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LARP Design: Between-Game Actions

In many live-action games, there exists a mechanic to represent the players' actions between events, since otherwise players can only take part in the world and its goings-on for maybe twelve (for some games, as many as twenty-four) days out of every year. Since the plot committee is dedicated to creating the illusion of a living world, the NPCs do things between events so that the plot advances; correspondingly it is reasonably logical to let players do things as well.

Oh, by the way, this post is going to have some serious alphabet soup. Let me lay out a quick glossary:

BGA/IBGA: (In) Between-Game Action
DtD: Dust to Dust, the game I am currently running
FoD: Forest of Doors
IFGS: International Fantasy Gaming Society, one of the original LARPs; utterly different in style from NERO, CI/RB/Ro3 LARPs
KG: King's Gate, the second Chimera Interactive campaign and the first Red Button campaign
NERO: New England Roleplaying Organization, a LARP with a lot of chapters nationwide
PBEM: Play by e-mail
SI: Shattered Isles, the first Chimera Interactive campaign
WLS: Wildlands South, a NERO campaign using variant rules

The history of In-Between Game Actions (more recently we've dropped "In") that I can speak to directly goes back to the second season of the first Shattered Isles campaign. Since some of my readers were on staff for SI at that time, maybe they'll do me the favor of commenting when I get things wrong, and possibly hold forth on the origins of the idea. What I do know is that in '98, SI's IBGA system was a kind of upsell within the system, what we might now look at as a microtransaction. You didn't have to pay for a membership to play SI, but if you did, you got three IBGAs after every three-day event. I dimly recall that memberships cost around $15, lasted a year, and also got you a subscription to the Town Crier, an in-play newsletter written by players. These were early days of using the internet to support LARPing. For that matter, the LARP I played before SI, IFGS, didn't have a website - all game communication took place through their newsletter, "Here There Be Dragons."

But I digress. In SI, there was a quite narrow list of what you could do with an IBGA. Chiefly there were extra uses of Production, Craft, and Lore Talents, or learning one or more new spells if you had teaching; this made a huge difference to the overall usefulness of these talents. I don't mean this as a criticism of the design - far from it. It was a huge payoff to the player, for an amount of money that was relatively trivial compared to the cost of six events a year, so the only real problem was remembering to renew each year. IBGAs gradually came to feel more like a right than a privilege, as is often the case with such things, and eventually the idea of paying extra for a membership was dropped and IBGAs really were standard. Even so, the list of things you could do remained tightly constrained: no explorations or interactions with NPCs. These restrictions had the benefit of keeping things simple; in those days, you filled out IBGAs on a paper checkout form on Sunday morning, and handed it in before you left site. This worked pretty much fine.

Later on, SI transitioned to an online checkout form, which was more convenient in every way except one: without an immediate, physical checkout envelope, the money and tags spent on Production actions took a little more coordinating to work out. This was solved easily enough, of course, at check-in for the next event. The change to electronic format is probably the single most important shift for allowing the systems that came later. The downside to checkout envelopes and on-site IBGA writing was that, well, it's Sunday morning, you've had six hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, and you're in a hurry to pack up and get offsite. If there had been a lot of careful planning to do, it would have been more or less impossible due to sleep dep.

In WLS (quick confession: there's a lot I never learned about the game while helping to run it), the only skills that had direct between-game usage were Lore skills, which permitted you to write a letter to a specific, named NPC assigned to you by Plot, requesting more information on a particular topic. For all that they were called Lore skills, their implementation was a lot more like a Contacts skill that only granted information, often with snark, sarcasm, and air quotes as freebie additions.

I don't know much about how core NERO chapters handle anything like IBGAs, as I've never been a PC in a NERO campaign. Looking it up on the NERO Atlanta website, it sounds like it's operating on an upsell model, offering a few different categories of BGAs for varying amounts of money. Interestingly, the BGAs also grant experience blankets in themselves. This is an interesting tack to take; since the cost determines the amount of detail that the player can dictate and the number of experience blankets involved, it seems more like a paid system of player-generated content. I would be curious to hear about how this system works for them. This system is not universal across NERO chapters; a quick glance at the NERO Massachusetts - Ravenholt campaign site shows that they don't distinguish between "standard" and "large" plot actions as Atlanta does, and split the difference in price. Both campaigns have an option for a free plot submission or BGA, which the two campaigns use as a way for players to tell Plot what kinds of things in the game interest them. Free actions are not guaranteed responses or in-world effects, but operate on an as-we-get-to-it basis. I find this interesting, though not a system I could ever implement in DtD - again, I wonder what the long-term effects of those systems are for them.

King's Gate technically had the same rules on IBGAs that Shattered Isles did, but the rules on interactions with NPCs and other "nonstandard" off-camera interactions in the setting were gradually relaxing, and this trend continued over the course of the campaign. It was not codified in the rules, however; nor were such actions broadly encouraged by the committee. This wasn't by any means a flaw in the game; it's just the way we played at the time. Players still mentioned from time to time not really having anything to do with their BGAs, especially players who didn't have Production, Craft, or Lore talents.

I think it was KG that introduced a number of additional ways to spend Buttons (the thanks-for-volunteering currency), one of which was buying additional BGAs. The goal, of course, was to give the players who had earned hundreds or even thousands of Buttons something desirable to spend them on; I have to wonder if anyone at the time recognized this as a microtransaction system? (Reminder: I make video games for a living, and use this word without prejudice.) This additional BGA each event returned to the strict usage rules of the original SI IBGAs. Further, over the winter break, you could buy a further four BGAs, operating under the same restricted rules. As far as I know, all of this worked as intended throughout the KG campaign; if the staff ever found this system especially problematic, I don't know about it (but they too are invited to comment below).

