Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Character Retirement

In most of the persistent games I've played in (fantasy boffer games & World of Darkness MET games), characters could be played for as long as they survived within the system. For very long-running games, this could mean that a particular PC has ten years' worth of experience on his sheet (I've seen it). Even for games which haven't been running for a decade, older PCs still have a significant power advantage over new and mid-level PCs.

This, unfortunately, has the side effect of creating several problems for the games. I've seen this occur in both World of Darkness and fantasy games, and the issues tend to be the same from system to system.

First off, power creep. In order to provide a sufficient challenge for the high-powered PCs, the Storytelling Staff has to continuously devise newer, stronger villains with more puissant powers. If the power creeps high enough, then only the high-powered PCs become the ones capable of facing the villain; everyone else is sidelined. And why should the low-to-mid power PCs get involved? The established PCs can do everything and know everything anyway. And since the rules for such high-level encounters are so complicated, each encounter takes up Storyteller resources. While the high-level PCs are fighting the bad guys, the other characters run the risk of being neglected.

Related to that is player perception. A new player coming into a game with these high-powered PCs can look around, and realize that he or she will never be able to displace them. An attendant risk in PvP games is that new players will lose more characters than older ones, which also creates feelings of frustration. Such feelings can be quite disheartening, and turn new players off what might otherwise be a wonderful game. After all, an established PC usually has enough defenses and combat ability to be able to survive conflict; while a new PC does not.

Some games have come up with a variety of solutions to this problem. The Mind's Eye Society (formerly Camarilla Fan Club) usually does a full chronicle reset every five years or so - the world 'ends', and a new one begins, with all-new characters and plotlines. Other systems give new players a significant XP boost when creating their character. While this helps those players be able to survive and feel effective, it however does nothing to solve the problem of power creep. Some games insist there is no problem, or that such a disparity is part of the setting, or that long-term players should be rewarded and new players should expect to prove themselves. Well, I don't necessarily object to that sentiment, as long as it's made clear to me who that game views as priority. But most games do want to recruit new players and do want everyone to be able to have fun.

And so I want to talk about a mechanic I've seen used to great effect - the character retirement cap.

This is a mechanic used by Dying Kingdoms, a game I played in for several years and now serve on Campaign Staff for. The basic rule is: once your PC hits a specific point threshold, you must begin talking with Staff about your retirement arc. You have quite a bit of leeway on how you want your story to end. Some players have written their own assassination; others have ascended to positions of political power. Either way, your character decides to retire from the adventuring life and retreats to the background. They might make cameo appearances as the story requires, but for all intents and purposes, they are not your active PC any longer; time to make a new one.

If a player consistently attends every game, this threshold is reached in about two or three years. Players with more intermittent attendance will obviously take longer, but even the most dedicated player can reasonably expect several years' worth of playtime with their PC. In addition, players who have gone through this cycle once get a retirement benefit - they now have access to special mechanics, which brand-new players cannot have on their first starting PC.

The retirement cap solves many of the problems listed above. Power creep is no longer much of an issue. Though the power level of the player base will ebb and flow, it will never go past a certain point. A challenging villain in 2006 will still be a challenging villain in 2012.

Players also take turns being the one in charge. A given PC might, after a year or so of play, come to be a respected, powerful leader. However, this PC must eventually step down and make way for a different character to become the leader. And that PC must also eventually step down, and a different PC steps up. A character can receive a potentially game-breaking power... three games before permanent retirement and their chosen epic send-off. And players get a chance to explore a variety of different concepts - after retiring your brutal warrior, you can come back as a gentle healer or savvy politician.

I personally think this rule also combats a sense of entitlement some players seem to feel over their PCs. If their character has survived long enough to become powerful, they should be entitled to keep playing their character - regardless if this is a good or bad thing for the game as a whole. However, the retirement mechanic obviates such a feeling. It creates a sense of 'we're all in this together'.

And so, I encourage game masters and storytellers to strongly consider implementing this mechanic in your game. It might cause a bit of pain at first, especially for established games, but I believe the payoff in the end will be quite worth it!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Incorporating LARP Into Your Next Film Project

This post is addressed to all those aspiring filmmakers or documentarians who have recently heard about LARP and think it would make a fine subject for their next project.


Now, you've just discovered that there's a hobby which involves dressing up in unusual costumes and telling stories to each other. And you think this would make a fascinating subject for your next project.

I have to say, I agree! LARP is amazingly fascinating! It's a story within a story within a story, and I can completely understand why you'd want to do a film or documentary or reality show based around us. And perhaps this is just an artifact of living in Los Angeles... but for the game I Staff for, we're getting requests from the media at the rate of about one a month. People who want to film us or interview us. And, after one very bad experience, we're quite camera-shy.

So what follows is a list of what to do, and what not to do, if you want to film a LARP or incorporate LARP into your film project. 

The first thing you must realize is that LARP is not only about the game. We're also about the community. Not only that, but we are a very geeky community - meaning, we love those who share our passion, but tend to get clannish around those we think are just tourists. Please keep in mind that many adult geeks suffered ostracism or bullying when we were younger, often for loving what we love. So if your project intends to make fun of LARPers, or to treat us like a zoo exhibit (an exotic species for 'normal' people to gawk at)... back to the drawing board with you!

I really can't emphasize community enough. I've seen more than one potential filmmaker or academician attempt to understand LARP and fail, because they could not understand this one point. Community. Players will stay with a game they're not fond of, because they love their community. And players will abandon a game they love if the community is horrid. 

So if you want to convince us of your sincerity, become a member of our community. Attend a game, attend more than one game. Don't film, don't even try to film, just participate. Get into costume, create a character and swing some foam or throw some chops. Don't know what that last sentence means? Learn! And don't leave the game when it's over - if there's an after-game gathering, attend! Get to know LARPers in and out of character. You'll get some great insight into why we love this hobby, you'll understand our community, and you'll find that some LARPers will be more willing to help you once you've demonstrated a respect for our often-maligned hobby.

Secondly, realize that we're here for the game. We love performing, but that doesn't mean we want to perform for your camera. The performances we give for each other, at every game, without being filmed, are more than enough for most of us. Having a camera crew show up is intrusive, and it breaks our sense of immersion. We don't really care about lighting or framing a shot or re-doing a scene to make it more photogenic. Trying to get that out of us will just cause irritation all around. Consider setting up a special film shoot, not at an actual game, but involving LARPers in costume and in character.

Thirdly, realize that LARP doesn't translate well to film. Most of what we LARPers see is in our mind. We can look at a camping pavilion, card table and cooler and see a tavern. Most of your viewers will only see the card table and cooler. To really show your audience what LARPer 'sees' when we LARP, you'd need a Peter Jackson sized budget to match your special effects to our imaginations. Your audience won't get it, and your project will fall flat (free hint: if you want to convey the complexity and depth of a given LARP's story, consider animation or rotoscoping).

And for the LA filmers: please understand that more than a few LARPers are also professional actors. Some of them might be part of SAG-AFTRA, and as a result must be protective of their image. Be conscious of that. But if you want your web series to be SAG... please send me an e-mail, I know where to direct you. Or if you have any other questions at all - I'm always happy to help promote positive images of LARP!