LARP Lessons: Dreams of Darker Days

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Dreams of Darker Days (DDD) was a crossover LARP of Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Changeling: the Dreaming that ran from 2000-2001. It went for 13 monthly sessions (including two camping overnights) along a pre-planned “year and a day” storyline. We had four main GMs, and I was in charge of the Changeling characters and plots (plus any Corax, because I looooove Corax). It was the sister WoD LARP to Night’s Children, a Vampire/Wraith game (no crossover, we were just hosted by the same production company), and there was little GM crossover: most of the DDD staff played in NC and vice versa.

Game Background

We’re big fans around here of the story structure where the protagonists unwittingly break something in Act 1 and have to fix it by Act 3. So DDD was essentially a European Ignorance Cautionary Fable.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, when the Dreaming and the Umbra were both closer to the physical world, a greater phoenix entity with ties to both realms got itself Wyrm-corrupted, effectively becoming a greater Bane. It terrorized Europe for a while before getting driven off to the Americas. The native Garou and Fae managed to put it down eventually by pinning it under hundreds of Rock Giants and locking them into a binding ritual made by Uktena mystics. We call the spot where it’s trapped Stone Mountain. To keep the ritual and the living giants that made up the mountain fed, they linked the binding to a bunch of local sources of Gnosis and Glamour, the keystone of while was a powerful caern/freehold in what would become Atlanta.

Cut to 2000, when in the middle of all the late-era WoD metaplot, a collection of Changelings and Werewolves take over a long-ignored minor combo caern/freehold that everyone thinks has more potential than it’s currently expressing. They start tapping the energy from the site, using it to deal with all the usual WoD metaplot stuff (War in Concordia! Pentex! Fomorians waking up! Sabbat in Atlanta! Technocrats!).

Meanwhile, of course, they’re siphoning off the key energy used to keep the binding ritual working. The first clue of this is a weird “Iron Plague” that’s unmaking Changelings in the area (the loose ends of the ritual occasionally earthing and sucking a Changeling dry of Glamour to try to fuel itself). The next is the upswing in weirdness showing up in town (agents of the Wyrm being drawn to the near-waking Bane). The third was several characters randomly awakening as Rock Giants (that had broken off the main mass) and fire-themed Wyrm spirits appearing. Finally, prophecies and lore start falling out just in time for the characters to mount a frantic battle and ritual to refresh and reinforce the binding, sacrificing several of their own in the process of keeping an ancient evil from walking the world once more.

The Technique

One thing that our production company did that I don’t think was otherwise at all common was to treat long-running LARPs like one-shots, in that we’d pregen most of the characters. When you showed up at one of our games, you’d get asked what kind of character you wanted to play and we’d give you the closest character we had that hadn’t been cast yet. If we knew you were coming, we might write you something specific. You got a page or more of background, a character that started with higher-than-starting stats commensurate with the background (e.g., if you were a powerful Baron, you had the stats to back it up), and a list of goals, allies, and enemies. After that, you were on your own to develop the character further. Here are the Changelings as examples (all the ones that list experience spent at the bottom are customized by their players).

This practice probably started because most of us had been heavily involved in various convention LARPs where pregens were a necessity to run a game in a few hours or days, so it just seemed natural to continue the pregens in longer-running games.

The cool thing about it was that it allowed us to hit the ground running from session 1, and give new players rich connections even if they showed up later. There was no period of “Who are these people? What do I want? Why am I here?” Instead, you were pointed at several characters you’d know for good or ill and given a list of starter ambitions (which we knew were attainable and usually involved getting you to create drama with other player characters).

I don’t know how most WoD LARPs handle filling the power structure, but I assume it’s similar to most boffer LARPs I’ve played: the power structure starts out with NPCs until leaders have naturally emerged among the PCs and they gradually take over authority. This method allowed us to hand most of the authority roles to PCs on day 1 (and if they didn’t wind up having the charisma to stay in charge, we’d also handed several other players goals of “take power through whatever means necessary!”).

That latter aside was another key use for the technique: even though our games did tend to feature heavy plot and NPC antagonists, we were also able to seed deep conflict among the PCs rather than hoping it would emerge organically, and social PvP conflict is important when you’ve got a 10:1 or worse ratio of players to GMs at a normal session. We wound up giving the Shadow Court oathcircle and the Shadowlords pack to players we knew would have a great time being thorns in the sides of the more traditionally heroic PCs (mostly the GMs from our sister Vampire game).

The Drawbacks

Of course, the technique has several fairly large problems.

The first is just all the work involved. I obviously can only turn out a couple of posts for this blog a week, and every PC in the game had a background nearly the length of one of my normal entries in addition to a set of stats generated to match. Every two-page character with “Player: Uncast” on it hurts me a little: those were generally a thousand words that went completely to waste. The ones that only got used for one session because the player never came back may hurt a little bit more (even though we were pretty shameless about recasting roles… “Remember your packmate? Well he’s that guy now.”). I doubt it’s something I’d have had time for if I wasn’t a student at the time.

