Tuesday, November 23, 2010

HotBlooded: After Action Thoughts, part 1

I'm posting from the distant hinterlands of America, so I'm afraid I can't post all that often, but I thought I'd at least take a little time to talk about my very first LARP while my impression was relatively fresh.  I don't have pictures yet (they're coming), so I'll hold off on the actual report until I do.  But I can at least discuss my thoughts and theories behind the design of the game, why I think it worked despite the concerns of my editors, and what I learned from the experience.

I seldom LARP (very, very seldom), but I often listen to people discuss their experience.  I personally find that the greatest foe to LARPing (and RPing in general) is boredom.  Players need something to do and wandering about saying "How do you do?" and "My isn't the weather lovely" makes for a terrible game.  Someone once argued that RPGs are 4 hours of work to get 1 hour of fun, and I don't want that.  I want the players to hit the ground running, and so I tried to create a game that would explode as soon as it came into contact with the players. 

My editors found my approach overwrought.  "Are you writing a one-shot or a campaign?" they asked.  They pointed out that there was no way all of those story elements would come out, and that my details would overwhelm the players.  In some ways, I felt they completely missed what I was trying to do, and the general success of my LARP proves me right.  First, a campaign needs less work than a one-shot, not more.  In a campaign, we build story, layer by layer, session by session.  We can start with nothing and slowly build context.  In a one-shot, we don't have the time for that.  Players need to know who they are and what they're doing NOW.  Second, it's true that not all my story elements would come out (thought at least one thought that large strokes would fall through, and that didn't happen: Every major element showed up in the game), but that as the point.  I don't know what players will like and what players won't, and I don't know how their interactions will shift the story.  NOTHING happened like I anticipated, but because of the ruggedness of my design, it remained terribly interesting.  For example, Rianne's character was supposed to be the target of romance, but instead, all of the boys fixated on Sabrina and Desiree's character.  And yet, Rianne's association with the murder of Fyx Steele turned into a huge story element for her.  Some people have asked how I would know these things would happen, but the point is that I didn't, and I wrote knowing that I had no control.  I gave everything enough material to keep them busy, and if one line of story failed, they had two more they could pick up, and that's exactly how it worked out.  Finally, I too was concerned I would overwhelm the players (Erik Kamerman's game certainly did, and I produced as much word-count as he did).  I tried to avoid this by carefully explaining how the system worked several times, and by making much of what they had to read optional.  However, I found that the players dug right into the game and weren't confounded at all by the complexity.  I expect this was the result of two things, neither of which I had actually anticipated: First, I spoke a great deal with my players, asked them what they wanted and generally stoked interest in the game (entirely by accident).  Second, I put the LARP characters out about a month ahead of time.  This proved critical: Apparantly, the main problem with Erik's LARP wasn't necessarily the detail, but the fact that people only had two days(!!) to read it all up.

So, the LARP was a grand success.  I mean, really, a huge success.  I can't tell how it rates in the grand pantheon of LARPs (I'm tempted to say that Jimmy's LARPs are generally better, but I really have no idea).  I do feel it's safe to say that "It was a success."  I've outlined why I felt it worked, but I thought I'd touch on a few elements that were mixed or could be improved.

First, the system.  The more veteran players looked at me like I was crazy for including a system and, in general, it went well, but almost nobody used the "contest" system.  I think that's John Wick's intention: He included that not as something players would use all the time, but as something the players would touch on only if needed.  Still, there are elements of the Contest system I don't like: If I spend 3 style persuading you, or 3 style contesting you, I'm still out 3 style either way.  Second, the contest can force players to do something they don't want to do, and I'm not sure I like that.  At one point, Loes tried to force Hugo's character to do something he simply wouldn't do, knowing what he knew (she wanted him to kill someone he was allied with over something that Hugo knew that the character wasn't involved with).  What if she had succeeded?  I could have declared Bad Form, or simply told her not to do it (which is what I did), but it would be nice if the system simply prevented things like that from happening.

Related to the system were the characters.  I found that players both loved and hated going over their character sheets and choosing.  Raoul argues that it's a great mechanic as it encourages players to think about their characters in more detail than they normally would, and I think that's true.  On the other hand, several players strained against their limitations, wanting to bring everything, and others couldn't be asked to figure it out, and resented dealing with mechanics at all.  I doubt I could ever please both the mechanic and the fluff side of an RPG, though this system was a great compromise.  Still, most interestingly, I found that players didn't care much for Aspects except as neat little additions to their character (I think players would have enjoyed them more if they didn't have a simple list: they liked things like Heartbroken and Madness), but they really enjoyed the Special Powers aspect of their character.  If I had to write a new system, I'd probably make the kewl powerz front and center of the game, as players used those more than they used anything else except spies and soldiers.

The only complaints I really recieved were the servants.  Ironically, I had chosen to follow the advice of my editors and simplify, partially with the assumption that the servants would interface with their lords and work together.  This turned out to be partially untrue: the newer players felt they had no right to speak to their lords, to interrupt them.  Interestingly, the veteran players had no problem shifting their focus based on what was going on around them.  I could have given them even less material and they would have done just fine.  I think this is what my editors were talking about, as they generally run games for veterans.

The trading game was also very, very well recieved.  Having little pieces of paper helped a lot, I think.

The game began very slow.  There's this sort of feigned stateliness that I just hate in LARPs.  People walk in with lifted chin and speak slowly and quietly, saying things like "Ahhh, how do you do?" and "Oh, it's so lovely to meet you," and it's all a giant tea-party.  That's lovely, if it's what you're looking for, but we want soemthing to happen.  We want drama and shocking revelations and tragedy!  For the first hour, this seemed to be all that was going on (though several disagreed and pointed out that they made big trades early on, and I certainly missed some elements of the game), and I worried that my game was going to devolve into mindless conversation, a sure sign that I had failed.  But once Raoul announced the murder of Fyx Steele, the game quickly accelerated into high gear, and when I closed out the game, I had several players giving me puppy-dog eyes asking for the game to keep going.  I still can't decide if I made the right decision closing it out, but I certainly left them wanting more.  Still, there has to be some way to kick-start a game more quickly.  Those I ask are of two opinions: Some agree with me and think there must be a way to go faster, but most think that players need about an hour to "get into character" and to feel one another out.  Maybe that's true

I've been bitten by the bug, and within a day, I was inventing an even better system (cough).  I think I need more exposure to LARPs before I try again, but I must say, I was very very pleased to make such ripples in the LARP community with my first effort ^_^
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