LARP Design: Between-Game Actions 12


In many live-action games, there exists a mechanic to represent the players’ actions between events, since otherwise players can only take part in the world and its goings-on for maybe twelve (for some games, as many as twenty-four) days out of every year. Since the plot committee is dedicated to creating the illusion of a living world, the NPCs do things between events so that the plot advances; correspondingly it is reasonably logical to let players do things as well.

Oh, by the way, this post is going to have some serious alphabet soup. Let me lay out a quick glossary:

BGA/IBGA: (In) Between-Game Action
DtD: Dust to Dust, the game I am currently running
FoD: Forest of Doors
IFGS: International Fantasy Gaming Society, one of the original LARPs; utterly different in style from NERO, CI/RB/Ro3 LARPs
KG: King’s Gate, the second Chimera Interactive campaign and the first Red Button campaign
NERO: New England Roleplaying Organization, a LARP with a lot of chapters nationwide
PBEM: Play by e-mail
SI: Shattered Isles, the first Chimera Interactive campaign
WLS: Wildlands South, a NERO campaign using variant rules

The history of In-Between Game Actions (more recently we’ve dropped “In”) that I can speak to directly goes back to the second season of the first Shattered Isles campaign. Since some of my readers were on staff for SI at that time, maybe they’ll do me the favor of commenting when I get things wrong, and possibly hold forth on the origins of the idea. What I do know is that in ’98, SI’s IBGA system was a kind of upsell within the system, what we might now look at as a microtransaction. You didn’t have to pay for a membership to play SI, but if you did, you got three IBGAs after every three-day event. I dimly recall that memberships cost around $15, lasted a year, and also got you a subscription to the Town Crier, an in-play newsletter written by players. These were early days of using the internet to support LARPing. For that matter, the LARP I played before SI, IFGS, didn’t have a website – all game communication took place through their newsletter, “Here There Be Dragons.”

But I digress. In SI, there was a quite narrow list of what you could do with an IBGA. Chiefly there were extra uses of Production, Craft, and Lore Talents, or learning one or more new spells if you had teaching; this made a huge difference to the overall usefulness of these talents. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the design – far from it. It was a huge payoff to the player, for an amount of money that was relatively trivial compared to the cost of six events a year, so the only real problem was remembering to renew each year. IBGAs gradually came to feel more like a right than a privilege, as is often the case with such things, and eventually the idea of paying extra for a membership was dropped and IBGAs really were standard. Even so, the list of things you could do remained tightly constrained: no explorations or interactions with NPCs. These restrictions had the benefit of keeping things simple; in those days, you filled out IBGAs on a paper checkout form on Sunday morning, and handed it in before you left site. This worked pretty much fine.

Later on, SI transitioned to an online checkout form, which was more convenient in every way except one: without an immediate, physical checkout envelope, the money and tags spent on Production actions took a little more coordinating to work out. This was solved easily enough, of course, at check-in for the next event. The change to electronic format is probably the single most important shift for allowing the systems that came later. The downside to checkout envelopes and on-site IBGA writing was that, well, it’s Sunday morning, you’ve had six hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, and you’re in a hurry to pack up and get offsite. If there had been a lot of careful planning to do, it would have been more or less impossible due to sleep dep.

In WLS (quick confession: there’s a lot I never learned about the game while helping to run it), the only skills that had direct between-game usage were Lore skills, which permitted you to write a letter to a specific, named NPC assigned to you by Plot, requesting more information on a particular topic. For all that they were called Lore skills, their implementation was a lot more like a Contacts skill that only granted information, often with snark, sarcasm, and air quotes as freebie additions.

I don’t know much about how core NERO chapters handle anything like IBGAs, as I’ve never been a PC in a NERO campaign. Looking it up on the NERO Atlanta website, it sounds like it’s operating on an upsell model, offering a few different categories of BGAs for varying amounts of money. Interestingly, the BGAs also grant experience blankets in themselves. This is an interesting tack to take; since the cost determines the amount of detail that the player can dictate and the number of experience blankets involved, it seems more like a paid system of player-generated content. I would be curious to hear about how this system works for them. This system is not universal across NERO chapters; a quick glance at the NERO Massachusetts – Ravenholt campaign site shows that they don’t distinguish between “standard” and “large” plot actions as Atlanta does, and split the difference in price. Both campaigns have an option for a free plot submission or BGA, which the two campaigns use as a way for players to tell Plot what kinds of things in the game interest them. Free actions are not guaranteed responses or in-world effects, but operate on an as-we-get-to-it basis. I find this interesting, though not a system I could ever implement in DtD – again, I wonder what the long-term effects of those systems are for them.

