January 6, 2014

Designing Elysium Style LARPs

Previously, I described two common kinds of LARP: Adventure Style and Elysium Style.  The latter is most often a Vampire LARP.  The designers of Mind’s Eye Theater do little to prepare their GMs to run a game, so I’m writing this primer on designing the competitive elements of an Elysium Style LARP. 

Here is what this primer will not cover.  I will not tell you how to recruit players, or whether to join a network like OWBN or not.  I will not tell you how to handle XP, or BGAs (except that you need to take them very seriously).  I will not tell you what disciplines to nerf, etc.  You can find all that out from other Vampire LARPers.  I’ve actually only played Vampire LARPs, not GM’ed them.  My Elysium Style LARP GM experience comes from Mage and Changeling.

What is the core of an Elysium Style LARP?


Elysium Style LARP starts off with the following assumptions:
  • The core conflicts are between PCs, rather than with NPCs.  This style of LARP is competitive or “PvP” in that the core action of the plot is generated by having players compete in games.
  • The conflicts are political or subtle, so that the PCs have a reason to congregate in person.  If the conflicts become too overtly hostile, it’s irrational for players have their characters to attend events.
  • The entire LARP takes place in one location (typically Elysium gatherings in Vampire LARPs, hence the name).


Because the core conflicts in the plot are competitive and take place between the PCs, it is the responsibility of the GM to provide an explicit, fair and accessible system specifically to adjudicate those conflicts.  A competition people engage in for fun, governed by a system of rules is, by definition, a game.  In my Elysium Style LARP post, I called the different sub-games happening within an Elysium Style LARP “footballs” to help GMs think of them as contested ground.  But a better term is simply “games.” 

An Elysium Style LARP needs to have at least 3 games, plus one for every five players over fifteen.  The main fault of most Elysium Style LARPs is that they only have one game:  King of the Hill.  In Vampire LARPs, that’s the question of “who’s going to be prince?”  Here are the flaws with that model:
  • It’s often obvious who will become king of the hill early on.
  • Once the king of the hill game is resolved (once there’s a clear king), the game is over.
  • Once the game is over, the LARP is over; even if it doesn’t realize it yet.


NOTE:  Sometimes if you keep the LARP going long enough after the game is over, new players will come in or old players will drop out, ending the king’s secure hold on the hill.  You can’t rely on this happening before your LARP fizzles out.  You can’t control it.  You shouldn’t expect it to happen.  Note that networked LARPs get around this problem by having one king of the hill game in each city, but taken together, they are multiple, independent king of the hill games; so that there is always at least one “in play.”  For the travelling players, this is great.  For single-game players, this leads to feast or famine, and the traveling players will ultimately have more hooks in your local plots than most of your local players do.

If there are three or more independent games going on within your LARP, when one game ends, the majority of the conflict that drives the plot is still active.  Two-thirds or more of the conflict that drives the plot remains independently unresolved.

Games in LARPs are always asymmetrical.  That is, some player characters or factions will have an advantage over other player characters or factions.  Your goal as GM is to ensure that the games don’t resolve too quickly.  Part of this responsibility lies in designing the games carefully to keep progress slow, even when one side has a clear advantage.  The players on the disadvantaged team will work hard to recruit allies and make up the difference.  The other part of your responsibility is player management, (aka cat herding).  Take the player whose character has a clear advantage and ask them to take a disadvantaged position, such as siding with the underdog or starting with a weaker position in a competition, for instance.  Cat herding is best done frankly, openly and out of character – never sabotage a player’s character for the good of the game without discussing it with them first.  Remember, this is a competition, not too different from a contract bridge tournament or intramural soccer round robin.

Characteristics of Games for Elysium Style LARP


The games in your Elysium Style LARP can be abstracted or live, and indirect or direct.

Abstract and live games relate to the LARP’s space-time.  The LARP’s space-time is the in-character location and time of play, for instance, “at the old manor house, from 7:30 to 11pm Friday night.”  Abstracted games are played and scored based on player character actions that affect the world outside of the LARP’s space-time.  Because the LARP is not actually happening outside the game space or game time, the actions need to be abstracted and scored based on those abstractions.  Live games are played and scored based on player character actions that occur during the LARP’s space-time.  Games are either live or abstracted. 

Examples:  An influence war is an abstracted game.  A political struggle is a live game.

Indirect and direct games relate to the scoring of the games themselves.  Indirect competition is where player characters compete by influencing other events.  A competition is indirect if the win condition is assessed based on the state of something other than the competitors.  Direct competition requires player characters to directly defeat other player characters, such as in combat, social politics, and stealth.  There is a bit of a continuum between indirect and direct games. 

Examples:  Winning a court judgment is a moderately indirect game.  Fighting to the death is a very direct game.

Recommendations


Games have beginnings, middles and endings.  How will you hook players into the game?  How will you keep the game exciting as it progresses?  What is the win condition and how will you run it?  What if your LARP ends before the game ends (i.e. if your LARP has a 12-game run)?  What if this game ends before your LARP ends?

