Six Things to Remember When Writing a LARP

Back in 2009 I wrote a Warhammer LARP (aka freeform, although it had a few simple rules) for GenCon Oz called Sunset Claws. You can download a zipfile with all the documents to run it yourself here. Participants continue to rave about it as the best LARP they have ever done, and I’ve run it twice since and there is demand to run it again at another local con. Recently word reached my ear that it has been translated into French and run at the Croisades d’Unnor convention in Lille, France. All of this has prompted me to start work on a sequel, and as I have done so I’ve tried to pinpoint the reasons I think the last one was so successful.

1. Give Everyone Something To Do

Socializing isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially when you’ve just stumbled in from a four hours session of Warmachine and don’t know anyone around you. Yet LARPs thrive on socializing as much as possible. You have to grease those wheels. Costumes help add to the mood as does setting but people socialize easiest when they have something to do. Drinking and eating are two simple examples. I had a game of Pass the Pigs going on (in setting) as well. It was a small thing, but it helped. I also had one character make a speech, so everyone had to gather and listen. Thinking of good things for this example is hard, though, so if you have any ideas or examples of your own, put them in the comments!

2. Give Everyone Something to Talk About

Again, socializing is hard to do, and one easy way to break the ice is to give people things to talk about. That’s what the things to do are of course there for, but barring them, everyone should have big things on their mind. It’s not just another party, or even the highlight of the season, the room should be abuzz with the tempora and the mores going on outside. In Sunset Claws we had the annual pig tossing competition, a serial killer amongst the tavern guests, a masked vigilante causing chaos and a gigantic undead army massed outside the city waiting to kill everyone at dawn. Oh, and the hostess was someone everyone liked to gossip about, because her place was like Ric’s Bar in Casablanca, and word was she had the escape route from the army. Nobody had trouble finding a topic of conversation.

3. Give Everyone Shared Goals

LARPs depend a lot on secrecy which inevitably means a narrow focus. You know what you’re doing but you have no idea what anyone else is, and you miss out on a lot of the story as a result. Yes you can imagine the Scarlett Pimpernell is up to something and some are charged to stop him but it doesn’t effect you that much. In Sunset Claws, with the army outside and the serial killer being hunted down, everyone had an idea of what most people at the tavern that night was after, and almost everyone was involved in those things. In the sequel, a battle has just finished and everyone wants history to remember that they were the one who won it. This makes the game feel like a race, and everyone’s working for the finish line. It engages them with each other and with the over-arching plot. It also makes it easier to find allies because everyone needs one and is on the same page. And you can’t do anything without allies, which brings us too:

4. Give Everyone A Sense of Who Might Be Their Allies and Who Might Be Their Enemies

Everyone knows characters need lots of goals to achieve to keep them busy but too many LARPs devolve into desperately trying to figure out whom, if anyone, might even know what your side is, let alone be on it. Eventually you randomly trust someone and hope it involves only a moderate amount of betrayal. You can’t outright tell people who is on their side or it gets dull (indeed, nobody should be entirely on anyone’s side!) but you should give everyone a road map. Here are people you know you can trust (or so the GM has told you, anyway), here are people you know are likely to be set against you, here are people, based on your best information, that will be able or predisposed to help. A lot of LARPs give people goals with no idea how to complete those goals. Players, I think, like a mud map of how to get there.

5. Give Everyone A Reason To Talk To Everyone, and an Understanding of How They Would Talk To Them

Our LARPs are often filled with people who would naturally group together and some they would exclude, but that makes for terrible game play and it ignores the reality. LARPs start with everyone just standing around and it is literally completely random which PC you will be standing next to. Sometimes you may have a superior or an ally to go and seek out but that player might have arrived late or still be talking to his buddy or any of a million things. Staring at you right now is a guy is a stranger. You need to find something to talk about. You’ve got the tempora and the mores for small talk, and the shared goals. He might be a potential ally. He might be an enemy. He might be neither. But whichever one he is, your character sheet needs to tell you who he is and what you think of him, and how he might be remotely connected to your plans, in even the slightest way. Maybe you have a common bond or a shared enemy. Maybe you hate/respect/fear/love/are easily seduced by people of their class/profession/race/gender. A good character sheet will tell you. Nobody should be uninteresting to you.

