LARP Design: Lore Skills


When it comes to structuring a robust lore game, many games include knowledge or lore skills. These skills serve, on one level, as background: a character-sheet indication of who the character is and what she does. On another, they represent a path for additional exposition. In some games and to varying extents, these skills also carry practical applications in themselves – Feng Shui does this in reverse, by making every skill include related lore. If you have a question about the world and you don’t have someone you can comfortably go ask, what do you do? In some games, you buy a Lore skill; in others… well, I’ll get to that. This will be a multi-part post; the next post will address tabletop usage.

 

Dust to Dust (with extensive background)

The lore skills used in Dust to Dust are an iterative development on the rules of King’s Gate, which were themselves based on the rules of Shattered Isles. This is one of the areas of a game’s system in which marshals, rather than players or Plot-behind-the-scenes, are the primary users, and that dictates some aspects of implementation that are difficult to account for properly. The changes to these rules, campaign by campaign, have come out of the most practical of sources: user experience.

In Shattered Isles, Lore skills originally:

  • had ten levels, with mostly-very-small character point costs for each level, but scaling up with each level purchased.
  • required teaching, from a PC or NPC.
  • did not carry practical applications. (Obviously a character can learn something and then use that information – that’s not what I mean by practical application.)
  • could be used between events to get answers to questions relevant to the Lore’s topic.
  • were open to player definition: that is, the rulebook had a sample list of Lores, but not an exhaustive one. (There was a note, observed partly in the breach, that silly Lores would be rejected.) They could be broad or narrow, and breadth carried a non-specific cost in depth of knowledge.

Over the course of the first campaign, I think it’s fair to say that few characters purchased lore skills, and among those that did, there was at least a minor meta-game of who could pick up the most obscure and rarely-applicable one.

There’s a rules “situation” here that highlights one of the major issues in all lore systems: how do you know how much to give the player? During an event at a LARP, it’s impractical for a marshal to look up a pre-defined distinction between the information granted from four levels of a Lore skill, as opposed to three or five. This problem is going to show up again later in this post, in a modified form. The solution that SI used in its second campaign, and KG used for its entire run (since those were roughly simultaneous), was to cut the granularity in half: instead of ten levels, there were five, and CP costs were preserved by combining the costs of each replaced level (4, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 became 6, 10, 18, 26, 34).

This helped, but the user experience of SI 2 and the KG campaign (this is based on volunteered anecdotes rather than statistical surveying, but we’re talking about a small user base in any case) indicated that it didn’t go far enough. I will say that I may not have won the Most Obscure Lore game, but I certainly achieved honorable mention with “Baranoran Royal Rites” at level 3. The primary contenders, to my knowledge, were “Music in Minor Keys,” and “Caves.” I am curious to know if any player in SI 2 or KG ever picked up the fifth level of a Lore skill.

The teaching requirement was a significant hurdle to player acquisition of Lore skills. For a Lore to enter circulation, the same player needed to meet with an NPC and receive approval to learn a Lore skill while also possessing the necessary unspent CP five times. There certainly are NPCs that appear on-camera this often, but at that time I think relatively few players (hi, +T Maurer!) would have thought to ask an NPC if they could further the player’s knowledge of a particular Lore. (If I’m wrong about this and the rest of y’all were totally doing this, then… my bad I guess.) I think it’s fair to say that most characters of those campaigns that picked up any Lore skills did so once they had more or less satisfied their goals for character power, and could now step back and round out their character cards a bit more.

Which brings me, at last, to Dust to Dust, where Lore skills:

  • have three levels at most, but some skills instead have only one or two levels. That is, if we think something will offer less-than-normal utility in our campaign, you can still buy it, but you pay fewer CP for it.
  • require teaching, from a PC or NPC; it is possible to be self-taught through the game’s Research system. This often means you learned the lore from a library.
  • sometimes carry situational practical applications. For example, we have run skill challenges in which characters with a relevant Lore get a hint on a puzzle. Lore skills also carry significant practical applications to the Research system (thus Lores substitute for the R&D skill found in the Eclipse campaign).
  • can be used between events to get answers relevant to the Lore’s topic.
  • remain open to player definition. They can be broad or narrow, and breadth carries a non-specific cost in depth of knowledge.
  • are part of receiving a culture packet. The culture packet is the first level of the Lore skill for a particular culture. Characters receive Lore 1 in their native culture for free. The point of this is to establish everyone’s baseline of knowledge in the world.

It’s been interesting to watch some percentage of the playerbase, who came to DtD after as many as 15 years of playing SI and KG, reassess the value of Lore skills. As I’ve said, there were players in those campaigns that bought up Lore skills – but now it’s something even the brute fighters do. Given that Fantasy Academia is one of the games inside DtD…

Eclipse

In part to show that I don’t think DtD’s way of doing things is the One True Way, let’s talk about Eclipse’s rules. Eclipse’s designers chose not to have Lore skills at all. I would venture to guess that they did this because of Lore skills’ traditional lack of practical applications, but why bother with conjecture, when the designers are 95% likely to read this and can just comment?

