Once upon a time, I was involved in the design of a fest-lrp called Odyssey. It was a game of classical myth, designed for hundreds of players; which settled at 300 or thereabouts, which I find oddly pleasing.
It was run for Profound Decisions, a UK company who had also run a fest called Maelstrom, and would one day go on to run Empire.
One of the issues any big game has to think about is – to what extent is PvP settled by violence a theme of the game, and how does that affect the game experience of the players?
Here’s some thoughts on that from Ian Andrews and Matt Pennington, taken from the now-defunct Odyssey Design Blog via the wonders of the Wayback Machine.
Shedding Blood on Atlantis
Here’s the IC version. The Gods have agreed between themselves an uneasy truce. They have agreed to the mechanics of the Annual to prevent further savage bloodshed the world can ill afford after Alexander, and to ensure there is a place of safety where their forces can meet and compete without fear of betrayal. To that end, they have forbidden bloodshed on Atlantis outside the Arena. Many on Atlantis will be under the eyes of their gods – some are especially favoured and will be guaranteed a visit to their death god whether the appropriate rites are performed or not so there is little or no way of ensuring they do not report what they see… Any blood spilled outside the arena will be thoroughly investigated by the Minoans and the gods will resolve the blame between themselves. The nation whose people have broken the rules of the annual in the judgement of the gods will then be punished, savagely. Repeated offences will likely result in terrible consequences.
That said, the gods have created the annual to provide them with amusement and their warriors, priests and peoples with glory. To that end they will encourage displays of wit, skill and guile in hunting, capturing and perhaps even ransoming – so long as it does not interfere with the arena and their amusement.
The act of executing a fallen foe on Atlantis is forbidden by the gods outside the arena, and frowned upon inside it. And the eyes of the gods are on you.
The OOC version is this. We want to run a game where people can move around the field in relative safety, go to the loo, socialise IC and not have to post gate guards (which must be the dullest job in LRP). Out of character, murder in the dark is strongly discouraged – this isn’t the system for it. If there is hazard on the field, there is no IC justification whatsoever to remain on the field for anything other than the arena battles, and certainly not after dark. The arena fights are what matter, so we want to keep the risk of blood and death in there.
But we don’t want bored champions either. Demonstrably, there’s a gap in the champions game which we need to address, and after a few discussions – very constructive discussions – I had with players in the Carthage camp after time out we have some plans afoot for that. But murder in the dark isn’t the only solution and nor is it the only thing a combat-based character can do in a system where the only way to kill someone is to make a conscious decision to execute them. If you take that conscious decision – no matter what the apparent IC justifications – then there are likely to be wide-ranging IC consequences which we have put in place to IC discourage you from that course of action for both IC and OOC reasons. I can’t be more explicit than that. .
It’s probably worthy of note that if two champions meet in the dark and one of them decks the other, it makes for the opportunity to shout and bitch about it and builds IC grudges, it creates friction and it builds backstory. If one of them executes the other, one is dead and the other is either unable to tell anyone about it or will soon be dead too. One of those situations is the basis for the generation of heroic legend; the other is not.
If you want to shed blood and cause death on Atlantis, then fight in the arena or do it the way Tigraine of Babylon did it; fuelled by grief and rage, proudly, unashamedly and with every intention of taking your just punishment for it before the eyes of the gods. Some great myths are tragedies. Do it for a reason and make game. Dead characters stops game for that player; defeated characters who live still are a different (and richer) story altogether.
When we created Odyssey, we spent over two years actively designing the game. That process meant thinking about what players enjoy in LRP, what they enjoy doing and what they enjoy having happen to them. Part of the purpose of that design process was to produce a game that would be demonstrably different from Maelstrom, part of the purpose was to look at PvP elements of modern LRP games to see if we couldn’t resolve some of the intrinsic problems with that approach in LRP. We didn’t want to make “just another LRP fest game” only this time with swords and sandals, we wanted to try and make something that was genuinely different.
