October 16, 2012

Elysium Style LARP

As a follow-up to the Adventure Style LARP post, I want to talk about one aspect of Elysium Style LARP that confuses a lot of GMs: The plot.

An Elysium Style LARP is a PvP LARP that takes place in a scenario where:

  • The players compete with one another using their characters.
  • The characters want to get away with murder, because murder would help them, but there are dire consequences to open killing (no open warfare).
  • There are one or more clear axes of competition.
  • The greatest threat to a single PC is another PC or group of PCs (no overwhelming external threat).
  • The most important thing in the game is the competition between PCs (no adventure style play).

No matter what you think your plot is in an Elysium Style LARP is, the only (Elysium Style LARP) plot the players will have anything to do with is the competition.

I used the metaphors of chinese checkers and football for Elysium Style LARP, and I will bring them back up again.

The axes of competition in your game are like football fields, where players gather allies to advance some agenda -- the football -- toward their goal -- their end zone.

Every Elysium Style LARP comes pre-made with the "King of the Hill" football.  That is, who's in charge influences every other axis of competition, so even if you don't mean for it to exist, there will be a King of the Hill plot.

As the GM, you probably want your game to be about more than just who's in charge, so you're going to add additional axes of competition, which means more footballs, more football fields, and more end zones.  Now your competition looks and works a lot like a game of chinese checkers -- players use other players to further their agendas toward an objective on one axis while the other is advancing toward another objective on another axis...  

For your plots to work, a few things have to remain true:

  1. The players have to know how to move the football
  2. The players have to care strongly about at least one football game
  3. The footballs have to stay in play
  4. The footballs have to occasionally cause dramatic moments

1. The players have to know how to move the football

This gets at the idea of fairness.  To make your game truly competitive, you have to be clear about the means for advancing an agenda, publish the complete set of methods (no back doors no player is unaware of), and avoid including "trap" (intentionally futile) methods.

It's very important to be clear and fair about this.  If you're not sure if you've communicated enough, give your newest player a pop quiz:  What are the things you can compete on in this game?  How do you compete on them?  What's the best way your character can compete on them?

2. The players have to care strongly about at least one football

If the players know what all of the footballs are, they'll probably start forming opinions about them.  You have to make sure the players do this, though; and it really helps if the players care strongly about at least one football.

There's a kind of player who doesn't like competitive games, so he makes a character who wants peace and harmony; or else wants to be a mercenary to help the highest bidder.  The former is acting against your plot -- unless "peace and harmony" is one end of an axis of competition!  The mercenary is helpful, but not exactly an exciting character.  You should warn these players of this when they join the game.

3. The footballs have to stay in play

There are two ways the footballs can leave play.  First, a player or group of players can win.  That is, they can advance an agenda to complete their objective.  This is fine, except if they sit on the football in the end zone and the game stagnates.  They'll be able to entrench their power and weaken their enemies every game, further stagnating the game.  This will end one of three ways:

  • The game's playerbase will shift.  Maybe the winners will stop coming to game, or their allies will.  Or maybe new players will arrive and decide to side with the rebel faction, making it strong enough to overthrow the winners.
  • The GM will have to write the winners' downfall.  This is probably the worst option, but it may be necessary.  A stagnant game either turns into an Adventure Style game or starts to lose players.
  • The winner(s) will write their own downfall.  This is really the best option.  Either a faction will decide to compete among themselves, or they will work with the GM to engineer a cool ending for their power base.
The other way the football can leave play is if it goes out of bounds.  In King of the Hill, this is usually not a problem, but I've just advocated adding multiple other axes of competition.

Imagine a Vampire game where control over the city's mayoral seat and city council was a proxy war between two Elders.  Poor, minority churches support one group of candidates while rich, downtown business concerns support another group of candidates.  Regardless of who was Prince, the PCs could side with an Elder and engage in the proxy war.  In Vampire, PCs have Influence dots, and they can use these to help candidates from one faction or the other.  Because influence expenditures in Mind's Eye Theater happen between games, this axis is "out of bounds" during game, unless the GM brings in the Elders to roleplay with, or releases breaking news at the start of the game that the players can wheel and deal with one another to take advantage of for the next round of influence spending.

4. The footballs have to occasionally cause dramatic moments

If there's one thing you, the GM, wants more than anything else in your game; it's dramatic moments!  These happen when the stakes are high -- when an opportunity presents that can move the football very far for very little cost, and opposing players or teams are aware of it.

Perhaps the opportunity can advance the agenda of player 1 at the expense of player 2, player 2 at the expense of player 1, or either one.  You can also substitute "faction" or "team" for "player."  The players/factions/teams will have to act, if only to deny their opponents the opportunity and preserve their position!

The level of drama depends on the stakes.  If you make the stakes too high, they will erupt into open warfare (see "get away with murder" above).  If you make them too low, one side may decide that the price of dramatic conflict is not worth the stakes.  As some players are more risk-averse than others, it's your job as GM to assess them and determine the right level of stakes.