LARP Design Diary: Mega-Teams and Other Social Dynamics

Now that another Dust to Dust event is in the recent past, I can spare some time for blogging. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the social dynamics of LARPs, with particular attention to mega-teams. This post is inspired by a conversation I had with Samhaine; ironically it isn’t primarily about DtD, but relates to comparable situations in salon-style LARPs.

Serious Disclaimer: This is not about your mega-team in DtD, or any of the others either. If you feel like I’m attacking you, understand that I’m writing from a place of empathy, and my only interest in this post is how these things affect design. I like everybody who takes weekends out of their lives to play DtD.

So let’s say you’re about to start playing a particular boffer or salon LARP for the first time. Are you going to show up by yourself, or are you going to lure one or more friends into your shenanigans? Most games would probably love it if you would bring people along with you. When trying something new, having some people around that you already know is a great way to provide yourself with a comfort zone and a ready-made ally as you meet all of these new characters and find your niche among them. This is the social dynamic of the new player, and there’s so much that needs to be said about how Plot committees can sculpt and support the new player experience that it should really be a separate post.

The brief version, just enough to get us through this topic, is that it’s easy for a single player to get overlooked. Many encounters and plot elements build specifically off of what came before, and it is both difficult and contrary to instinct to provide new expository on-ramps every time a topic comes up. Further, many (most? all?) games based on heroic action in a high-danger setting go out of their way to inculcate paranoia among its playerbase – so experienced players need a reason to trust and include the new character. Games with advancement systems in which characters grow stronger (including resilience to harm, improved gear, and increased magical potency) just double down on all of that.

Bringing friends along to your first game can help with this, because what one new character can’t quite accomplish, two or three coordinating their efforts often can. It’s harder to ignore two or three people – and a lot harder to ignore five or more. Getting noticed and included is easier if you make a splash. If you are assured the ability to tag along, every friend you bring along is another chance to get dragged into something cool. So this is one of the thought processes that creates mega-teams. If a team of three to six is good, a team of ten to fifteen is obviously better, right?

The other side of it is the experienced players who do have the social cachet that would allow them to, in a sense, go it alone and still expect to get included. (The larger the playerbase, the higher of a bar this is – in this way games can be victims of their own success.) Experienced players still want to hang out with their friends, and still need people to share a cabin with, so calling that collection a team is reasonable. If the game includes any significant amount of political conflict or a spirit of one-upsmanship, for many players there is never “enough” social strength – teaming up with the peers you like best might give you the upper hand on other, similar groups.

Thus far I’ve discussed the good reasons, but I have heard something approaching horror stories from other games, where large and dominant teams are more like collegiate Greek society, with the newest members denied any of the engagement or agency that the team exists to create. The outermost members may have an advancement track within the team, but until that progresses, they might be worse off than an independent player.

Once the team is large enough, the team no longer ensures that everyone gets involved; it’s not unrelated to the concept of Dunbar’s number, though the pressure restraining its size is not so much long-term memory as module party size limits and housing density limits (for games concerned with either of those). For salon-style games, I would expect that these two things aren’t meaningful limits, and it’s comparatively easier to sustain the social bonds of much larger teams.

These are several of the problems of mega-teams, but not all. In addition to drowning out the presence and actions of smaller groups, independent players, and even low-ranking members of the team, mega-teams often want adventures that they can all go on together. This is tough on Plot’s resources, as I’ve talked about before. It’s a reasonable request some of the time, but as an expectation for every event and every adventure, it crosses the line. Fortunately, people are generally good about understanding this – at least in my gaming community, a huge percentage of the playerbase has been on staff for one game or another and they know better.

Groupthink and tribalism have ways of coming between players and the game. Groupthink serves to reassure each member of the group of their collective conclusion on a topic – but when that conclusion errs, it is all the harder to correct. Now, groupthink doesn’t need a large group, just a few strong personalities, but large groups can only increase the odds. Tribalism in low-PvP LARPs tends to take take the form of various groups sneering at and/or threatening one another; it’s not the worst thing in the world, but my experience says that the game doesn’t really get as fun as it can be until the mega-teams splinter and people easily cross team lines to work together. I propose that this is because the most interesting and varied roleplay requires the largest available number of other personalities to bounce off of, and because when you’re getting involved in things that target more than just your own team, you are getting involved in more things.

