The Karma Contract

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Originally posted August 2006

These are some rules I threw together last night after having the idea on the drive home. They’re intended to be used for non-contact LARPs, but might work alright, slightly modified, for tabletop as well. The intention is to create a game where players are rewarded for going along with others and are limited in their ability to purely impose their intentions on others without giving something back, no matter how high their stats. A secondary intention is to provide a rules set where players can resist actions (primarily social) that would negatively impact their character concept, at a price.

Karma Contract

Each player at the LARP starts with 20 counters worth of Karma.

When players have a conflict, either player can choose to make an OFFER to settle the conflict.

For example:

I punch you in the face.

OR

I convince you to come with me.

The player figures an applicable statistic, and can hide up to that many Karma counters in his or her hand.

Once the OFFER is made, the other player can choose to ACCEPT, RESIST, or COUNTEROFFER.

If the player chooses to ACCEPT, he or she takes the Karma offered by the first player and then carries out the suggested action.

For example:

Ouch!

OR

Alright, let’s go.

If the other player chooses to RESIST, he or she hides as many Karma as desired (up to the maximum he or she possesses) in her hand. Both players reveal the Karma in their hands. If both totals are equal, or the resisting player’s total is greater, the action was resisted. If the initiating player’s total is greater, the action was successful. If the totals are not equal, the difference is given to the other player.

For example:

Player 1 OFFERs to punch Player 2 in the face
Player 1 hides six Karma counters in her hand (her maximum brawling skill)
Player 2 RESISTs
Player 2 hides seven Karma counters in his hand (he had seven or more Karma counters remaining)
The players compare and find that Player 2 wins
Player 2 barely dodges the punch to the face
Player 2 won seven vs. six
Player 2 gives one Karma counter to Player 1 (seven minus six)

If the other player chooses to COUNTEROFFER, he or she describes a conflicting action and then hides Karma counters in her hand up to the maximum of her appropriate skill. Both players reveal the Karma in their hands. If both totals are equal, neither action was successful. If the totals are unequal, the player with the highest total succeeds in his or her action. If the totals are not equal, the difference is given to the other player.

For example:

Player 1 OFFERS to convince Player 2 to come with her
Player 1 hides five Karma counters in her hand (her maximum socializing skill)
Player 2 COUNTEROFFERS for Player 1 to leave him alone and go away
Player 2 hides three Karma counters in his hand (his maximum socializing skill)
The players compare and find that Player 1 wins
Player 1 ignores Player 2’s attempt to brush her off, and convinces him to go with her
Player 1 won five vs. three
Player 1 gives two Karma counters to Player 2 (five minus three)

Complications:

The Karma counters awarded to a player usually indicate the magnitude of success for the other player. In combat, each counter indicates a level of damage. In social situations, each counter indicates roughly a minute that the player basically complies with the first player’s suggestion. Counters gained because the winning player was RESISTing have no effect other than increasing the available Karma for the resisted character.

Only one OFFER can be made per turn for combat and other physical activities. Only one OFFER can be made roughly every five minutes for social activities (and these five minutes must be spent roleplaying the conversation that leads up to the OFFER).

Equipment may modify the effect of certain actions, but cannot modify the amount of Karma available to each party to offer.

Multiple individuals acting against a single target resolve their actions individually.

Passive challenges:

In certain situations, players may wish to interact with the environment as portrayed by the staff. If there is an active component to the challenge, OFFERs are made normally, with a staff member OFFERing, RESISTing, or COUNTEROFFERing with Karma. If there is no active component (the player is making an OFFER to a static situation or object), a passive challenge is in effect.

If the player has enough time to observe the difficulty of the challenge, he or she simply declares her rating in an applicable trait. If that is enough to succeed, he or she gives the staff member one Karma counter and is successful. Some complicated challenges may be broken up into multiple stages, requiring more than one Karma counter for total success.

For example:

Player 1 OFFERs to climb a wall when under no pressure, and declares an athletics-related trait total of 6
The staff member describing the wall decides that is enough to climb the wall
Player 1 gives one Karma counter to the staff member and succeeds at climbing the wall

If the player does not have enough time to observe the difficulty of the challenge, he or she must make an OFFER normally. If that is enough to exceed the challenge difficulty, the action is successful. The Karma counters OFFERed are compared to the actual difficulty of the challenge, and any counters beyond the difficulty are given to the staff member describing the challenge. If it is not enough to succeed, no counters are lost but the player will have to wait to try again.

