Monday, October 17, 2011

Mixing LARP and Tabletop

Over the weekend, I got to participate in a tabletop game tied into one of my LARPs. This is a pretty unique aspect to the game (Dying Kingdoms) - a stable of plot staff and trusted players who have been empowered to run small tabletops in between the larger games. This gives players a chance to explore personal plot and pursue personal goals which might not have the time to be addressed at games. Big things which would affect the metaplot are usually saved for large events. But if you want to investigate a mystery which has personal significance to your character, or set something up to appear at a game? Tabletop!

My character didn't have much to do at this tabletop - my presence there was largely a matter of convenience (two of the players invested in this plotline live about two hours south; two more live about two hours north; my apartment was the most convenient meeting place for everyone). We did get to work in a cool hook for my character at the end, but for the most part, I tagged along as a spectator.

Overall, I had a great time. I wish more LARPs integrated tabletops with their larger live-action events. It's logistically challenging, but the payoff, I think, makes it worthwhile in the long run. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Character Death, Consequences, Drama and Story

Spinning off the Facebook discussion I mentioned earlier, the conversation which inspired me to write about my ideal LARP is now talking about the merits of having games dangerous - possibly to the point of lethal - for the player characters (if anyone is interested, the discussion is happening at the Wyrd Con page).

For purposes of this post, when I refer to 'character death', I don't mean an occurrence where a character dies but then is resurrected or resuscitated or otherwise brought back. That I consider to be story. The sort of character death I'm talking about is the permanent kind - no one can restore your character to life. They are dead and gone, forevers. Make a new PC, this one has been permanently removed from play. 

Some players, especially for long-running games, don't like the idea of their player dying in the middle of a game. Which, admittedly, is something I can understand. Especially for games which are comprised mostly of camping events; because if your character dies on the Friday night mod, what are you going to do for the rest of the weekend? Even though making a new PC might be mechanically simple, odds are good you didn't think to bring an appropriate costume or weapons or props. I personally don't have a problem with jumping in to help NPC (I usually pack extra costuming with me just in case), but some players disagree with that idea. For many games, NPCing is usually free or low-cost, whereas the players of PCs usually have to pay a higher fee. I can understand some people being upset at paying the PC fee and then being expected to NPC for the majority (or even a significant portion) of their game time. That being said, I disagree strongly with the argument, 'I paid my PC fee, so my character should be safe from death!' If it's really an issue, the GMs should be up for crediting you a prorated PC fee for the next game.

An argument I can get more behind is the idea that players don't want their character's stories to be ended abruptly or arbitrarily. Real life is arbitrary enough when it comes to inflicting suffering, and game should be at least something of a respite from that (when was the last time a PC was diagnosed with cancer or dropped dead from an aneurysm or heart attack?). People put a lot of creative resources into their character, and it can be disheartening when all those resources vanish in an arbitrary death - sort of like having your favorite TV show get cancelled halfway through the season. It's a let-down, to be sure.

But, on the other hand, LARP is all about story, which means conflict and drama and tension. Part of what creates that conflict is having something at risk. Maybe its your PC's life, or maybe it's something they value almost as importantly (the lives of loved ones, their honor, etc). Fearing the loss of that provides motivation, depth, character growth and story. And fear of death is the easiest one for a GM to invoke. It doesn't have to be personally tailored to individual PCs - everyone intrinsically wants to avoid death.

One story from a recent game I attended: I'm playing an engineer named Irene in a post-apocalyptic fantasy LARP. She has a brother, also a PC, played by a good friend of mine. We were orphans together before being taken in by our adoptive father. My PC pissed off one of the local leaders, who issued an order of banishment against her - leave the city or face execution. While this order was being drafted, my character was meeting with some fairly shady folks. Shady enough to threaten to kill her brother should she attempt to leave the city. ICly, my character fully believed both these NPCs were capable of killing her. And from a meta perspective, I, the player, was pretty sure Irene was toast unless she figured out a way to make both NPCs happy.

Conflict, tension and drama. Now, instead of wandering around the camp with nothing to do except glare at people, my character was scrambling to try and find information with which to bribe the first NPC to let her stay in the city so she could protect her family. And because of what Irene found out, I got to participate in a very cool endcap scene wherein my engineer yelled at a construct of the god of knowledge. Now, my poor little engineer has effectively been coerced into working for a group of fairly violent criminals, who will probably break her legs and kill her brother if she fucks up badly enough... but may lead her to accomplish one of her long-term goals if she manages to work well with them.