Eclipse does a few things in place of Lore skills; it’s possible that not all of them were directly intended by the designers – and they should feel welcome to comment on this as well, if they like. (Eclipse’s Rules and Plot committees are separate.) Profession skills are a way for players to spend CP on defining their backgrounds – lawyer, historian, pit fighter, and so on. Nominally, a Profession has no function other than to grant cash at the start of each event, but every marshal understands that someone with one or more levels of a relevant Profession should get to ask a few questions on the topic, within reason. At other times, players have been nudged into picking up a level or two of a Profession as a means of gaining particular answers.

Eclipse also has the Research & Development skill, mentioned above. It is a low-cost skill that may be purchased in parallel with Production skills, and signals to Plot that you intend and expect to be able to research new things. As in DtD, Eclipse’s approach to research is not spelled out for players, as a means of protecting Plot’s judgment. R&D isn’t exactly a Lore skill, but it fills some of the functions found in DtD’s Lores.

As a continuation of how Professions work, other skills get a certain amount of “rich” interpretation. Med Tech and its side-skills are one example: characters with extensive investment in the practical skills can expect marshals to treat that as a substantial amount of background knowledge and answer some questions on the spot, or between events in BGAs. (I don’t want to imply that there’s none of this in DtD, but with Lores in the mix, players and marshals look to those first.) The challenge with this is that, by using understood rulings rather than explicit rules, the understanding is unequal within the community, particularly for new players, or those who are newly come to a skill. For this reason it also works better in a smaller community (and is ideal for a tabletop game) than for a larger one, because it’s easier to spread word-of-mouth understanding. A more favorable player-to-marshal ratio means that a marshal has a much better chance to know who a character is and what their character concept suggests they should know, as well.

The Wildlands Campaign

The Wildlands campaign took a completely different tack with Lore skills. The designers wanted (this is conjecture) to avoid dependency on a marshal on-site, and Wildlands largely avoided having any sort of BGA system. Wildlands Lore skills were:

  • one level only.
  • require teaching from your clan, a PC, or an NPC.
  • did not carry practical applications, or any on-camera usage.
  • could only be used between events, to send a letter to a knowledgeable NPC contact who would reliably send a letter in response.
  • were not open to player definition, as they had to come from the clan’s skill list or an NPC. I think there was a certain amount of room for negotiation, though, if you wanted something that was on-theme for your clan but not specified. Breadth is not especially variable.

With no other system of downtime action in the campaign, the writing burden of Lore letters was not particularly serious; also, the comparative scarcity of build in Wildlands meant that Lore skills were not all that widely distributed among the PCs of the second campaign. The definite advantage of the Wildlands approach is that PCs never call on marshals to recall extensive information on obscure topics without warning. It also strongly enforces the nature of learning in Wildlands: wisdom is passed on by word of mouth; there are no great libraries that are available to the people of Everhold or the Carrion Scar. The downside… well, some players especially care about being “the loremaster,” rather than “the guy who knows the loremaster,” so this isn’t great for them. The absence of any on-camera or practical application would be seen as more of a flaw in the current design environment than it was at the time. Wildlands did not offer the same depth of player-facing background material that some other campaigns do (I could be totally wrong about this), and this approach to Lore skills didn’t address that in detail. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have been a concern for the Plot committees, so it’s not much of a drawback.

Forest of Doors/Fractured

Disclaimer: I am even further out of my depth here.

The Lore-like systems used in Forest of Doors could scarcely be more different from the Lore skills of CI/Ro3, and they represent an interesting contrast. FoD’s Lore-like rules include the Learned trait, some other traits to a lesser extent, and the Scholarship skill. Instead of acting as a large number of discrete skills, Forest of Doors unites them into a single progression (Scholarship) with an “ability score” (Learned) granting improved capability to represent natural aptitude even beyond scholarly training. One might reasonably want Learned to improve skills other than scholarship, but if you’re serious about the Scholarship skill, it seems like it would be a real mistake not to invest in at least a bit of the Learned trait. Over the course of the Scholarship skill, characters gain Specialties that are conceptually similar to CI/Ro3 Lore skills, though hardly identical. To parallel the summary of other games’ Lore skills, in FoD they:

  • have an unstated number of theoretically attainable levels. Scholarship extends to 10; Specialties push this higher, and there are other bonus as well; 12+ is certainly attainable. This number is used a bit differently from skill ranks in CI/Ro3; it’s more of a pass/fail content gate.
  • do not require teaching (as far as I can tell).
  • do carry practical applications in solving Investigation challenges. The higher levels of Scholarship also improve a character’s abilities in other fields.
  • can be used between events to answer questions or complete projects relevant to the scholar’s fields.
  • are open to player definition. The examples demonstrate a preference for narrow Specialties, but I don’t know how this has been applied on actual character cards.

Since I haven’t played in this system extensively, I’m reluctant to offer much criticism on it, but it seems to me that it strongly favors the specialist over the dabbler. The CI/Ro3 Lore systems, by comparison, offered no specific, synergistic benefit to someone who purchased multiple Lores, and given the applications of time required, probably encourages a player not to go beyond a single Lore skill. Neither of these is an objectively superior design, but both fit their respective systems and settings well.

There are certainly a great many other systems worthy of analysis, but I know even less about them than I do about FoD. In my next post, as advertised, I’ll give some consideration to how Lore skills work in tabletop games. I’ve also started thinking about the absence of such skills in video games – some of them good reasons, some of them not – and if I ever get those thoughts into a good working order, I’ll post them. (Briefly, I can’t think of a video game in which the players wished to invest any part of their development in learning more of the expository content.)

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