6. Give Everything Character

One thing players keep complimenting me on is how their character sheet gave them their character’s eyes. As I said in number five, the sheet should tell you enough information about who you are and how you see others so you know how to react to everyone. All of that information should be coloured with character. Sometimes you want to talk directly to the reader, out of character, when you want to give them directions on how to play something or what kind of role they play in the narrative, but wherever possible, you want to avoid that and speak in their character’s voice. You want to tell them what they think is true as if it is true, because of course they believe it. Your choice of language and style provides them the goggles through which they see the universe and that not only helps them keep and stay in character it helps you write interesting interactions. You don’t say “Your relationship with your husband is failing so you are having an affair”, you say “Your husband ignores you and you’re worth more than that, so you are seeking a new lover, one you deserve.”. And on the husband’s sheet, you write “You love your wife more than anything but can’t find the words to tell her, but deep down, you know she knows – or you really hope she does.” Both players got the same kind of information (the marriage is in trouble) and they have a shared value at stake…but both of them operate in completely different universes with completely different truths.

That for me is the heart of LARPs and indeed non live-action scenario design, or at least, how I do it. Everyone shares goals and stakes, but everyone sees those shared things completely differently. That’s where the friction comes from.



Seven Reasons You Should Never Play Monopoly

I started work on a post about why Monopoly is a goddamn warcrime of game design, but Matt Forbeck beat me to the punch yesterday. Here’s the thing though: Matt Forbeck is a really nice guy who never has a bad word to say about anything. That Monopoly got Matt to be critical is a testament to how godawful it truly is.

I am not a nice guy. I am a critic, and it is my job – nay, my sacred duty – to be to the game craft what the allosaurus is to slow-witted toddlers.

But I am not unfair. Let’s give Monopoly a running start before we take it down.

Mr J points out that Monopoly isn’t that bad, and it’s true, there do exist worse games. If you go into it with your eyes open, Monopoly can pass the time less painfully than being eaten by a bear. At the same time, the game industry and hobby and craft owes a lot to Monopoly. It is the very giant on whose shoulders all of us are standing. Aside from The Game of Goose, Monopoly is the longest-standing oldest and still-published board game ever, and Goose cheats by being a non-licensed game that was eventually taken over by a company (like if Parker Brothers decided they owned Poker one day). Monopoly put board games in every person’s house and with the kind of cultural imprint that even Poker or Bridge have trouble matching. During WW2, Monopoly sets were sent to British POWs in German camps, containing secret information from the British forces. Nobody has shoes with handles that big on them any more but we remember them because of Monopoly. The Gleaming Terrier of Finance being run over by the race car is a joke of esteemed cultural heritage (I also like Jasper Fforde’s character called Landen Park-Laine). There are wild chimpanzees who cannot use tools but know what happens when you win second prize in a beauty contest.

Monopoly is also important because everyone knows the rules (sort of) and it appeals to children because they get to handle money. Kids love to play grown up, and until someone makes a great, mass-market kid’s game about being a Banker and Investor with lots of cool cash, the let’s-pretend factor of Monopoly cannot be ignored any more than you can ignore that climbing frames are cooler when you shape them like a pirate ship or rocket.

And now, with that out of the way, we can turn to Monopoly’s various sins. Now, of course, every time you bring up Monopoly, some asshole says “oh, it’s not so bad if you play by the real rules”. This is a GODDAMN LIE. It’s one of those situations where people are so keen to point out a correction of information they forget any concept of knowledge. I know the real rules, I play by the real rules and although the house rules make it worse, the real rules are still the goddamn crime. Respect me enough as a critic to realize I’m not a fucking idiot.

1. The Snowball Effect

This is the one Mr Forbeck mentions, and it’s the most common and obvious complaint. The person in the lead has both more power and more options to further that power, meaning their lead only increases. It is perhaps the most egregious snowball effect ever, though, because the losers don’t just lose their ability to win they lose their ability to participate in the game. The less money you have, the less property you can buy. Soon enough you exist solely to prove the winner is winning in much the same way as a pinata or a poker machine. You spend four hours as a game mechanic, spitting out coins to prove a point.

