supernatural agency and causation. So we don't come up with supernatural solutions to practical problems.

**

This creates a unique problem when we try to role-play magical thinking. Our analytical thinking is so firmly secular that we don't even realize it. I don't know if other GMs have had dramatically different experiences, but very few of my players have ever attempted to make any real use of divination, even when explicitly provided for in the setting and system. My hypothesis is that this happens for two reasons: both our anachronistic analytical thinking, and the fact that getting an answer or solution from an outside source feels like cheating. I think that to some extent, players using divination will feel that they haven't put in the work to get the answer, so being given it directly is unsatisfying. Providing non-inductive divinatory experiences for players can, at worst, feel like a ham-handed attempt to railroad the campaign by telling them what the GM wants them to do.

In my Rogue Trader campaign, I wanted to take the fanatical religiosity of the Imperium seriously, and one of the aspects I wanted to explore was divination. This would incorporate non-technical divination like dreams and omens, but I also wanted to experiment with providing players a means of technical divination. I wanted to try two strategies that would make technical divination more interesting and satisfying to players. Firstly, have something concrete for them to use. This makes the divination into a bit more of an occasion, and hey, who doesn't like props? Secondly, tie the divination to player character skills, and leave the interpreting to the players! This should counter the notion that divination is getting something for nothing, and instead of appearing as a case of divine intervention solving problems, it should give players new information to add to their reasoning.

A rare example of a game where I thought technical divination was used intelligently was the wonderful Quest for Glory IV, which featured several Tarot readings and left me with a permanent itch to incorporate the Tarot in a tabletop role-playing game. Therefore, my campaign includes the Emperor's Tarot.

**

Luckily, the Emperor's Tarot hasn't been exhaustively described by Games Workshop anywhere, so I took considerable liberties in designing the cards. I omitted pretty much all the cards referred to in various GW works, if only because I find Games Workshop's bizarre pseudo-Latin absolutely intolerable. There are four suits of minor arcana, each named for a Segmentum: the Pacificus, Tempestus, Obscurus and Ultima. The major arcana are the Solar cards. Each suit has a corresponding element and color. My partner created the physical cards, and I think they're absolutely brilliant: they're big, solid and impressive-looking. To illustrate the first version, we chose images from a Milo Manara tarot deck we own, as well as art from Luis Royo and some miscellaneous images. There is a notion of eventually producing a physical deck of directly 40k-themed cards, but since I can't draw, this depends on the industriousness of the artist.

Below is a picture of the whole deck, as well as its first ever use in my campaign: a Tarot reading done for a character visiting a fortune-teller's shop on other business. Fans of Quest for Glory IV will recognize the spread.



For readings done by NPCs, I had the NPC explain each card and provide an interpretation. This was fun enough and made for some good scenes, but obviously my real goal was to get my players to use the cards themselves. In Rogue Trader, each Navigator starts with a Tarot deck, so introducing them was easy. What I did was create a small booklet explaining how to do a spread, and what meanings each particular card has. This is quite easy to do; the laziest way is to look up the standard interpretations of modern-day Tarot cards from Wikipedia! Each player competent in divining was given a copy, and told that once a session, they could use their Trade: Soothsayer or Psyniscience skill to procure a reading on a topic they requested. For each session, I would prepare a few spreads on topics I was prepared to offer information on. Remember that the cards themselves should indicate what the subject is, and this should also be an interpretative challenge! Then when a player wants to use the Tarot, you stack the deck to produce the reading you prepared and hand it to them. (bonus points for doing a fake shuffle first!)

Below is an image of the first player-initiated use of the Tarot in my campaign. My main group of players, led by the Rogue Trader himself, was investigating some strange goings-on at a penal colony. Everything seemed to be in order, but our Navigator wasn't buying it, and asked for a reading. I gave him a pre-stacked deck, and he got out his interpretation guide and laid out the spread.



