LARP design: Storyboarding and Downtime 3

For people who don’t play Eclipse, this post may not hold a lot of interest, except in the area of theoretical design for boffer LARPs. For people who do play Eclipse, and especially for those who run it, this post may be controversial, but I will studiously obey the second rule of this blog: commentary without fulmination.

In the days leading up to the most recent Eclipse event, Plot made posts on the main in-play boards about a surprise attack by one of the major setting villains, the Ahramni Empire, against the planet of Taranis. The game has long been in the habit of posting “news from around the galaxy” in the form of INN broadcasts. They serve to keep players informed (through an unreliable source) about all kinds of developments, but typically they are written (as its ancestors, SI’s Whispered Tales and KG’s Port of Call, were) about events that are essentially completed and finite events – most often something that happened several days, weeks, or months ago. Knowing about these events may be interesting or useful to the players, but (until this particular case) there has not been a sense that PCs could interfere with them while they are ongoing.

Seizing the initiative, however, enterprising players questioned why they could not mobilize the military divisions of which they are Champions, and travel through the Web Ways to Taranis. There was some in-character argument about this, centered on possible political fallout, but in the end, I think just about all of the ten player-controlled divisions of the Army of the Covenant traveled to Taranis. Players communicated orders to their divisions from afar, through the Web Way communication beacons.

A much larger number of players than the ten PCs commanding the Army of the Covenant were also interested in traveling to Taranis, however, once it became clear that this would even be possible. To the best of my recollection, this was also the point at which the AoC PCs also decided to travel to Taranis in person. They did so, with updates over the course of a day posted in Google Buzz or sent to them in email. Events transpired, with the unexpected appearance of some long-lost NPCs and a last, grand gesture of obliteration by the Ahramni Empire. It looked for a time as if the entire group might be destroyed by a massive atomic bomb, but thanks to the intervention of a character back on the main game world of Eclipse, the atomic bomb was rendered inert and harmless. Countless lives saved, et cetera.

First, I want to talk about what I liked here. To the players, this was something new, an experiment in “when is a LARP not a LARP” as run by the Gentleman in Black and the rest of Eclipse Plot. It was a play-by-post/play-by-mail kind of game for a few days there, and it allowed players to deploy resources that (for virtue of being 50,000 people per division) can’t really show up on-camera. We’re just not one of those European LARPs. I’m glad that the players were permitted to intervene, rather than forever seeing terrible things happening elsewhere and being powerless to stop them.

I like the fact that Eclipse has given PCs noble titles that have meaning. I like that they took the risk of giving players control of divisions. I like that players have the ear of major political figures in the galaxy. I feel like Eclipse has trusted its playerbase to have a high degree of significance, despite being a tiny band of unlikely heroes – and it has been things that followed logically. This storyboarded action was a clear extension of the players’ intragalactic influence.

Another area where this action has excelled has been in PC reporting. Two of Eclipse’s PCs are journalists, and this action supported their character concepts very strongly by feeding them the breaking news and getting them to report it. It was in every way what you’d expect from information-gathering between-game actions, but applied to this storyboarded event. It goes without saying that I like it when games go out of their way to validate a character concept.

Narratively, however, I found a lot of what happened to feel strangely hollow. The decision to deploy the Army of the Covenant made sense as something to handle via email; presumably something similar to electronic communication is how we communicated those orders on an in-character level. My problem with it, though, is that I felt that we were presented with a simple choice of yes or no, and not enough information to make it an interesting and complex choice. The amount of exposition that would have been necessary to give that choice depth would have been staggering – prohibitive, really. Still, this part makes sense as an approach; I think future such actions could present three or four clear options to the players, rather than a “go/no-go.”

Once the player characters were traveling to Taranis in person, my problems with the sequence grew greater. The first issue was logistical, but relevant; I was left out of the first forty or fifty emails in the email thread. I’m not, of course, upset with the game’s staff for this oversight; things happen and it was corrected as quickly as possible. Handling this much action in an email thread is overwhelming, and it grants what I see as an undue level of influence to players who have day jobs that allow them to reply instantly. With twenty or so players involved, most players had not been able to react to the first round of information before the action sequence treated the decision as having been made. This is a problem that every play-by-post and play-by-email game runs into, and they typically set ground rules for how long you have to post a reaction before the other players can proceed without you. I would venture to state that that span of time is typically a day or more.

As things proceeded, it seemed that we were observing rather than acting. This was, I think, the result of the limitations of reasonable conditions and consequences to impose upon players of a live-action roleplaying game when the scene is not, in fact, live-action. Imposing casualties of any kind on the PCs really requires their consent in such a situation, since the consequence needs to persist until the start of play at the actual game event in order to influence gameplay. I don’t exactly know how to resolve this for the purpose of engaging PCs in military action during downtime. Having someone describe the action as “You did some heroic stuff, and people are all impressed” rings false to me; I have a real problem with players receiving credit for heroics they did not actually perform (or suffer consequences from) in a LARP. This is the same problem that I have with players awarding their characters high honors in their character histories, and then expecting other players to recognize and respect those honors in the course of play.

The specific action that nullified the atomic bomb and saved the lives of millions at the end was, clearly, an effort to engage another player in the action, one who is (thanks to Plot woojoo) nigh-incapable of leaving the planet of Eclipse. I respect that goal, but feel that it came across as a deus ex machina of a high order: from across the gulf of stars, thanks to revelatory insight, the character performs the psionic action necessary to save the day.