In highly political games, the formation and dissolution of mega-teams may be the crux of the game – more like devising coalition governments than an arrangement for housing and module teams. I have a bit less experience in this field, but I get the impression that the Camarilla and SOLAR are top candidates here. The good side of this approach, from the game-runner’s perspective, is that it isn’t necessary to solve for the problems faced by solitaires – it’s the responsibility of the game’s factions to work out how to recruit and indoctrinate those players. It means, in essence, that there’s a right approach to the game, and small-team play isn’t it.

Other games, such as the boffer LARPs of my experience, do need to provide meaningful support to independents or small teams, and that goal is in a certain amount of tension with support for mega-teams. In the quasi-democracy of player dynamics, there may be no actual voting taking place, but a unified “voting bloc” is still a huge advantage in many situations. That advantage, though, places short-term situational victory over some kinds of long-term benefit and maximum engagement, as described above. It’s worth mentioning that a conflict between two roughly-balanced large teams has a good feel of scope and threat, as compared to conflict between two individuals. Even in low-PvP games, the feeling of violence threatening to boil over into a Fiasco session does add a certain interest to a game, even if that violence never quite materializes.

The Plot committee faces a thorny dilemma on the matter of mega-teams. On one hand, mega-teams present a super-efficient way to entertain people: like waves in a pond, an entertaining interaction for one or two players spreads through the rest of the team. The success of trickle-down interaction depends on the players’ outlook – from my own experience I can say that sometimes it’s sufficient to feel included, and sometimes it just makes you more aware of how much you are out in the cold. The meta-rule that Plot should target the wallflowers is in no way diminished by the presence of mega-teams. On the other hand, Plot may have to work even harder to target the independents and small-team players, as it’s all too easy for a hard-charging mega-team to snatch Good Things away from those who are less forceful or numerous. The general solution for this, if and only if it has proven to be a problem, is to go for more laser-focused plot targeting – that is, to write in reasons why it has to be this person or group who solve the problem.

Let me now get down to some DtD-related specifics.

Elements that Support Mega-Teams

Several game elements strongly support well-coordinated large-team collaboration: ritualism, totemic magic, binding contracts, our research system, and a world full of conflicting cultures are chief among these.

Ritualism specifically encourages the creation of a (usually secretive and insular) cabal of nine, ideally made up of three subgroups of three for the best possible cooperative casting results. Beyond nine wizards (or a combination of nine wizards and homunculi), the diminishing returns of cooperative casting start to get in the way. On the other hand, wizards are free to cast with people who aren’t explicitly members of their cabal – the only real cost is that other people might find out what’s in your spellbook, and ritual casting puts the wizards in a vulnerable state. Don’t cast rituals if you’re not pretty sure of all of the casters, because any of them could backlash it. Mathematically speaking, ritualism’s rules deliberately encourage cabals to take on a hierarchical structure, giving the greatest benefit to the most powerful wizard, though other approaches are valid.

Totemic magic encourages large-group play through its mana-pool mechanic. Characters have a baseline mana pool, but also gain additional mana allotments based on the number of members of that totem in the game. There’s a certain amount of inducement, again, to give the greatest benefit to the most powerful invoker, though a constraint on this means that even lower-circle casters should see substantial benefit.

Binding Contracts are a way to formalize a team, turning its unstated existence into something with rules and specific benefits. The contract used for this is called a “cabal contract,” but it could apply to a mixed group of casters and non-casters, or an entirely non-casting team, as long as they were all prepared to abide by the contract’s strictures. Notably, the cabal contract is limited to nine people (who may be homunculi if the signatories wish) and nine homunculus-only positions; the latter group receives the strictures without the benefits, because DtD enshrines the oppression of homunculi in its rules.

The research system has limited transparency to players, so I can’t say all that much about it here. Players know that it includes benefits for cooperation, but also a threshold of diminishing returns for cooperation. This element favors mega-teams in that it’s easiest for a large group to support the costs in time and other resources for research, and it’s usually easy for the whole group to share in the benefits. On the other hand, there’s nothing codifying a roster for a research team, really, so a “research team” can form or disband fluidly. Organization and follow-through are the real benefits to research teams working along mega-team lines. If you want to keep the results secret from other teams, of course, you need to work with people who have some incentive to keep their mouths shut (see Binding Contracts, above).