Eclipse continued the conceptual evolution of BGAs that SI and KG had been undergoing, though this proved difficult for them to communicate to a playerbase that by now had widely varying impressions of what was or was not legitimate usage of BGAs. Speaking strictly for myself, I was surprised to discover the depth and breadth of setting interaction (another way of saying "plot actions") that other folks were getting up to; for some, the events described in this post were no real stretch of their expectations. I eventually came to understand that Eclipse's staff saw plot-intensive BGAs as a way to deliver additional exposition to the players, and to allow players to do things that they could find no satisfying way to put on-camera. The kinds of actions that Eclipse staff found to be permissible grew broader, I think, over the course of the campaign, more or less mapping to the expansion of players' power and influence within the setting. I have thoughts on the effects of this approach to BGAs, but I'd like to come back to it once I've finished laying out the styles of other campaigns.

Legynds (another game I have not personally played) took quite a different tack for their player actions between games, developing a highly crunchy resource-management minigame; I get the impression that it compares favorably to a Birthright PBEM. The benefit of such a system is that there is probably little pure adjudication to do - that is, the players have a pretty good basis for guessing what they will get, and Plot can predict what players are likely to have and be capable of, even years in advance. The downside, if there is one, is that someone has to crunch the numbers, and as the game goes on there are probably a lot of numbers to crunch; also, the exact documentation of player wealth becomes ever more important. Most probably the campaign settled these logistical problems to their satisfaction the better part of a decade ago.

FoD and its sister campaigns also have a deep and crunchy BGA system, as every Skill has at least a few applications that solely apply to BGAs. Given the strong rules emphasis on research, commerce, socializing, and the like, I assume that these abilities have sweeping impact on long-term gameplay, but my involvement with FoD did not continue long enough for me to find out personally, as a job compelled me to move to North Carolina. Of this system, I will say that I really like the fact that a given Skill will have both on-camera and off-camera effects, rather than a player needing to explicitly choose between the two. One of the potential weaknesses of the CI/Ro3 system is that some character builds specialize in BGA usage, and prove to be less effective during an event.

I have heard of campaigns that implemented a real-time system for BGAs - if an action reasonably takes four days to complete (in the judgment of the staff member), then you can declare another action in four days. This may work for the games that do it, but in all honesty I cannot imagine how, unless "a month" is a standard amount of time for an action to take. I invest energy and thought into my Eclipse PC, but I can't imagine needing to come up with how he spends all of his time; I also need my time away from thinking about my Eclipse PC in which to do all of the other things in my life. Even more impossible to me is the idea of being a staffer responsible for parsing all those actions.

At last, this brings me to DtD, which has inherited and reacted to the sensibilities of Eclipse when it comes to what a player can do in a BGA. We implemented a formal research system, with which players can research new rituals, production formulas, and other things; we've found, in general, that a substantial portion of the playerbase now spends at least one and often all of their BGAs ensconced in a library, working on this or that project. At the same time, we've allowed a slightly increased level of exploration and conflict, though we still instruct players that BGAs seeking to resolve conflicts by fiat will be declined. The benefit we have found in this approach echoes the words of an Eclipse staffer: our setting is so big and we have so much story to communicate that we absolutely cannot pass up any available chance at additional exposition and interaction. We have been able to tell small stories in locales we will really never be able to put on-camera, such as interactions in the Free City of the Hulder and the Library of Khaldun.

The research system does have its downsides, and this commentary wouldn't be complete without acknowledging those. Some power sets do not have obvious research topics attached to them, and some of those players have felt shut out of this area of gameplay. While our research system has much greater transparency than a purely ad-hoc system, we deliberately keep most of the hard numbers of the system obscured from players and report progress to players as description rather than, well, a progress bar. While I stand by the reasons for this opacity, it has discouraged system adoption by at least one player, who reasonably felt that only a numerical cost-benefit analysis would make him comfortable with the results.

Let me take a step back and talk about the good and bad sides of any BGA system. They are a direct avenue to increasing player engagement in character and setting, simply because they are another area for characterization and strategy. Many of these systems allow players to attempt things that cannot reasonably be portrayed on-camera, including travel to distant locales and montage-like extended efforts. These storytelling methods become even more effective when combined with on-camera action that precedes or follows on those off-camera actions. I don't know how other games do it, but Eclipse and DtD deliver BGA responses through email in the week-or-so prior to an event. This sparks extensive discussion over message boards, player-side wikis, and other social media sites, ramping up player excitement much like foreshadowing posts (INN reports, Historical Events, etc.). Think of it as one of the two best tools in the game's hype machine - and the idea that a game might not need a hype machine to appeal to its long-time players is like a video game company not having a marketing department. Finally, BGAs and player letters to NPCs are great ways for players to tell the game staff what they care about and want to see in the game.

On the other hand... any BGA system at all is more work for staffers, and quality always costs time and energy - things that game-running already requires in staggering amounts. Even small playerbases generate a colossal amount of bookkeeping, as well. Actions that do not involve hard numbers must rely on some other vehicle to determine success or failure, such as the judgment of a staff member. Imposing costs or penalties against a player because a staff member judged that the action had failed delves into vast, murky gray areas of trust. It's just the kind of thing that a tabletop game would settle with a die roll, on the principle that the die roll feels impartial, even if the DM has weighted the probability to make success an awfully long shot. (...but haven't we all seen "00" turn up on percentile dice at the damnedest times?) Certainly, a BGA system could look to die rolls or card draws to resolve random chance, but that overemphasizes the ways in which BGAs are, by definition, not live-action; it's best, I firmly believe, to steer players away from conflicts that are important or chancy enough that it would be unsatisfying to simply let the player succeed. This goes back to an earlier point - the best-practices use of plot actions, from the staff's perspective, is to set the stage for conflicts that can then be resolved in actual live-action.

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