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Exploding Larps and Moral Victory [Aug. 3rd, 2007|11:41 am]
Serial LARPs have a structural problem: they tend to explode. I thought of a way to fix that.

There are two ways that explosions can happen. In a LARP where the action is driven by plots created by the GM, it's an escalation problem. The GM is continually having to come up with plots that will interest and excite the players. The longer the game runs, the more the players have seen, so things have to get more intense to remain comparatively exciting. Threats get more dire, strange happenings get more bizarre, the stakes get higher, and around the time when the players are saving the world from an incursion of interdimensional zombie Santas for the third time -- this time while also trying to woo the Martian monkey-bats' diplomatic envoy and hunt down a rogue nuclear bomb at the library -- their disbelief suspenders just snap and the whole thing comes crasing down. (That, or one session they actually fail to save the world, and then what?)

One of the strategies to avoid this is to put the GM contributions on the back burner and focus more on player-driven action. This BYOP (Bring-Your-Own-Plot) approach has a number of things going for it: not only does it relieve the GM of trying to come up with something that will interest all 30 players every freakin' month (since each player is pretty much guaranteed to be interested in whatever plot he's invented for himself), it also accommodates a disparity of relative power levels, since a brand new player is just as able to come up with good challenge for his character as an old hand whose character has years of buildup.

The problem with BYOP is that any time the players are allowed to affect the game world in a significant way, someone will eventually break it. Somebody will come up with a plot for themselves that involves toppling world governments, or inventing some radically disruptive technology, or collapsing the barrier between dimensions, or, even if they stick to mundane activity, a slow but steady accumulation of changes from the real world that eventually make the game world so different from normal reality that it's impossible to keep track of everything. (This is also a problem in GM-driven games, but often doesn't crop up before the escalation spiral starts to kick in.)

Which puts the GM in a bind: either prevent the players from doing anything meaningful and significant, making everything static and dull, or let the game self-destruct after a certain amount of time.

To introduce my idea for solving this conundrum, I have to tell you about the card game Mythos.

Lo these many years ago, back in the paleolithic era of gaming when CCGs were still new, my friend Chris discovered Mythos, the CCG based on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. He and I bought a lot of cards and built lots of decks (because that's how we did CCGs: whoever was into it would buy all the cards, and everyone else would come and play), and we'd have big eight-person games at the coffee house.

Now, there are two ways to end the game in Mythos: either someone plays the right cards to get a total of 20 victory points and win, or someone gets taken out by losing all their sanity points, in which case the game ends immediately and whoever had the most victory points at the time is the winner. As a group, we eventually came to the conclusion that winning by taking someone out was much less satisfying for everyone. It's a cheap victory, it introduces kingmaker politics, and it dramatically restricts the kinds of deck that are viable if you always have to worry about having enough defense. So we came to a gentlemen's agreement not to play that way. You can use the threat of losing sanity to slow someone down, but taking them out? Not sporting.

And thus was born the moral victory: whenever someone was in a position to take the cheap win, they would point it out, receive the appropriate recognition from everyone else, and then refrain from doing so and focus on getting a serious victory, because we all had more fun that way. (The idea has spread somewhat since then. These days, we frequently award moral victory points to people when they are unfairly robbed of winning the game by a bad roll of the dice or the like.)

It's a kind of counting coup, and I think that's the solution to the exploding BYOP LARP: build some type of corrective system into the game world or the premise of the game that lets players get credit for being in a position to do something clever and world-breaking and not actually doing it.

"Credit" can be any number of things, depending on the game. It might be that the player's superiors give him a boost in status as recognition of his accomplishment. It might be that the results are announced to all players, and then time is rewound by a month and things happen differently. It might be nothing more than a "well done!" from the GM and the player's knowledge that he broke the game.

All of these approaches could work, as long as it's established and agreed upon at the beginning. It could even be that counting coup is the whole point of the game, and the players' goal is to do it as many times as possible. It might be interesting to have the other players decide what is and isn't world-breaking. Players might literally have a coup score of some kind, either secret or publicized.

The key is in recognizing that game-world breakage is likely to happen and that it's not a sign of things going wrong, it's a sign that a player has been clever and organized and has pulled off a cunning scheme. It's an accomplishment. It's just an accomplishment that can't be allowed to actually happen, for the sake of everyone who is enjoying the game and doesn't want it to end just yet.