Since almost all production skills require formula props, and having a formula that others don’t is a significant sales advantage, the high walls of secrecy that form around teams and the large resource pools of mega-teams make them quite advantageous for production characters. DtD reinforces this with its in-play guild system; the guilds jealously restrict the spread of formulas only to sworn members of the guild (among other rules), and to our great fortune PCs have embraced and upheld this stricture.

On a related note, player buy-in is everything. I cannot stress this enough. Nor can I tell you how to get it, except through always always demonstrating that NPCs completely believe in what they are doing, and making sure that the world is consistent in its presentation.

Expanding on that note, almost all game settings do a great job of setting up cultures and races that have reasons to be in conflict. It’s easy to do: just model your setting on how people actually behave, and you have grist for a thousand bloody wars. In DtD, some cultures and groups get along fine, but everyone is suspicious of someone, and our players have again upheld the world’s idioms. Thus many of the large teams form along cultural lines – the strongest marker of shared identity that one could want.

Elements that Discourage Mega-Teams

Paradoxically, one of the main design choices we made that discourages mega-teams is the number of different items that encourage mega-teams. Weird, right? All of those elements that in themselves encourage team-based insularity wind up getting people to cross team lines and cooperate with others when used together. My initial thought on this, many years ago now, was that totemic cults would serve this function: two people on different teams would belong to the same cult, and would cross team lines to work together toward the cult’s goals. Over time they would come to think of the cult as their second family. I was a bit surprised when this generalized to other game elements. For example, there are Tharici on multiple teams, including two mega-teams and a number of independents. Even when the mega-teams can’t stand each other, they still have back channels of communication through their shared cultural identity, and from time to time they go on adventures together.

The short version of this advice is to push various power sets as a kind of unifying identity. I’ve talked about warrior orders before; DtD also uses “guilds” of thieves and assassins to give roguish characters a sense of shared purpose. I hadn’t thought about it before now in quite these terms, but this points out something unusual about celestials in DtD: it’s an area where cultural identity and power set are strongly overlapping, as they have a unique racial magic and a unique racial warrior order. For them to cross cultural lines the way I’m talking about, they have to focus on some of the other power sets, and many of them have not done that. (Obviously I am not saying they’re “playing wrong;” I do think it might have reduced their range of easy-access game content in a way that was not especially foreseen.)

We consciously use our research system to reward players who discuss matters across team lines, seeding a detail over here that would really pull things together for that player there; likewise on lore dumps as part of modules. The compelling result is that players learn to go fishing among people of other teams for that one detail they need – a whole playerbase of keys looking for locks. Of course, both sides want to receive more information than they give out (at least among those motivated to compete), but that winds up being cool, because a conversation where both players are as circumspect as possible is an interesting social challenge.

We haven’t done a lot of this, but one of the other tools in any GM’s toolbox should be the laser-targeted adventure hooks I mentioned before – sometimes hooking people from across team lines. Engraved invitations might seem to be a bit on the nose, but they also feel awesome to receive – I mean, in real life, the point of these things is to make the recipient feel special! When that trick gets a little worn out… hell with it, just open a portal on top of a mixed group of players. It’s ham-handed as anything, but as long as you have a good reason that is happens and don’t overdo it, it’s fine.

In Summary

The lesson to take away from this is that every size of team, from individuals to full-on factions, requires thought on the game-runner’s part. LARPing is a social activity, and it falls to the game-runner to prepare for the social dynamics of different group sizes. LARPs are like ensemble films or TV shows – a lot of the drama comes from just letting characters be themselves in different arrangements. Mega-teams bring a lot to the game, but they demand finesse from the Plot committee, to entertain the individuals within that group and to stop the majority from trampling the rest. It’s good to make an extra effort every now and again to run large-group adventures, so that the whole team can play together, but my personal stance is that Plot committees shouldn’t bend over backward to make that happen and players in large teams need to understand that what they’re signing up for is that sometimes not everyone can go along.

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