24 Questions with Steve Long
Copyright Joe Mandala ©2001
Steve Long is the designer of the new RPG from Decipher set in Middle-earth. Here The Guild Companion asks him some important questions on the upcoming release, which he was kind enough to answer.
GC: What experience do you have writing gaming systems? What have you written?
SL: I've been working in the RPG industry, part or full time, for the past eight years, during which I've written, co-authored, designed, and/or developed over 70 roleplaying game products ranging from entire core rulebooks to minor supplements. I have received one or more nominations for Origins Awards for my work for the past three years, and together with my co-workers at Last Unicorn Games won the award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1998 (Star Trek: The Next Generation Roleplaying Game). In addition to being one of the main creator's for Last Unicorn's "Icon System" and Decipher's new "Coda System," highlights of my game design work include HERO System (5th Edition), and rules design for many other companies, including Pinnacle Entertainment Group and White Wolf Game Studios.
GC: What is the release date for the game?
SL: Spring, 2002. When we have a more definite date, the company will release that information, but we're not going to make firm promises until we're reasonably sure we can meet them. :)
GC: How will play testing be done? Will there be a volunteer corps for the game?
SL: We are planning to begin playtesting soon, once we resolve some logistical concerns. We're using a group of persons known to us as experienced gamers and Tolkien fans who will give us the sort of feedback we need.
I am not sure if Decipher intends to create a separate volunteer corps for the game, or to use its existing volunteers, or what. The company is new to the RPG business and is steadily figuring out how to use its resources to interface with the hobby in the best way.
GC: How true to the books will the game be? Or will it be based on the movies like the card game?
SL: The RPG is based entirely on the books; it has no connection with the movie. You won't, for example, find any writeups in the RPG for Arwen-as-warrior-maiden. I am doing my best to make the game as true to LOTR as possible within the confines of the company's license and the differences between books and games.
GC: Is the game geared toward the experienced role-player, or toward new players?
SL: Well, a little of both. We've designed the Coda System to be simple enough for a newcomer to gaming to understand, while giving it enough flexibility and features to appeal to veteran gamers.
GC: What era and regions will be detailed in the initial release? What era and regions do you plan on detailing later?
SL: The "default" time period that we're using is the 77-year period between the finding of the Ring and the War of the Ring, though there are notes about running games in other periods. The core book takes a broad look at all the lands of Middle-earth; in future supplements, we'll look more closely at specific areas (the North, Mirkwood, and so forth).
GC: Are you a fan of Tolkien? Is it a bit daunting to try to write guidelines for people to create new stories set in his world?
SL: I'm a big Tolkien fan, and have been for two decades - to the extent of teaching myself to write Elvish and things like that. It's hard to beat a job where I get paid to read Tolkien. :)
Creating the LOTR RPG is an enjoyable challenge, for several reasons. First, there's the standard challenge with any licensed RPG, which is to cover the licensed property as thoroughly and clearly as possible, while still creating a fun game (games and books/movies don't always do the same things well). Second, there's the task of getting across, through the rules and guidelines, the "Tolkien feel." Middle-earth is suitable for particular types of stories - wondrous, epic fantasy tales - and completely unsuitable for many types of games, such as hack-'n'-slash or tales revolving around moral ambiguity. Explaining all this to the players is a challenge, but one I'm having a lot of fun tackling.
GC: One of the most asked questions you get, I'm sure, is how the new system will handle magic. I will also ask you that, but also try to nudge you into more of a philosophical mindset.
What is your general concept of magic and how it exists in Middle-earth, and how have you tried to capture that concept in the game?
SL: That's an enormous question - one I can't fully answer without reprinting huge chunks of the rulebook here, which I obviously can't do. :) So, my answer's going to be a little sparse.
I see magic in Middle-earth as being very subtle, evocative, and flavorful. It's one of the major elements of the setting and its "feel," and thus one that it's important to get just right. It's not like magic in most fantasy RPGs - wizards can't fly, summon demons, toss fireballs around, walk through walls, or anything like that. They're not walking arcane artillery pieces. Though magic in Middle-earth can be powerful, most spells are relatively low-key and utilitarian. They allow a spellcaster to kindle fire, open (or lock) doors, interact with animals, things like that (though there are a few that are straightforward combat applications). Getting all that across, explaining how magic is low-key but not necessarily low-powered, is tricky.