The second is that it demands much more GM attention to what players have available. It’s one thing to have a stable of starting-level PCs that don’t have anything they haven’t earned in game over several sessions, giving every GM time to remember and adapt. It’s another to have a player you’ve never seen before asking you for resources he claims he should have access to, but you weren’t the one who wrote the character (even though you’re almost 100% sure none of your other GMs are crazy enough to give an untested new player the Demolitions skill).

And the third is key to that last aside and probably the real reason we don’t do it anymore: it’s a policy that can lead to favoritism. When you’ve got a stack of plot-important characters, as a GM you’re more likely to hand those out to players that you know are going to stick around for several sessions and can stay alive (and possibly in charge). So you hand them out to your regulars and friends, and the untested new players get the PCs that don’t have anything vital to lose if they die or stop showing up. Especially since plot-importance is correlated with how much higher than starting your stats are, it’s probably a formula for discouraging new players from trying your game.

Is it more discouraging than what you get naturally after several years of a 5+ year campaign, though? It’s hard to say; most of the players I still keep in touch with are ones that got the good characters…

A Bonus

I don’t know if anyone has a use for nearly 80 Changeling: the Dreaming chimerical items and treasures statted in Mind’s Eye Theatre format. But if you do, here they are.

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Pathways Chain

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On the whole, my Online Pathways system didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped, and this had a lot to do with trying to coordinate over 20 players, most of whom had never tried Smallville-style creation before.¬† The web had a tendency to go wide, and without table banter it was hard for everyone to figure out what additions to nodes other players would like and what contradicted their original intentions in non-fun ways. But we did still wind up with a pretty nice web when all was said and done, with some really neat plots put into motion. A good part of this came from THE LIGHTNING ROUND that I set up to keep players busy while I was without internet access. And that system is further expanded below…

Making the Chain

  • Seed the map with nodes for player characters and at least one type of significant other node (I’d go with themes, but you could pick NPCs, locations, etc.). You can do a bit of standard Pathways creation first, or just put down the nodes with no connections.
  • If you’re in person, go around the table normally. Online, each player can go whenever they want, but they can’t go again until all other players have gone. You might also set a time period (e.g., make one connection a day).
  • The GM picks a node to start.
  • The next player then chooses a node on the map, draws an arrow from it to the previously selected node, and describes the connection.
  • The following player does the same, drawing an arrow and describing the connection to the node chosen by the preceding player.
  • And so on.
  • There are only a few rules:
    • You can’t pick another player’s character as your node choice. You can pick your own player character (and then the next player will draw an arrow from something to your PC, describing how it feels about you).
    • Pick a certain (limited) type of node (I recommend Themes). Each node can connect to a maximum of two of these. When one player picks one of these elements, you can invent a new node and immediately connect it. Otherwise, you can’t invent a new node (to keep the number of nodes manageable).
    • You can’t make a connection that already exists (though if there’s an arrow from one element to another, you can generally make the connection the other way).
    • If the map is being drawn live, the GM may request that you limit the distance and crossover of other lines made by your connections (i.e., limit yourself to connecting nodes that are nearby), as this will make the map easier to read.

Example

  • The GM starts the process by picking the Theme, “Knowledge.”
  • Player 1 chooses to invent a new Location, “43rd Precinct” and draws an arrow to Knowledge, “The best detectives in the city.”
  • Player 2 has to connect something to the Location, and chooses his own PC, Max, drawing an arrow from Max to the location, “Works here as a detective.”
  • Player 3 has to connect to Max, and decides to connect her own PC, Lucy, drawing an arrow from Lucy to Max, “Friends before they were on opposite sides of the law.”
  • Player 4 can’t resist the urge to bring this full circle, and draws an arrow from 43rd Precinct to Lucy, “Collecting evidence to arrest.”
  • The next player can now hook something else to the 43rd precinct, and might choose a second Theme so the next step is to invent another new node and keep the process going…

Borrowing from Video Games: XCOM’s Extra Characters

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XCOM is a tactical, turn-based game where you maneuver a squad of soldiers to defeat an alien invasion, responding to alien attacks as they appear. Your team can ultimately be up to six members and they level up, becoming more and more effective. But by the end of the game you’ll likely have around a dozen soldiers that are decently leveled, even if you don’t do what I did and try to avoid using characters that can’t get any more exp unless the mission is difficult. This is because whenever any character takes damage during a mission (in excess of points provided by armor) he or she actually has to spend time healing. Alien attacks are happening every few days, particularly early on, so if you have a character healing for a week, that character is going to have to be replaced with your next choice for any given mission. Particularly before you get heavy armors and better healing, you may be having more than half of your squad wounded for at least a couple of days every mission.