King’s Gate technically had the same rules on IBGAs that Shattered Isles did, but the rules on interactions with NPCs and other “nonstandard” off-camera interactions in the setting were gradually relaxing, and this trend continued over the course of the campaign. It was not codified in the rules, however; nor were such actions broadly encouraged by the committee. This wasn’t by any means a flaw in the game; it’s just the way we played at the time. Players still mentioned from time to time not really having anything to do with their BGAs, especially players who didn’t have Production, Craft, or Lore talents.

I think it was KG that introduced a number of additional ways to spend Buttons (the thanks-for-volunteering currency), one of which was buying additional BGAs. The goal, of course, was to give the players who had earned hundreds or even thousands of Buttons something desirable to spend them on; I have to wonder if anyone at the time recognized this as a microtransaction system? (Reminder: I make video games for a living, and use this word without prejudice.) This additional BGA each event returned to the strict usage rules of the original SI IBGAs. Further, over the winter break, you could buy a further four BGAs, operating under the same restricted rules. As far as I know, all of this worked as intended throughout the KG campaign; if the staff ever found this system especially problematic, I don’t know about it (but they too are invited to comment below).

Eclipse continued the conceptual evolution of BGAs that SI and KG had been undergoing, though this proved difficult for them to communicate to a playerbase that by now had widely varying impressions of what was or was not legitimate usage of BGAs. Speaking strictly for myself, I was surprised to discover the depth and breadth of setting interaction (another way of saying “plot actions”) that other folks were getting up to; for some, the events described in this post were no real stretch of their expectations. I eventually came to understand that Eclipse’s staff saw plot-intensive BGAs as a way to deliver additional exposition to the players, and to allow players to do things that they could find no satisfying way to put on-camera. The kinds of actions that Eclipse staff found to be permissible grew broader, I think, over the course of the campaign, more or less mapping to the expansion of players’ power and influence within the setting. I have thoughts on the effects of this approach to BGAs, but I’d like to come back to it once I’ve finished laying out the styles of other campaigns.

Legynds (another game I have not personally played) took quite a different tack for their player actions between games, developing a highly crunchy resource-management minigame; I get the impression that it compares favorably to a Birthright PBEM. The benefit of such a system is that there is probably little pure adjudication to do – that is, the players have a pretty good basis for guessing what they will get, and Plot can predict what players are likely to have and be capable of, even years in advance. The downside, if there is one, is that someone has to crunch the numbers, and as the game goes on there are probably a lot of numbers to crunch; also, the exact documentation of player wealth becomes ever more important. Most probably the campaign settled these logistical problems to their satisfaction the better part of a decade ago.

FoD and its sister campaigns also have a deep and crunchy BGA system, as every Skill has at least a few applications that solely apply to BGAs. Given the strong rules emphasis on research, commerce, socializing, and the like, I assume that these abilities have sweeping impact on long-term gameplay, but my involvement with FoD did not continue long enough for me to find out personally, as a job compelled me to move to North Carolina. Of this system, I will say that I really like the fact that a given Skill will have both on-camera and off-camera effects, rather than a player needing to explicitly choose between the two. One of the potential weaknesses of the CI/Ro3 system is that some character builds specialize in BGA usage, and prove to be less effective during an event.

I have heard of campaigns that implemented a real-time system for BGAs – if an action reasonably takes four days to complete (in the judgment of the staff member), then you can declare another action in four days. This may work for the games that do it, but in all honesty I cannot imagine how, unless “a month” is a standard amount of time for an action to take. I invest energy and thought into my Eclipse PC, but I can’t imagine needing to come up with how he spends all of his time; I also need my time away from thinking about my Eclipse PC in which to do all of the other things in my life. Even more impossible to me is the idea of being a staffer responsible for parsing all those actions.