The popularity of the Free Parking rule proves how obvious this problem is, because everyone tries to fix it. Many of the house rules, including the ones now officially being added, do the same ($500 for rolling snake-eyes, more money for passing Go). Of course, it just makes a bad game take longer. Which brings us to:

2. The Length

Every game of Monopoly now says on the box “now with shorter play time”. Basically, there are different types of rules that declare the game won after a certain time or a certain victory point is reached. Again, the desperation with which this rule has been added proves how badly it was needed. Your average game of Monopoly takes about four hours, minimum, plus an hour for each player beyond four. That’s not conducive to fun family play. You can play two hundred games of Hungry Hungry Hippos in the same time, and have more control over the outcome and more fun, and you can stop anywhere between with a sense of satisfaction. I’m not saying all long games are bad, I’m saying that length needs to be balanced by strong involvement throughout, no snowballs and a depth of mechanics to make the time expenditure worthwhile.

3. The Knockout

Knockout games are kind of the ultimate snowball. Bit by bit, players are reduced in their agency to the point of totality: they are out of the game entirely. They cannot engage with the experience, which means they no longer really care who wins. For the remaining three hours or so once they are knocked out, they can do nothing. They can’t get back into the game. They can’t start another. They wander off. The remaining players have a game that feels less social and more of an imposition on those twiddling their thumbs. Every turn you take after the first knockout is an exercise in being rude. And it doesn’t feel like you’re beating the other people any more, because you’re not even playing with them.

Again, not all knockout mechanics are bad (Bang! is a modern example that’s not awful) but it’s a dangerous mechanic with a huge potential to be unfun, when combined with other factors, such as:

4. Cruel, Unavoidable Randomness

Monopoly is, for the most part, as random as a game of snakes and ladders. Technically, there are ways to control the randomness. You are in effect trying to spend the least amount of money to make the longest and most frequently visited traps on the board. Like in Settlers of Catan, there are ways to attack the most likely outcomes, and people compete for them, which is fine. But then there are random dice rolls which power you up or harm you immensely. The Income Tax spaces which suck away a lot of cash. The Go To Jail spot/card event, while excellent in the late game since it is free rent, is enormously punishing in the early game where property must be bought as quickly as possible. The cards are scattershot attacks and boons that can’t be shored up against. And if you randomly roll a double, you get extra turns, which is not just more winning power but more game engagement. Which means basically, Monopoly IS Hungry Hungry Hippos: you’re jamming down the lever and praying randomness helps you land on the ladders instead of the snakes before the others.

5. The Puzzle

And make no mistake, there are clearly defined snakes and ladders here. The absolute best properties, by a mile, are the orange ones, because they are six, eight and nine spaces from jail. Red is a close second. The two lowest and two highest are not worth getting because of their small catchment areas, and the stations and utilities are a trap. Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a game being a puzzle, with certain strategies offering more return than others, and said strategies emerging through continued game play. As a game for kids, particularly, emergent high strategies are a great idea as it helps kids learn and learn how to learn. But once you’ve spotted these high points, the entire game defaults to a race to grab those high points, a race which is full of random setbacks. And a race that you can stop anyone else from winning by being a spoilsport because of:

6. Chokepoint Blocking Negotiation

It doesn’t matter one bit in Settlers of Catan if everybody is feeling anti-social and refuses to trade. Resources will still come in. It doesn’t matter if everyone refuses to deal with everyone in Diplomacy, the battle moves will still happen. Monopoly doesn’t work that way. The game hovers at a gigantic chokepoint in that until you get a set of properties there’s not much you can really do. Stopping anyone from getting past that chokepoint is always in your interest, even if it is also stopping you. The winning negotiation strategy therefore is about a crushing game of brinkmanship, of making the game so dull and lifeless that eventually your opponents will becomes so bored with nobody moving forward they agree to make a trade that gives you a primary value set and them a lower value set (or worse, just closer to a set). The auction rule most people aren’t aware of makes breaking this lock a little more open, but only to those who have already had better luck, of course.

In essence the strategy of the game is risk management and brinkmanship: it might be worth say, getting yellow and red and purple in return for giving away orange, and the poorer everyone gets the more knife-edge that choice becomes. That is an interesting choice. But there is still nothing that will ever force anyone to make that choice. Players playing to win are generally better of not negotiating, which means – and this is the biggy – activities that help you win go against activities that make the game more enjoyable for you and everyone else.