This process reminded me of a recent blog post by Tim Kask, once and future TSR employee, about how D&D was played originally. The players didn’t just swap PCs because of high-mortality, but because they had a whole stable of characters each. If someone wanted to start a new character, the other players could play what were effectively their “alts” (in MMO parlance) to adventure with him. And their characters might be unavailable due to time-consuming projects or, in fact, getting wounded with a long recovery time. I suspect the classic “my character died, let me reroll” concept may even be inaccurate, replaced with “my character died, let me bring in my other character who’s already about the right level for this adventure.”

That post probably shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, given how obvious it is once explained. A lot of the old D&D tropes that have been largely designed away over the years in a world that’s increasingly become one PC per player at a time suddenly make way more sense in this context. Random chargen makes more sense if you can try several different characters at once and stick with the one that’s the most fun (even rather than playing sequentially with high mortality). The concept of level caps and retiring PCs works as a way of encouraging players to spread their focus (just like in most MMOs you’d probably rather bring an alt to play with lower-level friends rather than your high-level PC that doesn’t even get exp from that level of threat).

I’ve heard a lot of OSR folks complain about Dragonlance as the point when D&D began to require an ongoing story about heroes rather than their preferred style of largely amoral adventurers going into dungeons for thrills and treasure. But it’s also potentially a model for how you could maintain the old style of a character stable with an ongoing story. The obvious way to look at the Chronicles is as a party that got so large that the GM eventually forces them to split into two groups on parallel adventures. But if you see it as a much smaller group that gradually adds alts, chooses who to play based on a plot that forks and rejoins, and happily sacrifices an alt now and again for a heroic death, it works just as well. That last point is huge: it’s much more palatable to have that big, impressive death scene that RPGs are always telling us would be awesome if you aren’t just going to have to immediately roll a new character, but actually already have another character you’ve already played a lot and are excited to play more.

All you really need to try this style of play is:

  • A shift from “a band of [Number of Players] heroes who are the only ones to face this task” to “a small organization always looking for more heroes to face this task”
  • A rationale for why only a subset of this group ever goes on missions at once (from a simple “a small group draws less notice than an army” hand wave, to a “too many characters can’t coordinate effectively in combat” hedge, to a detailed system of healing times and downtime actions that conspire to keep alts busy)
  • A base or traveling camp that the adventures stay near so players can explain how they’re swapping characters frequently
  • A tendency for sessions to end on return to base or other rationale for swapping out characters
  • A regular enough game session that players don’t feel like they’re not progressing on any of their characters if they don’t stick to one

That last point is generally the hardest for adult gamers who don’t have time to play every week, but the other points make it easier. A style of play that doesn’t have to skip a session if one or two players can’t make it (because the last session ended mid-adventure with those players PCs unable to exit gracefully) and can easily bring in additional players every now and again is one that can more easily run frequently (as only the GM has to make it to every session).

I’m certainly very likely to try something in this vein, particularly the next time I have more players interested in a game than I’m comfortable hosting at once. Several of my players have traditionally always started game planning with a barrage of character ideas, and if nothing else it will be fun to just tell them, “Go ahead and make ’em all.”

Skill Challenge via Fortune Dice

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And I’m back. Service may continue to be slow as I build up a backlog of ideas, but the goal is to get back up to a twice per week schedule.

Skill use in general and skill challenges in specific have always suffered a handful of major problems:

  • When making a single skill roll, there’s often a very narrow margin of interesting failure between “fail and you’re screwed” (failing your Jump check across a deep chasm) and “well can I just try again in a round?” (failing to pick a lock with no trap or nearby threats). GMs are encouraged to only call for rolls when they know that failure will be interesting and won’t derail the session, but players often try to initiate dice rolls when they are taking an action they don’t expect to be automatic.
  • The 4e group skill challenge paradigm of X successes before Y failures does the opposite of what it set out to do: rather than encourage every player to try to get involved, even if they don’t have any good skills that are relevant, it makes much more sense to sit out or aid another so that only the best PCs’ skill results count toward the challenge.
  • In general, it’s very hard to come up with a skill challenge that can justify awarding exp in the same way you might for a combat encounter.

This last point is the most interesting. The 4e introduction of skill challenges carried with it the idea that you’d get exp for success just like a combat encounter, so they had to be complex and have a decent chance of failure. But they never really felt like combat. Harbinger has some ideas on how to make them closer, and I’ve mentioned similar things in the past, but the really crucial issue is that skill challenges tend to have lower stakes, low granularity of results, and be self contained.

