The Purpose and Joy of Role-Playing Subsystems

Modeling the Guide Posts of Expectant Play

Current readers will notice that I’m binging on Strider Mode 📖 play of The One Ring 📖. I want to dive into why I think The One Ring works well for solo-play.

My conjecture is that the solo-play works because of it’s procedures and subsystems.

What Do I Mean by Procedures and Subsystems

Role Playing Games (RPGs 📖) often have a common subsystem: namely physical conflict resolution. The combat/fight mechanics if you will. They also have mechanisms for resolving general conflicts (e.g. skill checks, either opposed by others or opposed by the situation).

I leave it as axiomatic that conflict resolution mechanics are a must have mechanic for RPGs.

General Procedure for Framing Single Checks

I think that having procedures for framing the stakes of a conflict and evaluating the results are vital. I love the procedure of:

  1. Establish task and intent
  2. Establish difficulty and risk
  3. Cast the dice
  4. Resolve

This general procedure moves from “we’re talking” into “we’re engaging the mechanics.”

I first encountered “task and intent” in Burning Wheel Gold (BWG 📖), some . This is where the players work through “It sounds like your trying to do this thing, what’s your goal?”

Next comes the difficulty and risk. My first encounter of what I’m thinking of came from Blades in the Dark (BitD 📖). It’s been awhile since I’ve read those rules, so I’ll reference The One Ring instead “This test has a Hazardous Risk Level, which means failure will come with woe.”

I prefer this just a bit more to BWG’s guidance of providing specific consequences. The reason is that sometimes I want to take this new information and give space for just a bit of role-playing before we throw dice.

That bit of role-playing is where we all know the mechanical task, intent, difficulty, and risk and can reincorporate that into the fiction that leads up to the dice roll. But please keep this tight and crisp. A quip or two.

As game facilitator that play just before the dice helps me craft the natural consequences of the dice rolls, because I’ve heard from both the player and the character.

Building a Series of Tests

As the years have passed, I’ve grown to appreciate the skill challenge of Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (5E 📖). In The One Ring this is goes by skill endeavor.

Below is the general outline:

  1. Establish the intent/stakes that cannot be resolved in a single roll of the dice.
  2. Determine how many successes are required to succeed.
  3. Determine how many attempts you’ll allow for the characters.
  4. Establish the scenes or moments of “conflict” and resolve those moments.
  5. Adjudicate the final state, considering each moment and remaining attempts.

Important in each of those attempts is that they should, in some way, stand on their own. In the above mechanic there is a mechanical resource to track; the challenges Hit Points (HPs 📖) if you will.

I offer up The Travels of Duinhir Tailwind: Session 9 as an example of a skill endeavor in which each roll of the dice stands on it’s own and builds towards the resolution of the endeavor.

From a mechanics stand-point, I think it is critical that you apply directorial pressure to only focus and allow things that contribute to resolving the endeavor.

Put another way, if you have 5 attempts to succeed, only allow for 5 dice roles while the endeavor is active. You wouldn’t allow a rest during a 5E combat. That muddies the boundaries of two subsystems.

In session 9, I almost let Duinhir make a Lore test that would not have counted as an attempt. I envisioned that it would’ve contributed some kind of help to the actual attempt.

But my intuition said that was wrong. And I’m thankful I listened, because folding that Lore test into the attempt introduced a constraint that set my imagination ablaze.

In BWG we have Duel of Wits which almost follows the above outline, with a slight modification; namely you build up each side’s social conflict HPs and have procedures for how you chip away at that.

Pivoting from Skill Endeavor to a Subsystem

A Skill Endeavor is a subsystem. My favorite subsystem in The One Ring is it’s Journey Phase; it’s my favorite because it is not quite something I’ve encountered elsewhere.

For this section, I’m contrasting The One Ring’s Journey Phase with 5E’s “let’s codify exploration procedures in our published adventures.” Namely this will draw form my experience running Tomb of Annihilation (ToA 📖) and Out of the Abyss (OotA 📖).

In The One Ring, while playing through the Journey Phase, characters accumulate travel fatigue. This contributes to their exhaustion but is not something they can alleviate between the start and end of the Journey Phase.

Mechanically, as you gain exhaustion, you eventually either need to lighten your load or reduce your chances of succeeding on tasks. On paper it’s an excellent model of spiraling conditions. Exhaustion is most analogue to 5E’s hit points. But gaining exhaustion has teeth even before you reach your absolute threshold. When you end the Journey Phase you make a test to see how you add that travel fatigue to your character’s exhaustion.

I ran Out of the Abyss as my first Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition campaign. I built a worksheet to help me tie together the travel procedures of the march through the Underdark. But Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition in it’s publisher written rule-set is absolute crap for modeling any meaningful tension in travel.

Each day they had a chance for an encounter, and at the end of that day, the Long Rest replenished most everything. There was no enduring travel fatigue, simply vignettes of fresh adventurers facing some challenge. Never a modeling of the sweat and dirt of hacking through a jungle.

When running Tomb of Annihilation I rolled up random encounters as they journeyed through Chult. Eventually I said “Listen, you all arrive at the Lost City.” Why? Because any encounter while traveling was mechanically pointless, and we’d hit enough of the thematically important elements to get the sense of slogging through a jungle.

The general conjecture is “if one of the pillars of your game is exploration” make sure you have systems that can model the type of exploration you want. 5E models “you encounter something but it won’t impact your next encounter because the time between allows for a complete recovery.”


In playing a game, procedures create support structures from which to build the fiction of the game. The procedures are design considerations for modeling and evoking the desired sensation.

Not everything warrants a procedure, but in the “rulings not rules” ethos, the purpose of procedures is to provide some mechanical guidance for adjudication.

In the Skill Endeavor from session 9, as Loremaster I didn’t need to worry about how Duinhir could prove himself. Instead I look to the mechanics and said “this sounds laborious with a standard risk level.” That helped me fill in the mechanical needs.

With those mechanical needs as “stage direction,” I set about crafting scenes within the Skill Endeavor that were vignettes of Duinhir’s activity that could be representative of his off-camera efforts.

And that Skill Endeavor came about through the results of playing through Council Phase; which was introduced by interpreting the random encounter results that were indicated by the Journey Phase. Which was prompted by a randomly rolled patron’s quest.

Duinhir hasn’t resolved his Journey Phase; all of the mechanics of that phase entered into stasis as I drilled into the encounter with a Dwarven community.

Now can you imagine a The Lord of the Rings 📖 RPG without a robust travel subsystem? If you’re game considers The Lord of the Rings as a touchstone, make sure you model the travel subsystem to your liking.