This post is, in short, absolutely not what I should be working on right now, but I have to get it out of my head and onto your screen before I can make myself work on anything else, so here we are. My friends who have been deeply involved in the Camarilla or NERO have always had a perspective on mega-teams that I haven’t had. This post comes out of conversations with two of those friends.
The goal is to present a structure for a game strong enough that it changes the fundamental rhythms of an event. The game-runners I talk to in the Atlanta community show a lot of interest in eroding the absolute necessity of a central field battle on Saturday night. I’ve seen a few games get away with turning that into a whole-town challenge that is less combat-oriented, but even that is incredibly hard to sustain, and most events hang on their Saturday night field battle. This isn’t horrible – it’s kept us going for damn near 30 years of Atlanta-area LARPing – but between an aging playerbase and interest in experimentation, I think games need to think about their skeletal structure.
One last note before I get going: I don’t credit my wife nearly often enough in my blogging. Especially in posts about LARPing, her ideas are a huge factor in shaping and inspiring mine. I just happen to be the one with time to write them down. In this case, she’s been talking ever since DtD ended, and maybe before, about ways to introduce more noncombat conflict into boffer campaign LARPs. (If you’re about to recommend a non-boffer or non-campaign LARP as the one-step solution to this post’s goal, you don’t understand the question.)
The idea starts with having a number of defined factions that players join at character creation. I personally like somewhere between 3 and 5, inclusive, as a goal number, but there are strong arguments for going up to 7.· Keeping the number of factions small is crucial to keeping Plot’s writing-load somewhat manageable for each event. DtD was merciless in teaching me lessons about controlling the workload on what will surely be a limited number of staff members. As you’ll see, motivating players to create content with each other is a huge part of this idea.
- My inclination is to say that you must join a faction at character creation, and that Plot takes an active hand in getting the headcount in each faction to stay as even as possible. I know there will be players who want to be free agents and reject the campaign premise – not my first rodeo. That needs to be a hard road, if it’s allowed at all, so I assume that factions directly grant some highly desirable stuff (buffs, new skills you can buy, funding, I dunno).
- Getting players to join a faction different than the one their best buddies are on is hard, because no matter how cooperative I keep the game, factionalism is friction. I anticipate overt bribery: when one faction is falling behind, new characters joining that faction get something ridiculously desirable (+XP or starting gear, maybe) immediately, and again after 3ish events if they’re still in good standing with their faction (so that Plot isn’t paying PCs to be moles).
- I’m torn on how different I want the factions to be. Because I’m pushing the players to join one possibly against their natural inclination, I don’t want to go deep on factions having philosophies and moral stances. It’s the nature of PCs that the reputations and actions of the early members of those factions will create philosophies and moral stances. I’m leaving this unresolved as a problem for whatever Plot Committee picks up this idea and does something with it.
- Each faction controls the production of a Useful Game Resource. As placeholders, let’s say that Faction Alpha’s holdings generate 150 lb of iron, Faction Beta’s holdings generate 75 head of cattle, Faction Gamma’s holdings generate 100 bushels of grain, and Faction Delta’s holdings generate 50 tons of stone.
- I’m a huge believer in secondary teams. Secondary teams are any cross-factional group that has a good reason to interact – in KG, this included schools of magic, production skills, and martial schools, while in DtD, your nationality was probably a secondary team compared to your cabal membership (if any), and your religion might be another secondary team. This has huge dividends for getting factions to not be so insular, and for that matter not to just hole up in their cabins.
Plenty of games have a small number of nationalities and strong national rivalries, forming nominal PC teams. Altera Awakens, for example, has only five kingdoms that players can come from – but they’re nowhere near equal in numbers, and never have been. Also, their moral positions are sometimes incredibly hard for PCs to get on board with. Active management of faction balance is the key here, and I think the whole model lives or dies on that to some degree, but there are probably more elaborate solutions that a game could pursue.
This portion of the idea is strongly inspired by the clan structures of Wildlands South. As far as I know, players weren’t guaranteed a visit from a clan leader on Friday night, and weren’t usually handed a goal that they were intended to solve that weekend. Despite working on Wildlands South for four years, though, I know shockingly little about how it really ran. The idea of your faction as your source of skill teaching has huge and compelling effects on play.
The setting has some kind of central NPC authority – a monarch, imperial bureaucracy, guild council, or archmage. At the start of each event, each faction receives a quest goal for that event. This might take any number of forms, so I’m going to talk about some variations and options.
- Maybe the goals are your faction’s imperial tax bill for the season or year, paid in kind rather than coin. (Obviously, you can go use coin to procure kind.) Your faction’s imperial tax bill is 30 lb of iron, 15 head of cattle, 20 bushels of grain, and 10 tons of stone.
- In this model, the whole goal can probably be solved by 1-2 brokers per faction, arranging the trades to make sure everyone gets what they need and can still turn a profit. That’s not really enough engagement, so maybe you make it a sideline to additional goals. There’s a lot to be said, as well, for setting the faction goal in finished goods that consume that number of raw materials, instead of levying it in raw materials.
- Or maybe you retune the numbers so that there’s just not enough of one or more resources, so that factions have to scramble to make up the shortfalls. You create pressure and thus drama by sometimes making sure that not every faction can possibly succeed. (See later notes on Drama and Pressure.)