At last, this brings me to DtD, which has inherited and reacted to the sensibilities of Eclipse when it comes to what a player can do in a BGA. We implemented a formal research system, with which players can research new rituals, production formulas, and other things; we’ve found, in general, that a substantial portion of the playerbase now spends at least one and often all of their BGAs ensconced in a library, working on this or that project. At the same time, we’ve allowed a slightly increased level of exploration and conflict, though we still instruct players that BGAs seeking to resolve conflicts by fiat will be declined. The benefit we have found in this approach echoes the words of an Eclipse staffer: our setting is so big and we have so much story to communicate that we absolutely cannot pass up any available chance at additional exposition and interaction. We have been able to tell small stories in locales we will really never be able to put on-camera, such as interactions in the Free City of the Hulder and the Library of Khaldun.

The research system does have its downsides, and this commentary wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging those. Some power sets do not have obvious research topics attached to them, and some of those players have felt shut out of this area of gameplay. While our research system has much greater transparency than a purely ad-hoc system, we deliberately keep most of the hard numbers of the system obscured from players and report progress to players as description rather than, well, a progress bar. While I stand by the reasons for this opacity, it has discouraged system adoption by at least one player, who reasonably felt that only a numerical cost-benefit analysis would make him comfortable with the results.

Let me take a step back and talk about the good and bad sides of any BGA system. They are a direct avenue to increasing player engagement in character and setting, simply because they are another area for characterization and strategy. Many of these systems allow players to attempt things that cannot reasonably be portrayed on-camera, including travel to distant locales and montage-like extended efforts. These storytelling methods become even more effective when combined with on-camera action that precedes or follows on those off-camera actions. I don’t know how other games do it, but Eclipse and DtD deliver BGA responses through email in the week-or-so prior to an event. This sparks extensive discussion over message boards, player-side wikis, and other social media sites, ramping up player excitement much like foreshadowing posts (INN reports, Historical Events, etc.). Think of it as one of the two best tools in the game’s hype machine – and the idea that a game might not need a hype machine to appeal to its long-time players is like a video game company not having a marketing department. Finally, BGAs and player letters to NPCs are great ways for players to tell the game staff what they care about and want to see in the game.

On the other hand… any BGA system at all is more work for staffers, and quality always costs time and energy – things that game-running already requires in staggering amounts. Even small playerbases generate a colossal amount of bookkeeping, as well. Actions that do not involve hard numbers must rely on some other vehicle to determine success or failure, such as the judgment of a staff member. Imposing costs or penalties against a player because a staff member judged that the action had failed delves into vast, murky gray areas of trust. It’s just the kind of thing that a tabletop game would settle with a die roll, on the principle that the die roll feels impartial, even if the DM has weighted the probability to make success an awfully long shot. (…but haven’t we all seen “00” turn up on percentile dice at the damnedest times?) Certainly, a BGA system could look to die rolls or card draws to resolve random chance, but that overemphasizes the ways in which BGAs are, by definition, not live-action; it’s best, I firmly believe, to steer players away from conflicts that are important or chancy enough that it would be unsatisfying to simply let the player succeed. This goes back to an earlier point – the best-practices use of plot actions, from the staff’s perspective, is to set the stage for conflicts that can then be resolved in actual live-action.


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12 thoughts on “LARP Design: Between-Game Actions

  • Jeremiah McCoy

    Arguably the most mature IBGA system I ever saw at any larp was in the Camarilla and Mind's Eye Theater games. it had a very detailed system to how influences, contacts, and minions interacted This is unsurprising because the game sort of discouraged direct conflict, but machinations and indirect battles. I think boffer larps could learn a lot from that model.

  • Brandes Stoddard

    The Camarilla didn't get a mention in my post because a) my post was already super long and b) I know even less about the Cam than I do about NERO and Legynds. =)

    That said, I'm not convinced that boffer larps would be better off with a detailed, mechanical resolution system for BGAs. Certainly it's necessary in any heavily PvP-focused game. In DtD and Eclipse, though, I feel like a strong mechanical system would hinder the staff's ability to introduce new, weird stuff in BGAs – the BGAs-as-exposition function that I mentioned.