Games have winners and losers.  What motivates people to win?  What happens to the losers?  What is the prize for winning?  Be honest:  Is victory a steady state or a shaky position?  If you think your game is the sort of game where victory is fleeting, ask yourself this:  What are the chances that the victor will be unseated next session?  Sure, the chances are low…  But if the chances are basically zero, your game is over.

Games are clear and accessible.  You need to explicitly, out of character, announce to the players:
  • This game is happening.
  • This is how you win.
  • This is what you have to do to win.


Example:  “A major conflict in this LARP is to see who will become Prince.  You play characters in factions vying to get one of their members on the throne.  You or another member of your faction must become Prince and hold the position.  A compromise position is if a faction allied to yours that owes your faction significant Boons or is otherwise beholden to yours (Conditioning, Blood Bonds, double agents, etc.) claims the throne.  You lose if a faction which is not allied with and beholden to yours claims the throne.  To become Prince, you will need to recruit other factions’ support, claim the title, and defeat anyone who contests you, in physical combat if necessary.”

Games must be independent, or they’re not separate games.  For instance, you can’t consider “who will become Seneschal” to be a game because it is not independent of “who will become Prince.”  Independence is a continuum.  Obviously being Prince makes everything a little easier.  Ask yourself, “is winning game A as much an advantage in game B as getting one more PC’s support?”  If victory in one game is more of an advantage for a faction than an entire other character, the two games are not independent.  As the GM, you have to draw careful boundaries around the games so that they remain mostly independent. 

Games that are limited to a subsection of players count as a fraction of a game.  If you have seven clans, each choosing a leader, then you have one game, not seven: “Who will lead my clan?”  Worse, these games only matter if there are enough players to make them interesting.  Say your 24 player LARP has 6 Tremere, 4 Ventrue, 4 Malkavians, 4 Brujah, 2 Toreador, 2 Gangrel, and 2 Nosferatu.  The leader contests among the Tremere will be interesting.  Maybe the Ventrue, Malkavians and Brujah will have a bit of a game there (but it will resolve fast)…  But 25% of your LARP -- the 6 players playing Toreador, Gangrel and Nosferatu will not have any leader-selection game.  Try to keep limited-access games at 4 players or higher.  If you’re running a “seven clans” vampire game and don’t have 28 players or more spread evenly across clans, focus on coteries rather than clans, or create factions.


Example:  Let’s analyze this LARP…

“Who will become Harpy?  In this city, the Prince has no say in who the Harpy will be.  That position is selected by the Primogen.  Primogen are also independent of the Prince:  Each Primogen is selected by his faction.  Traditionally, there are three Primogen:  One selected from the liberal faction, an alliance of clans Brujah, Malkavian, and Gangrel; One selected from the conservative faction, composed of clans Ventrue, Nosferatu, and Toreador; and one selected from Clan Tremere, who used to be powerful in the city, but recently declined any city positions other than Primogen due to some internal edict.” 

This situation is great.  It appears to create 5 games, each a struggle for a position of power:  Prince, 3 Primogen, and 1 Harpy.  But the Harpy contest is not independent of the Primogen contests, because the three Primogen choose the Harpy.  The Primogen contests are limited to subsections of the players, so this LARP only has two independent games:  The Prince game and the Primogen game.  It needs more games!

Example Elysium LARP Games (“Footballs”)


I was asked for a list of footballs.  Here it is.  I’m going to list a general category, whether it is live or abstract and direct or indirect.  I will give examples of games in that category, and some important things to remember when running those games.

King of the Hill:  Compete to occupy a position of power over others.   Live, Direct.
  • Examples:  Prince, Leader of the Shadow Court, Primogen of a large enough clan, Head of the secret Anarch conspiracy
  • Keep In Mind:  Shy players will want a role too, create system that supports support characters! 
  • Quick Tip:  The guy who always winds up prince?  Ask him to play a power-behind-the-throne puppet master.  Someone else gets the chair, and he gets a real challenge!


Alpha Dog:  The characters fight, but not to the death.  Live, Direct.
  • Examples:  Fighting tournament, leadership structure where the toughest leads, culture of violence.
  • Keep In Mind:  Some games’ combat system is awful.  Also, try to give the players a reason to compete.  The win condition has to be worth it!
  • Quick Tip:  Since it’s likely ritualized combat, consider using a table game like Lunch Money to simulate it.  In a boffer game, offer quick heal-ups after.

Contest:  The characters compete in a contest.  Live, (somewhat) Indirect
  • Examples:  Try to make the contest something that the players can actually do, to some degree, live.  None of this "I sing an opera.  Performance 5."  Try a poker tournament or a chess game.  Drinking contests could be fun, but use iced tea, please.  If you want stats to come into play, give the character with the advantages more starting chips, or a three move handicap, etc.  Better contests could be "design a security plan for this space" or "write the funniest limerick"; classic thriller contests include high-stakes Baccarat or an auction.
  • Keep In Mind:  Contests tend to be one-session games with low stakes.  You could structure the campaign to have a contest each session, or have a meta-contest with real serious stakes.  Contests could even resolve other games (like Influence the NPC or even King of the Hill). 
  • Quick Tip:  Letting a PC judge the contest adds elements of side-wagers, bribery, and corruption to the game, which is fun!  Regardless, make your contests matter and they will matter to the players.  Make them trivial, and they will be trivial to the players.