As I see it, magic comes in two flavors. Generally speaking, there's wizardry, which covers most spells. Then there's sorcery, or "the dark arts," a subset of wizardry that covers evil magics. Player characters can learn either type of spell, but knowing sorcery spells causes them to automatically acquire Corruption points; casting them may increase a character's Corruption (and too much Corruption turns you into an evil NPC).
In game terms, casting spells doesn't require a Skill Test or anything like that. Instead, casters have to make Stamina Tests to resist the wearying effects of magic. In Middle-earth, working magic is tiring! The more powerful a spell, or the more spells a magician casts in quick succession, the more likely it is the caster will fail the Stamina Test, which means the spell doesn't work and he loses a Weariness Level.
The magic chapter lists over 70 spells characters can use, so there are plenty of options for spellcasters. There are lots of other rules covering the various aspects of Middle-earth magic, like runes, specialization in a particular type of magic, magical abilities, and so forth. Overall, I think gamers are really going to like it.
GC: Along those lines, does the system deal specifically with magical items, and if so, how?
SL: Sure, the game has enchanted items - about twenty or so are described, from your basic enchanted blades to the One Ring itself. Each one has a description of what it looks like, what it can do, relevant rules, and so forth. There are also guidelines for creating and using enchanted items, but nothing as formulaic as found in most games. Enchanted items in Middle-earth are very rare, and like spells often seem "low-powered" in comparison to items in other games - but whatever you may think they lack in power, they make up for in wonder and "coolness." :)
GC: How will the system deal with what is normally called professions? What "professions" will be detailed in the game?
SL: The game has nine basic "Orders": barbarian, craftsman, loremaster, magician, mariner, minstrel, noble, rogue, and warrior. It also has six "elite Orders," that PCs can access later in their careers: archer, captain, knight, ranger, spy, and wizard.
Each Order comes with a list of "Order Skills," primary Attributes, and order special abilities. When a character chooses his first Order, he gets to make a certain number of picks from the list of Order Skills (or he can use one of the pre-built "packages" the game provides), and he gets to pick one Order ability. He can acquire more Skills and abilities as he becomes more experienced. He can also join other Orders, thus gaining access to their Order Skills and abilities. But any character can learn any Skill; having it as an Order Skill just makes it a little cheaper to acquire.
GC: How about skills? What sorts of skills are there? How does the system deal with skills and activity/skill resolution?
SL: There are over 35 Skills, ranging from the obvious (Armed Combat, Ranged Combat, Observe, Persuade, Stealth) to some that are new, unusual, or different (Insight, Inspire, Intimidate, Siegecraft). Skills typically range from +1 to +12, sometimes higher.
The basic task resolution is fairly simple. You roll 2d6. To that you add your ranks in a Skill, a modifier from the Attribute governing that Skill, and any other modifiers appropriate to the situation. If your final "Test Result" equals or exceeds the Target Number (which depends on the difficulty of the task), you succeed. The more you exceed the TN by, the greater your "degree of success," which can have benefits for you.
GC: Will a character have statistics? If so what are they, and how do they impact skills and game play?
SL: By "statistics" I assume you mean characteristics or attributes like "Strength" or "Dexterity." The LOTR RPG has them, of course. There are six primary ones - Bearing, Nimbleness, Perception, Strength, Vitality, and Wits. There are also some secondary and tertiary Attributes, including reactions (used to avoid danger) and Courage ("hero points" used to improve certain rolls and so forth).
Each Skill has a governing Attribute. From the Attribute you calculate a modifier, typically ranging from -2 to +3 (sometimes higher). Attributes also have plenty of other uses - they affect how much you can lift, how impressive you are, how easily you can figure things out or perceive things, and so forth.
GC: How are hit points dealt with in the game? How are they gained, and what is the mechanism for representing damage?
SL: Each character has a Health rating that derives from his Vitality and Strength. Your Health indicates how many "wound points" you can withstand in each of six Wound Levels. As you drop in Wound Levels, you suffer penalties to Skill Tests and the like to reflect becoming tired, battered, and hurt. Lose all your Wound Levels, and you die - but hopefully that won't happen very often to PCs. :)
GC: Does the game focus on race or on culture? Are there differences between mannish cultures as far as base statistic or skill modifiers are concerned, or are these modifiers based solely on race? What races/cultures will be detailed and available for a character to play?
