18 September, 2014

Designing a Boffer LARP System (Part 8)

Here's the bit where we get a bit controversial. It's the idea that really deviates this particular set of rules from most of the other things I've seen on the web, and the idea that pushes this LARP toward a more communal storytelling ecosystem.

Virtually every LARP I've been a part of has effectively been a dictatorship, many of the successful ones have been benevolent dictatorships (with a single person informed by the masses, then catering to as many of them as possible), many of the unsuccessful ones have been malevolent dictatorships (with a single person controlling everything, and pushing the story according to their creative vision regardless of the desires of the players involved). I'm sure anyone who has been around tabletop games for a while has encountered these two forms of leaders in their GMs, but imagine that management style translated to a 20-30 player game (or more). 

Quite a few LARPs have multiple GMs, all co-ordinated by a single uber-GM (and that's definitely the path this game will be taking), but the decisions of overarching storyline typically rest in the hands of one person. This isn't always the case, I've played in some games where games run one the first weekend of the month, and then the GM team runs regular meetings on the third weekend of the month to decide future story directions by commitee (not always these particular weekends, but you get the idea).

Then there's the global Camarilla LARP Campaign (set within White Wolf's Classic World of Darkness). I was a part of this for about 5 years. It had some awesome ideas, and some terrible ones that were hideously abused by various people I know of. 

The basic concept is simple...

There is a global storyline involving vampires, werewolves, mages, other nasties, and regular mortals. Each type of creature is a fairly self contained unit, and thee isn't a lot of crossover between them. It's a coherent story that has been going on for millennia (I'll get back to that bit).

Storytelling duties are divided up by the nations and the types of creatures. There is a single overlord Global Storyteller, and under the there are National Storytellers for each country, and Global "Genre" Storytellers for each type of creature. (These titles aren't accurate, but are provided to give the idea).

Under each National Storyteller, there are Regional Storytellers (who might look after single states/provinces in wide areas like Australia or Canada, or might look after clusters of states in closer packed countries like the US). Under each Regional Storyteller, there are Domain Storytellers who look after a specific large city (or cluster of small towns). Under each Domain Storyteller, there are Chapter Storytellers who focus on a specific group of local players.

That's the geographic Storyteller structure, but parallel to this was the genre structure. Let's focus on a specific race within the game, Werewolves. Under the Global Werewolf Storyteller, there was a group of National Werewolf Storytellers who would report to the Global Werewolf Storyteller, as well as their respective National Storyteller. Under the National Werewolf Storyteller, there were Regional Werewolf Storytellers who would report to the National Werewolf Storyteller as well as their respective Regional Storyteller....all the way down the chain until you got to Chapter Werewolf Storyteller (if your local chapter actually ran a Werewolf game), who would report to their Chapter Storyteller and their Domain Werewolf Storyteller. 

This structure of genre Storytellers reporting to multiple people was reflected across each type of race: 2 distinct factions of Vampires (Camarilla and Sabbat), Werewolves, Mages, Fey, Ghosts, Hunters, etc. 

In addition to these, each nation commonly had a council of subrace advisors (in the case of werewolves, there were 13 tribes, and thus there might be 13 advisors who were expected to be the foremost authorities in the groups they represented).

I acted as the Domain Storyteller for Sydney for about a year, and helped organise a National gathering. In that time I oversaw meetings combining three or four chapters (it varied during my time in office), often having a dozen or more stortellers (chapter level, domain genre level and chapter genre level). This group oversaw the stories for about 30 core players, another 50 or so semi-regular players, and maybe another 70 irregulars (who might show up once or twice a year).

I'd take reports of games occuring every weekend (with different chapters running games on different weekends, and some chapters running two or three different genre games on different days), often six to eight games a month. These would be compiled into a single "newspaper" of events to filter back out to the players of every game, with reports heading up the chain further to inform the regional, national and global levels. 

i'm told that at it's peak, the Australian Camarilla was well over 1000 players (I certainly attended national events where hundreds of players were present), and globally there was probably in excess of 10000...if someone has specific statistics, I'd be interested to find out.

On the flip side of this hierarchy, there were the Coordinators. Global, National, Regional, Domain, Chapter. These were the members who sourced venues, handled money, dealt with disciplinary measures within the organisation, all the "real world" stuff...(while the storytellers handled "in-game" stuff).

As a structure it was organised. At each level, regular annual elections would see "bad" storytellers and coordinators ousted for new ones. Genre Storytellers would tend to be selected as a council of advisors by their respective elected geographic Storyteller.