7. Hating Monopoly Is The Whole Damn Point

Elizabeth Magie designed Monopoly’s first draft, The Landlord’s Game, to make a real-life political/economic point, which was that monopolies destroy competition, crush business and send everyone to the poor house except one person. The fact that is a long, slow, un-fun descent into abject poverty that nobody enjoys because one jerk can set prices so high he bankrupts everyone else is a scathing attack on 20th century finance, particularly in the United States, and it was a hundred years before its time. You could say that if you don’t mind playing the game, then Magie has failed at her goals but I think most people really don’t like Monopoly, they only play it because it is there, and they just don’t know how better things can get. They don’t realize that scattershot randomness and having to wait your turn and playing for four hours and boring themes and crappy little wooden houses and knockout mechanics and blocking negotiations and tedious mathematics are all game design dinosaurs, long since extinct in every other gene pool. Instead, because of its popularity, we make excuses for Monopoly, because everyone knows it or the kids like it, but that is actually the exact opposite of what Magie wanted.

Pointing out that Monopoly is awful is, in fact, playing it how the designer envisioned. It’s what we’re supposed to do. So not only is sticking with and apologizing for Monopoly remaining blind to a world of wonder, it’s missing the point. We should shout from the rooftops every single day about how goddamn awful Monopoly is, because that’s what it was for: to put its awfulness on show to tear down the architects of that awfulness. It’s as bad as hell, and we’re not going to take it any more. Not at our game tables, nor from our politicians. Occupy Wall Street, and burn your little silver terrier when you get there.

I’m serious. The world – and more importantly, game design – will get a lot better if we stop pretending we can put lipstick on a pig, and make Hasbro stop producing this shit. Gamers don’t let gamers play, own or buy Monopoly. Ever.

Card Game Design Journal, Part One

I think it was Thurber who said “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.” In that spirit, most of my games start from a game I enjoy but want to tweak. In this case it is an obscure but wonderful traditional card game of Netherlander origin called Thirty One. It’s a great game that kids from eight or so can play and it works for three to nine players, so I’ll take this opportunity to pimp it and teach it to you.

First, discard the 2-6s of a regular pack of cards. Deal three cards to each player and three cards to the middle. Player to the left of the dealer looks at his current hand and chooses to keep it or discard it, taking the three in the middle. Either way the three that end up in the middle are turned face up. Then the next player may take one of the cards on offer in exchange for one of theirs or pass and not trade again. Players are trying to build sets in their hand of matching suit (unlike 21) but adding up the value as in 21. Ace counts as eleven, picture cards are all ten so the highest possible score is A-x-x where the xs are ten-cards, giving a score of thirty one. Players keep exchanging until one player scores 31 and declares it (showing his cards) or all players pass. Then all show their hands and the lowest hand loses a chip. Last one standing wins.

Low cards are of course more often discarded but sets of three matching face are rated as thirty-and-a-half in score. This and the hidden nature of your opponents (and what may not be in play, since not all cards are dealt out) produces an interesting situation I’ve never seen duplicated in other set-building games: your struggle to produce a good hand can end up making the cast-offs in the centre more and more powerful. Actually, that happens in the Canasta family too, but in a different way. There is a rule where if you like what’s in the middle you can exchange your entire hand for said hand, but then are passed, so everyone knows your score.

So anyway, that’s my muse: what if you had a set-building card game like Ticket to Ride but if there was something far more dramatic that happened when there were thee jokers face up. Then I thought, what if as well as building sets in your hand you were building something on the table, and you had to decide whether to make it bigger and more dangerous or improve your own hand. Add in a touch of Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards and Bang! two games I find quite amusing, and then I had some vague ideas for mechanics. The nature of game design seems to be a lot of see-sawing back and forth between mechanic and theme, like music and lyrics in a song. Some times you’ll have the mechanic for years before you find a theme you like.

Then one day these ideas crashed into my obsession with Owlbears, which is kind of a weird in-joke. I just find them hilarious and stupid and an example of the wackier side of D&D and there have been a few incidents with my various gaming buddies where funny things involving owlbears have happened. Like playing a round of Articulate and given the clue “It’s a land mass surrounded by water and its named after a D&D monster” and immediately and with 100% certainty answering “OWLBEAR ISLAND”. Later we freeformed the idea of an RPG set on Owlbear Island, where everything is an owlbear, including you (not to be confused with the island in World of Warcraft where all the monsters are owlbears, but the grass and trees and skies are grass and trees and skies.) ANYWAY. You kind of had to be there. But it’s a thing. Owls and bears, stuck together. Squid panthers. Teleporting dingos. The vulture elephant. The mosquito bird. That time in D&D when we got the druid’s weasel and stacked it with spells so it was a True-Seeing Alignment-Sensing Invisible Hastened Weasel and we used it as the ultimate spy camera. We never needed drugs growing up because Gygax was on them for us.