The game designers threatened my character with death, and put her in a very difficult situation. Maybe they actually would have killed my character, maybe they would not have. I don't know for sure. What was important, though, was that I believed they were capable of killing my character if she failed. The death would not have been arbitrary - everything which happened was a direct result of choices my character made. If Irene hadn't shot the Arch-Lector, he probably wouldn't have cared enough to want her banished. If she hadn't tried to track down a local criminal, she wouldn't have ended up being threatened by his coterie. I went home from that game feeling like I'd had an awesome time, and now I can't wait for the next game to see what will happen as a result of the choices made at the last one.

I have been to games which I consider to have been played in 'Easy Mode,' and games which I consider to be 'Hard Mode.' In the Easy Mode game, healing and resurrection magic was abundant and NPCs were rarely empowered to be a lethal threat to PCs. In the Hard Mode games, there was no resurrective magic and the setting actively encouraged PvP. Neither of those games were fun for me - in Easy Mode, I felt like nothing was ever going to be at risk for my PC. If I was going to 'win' anyway, then where was my story? In the Hard Mode games, I felt like I had to participate in an arms race to make sure my character had adequate defenses on her sheet so she could get away if a boot squad jumped her. There wasn't much time left over for story or character development after that, and the game staff was too busy adjudicating PvP combat after PvP combat to pay much attention to personal plot.

Now, I understand some people love games in Easy Mode, and other people don't have fun unless they're playing Hard Mode. Different play styles is what makes the world go round - and game designers should be up front about the level of lethality players can expect from their games. That way, if I pay my PC fee for a game I know has a definite lethal potential, I'm accepting the risk that I may end up having to NPC for the latter part of the game.

I, personally, play for story and character development - ideally, I'd like my games to be somewhere between Easy and Hard (though if I had to pick, I'd rather attend a Hard Mode game than an Easy Mode one). I want a game where I will have freedom to explore my character's hopes and pursue her goals, while at the same time fearing what will happen if she fails. And if she does die, I want the scene to be awesome and have a meaningful impact on the story (though, rather than die, I would much rather be given the opportunity to roleplay her response to failure and loss). That middle ground is where I've managed to find the most story and have the most fun at games. Of course, it's also the most demanding in terms of Plot Staff - to create a feeling of impending lethality without having the game become so lethal that half the characters permadeath at a game. And it means that, instead of creating overtly lethal situations, they have to craft story where other, equally important things are at risk (which itself means encouraging players to create characters with complex goals and motivations). It means monsters and challenges have to be carefully calibrated, and the amount of available healing resources has to be monitored. It also means they have to pay close attention to what has happened and the choices PCs have made, so the story can evolve in direct response.

So, to all the game designers, Storytellers and Plot Staff who have created the Moderate Mode games I've played and had such a great time in - my hat is off to you, and thanks for all the story! 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

My Ideal Game

The question of an ideal LARP came up on Facebook, and after I had typed out my answer, I realized it was a bit too unwieldy as a comment. So my answer is here - what would go into making my LARP experience superb.

1) Genre would not matter much. I tend to prefer dark fantasy or horror games - but if this is going to be my ideal game, then the players, rules, setting and plot are all going to be so awesome I won't care much about the genre.

2) Combat will resolve relatively quickly. I don't have much of a mechanical preference - but I've been stuck in more than one MET mass combat, where it took everyone three hours to determine three rounds of combat. None of that in my ideal game. However combat resolves, it will be quick, easy and one of the more exciting aspects of the game. This would imply a boffer style mechanic, where initiative and rounds all come down to how long it takes the player to actually swing a sword or fire an arrow. However, I'm open to a different theater-style mechanic - Houses of the Blooded, for instance, makes use of a ritualized system of combat which relies on player negotiation and expending Style points. Alternatively, this could simply be a game written to be low combat on purpose - I could enjoy an MET game where the Storyteller wrote plot to lead away from mass combat; or allowed those combats to resolve in a quick, cinematic way.

3) My character should constantly be at risk. I should have a pervasive sense of what happens if I and my allies fail at our goals, and they should not be good. And not just death - my character should fear shame, exile, insanity, impoverishment, guilt or some other negative outcome. This shouldn't be a foregone conclusion (unless I'm playing in a Call of Cthulhu game), nor should it even be a likely one. But I enjoy feeling as if there are dire, painful consequences if my character makes a grievous mistake. Not only is it good motivation, but a potential opportunity for rich roleplay should those consequences occur. And if my character does die, I want there to be a way to quickly get re-integrated back into the game, even if only as an NPC.