Influence the NPC:  The characters compete to influence an NPC.  Live, (mostly) Indirect
  • Examples:  Love triangle, court case, persuade a diplomat, secure a contract, flip a double agent
  • Keep In Mind:  The system for this is “if the cast member playing the NPC is convinced, she’s convinced.”  Just make sure that the cast member doesn't also play a PC with a stake in the contest!
  • Quick Tip:  Don’t solo GM this one.  You need to recruit a cast member to play the NPC.  Either get a player who you trust to be impartial to take the NPC role, bring in an outsider, or use regular NPC cast player.  Also, Influence the NPC seems like a one session game; but it can be part of a larger game (see Alter External Events, below) or the NPC can come back for a few sessions until convinced.  In that case, make sure to keep score between games, and think of how to handle BGAs involving the NPC!


The Maguffin:   Try to figure out, use, steal, destroy, or protect the special item.  Live, Direct.
  • Examples:  The Necronimicon, Excalibur, the formula for an anti-vampire serum, etc.
  • Keep In Mind:  You need a reason that the players always have it with them during game.
  • Quick Tip:  Revise this to be an Abstract, Direct football by having the maguffin never come to game.


Reputation:  Try to get a positive reputation score and give your rivals a negative one.  Live, Indirect
  • Examples:  Status in Vampire, or other similar systems.
  • Keep In Mind:  In Vampire, this game is not independent of the Prince game.  Houserule status to a democratic system or some other sub-game to make it independent.
  • Quick Tip:  Status lottery!  Each player puts two status votes (player, character, status trait) in the hat.  At the end of the session, the GM draws two slips. Those characters gain the status indicated.  Harpy & Prince can remove or grant 1 status per game each.  Not totally independent, but much more so and easy to do!


Favors Owed:  A formal system for tracking favors owed.  Live, Direct
  • Example:  The Boon system from Mind’s Eye Theater is not a game unless it has an object and gets explicitly called out.
  • Keep In Mind:  People play too conservative!  They’re shy about giving or requesting boons.  If you make favors owed a major game in your LARP, make a big deal out of it!
  • Quick Tip:  People are not shy about spending cash.  Make favor slips.  Print character names and values on the front of the favor slips.  Have denominations 1, 5, 10, 20 like monopoly.  Roughly the values equate to 1 = Trivial, 3 = Minor, 10 = Major, 30 = Blood; 100= Life.  When you get a favor slip you put your character name on it, to trace its provenance.  At the end of the Arc, everyone has to turn in HALF the favor slips they’ve collected.  That forces them to use ‘em!


Resource Rush:  The player characters compete for control of scarce resources.  Abstract, Indirect
  • Examples:  Feeding territory, influences, mentors, etc.
  • Keep In Mind:  The base Mind’s Eye Theater system rules for these suck.  They also don’t give players a reason to compete for them.
  • Quick Tip:  Make a simple system for feeding, blood, and hunting ground.  House rule the influence system heavily or just play Lords of Waterdeep for it or something.  These systems suck in MET and need major reworking to make them accessible, fair, and have a reason for players to care.


Information:  Some characters spread misinformation or conceal information, while others are trying to learn the truth.  Live, (mostly) Direct
  • Example:  .Misinformation vs. Truth; Cover-up vs. Crime-solving; Blackmail vs. victim; double-agent vs. counterintelligence (this is info-war going both ways!); etc.  
  • Keep In Mind:  Plot hacking powers (Auspex), truth-telling powers (Dominate, Auspex, Thaumaturgy), etc. destroy any information games, whether Elysium Style or Adventure Style.  This game can also be a maguffin game if there is a reason for the information to be in physical copy, written down at all times.
  • Quick Tip:  House rule truth-detection and plot hacking powers right out.  Do it now, regardless of what system you’re playing – even if it’s tabletop!


Alter External Events:  The player characters are opposing each other on how they want to see an external event unfold.  They’re influencing it indirectly to achieve their preferred outcome.  Abstract, Indirect.
  • Examples:  Swing an election, rig a court case, increase prosperty vs. increase poverty, arms race vs. disarmament talks, go to war vs. make peace.
  • Keep In Mind:  There is no good system for this!  You will need to create your own.  Also, this happens in between games, so you can use any system you want as long as it’s fair, accessible, and explicit.
  • Quick Tip:  I suggest taking a table game and using it to represent the events; then making it asymmetrical by letting characters with more appropriate stats have advantages.  Or just come up with a scoring system and update the scores publicly by the start of each LARP session.  Use a scoring system like this for long-term Influence the NPC games (see above).

Remember...

  1. Have 3+ "games" in your LARP that all the players know about (if not the characters)
  2. Publish an explicit, fair and accessible system specifically to adjudicate each game
  3. Inform the players what they need to do to win