The two ideas met. Gluing animals together like a mad D&D mage – that could be the thing in the middle. And in your hand, harvesting their bits back into your magical laboratory to make potions of giant growth and alignment sense – that would be the set-building. And so I had a concept, and we were begun….

In which my blog wanders away from gaming and writing again

“There is an inherent generosity to the human spirit, and one of its faces is the face of the teacher”

– Michael Crichton

I like to teach. In many ways I got into gaming because I liked to teach – and learn. I love learning new rules and I love explaining them to new people. I love GMing because I love explaining rules and settings and stories and genres.

If you want to put it cynically, I like feeling smart, and teaching is a great way to do that. For a variety of reasons.

For one, the teacher gets to learn. As the old saw goes, the teacher always learns more than the student. The art of taking facts in your brain and sorting them into a way to express them so you can lead someone to them and through them to understanding demands a greater synthesis and understanding of those facts than you possessed before, and seeing knowledge in another’s eyes reflects back on your own providing greater clarity and depth.  But perhaps the greatest thing you learn is that you can teach, that you have knowledge. Sometimes you don’t know that, until you teach it. You can understand on some academic level that you have accumulated facts and experiences and memories and grasped how things work but until you teach, you don’t realize that all of this adds up to the magic of something more than information: to the power of knowledge and the wonder of wisdom.

To teach is to comprehend the existence of something within you you did not, until that moment fully understand, and have it recognized and valued and certified instantly. Anyone can think they know something, but if you can teach it, then you cannot be doubted.

I did not know what I knew about Kickstarters. But after watching a good many gaming and RPG ones succeed – and succeed madly! – and taking part in some of that madness, not once but twice, well, three actually since we should count all crowdfunding sites, and running my own successfully to get start up funds for The MESSAGE, my movement to make gaming men make their hobby more accommodating to women … and being the kind of person who watches closely and carefully as things happen, it turns out that after all that I knew rather a lot. And I was able to teach it to someone, who has also taught it to someone else. My knowledge was not unique, but it was the only collection of that knowledge accessible to someone who needed it – an accessibility made possible by the generosity of a teacher but even more so by the curiosity of the student.

That student runs Tea Tree Oil For Good, which is one of the greatest ideas ever: a program which exists to sell products and make money which then entirely funds charities, so said charities can do their work without worrying about the income stream, and the products can get sold by people trying to make money without balancing their work with charity. Freeing up charities to be run by people who know exactly how best to spend money and income to be generated by people who know how to generate money, on a systematic level, is an absolute game changer. Tea Tree Oil has a plan not to back just one charity but a thousand in Australia alone, and then on, eventually, to other countries. Each project can change thousands of lives, and they can change other lives. Millions of ripples, going out, from me, from teacher to student to kickstarter to Tea Tree Oils operation to all the charities it funds to the lives it recreates and the new worlds it builds. A million ripples becoming a tsunami of change, but every drop in that gigantic wave connected too, through Tea Tree’s Ripple Effect project which allows, through the magic of the internet, every single person who buys just one product to see where their money goes down to an individual level. So no more worrying about greenwashing or dumping money into a great big black hole and hoping it goes somewhere.

So this is me, casting out my ripple, my introduction of knowledge, to see where it goes. The thing about ripples, though, is they go in both directions. When a ripple hits anything, even another ripple, it bounces back to its origin. What we send out comes back not just in the knowledge of the work it can do, but in reinforcing ourselves. Like I said, I discovered I knew a lot. And I plan to use that when we run a second crowdfunding campaign for the MESSAGE later this year. We also plan to link the MESSAGE into Tea Tree’s income stream, so The MESSAGE can finally travel around Australia to boost the signal, and much more. There may also be other ways I will be crossing streams with Tea Tree, for the benefit of everyone. We will see.

When there are things to buy, and ways for others to send out ripples more simply and directly, I will let you know. For the moment though, just some good news about the future, and a reminder to everyone that teaching is good for us. Even if it is just a new game, or a new setting, or a new adventure. Even if its just to make you feel smart. It is inherently generous, and it sends out ripples of ideas. And that always makes things better.