    This is, then, an invitation to describe the Cam's system, and to explain to me what in particular we could gain from it. I'm open to being wrong about this. =)

  • Ms. J.

    Agreed that the Cam/MET BGA system is a good one, though like anything else it can get way, way out of hand. Caveat: I am going off what I remember from 10+ years ago so this may or may not have any similarity to the actual rules. 😉

    It's not an apples to apples comparison, though — you could use their equivalent of BGAs to send your character (sheet) to a game on the other side of the country. This lead to a lot of complication (often fun, but a PITA for STs) when 30 people from all over the country would want to sit outside someone's door in Cloak the Gathering and then ambush them in a city that none of them were physically in. 😉

    Specifically the Contacts part was fun, though. It codified things well, but it was largely a matter of "I put this many resources into blocking you from doing this, and if it's more than what you spend to do it, it works" or whatever. This had pluses and minuses, of course, too.

    SOLAR's BGA system is…ill defined. It did not exist in EH, and it's used differently in Clanthia than most other games. It exists more for baronies than anything else. An entire "SOLAR Civ" system was set up a few years ago in which baronies could put money and tags into building, essentially, a smithy and an armory and all the usual things you build in Civ, Warcraft, etc. You could also build spies, which could be incredibly useful. Different baronies had "libraries" that could teach different skills, but if you had enough spy power you could sneak your people in to learn something from another barony's library.

    It also allowed for actions similar to what you described from Eclipse — whole battles where all the baronies would pool their forces against an outside enemy or, occasionally, each other. It provided a great way to drain resources out of the game, and given that many baronies had mind-blowingly huge caches of loot, this was a good thing and kept the in-game economy somewhat in check.

    If you have a game in which PCs are involved with a lot of World Affecting Actions like wars, or where there is PvP administrative action between games, the systems SOLAR and the Cam have can be great. I am personally in favor of a fairly rigidly defined BGA system, in part because having been staff I know how hugely resource-draining it can be for the plot committee, depending on how much leeway you allow. That said, Brandes has an excellent point about it being a great vehicle for telling stories that can't be encompassed by a few hours of on-site every couple of months.

    Of course, my PCs actions are almost always "Pray" and "Do good works for the poor" so I may be biased. 😉

  • Anonymous

    I don't see the resources system in the Cam (influences, contacts, etc) as a BGA system, as you could use it AT games. It was closer to production skills in that it was used to handle things not directly on scene. In fact, most of my uses were at games, rather than between them.

    The Cam also made use of a proxy system, which served, at times, similar purposes. You proxied your PC to another game location to be proxy-played at a live game, or you could proxy to a non-live game, such as was required by Regional or National level staff to run scenes for certain high level plotlines. This was in part because it was hard to get all of the national/global level players together frequently enough, but also because it was used to represent areas and situations which were better done off-screen where they could be fully explained.

    – Kate

  • Jeremiah McCoy

    It has been a while since I used the system, so this is a rough description, but it boiled down to a set of actions you could do with your influences and contacts. You have so many points of action based on the level of the influence. You could spend them in various ways.

    Grow: which is self explanatory, it is you using the influence you have to grow more. You have to spend so many times the level you want to have, and the GM would have a certain amount of veto in saying some influences might be harder for you to grow based on conditions.

    Block: Using your actions to block someone else's actions. It would subtract from their points so they might still beat the level of block, but get reduced effect.

    Attack: was for destroying someone elses influence

    Defend: obvious

    Steal: Taking someone elses influence.

    Stealth: Spending actions to hide your influence and your actions.

    Trace: attempting to use influence to find out who is doing something.

    Watch: observing someone elses actions once you find them.

    Allies or contacts would add to influence actions. The influences could also be used for general purpose stuff as well, like having press influence would help you cover up a story, or maybe create a scandal. The storyteller could set the difficulty for an action, so say you had that press influence, and wanted to make coverage of a crime spree go away, the storyteller could say, that will take 3 points of action, or 6. People could combine influences for actions as well.

    There was a set number value, you could grow it without spending character points on it, but it was very competitive though. Obviously a similar system could be done for a boffer larp, though it would need some modification to reflect the more cooperative play found in those games.