It seems pretty coherent and structured, so you might wonder why don't I like this system.

It was a policy within the organisation that you were not permitted to ho.d a significant role within the story governed by your own mandate. If you were a domain storyteller, you could not play a character who had a politically important role within your domain (or at any higher level), the same for anyone further up the chain. You might be able to portray a politically important role in another domain (but for a Sydney-sider, that meant taking the 300km trek to Canberra)...and if you didn't tke that journey to a neighbouring domain regularly, you could pretty much guarantee a coup that would oust you from power. Regional storytellers would have to regularly play in other regions, national storytellers would have to play in other countries.

It was a bit easier if you limited yourself to Genre Storyteller, then if you were the Sabbat Storyteller, you could play as the leader of the Werewolves or Fey if you wanted to. But if your passion was the Sabbat Vampires, would you really be as interested in Wolves or Faeries? The Storytellers were limited to either influencing the storyline from within it, or from without. Many great storylines were utterly ruined by contact with the players when the storyteller couldn't influence it, or when players simply decided that they didn't want to run with it.

The major political players in the game almost exclusively ended up being played by the Coordinators. They had no influence outside the game, and earned "Prestige Points" to beef up their characters at the same rate as the Storytellers. Thus they ended up with huge power within the game, and the chance to call off events if they didn't like where things were heading (by simply "forgetting" to book a venue, suspending players who might be a threat to them in-game, or organising other metagame issues). If a Coordinator abused this power too much, they would risk being pusted at the next election, but they'd have to be ousted from their position in the game as well as outside it before they'd really suffer.

My solution is simply to combine the in-game and out-of-game power structures and to make them more democratic.

Instead of specific Storytellers who only handle in-game effects (but who cannot actually be powerful within the game), and Coordinators who only handle out-of-game effects (but who can be massively powerful within the game, pandering to storylines they like and neutering those they don't), why not simply have powerful characters become the sources of agency for their respective storylines.

At the lowest levels of the game, you have parties of adventurers, often hired by someone to do something. If your character has the influence to hire a group of adventurers to do their bidding, while staying at home away from the risk, you move from being an active player to a shadowy manipulator of the world. You have a responsibility to the players you are hiring, and become their GM for the duration of the mission you are sending them on.

If you ascend to become a regional lord, you might sit on the throne during sessions of court, but you risk being assassinated and are always on the lookout for potential uprisings. You might have a team of loyal guards, you might have spies among the adventuring parties; either way, you could play this type of character with glory and passion at the front lines, but if you choose to take the safe option, you have the obligation of co-ordinating the "lesser" GMs from your local demesne. If someone wants to take your power as the local head of state, they also take on the obligations of running the story for everyone else around them. An election occurs in the real world to determine who would tell better stories (and who would push the campaign in the right direction from within and without), while a coup occurs within the game world, as one head of state is replaced by another. The new lord/GM's character effectively retires from active play (allowing others to ramp up in experience and become more of an active threat to their "leader"). The leader stepping down may nominate to face a final duel or do something dramatic, or may simply slink away into the shadows to be ome a new threat in the future when the next opportunity for a coup takes place.

A leader who is a harsh tyrant might provide opprtunities for bloodshed and rapid accumulation of experience (thus seeing many characters who would rise quickly to become their adversaries), a leader who promotes peace and tranquility might see regional wealth grow (and see traders become their equal while warriors get bored). Both types of leaders might acquire allies and adversaries. These leaders need to keep running interesting storylines and events if they want to stay in power, because bored/jaded/abused players might call an election at any time (after a game session) to depose the leader in exchange for a twist to the storyline in the next game.

This sort of system really makes players think about whether they want the responsibility of the throne. Almost makes it more "Game of Thrones"-like.

That bit I was going to get back to...about storylines running for millennia. 

During my time in the Camarilla, there was a reset. Apparently there were more than one of these in the time of the organisation. Basically, the game would escalate, characters would get more powerful and start to reach a ceiling where their power levels just didn't make sense any more. To combat this, more powerful adversaries would come out of the woodwork and a general power creep would push the world toward armageddon. Once the game had reached a critical point, events were triggered to end the world, or something dramatic might happen to kill everyone off locally so that the story could begin afresh. I had a character who had managed to survive two of these purges at a local level by being careful, and thus ended up existing at a level that local storytellers couldn't handle...global apocalypse fixed that.

So something that needs to be addressed is the concept of maintaining a consistent power level within the game, even while the characters ebb and flow in their individual power levels. I'm hoping that my solution handles this to a degree.

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