SL: There are four races in the game: Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, and Man. Elves, Hobbits, and Men have "sub-races" you have to pick from, such as Noldor, Sindar, or Silvan for Elves. Each race/sub-race receives certain Attribute modifiers and racial abilities, and also has a list of "racial Skills" from which players make picks at the start of character creation to reflect their upbringing and basic experiences.
By making the appropriate sub-race and racial Skill picks, you can differentiate wildly among members of various races, thus representing particular "cultures" (a word the book does not use at all, since it's too scientific/modern sounding). The picks you make for, say, a Beorning differ from those for a Rohirrim or a Man of Dale.
GC: How is combat resolved in the system?
SL: Combat actions - attacks and active defenses - are resolved as various Skill Tests, Attribute Tests, or Reaction Tests. The basic TN to hit someone with a HTH attack is 10 + target's Nimbleness modifier; for a ranged attack it depends on distance. If you hit, you roll the damage for your weapon, then the target subtracts the value of his armor (or other protection) and suffers the remainder as wound point damage. If you score extra degrees of success on your attack, you do more damage, or maybe achieve other effects (breaking an opponent's weapon or arm, gaining an initiative bonus next round, or the like).
GC: Is there a mechanic for opposed skill rolls in the game? For instance, a "perception" vs. "hiding" situation.
SL: Sure. One character makes his Skill Test. That becomes the TN for the other character's Skill Test to "beat" the first character. Quick, simple, and useful for a wide variety of game situations. :)
GC: One thing that has been a frustration for role-players using Middle-earth has been the paucity of economic detail that Tolkien revealed to us. How will the game deal with economics, and what models did you use to create the economics of the game?
SL: For the most part, I am ignoring economics - mundane details of the aptly-named "dismal science" have no place in a good epic fantasy story except as the occasional bit of color or flavor. :) There is, of course, a basic price list, which indicates prices for various goods in various locations around the world. Coinage is also discussed briefly. That's all gamers really need.
GC: A simple question - what are the base dice used in this game (i.e. 2d6, 1d20, d100, etc)?
SL: Two six-sided dice. The only kicker is that if you roll boxcars, you can roll another die, and keep rolling as long as you roll a 6.
GC: Does Decipher have any plans for releasing computer-based aids for the game?
SL: Not that I am aware of. However, no one at the company has discussed anything of the sort with me.
GC: Overall, how simple is this game on a scale of 1-10 (1 being War and 10 being RoleMaster)? Have you had a directive or desire to make the game simpler or more complex as you progressed?
SL: Oh, that's hard to say; I suppose it's about a 5. One of our design goals was to make the game simple enough for newcomers to gaming to grasp it easily and start playing quickly, while retaining enough flexibility and options that veteran gamers will enjoy it - and I think we've succeeded.
GC: What systems have influenced the production of this particular creation, and to what degree? Have you been exposed to any of the ICE material (MERP)?
SL: I do not own, and have never read, any of ICE's MERP materials, so they've had no influence over the LOTR RPG. I'd say the biggest influences on the Coda System are Last Unicorn's Icon System and WOTC's D20 system, but they're by no means the only ones (and, of course, have their own influences - there's nothing new under the sun, these days :) ).
GC: Will Decipher be using freelance writers as the system ages, or will new material be mainly in-house work?
SL: At present, I'd say the product line will mostly be handled in-house, since we have a staff of superb game designers/writers. But there's always the possibility we'll decide to use freelancers for some work.
GC: Will Decipher be producing material only based on The Lord of the Rings, or will The Hobbit or The Silmarillion be tapped for inspiration?
SL: Decipher's license covers only LOTR (and, I think, The Hobbit as well). We cannot use material not specifically mentioned in those works. So, we can't produce supplements for, say, the First Age. Nor, for that matter, can we use details of Elven history from The Silmarillion, names or details from Unfinished Tales, or the like. If it's not in LOTR itself, it won't be in our game products.
GC: Finally, who is your favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, and why?
SL: I couldn't even begin to pick a favorite. I like 'em all. :)