To really make using the Tarot interesting, don't create readings that have obvious meanings. Your deck shouldn't have a card for Ork that literally only means ork, and always signifies that there are actual orks involved in what's going on. This way, your players will have to actually try to interpret the reading in light of their other information and expectations, and this can produce results you never anticipated. If players start fixating on certain interpretations of cards, this becomes a wonderful way to misdirect them.

In this particular case, one of the main cards that came up was the Demon, accompanied by the Magus and the Tomb, the last of which denotes, among other things, buried secrets. These thoroughly convinced our Navigator that there was something sinister going on, and he absolutely insisted that they must investigate further. This ended up having a strong effect on the session, eventually leading to a smuggling ring being exposed and several colony officials being shot. This reading was an answer to a fairly straightforward question, and produced a very straightforward reading, but I felt it was an excellent and very thematically appropriate addition to the session.

**

Overall, I've found incorporating the Emperor's Tarot into my campaign to be very worthwhile: not only were the cards fun to design and make, but on several occasions, I've felt they've added a whole new dimension to my players' problem-solving and, hopefully, their enjoyment as well. I would encourage anyone running a game in any kind of magical universe to incorporate some sort of divination in their campaign.

**

My notions of divination here are based on Professor Martti Nissinen's lectures on Old Testament exegetics at the University of Helsinki. A pretty good introduction is Nissinen, Martti: Prophecy and omen divination: two sides of the same coin, in Annus, Amar (ed.): Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Seminars n:o 6, Chicago, IL, 2010. Any distortions or errors are obviously my responsibility, and the application of divination to role-playing, as well as the juxtaposition of modern-day secular logic with the magical thinking of divination are my personal thoughts.

Jan 11, 2016

LotR LCG: Alternative deck experiments

After our exhausting slog through Moria, it was time for something different. I did mention way back when that when we first tried the game and took a turn at each of the starter decks, I really liked Tactics. Legolas's progress-generating ability was quite nice, but I'd also come to somewhat rely on him being around to stick an arrow into the more unpleasant enemies in our multiplayer games.


I'd been thinking about hero roles earlier; ideally, you want one hero for questing, one for attacking and one for defending, unless allies are going to be taking care of one or more. Using the core set heroes, the ideal setup for this would seem to be Éowyn for questing, Legolas for attacking and Denethor for defending. I was quite surprised to realize that this adds up to the same starting threat as my Amazons deck! So when we got On the Doorstep with its stack of archery-themed Tactics cards, I finally decided to have a go at building an alternate deck. I'm calling it Pelennor, since they were all there, even if it does make attaching A Burning Brand to Denethor a bit macabre.


In its first outing, the deck fairly breezed through Passage through Mirkwood. I got a lucky initial draw of Henamarth Riversong, Blade of Gondolin and Unexpected Courage, which got the Legolas machine set up, and Arwen showed up soon thereafter, along with A Burning Brand for Denethor. We didn't even have to fight Ungoliant's Spawn, and made short work of the quest. As always, A Journey Down the Anduin was a different kettle of fish. We dealt with the Hill Troll all right, but the second quest phase sunk me when I failed to draw either Blade of Gondolin or Arwen. After these initial attempts, I added some card draw and more weapon attachments to power the various weapon-related events, to produce this:

Pelennor, or the tri-sphere experiment

52 cards; 15 Spirit, 22 Tactics, 12 Lore, 4 neutral. 3 heroes, 17 allies, 19 attachments, 10 events, 3 side quests.