For example:

Player 1 is trying to flee from a combat, and OFFERs to climb a wall
Player 1 hides five Karma counters in her hand (she can OFFER up to six counters, because of her athletics-related trait total)
The staff member describing the wall decides that the wall is resisting with four counters worth of difficulty
The player and staff member compare, and discover that Player 1 was successful
Player 1 gives one counter to the staff member, and climbs the wall
(If she had OFFERed only four counters or less, she would have been unsuccessful. If she had OFFERed six counters, she would have given two to the staff member)

Variations:

  • Players start with exactly 20 counters at the beginning of each game. They will be most successful if they have no counters at the end of each game. Counters may need to be changed out each game to prevent players from holding on to their counters from previous games.
  • Players keep any counters they had from game to game. New players only get 20 counters for their first character. The counters available in the game will be highly variable, as new players coming in, players ceasing to come, and counters put into and removed from the game by staff NPCs and challenges will be hard to track. However, there is no issue with players holding onto counters from game to game.
  • Players are given 20 new counters at the beginning of each game and keep any counters they have left over at the end of each game. Players can “cash out” their Karma at the end of each game for extra experience at a rate of 10 to 1. Players that routinely lose challenges or accept OFFERs will grow faster than characters that are regularly successful.

Remaining questions:

Should players announce their maximum potential bid when making an offer, or leave it entirely up to a guessing game/bluff?

Ultimate Star Wars – Tech

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Originally Posted July 2006

So I’m not sure how I got to thinking about this, but I think it had something to do with the idea someone mentioned about rewriting episodes 1-3 while discarding everything created for the universe except in episodes 4-6. Which got me thinking about running a game where the only canon is what appears in 4-6. Which got me thinking about recreating the technology explanations solely to fit what appears on screen in the most efficient way possible.

The problem with Star Wars tech is the problem with pretty much all sci-fi that creates a story and then invents technology to fit: you often get good stories, but the science tends to suffer more than if you come up with a few advanced tech assumptions/conceits first and then build logically from there.

Even though Firefly/Serenity was probably Joss simply looking for tech that was thematically appropriate to a space western, I quite like the post-hoc explanation in the RPG that most of the tech that’s beyond what we can currently produce is based on the partial Grand Unification of Electromagnetism and Gravity.

I figured some similar simple assumption/conceit could be used to explain the tech that appears in Star Wars 4-6 much more succinctly than the modulating phase crystals and turbo lasers and all of the stuff that shows up in the EU explanations.

So science savvy people, please let me know just how far fetched this conceit is, and whether the science that follows seems plausible, assuming that the conceit is true, within a space opera setting.

Conceit:

In the galaxy far, far away, a generally inexplicable but measurable Force allows electromagnetism and magnetic particles to bind in ways not allowable by general laws of physics. Technological apparati can be created to manipulate energy along the wavelengths that trigger this force effect. Some individuals seem to have a biological chemistry or pattern of brain wavelengths that allows them to naturally produce the force effect to a certain degree, and they have established a religion that claims that the Force is evidence of the supernatural.

Uses of the force effect:

The primary use of this effect is to create stable, manipulable fields of magnetism and electrons. These force fields can be used to channel, contain, diffuse, and reflect energy in practical ways. With enough charged particles fed into the fields, they can even serve to screen against standard particles by providing enough charge to resemble the electomagnetic field that keeps the atoms of solid material from penetrating one another.

Blasters: Blasters produce a short-lived cylinder or column of force field that is injected with charged plasma and fired at a target. Generally, the speed of the shot allows the field to bind the plasma until it reaches a target; blasts that go astray tend to break down rather quickly as the plasma cools and disperses into gas – this rate is based on the power of the weapon, and determines its effective range. The blaster effect has been well documented and its technology mass produced such that blasters are usually safe in any trained hands.

Lightsabers: The elegant weapon of an earlier age, lightsabers were developed simultaneously with blasters and are both simpler and more complicated. Rather than binding a bolt of plasma as blasters do, the saber produces a thin column of force of only a meter or so in length, and injects it with plasma. The field is designed to contain and repel other fields and plasma, and yet allow physical matter to pass and come in contact with the plasma contained within. Because the field and plasma remain attached to the generator, energy loss is much lower than a blaster since the charge of the field and the heat and amount of plasma can be simply maintained rather than being created anew with each blast. Since the plasma is being constantly refreshed, a lightsaber blade cuts and burns with at least the strength of a blaster bolt immediately after launch.