4) This might seem a contradiction to the above statement, but I have found I prefer games with low PvP. I don't want PvP to be completely off the table, but I would like it to be infrequent. So far, the best way I've found to deal with PvP is to insist that players must come to a mutual understanding if they are at odds to the point of one PC contemplating the murder of another. I would rather spend more of my time trying to outwit and outfight NPCs and the plot presented by the game's staff than wondering if my supposed allies are going to stab me in the back. I should mention this attitude focuses solely on character death. Characters should feel free to pursue conflict and even impede each other's goals short of character death. But I have found that most games in which PvP is explicitly allowed and perhaps even encouraged, the game quickly becomes an arms race.

5) I would like my character to feel effective at what she has been created to do. Even if  my character is weak at creation, I should be able to look forward to a time in which I have the capability of affecting the metaplot of the game. So far, it seems as though XP caps are the best way to create this - characters retire after about two to three years of consistent play.

6) A fair and creative Plot Staff. Every player will get roughly the same amount of attention, and egregious cheating will be swiftly and harshly disciplined. Nothing ruins the fun for me faster than being the victim of cheating which goes unpunished. A close second is being consistently ignored by the Storytellers (I once tried for six months to get involved in a particular storyline with zero success - I don't play in that game anymore). Players follow the example set by the Plot Staff, and so an energetic and enthusiastic staff will set the tone for the entire game.

7) An immersive game site. I don't require exceptionally high production values, but I'd like to see some effort go towards props and setting. I've found that having props and NPCs in costume helps me feel more in character, helps my fellow players feel more in character and contributes to the general immersive quality of the game.

8) A rule system which I can pick up within about fifteen to twenty minutes of reading the book. In an ideal game system, I should only have to refer to my character sheet a few times per game, and my character sheet should not take up more than two sheets of regular printer paper (i.e., I should be able to easily tuck it away in a pouch or pocket). If I'm expected to do math in my head, it should be simple and quick (subtracting hits from my armor is fine; having to compute several different numbers in my head at the same time is not).

9) A player base comprised of friends, who get into character and rarely, if ever, go OOC when game time is on. I want the player base to be committed to costumes and props - no tags that read "Suit, Crafts x5" on someone wearing jeans and a dirty t-shirt. I want to feel like I'm hanging out with my friends while I'm at a game, even if we're spending all our time in character. I'd also like the player base to be helpful to Staff - games in which everyone pitches in seem to be more fun than games where players only give a minimal effort to helping keep the game alive.

And that's my ideal game. Fortunately, I'm lucky to be playing in a game which meets most, if not all, of the above standards - a heroic fantasy boffer LARP called Dying Kingdoms. My character's home city was completely sacked at the last game, and she's due to retire from play soon. I'm already excited for my next PC.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Telling Muggles About LARP

One of my goals with How to LARP is a way to describe the hobby to people who have never heard of it before. I endearingly refer to them as 'Muggles.'

The recent public attention LARP has gotten from mass-media pieces like the movie Role Models and the upcoming Knights of Badassdom has made describing LARP a bit easier. But for people who haven't seen those movies, explaining our hobby can sometimes be... tricky.

When I was attending vampire LARPs nearly every weekend, it was even trickier. I didn't want my coworkers or family to think I was actually drinking anyone's blood or menacing innocents. I've heard some people describe a Vampire: the Masquerade LARP as 'a dramatic troupe dedicated to exploring the themes of Anne Rice,' but I'm not sure that description is entirely accurate. Certainly, in the past, it definitely was - but White Wolf's flagship game has gone through several major changes since then. Buffy and Angel, I think, have more influence on the game today than Anne Rice (those who play it, not necessarily the writers).

Now, most of the LARPs I attend are of the boffer-fantasy variety, which can sometimes be even harder to explain. Usually, I just tell someone I'm going camping with some friends over the weekend. For a water-cooler conversation, such an explanation usually works quite well. But Muggle friends and family often want to know more, especially when the pictures hit Facebook.

Living in LA makes it a bit easy for me - every other person in this city is an actor, writer or producer in the making. So when I talk about being part of a troupe of amateur improvisational actors, people generally get what I'm saying. Of course, an amateur improvisational actor isn't someone you meet every day, so they tend to ask more questions.

I usually describe LARP in terms I used for the article, "An Introduction to the Game," but I sometimes still find it challenging to really convey the goal of a LARP. It's something most LARPers understand intuitively - we're here to tell a good story. But Muggles sometimes get lost in that concept. A game with no points or teams? How do you know who won? Where's your audience? Telling a good story is an abstract goal, and I'm still not sure I've come upon a satisfactory answer. Until I do, I shall remain an 'amateur improvisational actor.'