02 June, 2016

Preparing for the Inevitable

One of the features that a LARP campaign organiser needs to take into consideration is the transient nature of player attendance.

I’ve been a part of some campaigns where attendance is via RSVP; if you don’t tell the organisers that you are coming, then your presence isn’t welcome, and if you do tell the organisers that you are coming and don’t show, then your character is killed (or suffers some long term impact that will make you think twice about doing it again). In campaigns like this, the story can be moderated in advance, faction sizes can be taken into account, storylines can be specifically written for each character, over-arching story-lines can be written for factions of characters taking into account how many characters might be working toward a common goal or how many characters might be in the factions that would be opposing specific goals. This is the kind of thing that is done in an Australian Freeform game, but over a series of sessions.

I’ve also been a part of games where attendance it literally unknown until the players actually show up on the day. Players can show up with character if they want to, and they don’t get penalised for failing to show up when they said they would. Such games are much harder to organise and keep coherent, and any story-lines tend to be far more erratic. As an organiser it’s hard to keep a plot moving if you don’t know which players will be showing up, you can’t write specific plots for specific characters every session if there’s a chance they might not show up. This has a cascade effect if you write a plot for one character to pursue and you have other characters organised to thwart that plot, or assist it. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes happens in a tabletop campaign when certain players may not be able to make it to every session (especially if a story unfolds over multiple sessions), and while you’d expect a single player to have a lower degree of impact when there are so many more players involved in a typical LARP, the higher number of players typically means there will always be a couple of players unable to attend, you just won’t know which one they’ll be until the day arrives. I’ve been utterly frustrated by this in the past.

That’s why I’m developing plot elements according to factions at the moment. The five colours of magic linking to the five types of faction is a good starting point for this. But I don’t like my characters to have just a single degree of identification, because that breeds stereotyping. Instead, I prefer to see characters built up through a minimum of two or three identifying traits. In Werewolf the Apocalypse those traits are Tribe, Breed, and Auspice, and if I were running a werewolf LARP I’d develop three secondary plot elements for the breeds, five secondary plot elements for the auspices, and one primary plot point for each of the tribes I had present among the player characters. In the LARP set-up that I’ve been describing through these last few posts, I’d develop dominant plot elements for the metaphysical affiliation (as defined by the colour of magic), then some secondary elements linked to races (or maybe linked to languages reflecting rumours that are only spread among people who speak a certain tongue), then some secondary elements based on locations where the characters might live (for example, only people who live in the west might hear about plot element “B”).

This way, when a character shows up, they can simply be allocated a range of plot hooks based on their metaphysical affiliation, their race or language spoken, and their home. Of course there could be a great deal of overlap among many of the characters, especially if the setting has a forest in the east where elves are known to live and the elven race is affiliated with the green-magic/nomad faction. That’s where it might be more suitable to have a couple of plot elements randomly distributed if a certain character descriptor is shared by a substantial number of characters.

In a roundabout way, this leads me back to the complications of not knowing who might be showing up to a game when you have a large number of players and the issues this may cause. If there are about twenty regular players (who show up to most games), and another dozen players (who show up to games less than half the time), you might get a regular turn out of just over 20. Under the set-up described, some months you might get five evenly distributed factions, in other months you might get a single faction with seven or eight players and other factions with only a single member or even none at all. It can be hard to regulate a story without knowing who might be showing up, and it can be hard to balance potential factions against one another for the same reasons.

I like to alleviate this problem by choosing reliable players to take instrumental roles in the story, focusing plot point around these “primaries” where I can, then choosing “secondaries” in case these players are unavailable, and ensuring there are contingency plans in place if neither “primary” nor “secondary” are available for a given plot point. In the last post when I mentioned conflicting story-lines, where one story revolved around a white vs black conflict, and a second story revolved around a green vs blue conflict, we could simply make the green vs blue story more dominant story if the black primary and secondary character were unable to attend the session. If the session started to lose momentum, I could always add the story prompts intended for the black faction to any players of the red faction who might be present. It’s not a perfect solution, but in the heat of the events unfolding the minutiae is often overlooked anyway, the narrative becomes mutable, and the reconstructed memories after the game are what form the basis of campaign history in later sessions. As long as I regularly get at least primary or secondary players from at least three factions, then I instantly have at least two factions who will oppose one another; having primary and/or secondary members of a fourth faction are a bonus for political intrigue and plot development, and members of all five bring a level of dynamism to the mix.

Of course, once players start getting the hang of the whole thing, an organiser can start allowing these players to develop their own story elements. Once this starts to occur, the plot can be used to pull in other members of the character’s faction (or their race or home area), and members of opposing factions can be used as foils and obstacles on the path to the story’s completion through enough subtle hints or rewards from mysterious benefactors in the shadows, sometimes these hints and rewards aren’t even needed. As another benefit, when players start instituting their own story elements, there is the side effect of giving them a stronger impetus to attend games more regularly.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that the various factions are designed as a method to facilitate the injection of additional story to the mix, not a method to limit the potential stories generated by players through the course of play.

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