LARP Design Principles, Part 2

Not every game requires throat slitting and back stabbing levels of PvP.

A creator’s LARP design principles should affect everything they do which is why an article I’d hoped would be written in one post will likely be done in 3!  If you’d like to check out my overview of the processes of creating a LARP you can see where this all came from.  Otherwise you can find Part 1 of this series over here.

Now without further ado, here are my next two principles:

Low, mainly social, PvP became of interest to me because my previous experiences have all been in games where the focus is competition — often both between and within teams.  Characters were typically designed not only with personality flaws but to be selfish, cruel and sometimes even downright villainous.  These were great games but they were wearying and they only told certain kinds of stories.

Stories where people who were playing someone with a conscience had the rather villainous choice of either standing back while their compatriots butchered and tortured with impunity or murdering them and therefore depriving another player of their character for behaviour that is a normal part of the social contract.   After all, it’s rather rude to kill someone for abusing humans in a vampire game.  It’s certainly rude to make a habit of it.

I wanted to try my hand at a LARP where the focus is on positive social interactions, the joys (and yes, stresses) of collaborating in teams and the difficulties and problems inherent in forging a community.  No one would be allowed to play a sociopath, murderer, sadist or traitor.  They could be rude, abrupt or somewhat self-serving but not to the point where they would willingly jeopardise anyone else’s life or liberty.

Using a game setting such as a united-government-sponsored colony allowed me to use psychological screening as an excuse to deny those sorts of characters.  While there might certainly be a few spies and saboteurs sent in from dissident factions in the various sponsoring governments, I wanted to keep them as NPCs so that all of the characters could comfortably exile or banish them as would be logical for a scientific expedition.

Social conflicts would naturally still occur.  They’d even be exacerbated by cultural differences, clashing expectations and rivalries for certain positions in the colony.  So long as the game had plenty of interesting external threats, weird new ways to collaborate (or encourage friendly competition) and bizarre things to explore and identify, there’d be plenty to do.  If at some point a crisis occurred and Player Character versus Player Character hit a crescendo than it’d be a memorable but unintended side effect of the entire campaign.

Naturally this decision has affected many choices I have made.  I scrapped a faction system, re-wrote a few of the races to make them less antagonistic, and built in the possibility of cultural confusions and clashes that won’t lead to war (i.e. each race has their own preferences around how to give a gift).  I even changed the Thief Occupation to the Journalist and moved a few skills about because naturally if you include thieves you’re going to have people looking at their allies as people to steal from and naturally the victims may well figure it out.

Does that mean people can’t pickpocket in this game?  Of course they can!  But the focus should be on obtaining information or manipulating a situation, not on depriving your fellow colonists of all their coinage.

Functional societies need their quirky merchants.

A functional player-run society to keep folk busy is a principle that certainly came out of my experiences in vampire games.  In such a campaign, many of the stories revolve around people doing their jobs or trying to get hired to do such jobs.  Dividing up resources such as locations, businesses and knowledge also took up quite a few hours and gave plenty of excuses for back room dealing.

I wanted to allow the same opportunities for self-directed roleplay in a boffer campaign where the colony itself has its own intrinsic value.  This meant keeping as many positions as possible in player, rather than NPC, hands and creating little perks and rewards for people who held those positions.  Such things as being able to set bounties using Citadel resources, putting forward requisition orders to the Citadel, or even devising quests for the other players that they didn’t need to pay for were all opportunities.

This then tied into needing a robust economy so I created a rather simple downtime system where player characters paid a certain amount of money to maintain their lifestyle at a certain level — ranging from abject poverty which affected their starting health and faith pools right up to being fabulously wealthy where others in Citadel would be more prone to delivering information, rumour and gossip and offering / accepting invitations.  As the downtime system just requires a person to select the highest level they’re willing to pay, and they’ll get as near to it as they can afford, it shouldn’t take up much of the player’s time but will round out their experience.

Creating a sense of society in a colony requires more than wages and jobs, however, so I will be creating a map of the known land and when a player signs up for an NPC shift, they can send their character off on special quests where they can scout out areas, obtain resources or accomplish certain tasks that can’t be easily replicated in the game.  They pick from a list on the quest board, perhaps make one or two choices Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style and we roll a 1D6 to determine what they obtain from their foray.

This has a bonus side effect of encouraging people to NPC because there is the potential to not only gather resources here but also discover interesting tidbits or even obtain quest hooks that can be brought into game.