  • Anonymous

    The only problem with the off season extra BGAs at KG was that they were initially unlimited. Then got cut down to some number that may have been 10. I have also liked the idea of the limit being based on the number of off-months (those without games). Or, in addition to buying off-month build, allow people to buy off month BGAs. I like that idea because it allows players to get more in a time when Plot (in theory) has enough time to respond.

    I love the research system. I like that it is clearly stated which things are not open for research. But I think of stuff in a rules way, so it is easy for me to come up with new things to research. And Ritualism is pretty broad in its applications.

    BGAs are often a 'trust in plot' kind of thing. It is okay to try and push the limits – players shouldn't always expect things to work, or if they are just beyond the scope of a BGA, Plot should not feel bad about telling the player that and allowing them to respend the action for something more simple.

    Adam

  • Brandes Stoddard

    Ms. J and Kate,

    I genuinely cannot imagine making the logical leap of allowing player proxies. The assumption that game attendance requires attending the game is one that I would never think of stating, much less challenging. Even so, I can begin to understand why it was necessary and desirable for the Camarilla – after all, keep in mind that I've never played a LARP that had two concurrent, character-transfer-capable chapters, so I've never really engaged with the problems and gameplay opportunities that that opens up.

    McCoy,

    In reading your description, there are a number of probable player behaviors that I regard as troublesome, but of course those are things that the Cam regards as correct and desirable play, at least to a certain extent – ganging up on weaker targets and long-term players being entirely beyond the reach of newer players to challenge.

    For boffer-larp adaptation, at the very least I'd want a non-numerical way to describe difficulty and give the players impressions (but never exact numbers) as to how much influence a particular NPC had. This could potentially be as simple as publishing a chart (as was done in SIFRP):

    Verdien Emperor: 500+ Influence
    Patriarch of the Throne: 500+ Influence
    Duke or Duke-Regent: 350 Influence
    Count: 200 Influence
    Landed Knight: 100 Influence
    Landless Knight: 60 Influence
    Master within a Guild: 90 Influence
    Bishop: 300 Influence
    Experienced Priest, Monk, or Nun: 60 Influence
    Novice Priest, Monk, or Nun:
    5 Influence

    And so on. I shudder in horror at the idea of tracking Influence scores any significant number of NPCs, though.

  • Jeremiah McCoy

    Like I said, it would need some solid reworking to work at most boffer larps, but the base structure and ideas could work. I see it functioning not unlike research systems. Most actions would have a defined number of influence actions to achieve. The rest of the system would be built around the interaction of using off camera influence to follow military and covert action against NPC's.

  • Brandes Stoddard

    Adam,

    Yeah, extra BGAs matter a lot less (in terms of staff workload) if plot and research actions are off the table. The extra actions of DtD's winter downtime were a pretty significant writing burden, and now that we're expecting to play every other month (so winter downtime is the same as any other downtime), we may not regard there as being an "off-season."

    I am very glad that you like the Research system!

    Keeping a strong bond of trust and communication between players and Plot is the single most important part of any game, hands down. The best rules set in the world can't survive a truly antagonistic OOC relationship there. (See also: why the boardgame Descent is not really for me.) Players have thus far accepted our responses with good grace when we have had to decline an action and ask for a revision.

  • veaya

    In reference to this: 'Some power sets do not have obvious research topics attached to them, and some of those players have felt shut out of this area of gameplay'

    I kind of disagree with that. I was pretty worried about that kind of thing. I mean Jay is not really a scholar character. But I've heard a lot of really cool stories come from people who just 'went on patrol'. For the fighty guy with no need to hit the books – that is really awesome. More work for you guys, but I think fits nicely into the cool between game options.

  • Ms. J.

    Player proxies were *nuts*, IMO. The idea was that the characters could, in theory, go anywhere. Now, for driving-distance campaigns, like Huntsville and Chattanooga, I made a few trips, and that was fun. I went up to a NERO game at the mothership chapter in Massachusetts. Actually *going* physically to an event is a lot of fun. Proxies…well, they were never my thing. Particularly since it was usually used to assassinate other characters. :-/