One the issue that concerned us, was that very few LRPers actually enjoy having their character killed by other player-characters. Such deaths are rarely dramatic or heroic and all too often they are unsatisfying. I enjoy having my character brutally murdered by my enemies but I’ve come to realize that that is not the norm in LRP and even I struggle to get much enjoyment from being killed by muggers while on the way to the toilet. From this problem flows the second, that the majority of LRPers don’t particularly enjoy killing other player-characters. They feel guilty about potentially spoiling another player’s event. PvP can have other lesser logistical problems, for instance it often takes place in tents at night, which increases the hazards involved in LRP combat.
The other critical problem with PvP is that fights tend to be very brutal, incredibly rare and happen only when one side has a massive advantage. Players attack with murder in mind and they know that they can expect the same if they are defeated. It is fortunate that such fights are rare, otherwise any game that made PvP a central feature of it’s design could not expect the majority of the characters in the system to survive more than an event or two. But that scarcity frustrates many players who prefer a more active physical game.
PvP has other issues related to perceptions of fairness. Groups engage in PvP seeking ways to destroy their opponents, but players not characters, are the real resource in any fest LRP game. You can kill another character, but if the player creates a new character in his old group, the impact of your actions is negligible. In games without advancement, like Odyssey, the mechanistic consequences of murder are basically non-existent. This leads to peer pressure not to create new characters in the same group or allegiance. When people comply with the peer pressure they often end up with less enjoyable experiences because they are obliged to avoid roleplaying in the company of their friends, the people they have come to an event to roleplay with. If they refuse to bow to this peer pressure then they are subject to accusations of being “poor roleplayers”. In Odyssey, with it’s high costume standards there may also be very significant kit issues if players are forced to create new characters on the fly who are in a different nation.
Of course all these problems are inherent in all PvP games, identifying these problems is not novel or particularly illuminating. But by bothering to actually try and design a game, rather than simply write a setting and some rules to go with it, we were able to look at these issues and decide on what options were available to ameliorate or solve them, to decide what compromises we wanted to make to make Odyssey engaging and distinctive.
The arena was our chief solution to these problems in Odyssey. It gives players a location to fight that is well lit and as safe as we can make it. But much more importantly it gives players a chance to engage in meaningful combat without having to feel guilty that they have spoiled another player’s fun by killing their character. The game design ensures that battles between player-characters are frequent, but death is relatively uncommon. The meticulous design sanitizes PvP play in an attempt to create an event filled with heroic moments for the players. Players can have fun trying to defeat other players without having to worry about having their game spoiled by unexpected murder and without feeling guilty about spoiling other player’s games by murdering their characters.
Attacking another nation late at night, in the dark, in their camp is inherently less safe than giving battle in the arena. More importantly it robs the recipients of any chance to enjoy a heroic story for their characters. They spend weeks preparing their characters and costume for the event and then they all get murdered by people they have never met a few hours after they enter play. Of course they can make new characters but it is difficult to create a shared background in a few hours which is rich and satisfying. And while the strategy might be highly effective it is only available to those players who are up for enacting that style of game.
When you look at the Carthaginian attack on the Egyptian camp at the second Annual, the potential benefits, it not thwarted, are huge. Why should the Greeks spend all weekend battling the Persians in the arena, if they can just trundle over to their camp after dark and butcher half of them in their beds? Of course once such a thing became common place, no sensible character would remain on Atlantis after dark, not when murderous opponents were camped less than fifty yards away. The arena rapidly becomes meaningless if its role can be replaced by much more effective ways to do your enemies down. The classic knives in the dark style camp rolling murder that takes place at other systems is thus inimical to the core game design, to see heroic battle taking place in the arena.
So we took the decision that we didn’t want players to go and murder other player-characters in their camps after dark. We already run a game, Maelstrom, just like that and by making different design choices for Odyssey we wanted to produce a different game. There are dozens of mechanisms for players to compete with each other in Odyssey, but rolling another group’s camp isn’t one of them.
Having taken that important decision we then made choices about the setting that endorsed it. If our game wasn’t about murder in the dark, then there have to be active and important reasons why you shouldn’t do that. The fact that there is no advancement and that players are encouraged to create new characters in their old group are two of the OOC game choices that discourage murder as an IC strategy. But the massive opposition you can expect from the gods (and the ease with which they can discover what you have done) is one of the IC mechanisms that exist to dissuade players from murdering other characters.