We can be heroes

I’ve not posted for a few months, which I’m mildly irritated about. My excuse would be that I’ve been running and designing games, so no time to blog them. Nonsense. I’ve just bottled it, through fear of “being wrong”… Crazy. People are wrong on the Internet all the while. So, without worrying about whether or not I’m right, but just so I can get this out of my head and in an order…

Large-scale LARP handles making heroes badly. Stories need heroes, the promise of larp is that it makes stories, so why are we so often so poor at making a significant mass of our players’ characters into heroes?

(Or anti-heroes, or whatever – you know what I mean. Protagonists. The focus of a narrative.)

Some players will make magnificent stories whatever the game, some won’t want to be in a story at all, but there’s a significant proportion who want it to happen, and can’t make it on their own. So how do game designers we help them? Why doesn’t story-making happen in large-scale larp more often?

The trite answer is “because it’s hard.”. It’s definitely easier in small events. Take the classic linear quest set-up: you’ve probably got fewer than a dozen players, and if you keep even half an eye on what skills their characters have, and make sure they’re all used in challenging ways, then everyone gets to be the centre of attention.

Wrap that in a satisfying narrative, job done. (Noting in passing that I started that with the skills, not the narrative – which I think might be something to think about one day…)

It’s when events get bigger than that, that it can start to unravel.

http://www.eventyr.org.uk/ has a neat answer – it’s essentially several questing groups running simultaneously. loads of narrative focus for 30-odd players, but I don’t think I shared more than a word or two with half of them. (Note to self: try harder on that next time…)

I think part of it is problems of simulation; of phys-repping. To me, to be a loner (You know, this knd of thing: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IWorkAlone) you need people to be alone from. To be a hero standing above lesser folk, you need some lesser folk. You need that backdrop.

Getting your players to take time out of their primary characters to play the spearcarrier is one way. It works to make antagonists, monstering for combat encounters, but I’ve never seen it work for more social play. Party cos I don’t think anyone has tried it, partly because I just don’t think it’d work… Getting players to take time out to monster at least gives them a fight. Getting people to take time out to play a servant – not so satisfying, and just too much bleed between roles for social chartacters.

Neither option really solves the core problem, they’re work-arounds.

Still, the trick of large-scale larp design is to offer enough decent roles in enough threads to get everyone their time at a focus of the stories of a game. There’s ways, and means, but there’s so much room for improvement.

Rank. If it’s all about rank, then you as a game designer definitely have something to think about. Players often want to play high rank characters – but I think it’s hard to do without backup from the rest of the game world. High rank is an easy source of narrative focus, but while it is an absolutely blast to play a leader, it’s insufficient, because there simply can’t be enough positions to go round in a large game. And it’s obvious that not everyone can be higher-ranked characters that the others. Actually, even in smaller games, it can be a problem. Playing an officer without troops to order around. Playing a queen without ladies-in-waiting. You need a lot of low rank characters, and you have to get them from somewhere.

In table-top, you can fill this in with imagination, in larp you can’t.

One element of that is – how to make it fun enough playing an underling that there are enough of them to make playing a high status character all it could/should be? It’s what Odyssey tried to do with Warleaders – make the high status characters mechanically weaker, so they rely on their underlings as the real heroes, but I’m not sure it works quite as we intended it to… Specifically, I’m not sure we made that trade-off as obvious as we needed to. Part of it is the question – how do you make being ordered around fun in larp? I quite enjoy it once in a while. I enjoy playing an underling and backing my character’s superior to the hilt. I think it’s most fun if that superior is flawed, so there’s story-meat in the relationship. So, maybe balancing rank with charater flaws might help? Essentially, balancing rank with status? You can play high rank, but you have to be Captain Bligh at sea, or Edward II on campaign? Worth a thought maybe? It is too weak from a simulationist point of view? Is it immersion breaking if all the nobs are rubbish? Is it simply too hard to manage in PvP games?

Abilities. So, part of what makes larp different fron other means of storytelling is it has a ruleset to mediate conflict or to work out what happens when you don’t have a table-top style gamemaster on your shoulder all the time. And if you the player have the rare skill that’s required in enough situations, you’re the focus. It’s easy in small games, or in small situations, but much harder across the scope of an entire fest. You need a lot of skills as a starting point, and they all need a mechanical effect. Your plot-writers need to bear those skills in mind, and work to make sure they’re all useful, every event… But that does give focus – particularly if plot or player-generated situations hinge on combinations of skills. I’m not sure this is done enough, or formally enough, very often.

Out-of-game focus. Mary Hamilton has brought something that larpers have known for years out to a wider audience. It’s about the froth. (See this, for example… http://storythings.com/2011/06/24/a-good-ending/) While you’re in character, you just need to be your own protagonist. If you’ve a good narrative for yourself, it’s spreading it wider that makes it a story. (I think.) What I’m talking about is augmenting in-game fame with out-of-game fame.

So, concentrate on low-status play and making it as rewarding as possible, have a wide enough pallette of abilities that everyone can have a unique set, that means something in game, and on recording narratives outside game for all. Easy. If only…

Food for thought for Empire, which I’ll write about elsewhere.

Oh, and go off and read this:

http://www.sixtostart.com/onetoread/2008/everything-you-know-about-args-is-wrong/ You probably know about ARGs, but if you don’t just think of them as larp games played in the real world, and set somewhere sufficiently close to actual reality to make that work. Now, not all of it is appropriate to larp, and I don’t agree with everything he says that is. But for thought-provoking game design thoughts it’s pretty neat, I think. At least the kinds of larp I play and enjoy – and give or take the odd exception, the ones I help run – don’t make all of those mistakes.

One thought on “We can be heroes

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  1. It strikes me, on reflection, that I personally am happy being th centre of a story because everyone knows the group I’m in, rather than my character specifically. Now, that’s a more scalable solution for fest larp. It’s easier to manage, too…

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