LARP Idea: Bounded Boffer Combat

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The American boffer LARPs that I’m familiar with, particularly those in the Southeast, have a strong inheritance from D&D. In particular, NERO and its offspring systems are very much class-and-level-based fantasy. There are, of course, games that stray further away, being more skill-based than level-based, focusing more on hit location than hit points, and embracing genres other than heroic fantasy. Yet all that I’m aware of still award increasing damage output and mitigation as characters gain experience, whether that’s in more damage and HP or more special attacks and expendable avoidance mechanics.

This means that life is hard for a new player that joins the game after it’s been running for a while. I played in a NERO-variant where veterans were calling 20 damage per swing when they weren’t calling instant death attacks and had hundreds of HP and armor to accompany their loads of avoidance abilities versus new players who generally dealt 2 damage per swing and had a few dozen HP. NPC monsters sent out to serve as speedbumps to veterans can slaughter any new players they happen across. Harbinger has some great ideas on how to keep this from becoming an overwhelming problem, but it’s still a problem.

Due to the high cost of venues and limited staff, LARPs tend to need a consistently large number of players; over years of play there is inevitable churn and it’s tough to attract and retain new players when they’re going to be drastically below average for years. Many games with heavy story tend to end and/or reset all PCs after a few years once the main plots are finished. But while this may make it easier for newbies to jump on at the next reset, it makes it doubly hard for them to join late in an ongoing campaign: their characters will never get very powerful and they’ll have to work extremely hard to be relevant to a plot whose threads are being tied up. Without resets, you get stories like the NERO chapters that have PCs who have been playing since the late 80s without a character reset.

I suspect many heavy-PvP LARPs and non-American PvE LARPs may solve this problem with extremely limited advancement, but ditching experience points isn’t the only solution. The peculiar DNA of American LARPs seems to have weirdly passed D&D to boffer LARPs and World of Darkness only to salon LARPs. Most White Wolf games allow PCs to start very competent in combat because the requisite attributes and abilities are capped to a level attainable in character generation. These characters aren’t extremely versatile, but they are potent.

This can make challenging the PCs harder. Harbinger frequently worried about what kind of challenges to throw at our party in Mage that was mixed between heavily combat-specced PCs and PCs with virtually no combat skills whatsoever. Even the theoretically-hardest threats in the sourcebooks could be defeated by us very early if they didn’t use their superior versatility to keep us from defining the context of the battlefield. But this is potentially much less of a problem in a LARP, where there are more players to self-organize to face various challenges. The “this fight is too hard for the PC” assumption would become “because he chose to be good at something other than fighting” rather than “because he is a newb and would fail no matter what his choices were.” Meanwhile, feeling powerful earlier is great for players, and a bounded range of threats makes world-building much easier for the GM.

I think there’s a way to pull this off in boffer LARPs that both makes newbies feel like powerful contributors and rewards high-experience veterans. The general points would be:

  • Players are strongly encouraged to focus on combat or non-combat skills (possibly further subdivided into different types like mage vs. rogue skills). This could be an official class system, or just a mechanism by which skills outside your specialty are much more expensive than those within.
  • All skill types have a potency limit that can be met or nearly met by a new player. If you’re HP-based, the maximum damage on swings/spells and total purchasable HP is within reach of a new, combat-focused character. If you’re hit-location-based, the total number of special attacks and avoidance effects you can bring into a given fight is, similarly, something new PCs can meet.
  • Skills have a deep well of versatility that allows veteran players to slightly outclass new players if they’re prepared for what they’re fighting. Maybe a new player can master one type of weapon, but different weapons are useful against different creatures so it pays off to master several. Maybe the veteran can replace generic special defenses and attacks with abilities that are more useful against one threat type (but less useful against others). Magic and other non-combat skills come in an array of different specialties.
  • Non-combat skills all have player-directed effects that are in some way relevant to combat. This may mean that magic or an equivalent is better at buffing/debuffing than fighting. Rogue and Lore skills allow battlefield control by setting up locks, wards, or traps to prevent enemies of certain types from attacking from unexpected directions, and may have protectives against certain attack or creature types.

Ultimately, the goal is that veterans should be very happy to involve new players. New combat-focused PCs are just as powerful as veterans in many encounters, and still a really good person to stand behind and buff for veteran non-combat PCs. New non-combat PCs have desirable buffs and debuffs to stand behind veteran combat PCs, and can deploy additional battlefield control that’s useful in any kind of challenging encounter.

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.

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?

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?