Éowyn
Legolas
Denethor

Allies: 17 (2/6/6/3)
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x2
Winged Guardian (THfG) x2
Dúnedain Hunter (TLR) x2
Gléowine x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x2
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 19 (5/10/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Blade of Gondolin x3
Rivendell Bow (TWitW) x2
Black Arrow (OtD)
Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Protector of Lorien x2

Events: 10 (5/5)
Test of Will x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Foe-hammer (OHaUH) x3
Straight Shot (OtD) x2

Side quests: 3 (1/1/1)
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

Ideally, I'm looking to get a massive stack of attachments on Legolas: Unexpected Courage, Support of the Eagles, Great Yew Bow, Rivendell Bow and Blade of Gondolin. Should all this ever come together, it would generate a strength 7 attack into the staging area (8 against orcs), as well as a regular attack through Unexpected Courage. Meanwhile, Éowyn quests and Denethor defends. I'm sorely tempted to break with our buying chronology and buy Treason of Saruman just so I could give Éowyn Herugrim!


There are very few allies, so obviously the deck will struggle with multiple enemies and questing. It's possible the eagles are an extravagance I can't really afford, and should be replaced with more useful allies, but hell, I want to try this.

**

Having previously failed at A Journey down the Anduin, that was obviously my first step with the revamped deck. I got a fantastic starting hand, with a Blade of Gondolin, Great Yew Bow, Gléowine, a Warden of Healing and Gandalf. The card I revealed in staging was a Hill Troll, so we got off to an unusually single-minded start! A combination of East Bight, Despair and Misty Mountain Goblins kept our questing going solidly nowhere, but I got both Great Yew Bow and Rivendell Bow on Legolas, which let me do a couple of points of damage to the troll in the staging area. A Goblin Sniper also showed up, and I had the immense satisfaction of dispatching him immediately.


By the time my threat hit 30, I had A Burning Brand and Protector of Lórien on Denethor, who defended easily, leaving Legolas and Gandalf to finish the troll off. Some Dol Guldur Orcs inconveniently popped out of the encounter deck on that turn, but Straight Shot saw to them. Having Gandalf hang around had raised my threat a bit, so I took a moment to Double Back before moving on to the second stage. I do really like side quests!


Another valuable Lost Realm card in this deck is Dúnedain Hunter. He was included to find enemies to feed Legolas's progress-generating ability, but he also combos nicely with scrying, as offered by Henamarth and Denethor. For example, when we were slogging through the East Bight in the first phase with an empty staging area, I used Henamarth to check what was coming next, and found The Brown Lands. The threat of five would have caused us a severe delay, so I played Dúnedain Hunter instead, finding us a relatively benign enemy to defeat and reshuffling the encounter deck.


The second quest phase went surprisingly smoothly. We went in with a clear staging area, and despite a couple of surges from Eastern Crows and a Wolf Rider, we made good progress. My second Straight Shot got rid of the Wolf Rider, and the crows were easily dealt with through Great Yew Bow. I always forget how annoying Eastern Crows are when you don't have Thalin around. On the other hand, a card like Gladden Fields really highlights how useful Legolas's ability is: with an enemy to destroy, you can safely travel to it, knowing that it won't be increasing your threat because Legolas and the Blade of Gondolin will clear it.


In the end, our trip down the Great River ended almost anticlimactically: after the last staging step, we had a couple of Necromancer's Passes and a Banks of the Anduin in the staging area, but no enemies. We won! Even though we'd gotten off a bit easy, we were prepared for worse: again, I even had Support of the Eagles and a Vassal of the Windlord in play, which were never needed.

Even though I've managed to beat it with both decks, winning at Journey down the Anduin still feels a bit special after all that time bashing my head into it in the early days. I'm really happy with my deck: it's probably incredibly inefficient and one-dimensional, but I love playing it because it's so much fun.

**

As we were playing around with our new decks, we added Heirs of Númenor and The Steward's Fear to our collection. I do love how cheap the LotR products are! I'm obviously considering a Gondorian Shield for Denethor, but can't figure out what to leave out. Quite disappointed that you can't get Spear of the Citadel on him! It seems thematically wrong to restrict it to Tactics characters.