The victory of the Army of the Covenant over the invading force (prior to arriving on Taranis and linking up with Taranis defenders) is another area where I feel a little odd about consequences. In this case, the AoC suffered a laughably low casualty rate, while the enemy’s casualty rate was improbably high. To be clear, I’m not expecting a simulation here. I don’t personally know what a reasonable casualty rate for a science-fantasy army with a mix of swordsmen, gunners, and some psions (with close support from a crack division of combat medics with miracle drugs) should do to a heavily mutated force of asskickers using… more or less the same spread of gear. I feel like the AoC players agreed to risk their limited forces, a de facto agreement to experience greater consequences, but avoided those consequences to an improbable degree without having to spend a definable resource. To put that another way, we enjoyed an utterly overwhelming victory, but I don’t feel like we worked for it by outsmarting our enemies, so it’s not glorious, as such.

Now, one can justifiably ask if that is a reasonable thing to want from something that the Gentleman in Black ran on a very tight timeframe. The answer is a resounding NO. Given all of the priorities that were at stake – including as many characters as possible, advancing the story, allowing players to use their resources, and validating character concepts – it is not at all reasonable for me to complain that I didn’t also feel like we had to earn it. I want to be abundantly clear on this: I think that in the balance, Eclipse did something cool here. I’d like to suggest, however, ways that such actions could be beefed up with the scaffolding of rules and planned ahead.

First of all, I think military actions are more difficult to run as part of a PbEM or PbP game than other types of conflicts and resolutions. Persuasion sequences are good for this, in that we’re almost as good at persuading people in text as we are at persuading people in person. (People with dyslexia or the like are at a serious disadvantage in every other kind of textual communication – I’m not meaning to be insensitive here. I’d expect Plot members to take this into account when resolving outcomes.) Things that involve mental challenges in general are good here, as long as Plot isn’t dealing with players who will just Google the solutions to puzzles. (Since I don’t think Eclipse players would do this – and I don’t think Eclipse Plot would hand out puzzles in which this was feasible – I’m not concerned with it here.)

I prefer not to see physical challenges, whether in the form of storyboarded fights, stealth challenges, or the like. The thing that makes these cool afterward is the accomplishment of them, not the arbitrary decision that they were accomplished. If physical challenges are going to be a part of these actions, though, I think the first thing to do is to require players to “ante up” certain consequences they would be willing to accept. I feel, for example, that the AoC armies were anted up as something that we recognized that we could potentially lose. We didn’t, on the other hand, accept as a buy-in the possibility of instantaneous and permanent character death, and it would not have been a reasonable consequence to impose on us. It’s a little outside of how the game tends to deal with injuries, but I’d be willing to consider something like “Lingering Injury: if the random number generator determines that we lose this challenge, I will accept one of Lame, Fast Bleeder, Slow Healer, or Pain Intolerance for the upcoming event.” Oh, and for the random outcome, Plot should feel free to apply modifiers to the randomizer based on their intended difficulty, so long as they give players some way to make an informed choice about the risks they’re facing. If this starts to sound like tabletop play, please recall that that is what’s happening!

Overall, I’d like these storyboarded scenarios used to feed PCs information and either put them in place for a Friday night module (that technically takes place days before the event, so they can travel and arrive at the actual event) or act as wrap-up for a late-Saturday or Sunday morning module (okay, you traveled there and had your adventure; here’s the denouement). This solves my problem of physical challenges being handwaved, lets players use per-day resources for that adventure as if it is in another day from the rest of the event. Since this represents the expenditure of Plot resources at an event, it’s not something that the whole playerbase can feasibly take part in at every event – consider instead trying to get each player involved in one of these sequences at least once or twice a year.

Clarity of who can do what, and when, is central. Without randomized resolution mechanics (which… will probably not make people walk away happy, let’s be honest), you’re running a multi-player Choose Your Own Adventure. Unless you require unanimity (good luck!), you might be writing and running 20 parallel Choose Your Own Adventures; this is a clusterfuck of content creation and I can’t recommend it.

Anyway, I’ve said about all I can say about this for the time being, but I’ll probably revisit the idea in the future.

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3 thoughts on “LARP design: Storyboarding and Downtime

  • thebasicsofthegame

    I feel the use of armies in off camera action is fine and even ideal. It is one thing you cannot do on camera. You can never field a few thousand NPC's being fought by other NPC's under the command of a PC, even though the story reasonably says that should be happening. I am okay with storyboarding being used for the things you cant rep. I am actually not a fan of storyboarded persuasion or puzzle encounters. I would much rather see that on camera because you can do that on camera. Letters and text communication is fine, but I would much rather have a scene run with actual people, rather than an email exchange describing the scene. Sometimes it is impractical to have it on camera and then it is fine.

  • Shieldhaven

    My problem with the storyboarded use of off-camera armies is that the outcome feels completely arbitrary and ungrounded. As a player, these troops are obviously theoretical, but that means the game needs to work all the harder to support the illusion. (Note that this is something I think Eclipse does well by putting us in communication with some of our soldiers.)

    For example, the game really can't ever stage the Imperial palace, but I would be satisfied for them to run a scene there (as they have done before) with a description and several exchanges of dialogue. It would, of course, be more typical for players to observe silently when they get their BGAs back, rather than engaging in dialogue during the scene. I don't think anyone would seriously plan to include a roleplaying scene set in the main game area, though, as that really is something that should just be handled on-camera.

  • Kainenchen

    I think that running off-screen battles is fine, but you've got to do something like we did in say… Song of Ice and Fire, where the players have got military units with stats and can actually do things with them. Some kind of barter system, like I mention in my post, might well work for that. If plot wants to put in some fiat in the course, that's all right then.

    When it comes to diplomatic exchanges, I like handling them however, but there's realistic diplomatic exchanges that can be had, especially in Eclipse, through electronic communication, and that I really like. It's actually _not_ impossible that I'd, say, get a text message from my legate, or an email. I also think that this sort of thing is more difficult to keep realistic in a low-tech game.