Finally there will be a colony map including miniatures with the option for characters to carve out land as farms, mines and lumber yards or build and expand the colony buildings themselves.  Naturally not all players will be interested in this, but some will eat it right up and the others can either maintain themselves with purely in-game actions (i.e. sheriff) or by hiring their character out between games (i.e. declare you work on a certain PC’s farms and take some of the gravy home without having to make any of the decisions).

In order to keep the society a functional and player-run society, I need to keep things reasonably simple and to do with events that can occur during the game.  After all, everyone needs to have the opportunity to make decisions even if they ordinarily wouldn’t care.  Thus as many decisions as possible should be pulled back into game or at least during game time.  There’s nothing stopping players from deciding to commit a certain amount of chits to expanding their farm by leaving a note with the bank, after all.

And on that note, merchants and banks are portrayed by PCs.  They’re a bit more work and such work will be detailed upfront.  PCs aren’t expected to be at their stall or bank every minute of every day but are expected to post up opening hours somewhere on their stall.  Theft from a stall or the bank will obviously be considered quite taboo.

We’ll cover off on the next few design principles in next week’s article!

LARP Design Principles, Part 1

The map from Angorn: Land of Sin — another homebrew LARP.

As a follow up to my overview of the processes of creating a LARP, I figured I’d talk a little about how my existing player base and LARP history informed some of my later decision making.  You see, I’d run a few dice-heavy theatre LARPs in the Vampire: the Requiem setting and I had a number of players who didn’t come from a boffer background.  I didn’t want to lose them, and I didn’t feel that I needed to.  I also knew how much fun you can make from adventure-style games involving clues and NPCs despite a dice-based combat system and figured that surely I could use some of the lessons there to make the Multiverse campaign even better.

I also didn’t have any co-GMs in mind so I had to build it in such a way that it could be largely self-run.  I’d likely get the occasional person willing to run a module or two, but nothing more intensive than that.  All the GMs I did know had their own LARPs to run or would prefer to be a player in this one.

So I had a few design principles in mind as I refined the rules:

  • Utility skill focus (rather than combat skills)
  • Very streamlined combat mechanics
  • Low, mainly social, PvP (vampire made me weary)
  • A functional player-run society to keep folk busy
  • Town-based roles typically reserved for NPCs would be given to PCs
  • In-game encouragement to portray other NPCs

The utility skill focus was largely achieved by simple brainstorming and trawling through all the LARP rules documents I could get from the internet to find new utility skills.  Once I had the new skills slipped into the various occupational sets, I’d go away for a day or two and then come back to really think about what it’d be like to actually play with that skill, how it could be used, what it added / detracted to the experience and whether it’d even come up.

Utility skills rely quite a bit on other players’ reactions and the GM making a point to include them so I wanted to make sure that the players didn’t lose out when they picked one over another.

Streamlined combat mechanics has been reasonably easy thus far.  Simply don’t include many on the PC front — no spells to force changes in behaviour on a battlefield, no sunders and agonies and take-a-knees and stun-locks.  In order to keep things interesting, I have included the possibility of interesting combat mechanics for NPC antagonists (monsters) and through equipment.  A person might get a very expensive stun baton that has a thrice-usable stun-lock mechanism before shorting out that could be described to everyone pre-game.

While using equipment to make combat more interesting has its faults (very hard to pre-define everything or even recall it all), it makes merchants more useful, money more valuable, and if an item turns out to be overpowered it’ll soon be used up and pushed out of the game.  It also inspired a setting-element that degrades certain technologies over time which excused the lack of guns and would help me balance equipment.  Plus, who doesn’t love finding a knick-knack that can actually do a thing?

Of course, I’m still wrestling with what to do about armour.  Most games have a huge focus on it and I’m not so keen on having armour repair mechanics — but also equally not keen in *not* having such mechanics.  I’ve been advised that we could go without it because, after all, the range of costuming opportunities in this game (Wild West, Steampunk) should be encouraged rather than discouraged by making armour a powerful and vital thing.  I’m still thinking about this little conundrum.

Anyway, I’ll describe how I dealt with the rest of the principles underlying the Multiverse campaign in the next post.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments box below or even put forward your own ideas, suggestions, and thoughts about the LARP refinement process.

An Overview of Creating a LARP

Designing can be fun.

There’s not much out that that explains the creative process of creating a LARP so I thought I’d step up and explain the processes that I’ve stumbled through for the Multiverse Cycle.  Though the mind rarely moves in clear-cut stages, I thought that vaguely grouping them into time-passed semi-linear categories might help people interested in doing it themselves.  If you have a very different process, feel free to describe it in the comment box below!