Defender of Rammas would also come in handy; the Winged Guardians are only there to power Support of the Eagles, since I can't afford to keep throwing my only Tactics resource at them. This actually makes so much sense that I made the change immediately. I've been taking more undefended attacks than I'm comfortable with anyway.


I also removed one Blade of Gondolin and added two Gondorian Shields; we'll see how it goes! Buying the Road to Rivendell adventure pack later caused a minor deckbuilding crisis, in the form of Rivendell Blade.


Seeing as how my deck is already at 53 cards, I don't want to add anything, so the choice comes down to Blade of Gondolin or Rivendell Blade. For something like We Must Away or Conflict at the Carrock, Rivendell Blade would be a no-brainer, but I'm quite fond of that extra progress token, especially since so many locations seem to require three progress. The +1 attack bonus against orcs should also come in handy in Khazad-dûm!

For my next solo attempt, I decided to tackle The Hunt for Gollum. Sure, it's a fairly easy quest, but I'm still trying to get a feel for this deck, so trying something different ought to help. I got Great Yew Bow and Rivendell Bow on Legolas, as well as Unexpected Courage, but Hunters from Mordor made a very good case for Rivendell Blade! I was quite tired, so my playing was a bit sloppy; for instance, I almost certainly should've left the Hunters in the staging area for a bit, because the +1 attack from Rivendell Bow would've helped! Questing was a bit slow again, but we got the job done.

**

Meanwhile, my partner had put together a Dwarf deck and succesfully beaten both Passage and Journey with it. Here it is in its more or less initial form:

56 cards; 26 leadership, 26 Lore, 1 Spirit, 3 neutral; 3 heroes, 17 allies, 14 attachments, 20 events, 2 side quests.

Bifur (Kd)
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Balin (OtD)

Allies: 17 (5/9/1/2)
Brok Ironfist
Fili (OhaUH) x2
Glóin (OtD) x2
Daughter of the Nimrodel
Dori (OhaUH) x2
Erebor Hammersmith x2
Miner of the Iron Hills x2
Warden of Healing (TLD)
Erebor Record Keeper (Kd)
Kili (OHaUH)
Gandalf (Core) x2

Events: 20 (13/7)
Campfire Tales (THfG)
Durin's Song (Kd) x2
Ever Vigilant x2
Fresh Tracks (TLD) x2
Sneak Attack x2
To Me! O My Kinsfolk! (OtD) x2
Valiant Sacrifice x2
Ancestral Knowledge (Kd) x2
Radagast's Cunning x2
Secret Paths x2
Strider's Path (THfG)

Attachments: 14 (6/8)
King Under the Mountain (OtD) x2
Steward of Gondor x2
Cram (OhaUH) x2
Forest Snare x3
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Legacy of Durin (TwitW) x2
Protector of Lórien x2

Side quests: 2
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

It's a kind of Barbican dwarf swarm: exactly like your regular dwarf swarm, but with all the swarm taken out. But apparently it worked, to an extent, so there you have it.

We decided to try our alternate decks in co-op, and what better place to try out a dwarf deck than the Dwarrowdelf? Starting with Into the Pit, I genuinely believed that we wouldn't get past East-gate, let alone further in the quest, but I was wrong! In fact, we rolled through quite effortlessly, despite my partner managing to play a grand total of two (2) allies from a dwarf swarm deck. Which did let us clear Dreadful Gap in one turn, though! Defender of Rammas proved excellent, especially with Arwen's bonus and Balin's shadow-canceling ability standing by.


I got neither Great Yew Bow nor Blade of Gondolin, and despite drawing both copies of Support of the Eagles early on, neither bird saw fit to make an appearance. This didn't really matter, though, since Rivendell Bow did come in handy: a goblin would show up from the encounter deck, a dwarf would defend it and Legolas would shoot it. Unexpected Courage also made an appearance; I played one on Legolas and the other on Dáin, since Defender of Rammas was already in play by then and Burning Brand hadn't made an appearance. Despite some of my key cards being conspicuously absent and the dwarf deck not having any allies in it, we did get a bit of luck when we drew a whole sequence of essentially meaningless treacheries when East-gate was active, and everything went quite smoothly from there. I was honestly surprised!