I think it would work spectacularly well in a game like Cognoscenti, where everyone is playing the high-powered Secret Masters who are out to reshape the world, but I'm trying not to get carried away with redesigning someone else's work...

[User Picture]From: dpolicar
2007-08-03 07:07 pm (UTC)
I was recently playing a very very old Age of Wonders demo, and being aware of the fact that the demo map has a bunch of cute little things scattered around it that are fun to explore, but that taking the time to explore them was essentially incompatible with winning the game efficiently (which, as in almost all grab-resource-producing-sites games, is achieved by building strong-enough teams and getting them to key sites faster than your opponent), and also that once you had established enough control that you didn't have to push forward constantly in order to keep the enemy on the defensive, you also had enough momentum that you pretty much won the game despite yourself.

All of which is related only by way of the general principle that sometimes it's more fun not to win, or at least not to win just yet.

I'm also reminded of a post you made ages ago about comic book RPGs and the idea of "OK, you need to be stupid in order for this plot to kick off, so I'm asking you to be stupid now and giving you 'do something really cool' points in exchange that you can use later.'" in order to simulate the perpetual comic-book plot thing where our hero walks stupidly into a trap, then later does something really cool that he would normally not be able to do in order to get out of it, because that's just more fun.

Which also reminds me of Sulu's solution to the Koboyashi Maru problem.

OK, Dave's House of Random Tangents is closed for now.
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[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2007-08-03 10:00 pm (UTC)
As usual, this all depends on who your players are and what their expectations are. This definitely seems like a solution for a game geared for players who enjoy the two things you are rewarding here: being clever and doing things world-breaking. Cognoscenti is perhaps the ultimate example, as it's all about working on a grand scale and its system is a kind of strategy game (rewarding cleverness) for doing so.

Interestingly, when you started talking about Mythos, I thought maybe your solution was inspired by the adventure cards--a script that was pre-approved by the GM ("Yes, if you do those five things, I'll allow the world to change in X way... But you'll have to do these two other things if you want Y also.") but required certain game-driven conditions to be fulfilled that could have unexpected obstacles placed in front of them (by other players, for instance). But there's not much room for being clever in this case, so it would be suitable for players who don't mind the story being on rails, yet want some influence on where those rails are heading.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-08-03 10:39 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's just players who want to be clever, though. I think it's a potential problem in any game where the game world resembles the real world and the players are allowed to make significant changes to it outside the immediate context of the game. Even if no-ones aiming for it, in a long-running game, the odds are good that eventually one of the changes somebody made is going to interact with something else, be it another player's change, the real world, or GM plot, in a way that's really hard to manage in-game.

I think the one of the best ways to cope is to be prepared, at some point, to jump up to the meta-level and deal with it there by congratulating the player and giving them some kind of compensation for needing to undo whatever it is...

The adventure cards idea, that's really interesting. To some degree, it sounds sort of like a formalization of how one-shot larps are set up. I'd love to hear more about it. An example, maybe?
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2007-08-03 11:05 pm (UTC)
So, I don't know the people you game with all that well (I mean, I have met several of them, but only on a couple of CO visits). But I really get the sense that your gaming group is, well, more likely to be decent than most LARP groups.

Maybe your suggestion works only in the, "no assholes" version of LARPing. Does that actually exist? (I'm only semi- being facetious...)
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2007-08-03 11:36 pm (UTC)
But I really get the sense that your gaming group is, well, more likely to be decent than most LARP groups.

Distinctly possible. I am a big believer that how people behave is strongly influenced by how you address them, and that if your general approach to someone who's broken the system is "hey, wow, that's cool! Can you help me fix it?" they'll usually respond in kind.

But that said, I'm also a big believer in dealing with social problems at the metagame level. If someone's being a jerk, the right solution is not to try and fix it with in-game social engineering, but just to say "that's spoiling people's fun, please stop." Or not to game with jerks in the first place...
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[User Picture]From: melted_snowball
2007-08-04 02:59 am (UTC)
Oh, I totally believe in the metagame level, and in not gaming with jerks. The only question is how easily people can be taken aside and, well, in Quakerism, we call it "eldering"...
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[User Picture]From: baronet
2007-08-04 01:00 pm (UTC)

Structure Failure

A player might do something cool to make himself Duke / President / Position of Authority. He might have gathered most of the players to support him. The game could be about him holding onto to power for a while. But if he makes it impossible (or even just unfun) for new characters to join the game, then the game won't be able to continue. The Game has some stuctural requirements that are more than just the requirements of the players.
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