Unfortunately, lightsabers are much less practical for common use than the blaster. The generation of so much energy that remains in proximity to the generator for so long tends to increase the failure rate of the device; users must be trained to maintain the weapon, and it helps to have an intuitive feel for when the device requires maintenance. Further, few sentients are equipped to deal with wielding what is essentially a nearly massless wand of plasma – lightsaber wielders are often more of a danger to themselves or their allies than to enemies since it is easy to misjudge the blade’s placement. Because of this, the blades have never been commonly used by any but the Jedi.

Tractor Beams: Only practical on very large ships because of the size of the electromagnet required, a tractor beam projects a column of force at a magnetic object and uses it to precisely focus and extend a magnetic attraction between the two objects.

Hyperspeed: Understood by only the most elite physicists in the galaxy, and yet mass-produced for its utility, hyperspeed uses the scientific oddness of the force effect to circumvent the limits on approaching the speed of light. The ship creates a very tight field of force that hedges out all other energy wavelengths and, seemingly, universal constants. From the universe’s perspective, the encased ship is nothing but energy, so is able to accelerate to an appreciable fraction of the speed of light very quickly, for limited energy compared to its mass, and with greatly reduced relativistic effects on the crew. However, the field works to its utmost to screen against the regular background forces of the universe – skirting too close to a gravity well can quickly tax its resources and hitting an object of significant mass can be deadly to all involved.

Rule of Agreement and Gaming

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Originally posted June 2006

“Offer: A question or statement that gives a player an opportunity to respond. A cardinal rule of improv is to accept any offer. If two players are in a scene that takes place on the Titanic and a third enters and says, “What’s that camel doing out there?” the players should accept the offer and may say, “I didn’t realize we’d drifted so far south. Let’s get on it and ride to safety.” This response incorporates the offer into the scene and allows the action to continue. The players may instead block the offer which means denying the offer by rejecting or ignoring what was given. “That can’t be a camel. We’re near the North Pole,” is a blocking answer and stops the action while throwing the players out of alignment with each other.”
Playing Along

I’ve never had any actual improv training, even though I’ve heard tons of people explain LARP to outsiders as “a lot like improv.” I read about the rule of agreement earlier in a book I’m reading, and it made me think that maybe LARPs aren’t as much like improv as we tend to believe. But they could be.

Nobilis the RPG offered something similar to the rule, applied only to GMs, in the Monarda Law. As part of the empowerment of PCs inherent in Nobilis, the GM is never supposed to respond to a player’s “Can I…” with “No.” The GM can turn the question back with “How?,” suggest that it may not work out fully with “You can try!,” add consequences with “Yes, but…,” or qualify the actions in terms that fit the story better with “Yes, and…”

“Can I shoot down the sun with an Aspect 9 miracle?”

  • “How?”
  • “You can try!”
  • “Yes, but it would drive most of the world insane and piss off all of your allies and enemies… do you still want to?”
  • “Yes, and in doing so you’ll set off the prophecy about an unexpected eclipse and accomplish your goals before the other Nobles can fix it.”

I think that this is a fun rule, and worked well when I was running Nobilis, but I think it could go further. What if the players, when in character, expected to never give an unqualified no?

The rule of agreement in improv is designed to keep scenes moving; you never reject an offer because it stalls out the scene as players readjust their idea of what is going on. Yet, in most games we’re both trying to tell an improvised story and trying to get deeply into the mindset of our characters. Often, the reaction we feel is the correct way to roleplay our characters results in an unqualified no and, as in improv, this stalls out the scene. Fun becomes getting what our character wants whether or not it results in a good story. And, since we have so much wrapped up in the character’s success, if the character loses we’re unhappy even if it resulted in a story that was more interesting or more enjoyable for others.

I wonder if there are some concise guidelines that we could use to make LARPing and tabletopping more similar to improv’s method of accepting all offers. These rules would have to account for:

  • Having to interact with other players that we may not fully trust to appreciate our acceptance of offers and reciprocate in kind
  • Not having the full level of narrative control that improv players enjoy; you can’t just say, “look, a camel!”
  • Being true to a character and genre strictures that should be maintained over many sessions.

Does anyone have ideas for what these rules would be?