A random idea

Oftentimes the idea might come from a conversation with your friends, a television series or a roleplaying game idea that you have percolating for a while.  When I had a conversation with my friends about the LARPcraft rules and how we would improve upon them, I never thought I would sit down the following day to write a widely differing character generation system.

Alternating Stage: Rules

Though the first thing I did was sit down to think up rules for a boffer LARP, the truth is that you can’t have rules without setting and vice versa.  A good set of rules suggests the setting, and the setting enhances and works to highlight the rules and make them easier to remember.  The first set of toing and froing I did was the base mechanics – health and faith.  Health did what it usually did (provided the space between life and death for characters) and faith functioned as a sort of mana bar, willpower point, and it powered skills (and thus limited their uses).  I decided that those with high health would have low faith, and vice versa, and aimed to give nearly every race a unique ratio of health to faith.

I created classes where people could pick any skill but had to pick at least one from their core class.  Later I turned these classes into occupations and added a single occupational skill that you couldn’t possess unless that was your core class to help differentiate between them.  Most of these skills were what is known as utility skills that let you do or know something rather than fight better or cast more unique damaging spells.  I wanted few calls, low numbers (swing for one damage) and a pretty simple battlefield scenario since I find it difficult to process too much in a combat.  Plus I’ve always been drawn to utility skills, no matter what the system.

Coming up with cool setting ideas are just as important as a working rule-set.

Alternating Stage: Setting

My races were my first port of call for setting and initially were a set of fantasy land races that were mainly based off what sort of racial costuming would be possible and relatively easy to represent.  We had humans, elves, fairies, animalkin, stone elemental-born and gillmen (love me some underwater races).  I’ve never liked really liked dwarves, though I understood that many others did, so I scrapped them, and I’ve never been a fan of the orc teeth prosthetic so I switched them out for the more intellectual gremlin.  Since I looked the look of tieflings, I decided to go with gargoyles rather than tieflings or fairies.

It was about then that I came up with the idea of having each race come from a different world rather than a different country and to have each world sit at a different point on the magically rich vs magically poor and scientifically controlled versus no science scales.  So then I sat down and picked a variety of settings that I thought would be really cool — gothic Victoriana, lost cities of Atlantis, steampunk, wild west, generic fantasyland, post-apocalyptic and modern low level sci-fi (not cyberpunk, cleaner, no interstellar space travel).

Then I paired these settings with the races, testing out different pairings here and there in a few cases for though some pairings were obvious (humans and low level sci fi, gargoyles and gothic Victoriana, animalkin and fantasy land, gillmen and lost cities of Atlantis) others were less so (stone elemental-born and post-apoc, gremlins and steampunk, elves and Wild West).

At this point the elemental-born shifted as I re-read Dystopia Rising and came up with something entirely different.  The metallic etchings remained, the potential for metal limbs, but the people themselves became augmented humans who had managed to colonise an alien world.  The elves soon started to make sense for the Wild West when I gave them a more mecurial mind-set.  I only really accepted gremlins and steampunk after a conversation with my husband where he urged me to go for it.

Looking over my worlds, I realised that there was too much similarity between gothic Victoriana, the Wild West and Steampunk, so updated gothic Victoriana to dystopian 1930s – 1950s while keeping the gothic vibes through the existence of plagues, ancient ritual and festering nobility that remained in certain areas.

Twenties Guy
Read widely and never stop reading.

Consistent Stage: Research

I kept heading back to Google, typing in new search terms each times, finding LARP documents, reading those LARP documents and copying across any abilities, ideas or even logistical information that I thought might be useful at some point in the game.  I’d dump it in the right spot, move along, then come back to it later on to see if it was a worthwhile addition and if so to alter it to my needs.

I read far and wide, from Nordic to American Jeepform to boffer to parlour and back again.  I found myself re-reading articles I’d read from years ago — recognising occasional comments a younger me had placed there.  I absorbed as much as I could, learned from the masters about what worked and what didn’t, and also took a look at what *I* would find fun.

I found that most skill-heavy LARPs favoured combat skills and powers, whereas I would favour anything else.  It appears to make a more easy-to-balance game.  Just include a variety of different scenarios to ensure each skill remains usable.  Naturally this remains to be seen as I haven’t playtested the boffer rules yet.

The Play Is The Thing

In the next article I’ll discuss how I took all of this and then further refined it through a long consideration of what I wanted to run, how I wanted it to work and what the needs of my existing player base would be.  After all, I’d just finished the Dark Before Dawn campaign and was midway through a six session Paradise Island campaign and I didn’t want to ditch them for a campaign that ran very differently.  Stay tuned to find out what I did and where it went from here in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the design principle series.