I was less surprised when we were soundly defeated by The Seventh Level. The laziest quest in the expansion, it throws a never-ending stream of goblins at you. If you can destroy them as they emerge from the encounter deck, the quest is trivially easy; if not, you have no chance. With my deck thin on allies, we were always going to struggle against the massive deluge of enemies. I was too nice about this quest in my earlier post; it really is terrible. Thinking positively, I suppose it's just as well that Balin never found out he was dead! Pretty much the same thing happened in Flight from Moria.

**

Here, for the record, is the final version of my deck after these adventures:

Pelennor, or the tri-sphere experiment

53 cards; 15 Spirit, 23 Tactics, 12 Lore, 4 neutral. 3 heroes, 17 allies, 20 attachments, 10 events, 3 side quests.

Éowyn
Legolas
Denethor

Allies: 17 (2/6/6/3)
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x2
Vassal of the Windlord (TDM) x2
Dúnedain Hunter (TLR) x2
Gléowine x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x2
Henamarth Riversong x2
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 20 (5/11/4)
Unexpected Courage x2
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Support of the Eagles (RtM) x2
Great Yew Bow (OtD) x2
Blade of Gondolin x2
Gondorian Shield (HoN) x2
Rivendell Bow (TWitW) x2
Black Arrow (OtD)
Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Protector of Lorien x2

Events: 10 (5/5)
Test of Will x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Foe-hammer (OHaUH) x3
Straight Shot (OtD) x2

Side quests: 3 (1/1/1)
Double Back (EfMG)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

And here's the dwarves, with a bit more swarm thrown in:

Bifur (Kd)
Dáin Ironfoot (RtM)
Balin (OtD)

Allies 21 (4/14/1/2)

Fili (OhaUH) x2
Glóin (OtD) x2
Daughter of the Nimrodel
Dori (OhaUH) x2
Longbeard Map-Maker (CatC) x2
Erebor Hammersmith x3
Miner of the Iron Hills x3
Warden of Healing (TLD)
Erebor Record Keeper (Kd) x2
Kili (OHaUH)
Gandalf (Core) x2

Events: 16 (13/3)

Campfire Tales (THfG)
Durin's Song (Kd) x2
Ever Vigilant x2
Fresh Tracks (TLD) x2
Sneak Attack x2
To Me! O My Kinsfolk! (OtD) x2
Valiant Sacrifice x2
Ancestral Knowledge (Kd) x2
Strider's Path (THfG)

Attachments: 12 (7/5)

King Under the Mountain (OtD) x2
Narvi's Belt (Kd)
Steward of Gondor x2
Cram (OhaUH) x2
A Burning Brand (CatC)
Legacy of Durin (TwitW) x2
Protector of Lórien x2

Side quests: 2
Gather Information (TLR)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)

**

On the whole, coming up with a brand-new deck was a lot of fun, and familiar scenarios become all new again when you face them with a totally different deck. I definitely want to try this one again, but I'm also looking forward to putting together more decks: definitely a Lore deck with Rossiel and Mirlonde, and almost certainly a Rohan deck, probably Spirit/Tactics. I've enjoyed playing my regular Spirit/Lore deck, and Tactics is good fun. The only sphere I can't really bring myself to be particularly interested in is Leadership. On the topic of spheres, I do have to say that I'm massively disappointed that all the female heroes so far have been in Spirit and Lore. I suppose they're waiting for the appropriate saga expansion before coming out with Tactics Dernhelm, but would it really be too much to ask to have at least one Leadership lady?

That's it for our alternative adventures for now; next time, some more alternative decks, and then the Amazons and Team Boromir return for the Dwarrowdelf cycle.