In combat, particularly in more recent editions of D&D, there’s very little chance that you’ll have a PC die or even lose in the first combat of the day. Instead, the real question is how many resources you have to expend to achieve victory, whether cleverness can mitigate this loss, and whether those expended resources will eventually add up to problems in later encounters. A well-designed skill challenge might have story ramifications for success vs. failure, and even might have some degree of granularity in its output, but it doesn’t have the same kind of coherent system effect as combat where you’ve potentially lost hit points, charges, and dailies.

In his post, Harbinger mentioned the Doom Pool concept from MHR/Cortex+, and I think that might be the ultimate solution to the issue. The following concept is largely based on that and Push Dice from Technoir.

Fortune Pool

The fortune pool represents a sort of short-term and highly elastic luck or karma. As player characters push their luck and get good results more often than expected, so too do circumstance conspire to make them suffer for these payoffs.

The players have control over the fortune pool, which consists of d6s (and is effectively unlimited). They can pass dice from the pool to the GM in the situations outlined below. They cannot roll the dice for anything themselves, only give them to the GM.

The GM accumulates fortune dice. At any point, the GM may return two fortune dice of the same size to the pool to take a fortune die that is one step larger (e.g., return 4d6 for 2d8 or 1d10). The GM may also return dice to the pool to activate results as outlined below. The GM may add a single fortune die to any roll (skill, attack, save, or damage) made by an enemy NPC (or environmental hazard), after the NPC’s result is known. The result of the fortune die is added to the original result (potentially turning failure to success or dealing more damage). The die is returned to the pool after rolling.

GMs should keep their fortune dice where the players can see them, to see how big their potential misfortune is getting.

Simple Challenges

In a normal, one-off skill roll (rather than a group challenge that requires multiple successes, see below), a player may give the GM a fortune die to replace the result of the die roll with a 10. If the result was already 10 or better, the player can give the GM two fortune dice to replace it with a 20 (3 dice total to turn a result of less than 10 into a 20). Players can also make this decision for NPC allies.

In this paradigm, failure should be pretty bad. For dangerous rolls (jumping a chasm, climbing a cliff, etc.), failure means you take whatever the worst case damage is. Even for rolls where there should be no particular pressure, rolling and then failing should preclude trying again until at least the next day (the player should have declared taking 10 or 20 in advance rather than going for the roll). There should be substantial pressure to give the GM fortune dice to eke out a success.

And eking is exactly what’s happening: failure to success via fortune dice should always include a complication. At the very least, it took longer than expected, and if the GM can think of something interesting to throw at the players, that’s even better (e.g., “With one final exertion you make it up the cliff face, but you hear the sound of falling rocks behind you; everyone else’s DC goes up by +2 for lack of handholds”).

If the player achieves success naturally, and beat the DC by 5 or more, he or she can also turn over a fortune die to have it be an exceptional success. If the GM accepts the die, it must include narration of some benefit above and beyond simple success (the GM is not obligated to take the die if he or she can’t think of a cool reward).

The GM can return a die to the pool to turn basic natural success (by less than 5) into the same kind of success plus complication as if the player had used fortune dice to overcome failure.

On a failure by 5 or more than the player chose to let stand, the GM can return a die to create a situation of It Gets Worse that wasn’t originally part of the conceived adventure (“Alright, you fall into the pit and take 4d6. As your ears stop ringing from the impact, you hear the hiss of several snakes…”).

GMs shouldn’t call for simple challenges if the DC is so high that even a 20 won’t succeed, just narrate that the challenge is beyond the player’s skill. But if the player goes ahead and rolls without the GM specifically requesting it, feel free to take a bunch of fortune dice and then tell the player 20 is not enough…

Complex Challenges

A complex challenge is a more drawn out scene that requires a series of rolls and encourages the whole party to get involved. This could be a negotiation, a chase through the city, or something similar. In these situations, a round becomes more narrative and may represent more than six seconds.

In these challenges, the players must accumulate a certain number of successes to win, and lose if their success total is negative at the end of a round. Some challenges will simply go for a certain number of rounds and have a granular result based on accumulated successes (e.g., “you have three rounds representing your time to research and investigate before the trial”).

If the players are being directly contested (chased by guards, competing in the negotiation against rivals, etc.), the NPC opponents get to roll each round and deduct a success from the PCs’ total for each of their own (and can roll a fortune die normally). If the challenge is more environmental (e.g., getting to safety or disarming a trap), the GM may simply apply a set number of negative successes each round.

Players can use fortune dice just as they would in a simple challenge to achieve success with complication. Spending for a major success turns one success to two for the final tally.

Unlike simple challenges, failures aren’t disastrous, they simply don’t add a success (unless the GM has a bright idea to spend a fortune die and add a complication for the failure). Thus, even members of the party with low skill bonuses might consider risking a roll (and shoring it up with fortune dice) rather than passing to let their more skilled peers handle it.

You may choose to award exp for a successful skill challenge, or simply assume that, since it adjusts how many fortune dice are available to make combats harder, success with minimal fortune use is its own reward.