- Sometimes, an imperial bureaucrat shows up and says, “I’ll cover your tax bill for this period, if you’ll do me this one teensy favor…” which of course opens the door to a quest. Maybe that quest is also just a teensy bit extralegal. Maybe even at cross purposes with another faction?
- Some of the goals are complicated puzzles – something like “resolve this magical anomaly by the end of Saturday night.”
- Naturally, Plot is scrambling to draw on player ideas and emergent content to expand their ideas for faction goals. New blood feud between a champions of Faction Alpha and Faction Beta? Well, make some hay out of it.
- This one comes together a bit more strongly if you give every faction a unique NPC leader who comes up with their goals – so they don’t seem quite so murderously insane when Faction Alpha’s goal is to arrange an honor duel that everyone will remember, and Faction Beta’s goal is to absolutely, at all costs not lose the honor duel. Or whatever.
- Saturday night of each event, you make a big production out of handing in the goals: delivering the tax debt (or having the slimy imperial bureaucrat do it for you), demonstrating the resolution of the magical anomaly, tossing down the severed head of the Gorgon, whatever. The emphasis is on courtly manners, rituals, rewards, and so on.
- My NERO-barony friends have talked about how awesome being part of the pageantry (participant and observer) feels, and that’s what I’m hoping to capture. With this kind of pageantry, you’re hoping to drive friendly competition – who can look the best, field the most people in livery, hit their marks perfectly, and so on. It’s so not for everyone, but ideally there’s room for a large portion of each faction to stay in the background, just present enough to avoid letting down the side.
- Any regular, ritualized portion of an event also develops its own flourishes and customs. Since it might be something like an imperial court, it’s also a time when tons of talky NPCs are in town, so court becomes a major hub for advancing your personal goals. Just as with field battles, you’re probably drawing on PC-staff-augmentation for warm bodies.
- Because goals change every event, you can also readily scale this model down for 6-8 hour events. These goals helping the game lean away from combat as a central source of fun contributes a lot to making it easier to run events not on a state park.
Drama and Pressure
The central pitfall of building the game for more drama and pressure is that it can turn toxic in an eyeblink. It might not be for people who just want to hang out in the woods and hit stuff with a boffer sword with their buddies, and that needs to be okay.
That said, I think it’s also deeply important for the community to develop new and robust tools for helping everyone be emotionally okay at the end of the event. Especially during the King’s Gate campaign, with its competitive mega-teams, it was occasionally a Real Problem that the community had nothing whatsoever in the way of bleed management tools. It was a high-drama game that, early on, frequently suggested PvP as a solution to problems, and that led to damaged friendships and considerable hurt feelings between events. We were all younger then. (Those of us who were born, at least. Someone born during KG’s Matter of Albonne event is now old enough to vote.)
I’m suggesting two cultural adjustments to help with this. First, we need to absolutely eliminate the decades-old stigma against staffers responding to player feedback. Player feedback generates hurt feelings with the utmost reliability, but some of those problems can’t ever be resolved because a response would be looking behind the curtain. So when a feedback says, for example, “I feel like Faction Beta got an easy pass on their goal this event and that feels like hurtful favoritism, since my faction failed our goal,” there have to be some things that a staff member can say that preserve confidentiality while also rebuilding that player’s trust, or admitting that something went a bit wrong. I’m not saying every feedback leads to hurt feelings, but enough do that the culture needs to change.
Second, players need time and space to talk about their reactions to the drama and pressure they encountered from other players during the game. I think that Closing Ceremonies on Sunday morning should be formalized into an out-of-character hangout time, with coffee and breakfast. The idea is to help people shift out of the negative parts of their character headspace, and process their reactions to the event itself. This is incredibly hard to do. If Faction Alpha completely screwed Faction Beta over, which side’s players should approach the other? How do you start the conversation that reminds everyone that it’s a game and all of the players are human? I don’t know the answer to this, but at least I can frame some of the questions.
My understanding is that the competitiveness of NERO baronies and Camarilla clans really turned toxic when the appearance (and possible actuality) of favoritism came in. NERO and the Cam are both perpetual campaigns, which means that some staff members used to be PCs and expect to be PCs again someday. They want to run content for their buddies, because they know what will appeal to their friends, and they’ll personally enjoy the strongest emotional reward from making those people happy. On the other hand, well, favoritism is a bad look in a competitive environment, plain and simple. Limited arcs are the only sure solution, but maybe there are other tools and best practices for avoiding all appearance of impropriety.
Obviously, this isn’t fleshed out to the point that a game staff can run with it as-is. There are a ton of things to decide, or learn through hard lessons, for each element. Presenting clear, exciting goals is the main thing here. I mean, you should be honing your skills where it comes to interesting, varied, and exciting goals no matter what, but still.
I worry that I haven’t explained enough all of the ways that this will drive player interaction and compelling scenes with stakes. The truth is, it isn’t enough in its own right. The more you need this to replace old LARPing standbys like modules, wandering monsters, and so on, the deeper you’ve got to go in making sure there are stakes and situations that appeal to everyone.
Protip: This. Is. Hard. Give yourself time for it to become intuitive. The goal of that difficult writing is that it’s winding up the PC factions so that they bump into each other or recontextualize what they encounter in the course of the event.
It’s tempting to make these demanding leadership figures creepy and sinister (to compel compliance through fear rather than virtue), but let me strongly suggest making them more-than-superficially benign. When a PC wants to be heroic or at least ethically blameless, that shouldn’t usually require disengagement from the group’s goals and rejection of the campaign’s premise.