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Game Economics: Boffer LARP Edition

A couple of posts ago, I discussed economics in tabletop games, with some specific elements that focus on the ways that game-economics are like and unlike the study of real-life economics. This time around, I'm shifting the focus to LARPs. CI/Ro3 and Wildlands LARPs - the ones I have real experience with - have some very different setting assumptions from D&D, some of which are stylistic choices and some of which are elements of the medium. Those differences have a huge impact on economy.


LARPs often include granular upkeep mechanics - paying yearly upkeep on specific pieces of gear, for example. Wildlands is noted particularly for the challenge that upkeep represents, as the best sword most smiths could make is a four-event weapon, and many characters spend the first part of any event figuring out how they're going to get a weapon for that event. This is a key part of the crushing squalor that so defines the Wildlands campaign. In CI/Ro3 campaigns, upkeep is a minor yearly cost, trivial for most players, and I like to think that players who couldn't meet upkeep costs would have no difficulty getting other players to help them out.

When I started work on DtD, it struck me that Superior Quality weapons (in SI and KG) represented kind of an odd point in the rules: very expensive weapons that no longer required upkeep. The cost of applying Superior Quality would almost never pay for itself in the limits of a campaign, but it still seemed strange to me that the reward for having piles of money was an exemption from the upkeep system. Much more appealing, in terms of economic design, was the silvering of weapons: for an extremely high cost, characters could call silver for a mere four months - four events at absolute most, but more likely two. To this end, in Dust to Dust, wealthy characters can sink money into enchanting their gear, but those enchantments fade in three or six events. The more powerful enchantments carry their own cost, as well as the cost of lower-level enchantments that must be in place in order for the higher-level enchantments to be placed.

Consumable Items

This is a matter of stylistic difference more than anything, as there are LARPs (or proposals for LARPs) that go very light on consumable (or one-shot) items. In CI/Ro3 and Wildlands, though, there is extensive usage of various one-shot items for attacks, healing, defensive buffs, and a huge range of utility effects. Several production skills hang on producing large quantities of consumable items, and this throws a major wrinkle into all discussion of economy. Because players invest significant amounts of Character Points in these skills, however, they come to expect a competitive degree of combat functionality from them; this is a second area of major stylistic difference from tabletop games. In D&D, you generally wouldn't have a character rely on alchemist's fire or poison gases as her go-to weapon, but all the way from NERO Tyrangel to DtD, that is a significant character archetype.

On one hand, consumable items fill an upkeep-like role, with regard to the characters that do depend on them. Acid Dart formulations are (roughly) as necessary to a DtD combat alchemist as mana, spell slots, or whatever to a combat spellcaster, but each formulation costs money. The plus side is that the alchemist can purchase formulations from other characters, find them as loot, and stockpile them from event to event. It's a delicate balance, and in SI, Wildlands, KG, and Eclipse, it depended on the income (see below, I have plenty to say about game income) of a whole team, not a single player, to support one or two brewers or alchemists (whatever the game's terminology).

On the other hand, consumables in both LARPs and tabletop games can represent a way to turn in-play cash into a pre-defined amount of awesomeness, by spending even more consumable attack items than you otherwise would (that is, "going nova is fun"), making you more resistant to harm, getting you back into a fight sooner than you would otherwise, or improving your stats in any number of other ways. Compare a Troll's Strength formulation to, say, a potion of bull's strength in D&D. The whole point of the latter is that it is a stat increase (a kind of awesomeness) that was not paid for out of the wizard's or cleric's spell slots. It's possible to look at LARP consumables in the same way: DtD's Warding Glyphs carry the benefit of weakening every target of a particular kind that passes through a doorway, while the description of Eclipse's Berzerk stim begins: "This drug causes the character to fly into a furious rage and become an unstoppable killing machine."

I like the idea that players voluntarily remove cash from the economy in order to exceed their normal limits. This is the other half of the idea that led to Forge Magic, which is either high-ticket upkeep (if you treat the benefits as "mandatory") or a long-duration consumable. I believe this is not true of NERO Tyrangel, but in Wildlands and all games of the CI/Ro3 family, permanent magic items (above and beyond times-per-day items) are very rare and almost never for sale or trade. A player might gain one of these very rare permanent magic weapons from a major plotline; about the only other way to gain one is to inherit it from another character dying or retiring. (Weapons taking on heirloom status is pretty cool.) SI introduced a system for crafting weapons with minor enchantments, using Essential Elements; this was cool, but there were very few top-end Weaponsmiths and Armorsmiths over the course of the game. KG used a reduced list of possible enchantments (corresponding with its shorter list of magical materials). Even at the end of each campaign, these items were uncommon. Though their powers were permanent, they were not indestructible the way actual magic weapons tended to be, and Break or Destroy effects (especially as part of an Inferno) grew increasingly prevalent in the latter parts of those campaigns.

How Value Enters the Economy

Income in the boffer LARPs with which I am familiar - Shattered Isles, King's Gate, Eclipse, Dust to Dust, and NERO Wildlands South - comes from a variety of sources. The Chimera/Rule of 3 family of games all have an Increased Wealth Advantage, representing a steady external source of income. This Advantage costs starting build, but is generally recognized as highly beneficial. Each campaign also has a Talent called Craft (SI, KG, DtD), Profession (Eclipse), or Craftsman: Other (NERO), which allows the character to define a source of earned income that pays a small amount of money, but increases with higher levels of the skill. Craftsman goes so far as to both scale with level and increase to a better scaling rate upon mastery, in NERO's 9th edition rules.

Beyond these abilities, money comes from looting enemies killed in combat, finding treasure in a module, and getting rewarded by NPCs. The rain does not fall equally on all players, though; some players don't remember to search kills, while others have no kills whatsoever - and there are opportunists out there as well. The old conventional wisdom was that front-line fighters got the bulk of the treasure, simply because they were in position to search kills once they were down. Healers - who in many games have the least capacity to survive anywhere near the front lines - rely on the generosity of the front line for any of that combat loot. Especially in NERO, where players can spend in-play cash to train and earn more XP, players addressed this through team dynamics: the fighters are the money-makers, but the healers keep them going, so the fighters fund the healers' XP. (Admittedly, I never played a PC in any NERO campaign, so I'm going on anecdotes here.) In CI/Ro3 games, as mentioned, it takes a team to keep a brewer going; the next step of this idea came in Eclipse, in which the whole playerbase funded a team of Med Techs through in-play donations, and those Med Techs consistently provided for the whole playerbase in the campaign's toughest battles.

The element that sets boffer LARPs apart from tabletop games here is not the team-like approach, but the differing approaches to wandering monsters and the reliance on money for primary character functions. I think there's also a way to look at the economic cycle as stockpiling consumable resources by using them as sparingly as possible during "normal" conditions, spending those resources to survive the climactic (possibly season closer) battles. I'm not sure this is a common behavior, but it does interest me to imagine linking the economy to the narrative cycles of buildup, climax, and resolution.

It's possible to make money from Production skills, but more difficult than one would imagine. The problem is that one often makes goods that one wishes to use rather than sell, and it's awfully hard to set a competitive profit margin such that one can sell a portion of the product and use the rest without taking a loss. DtD has tried to ease this, but I don't believe that I have the perspective to comment on the results yet. For skills that do not make consumable items, and for skills that make healing items, the "frontier community" feel of boffer LARPs means that characters are nigh-constantly facing mortal danger, and charging even a reasonable profit margin for a weapon when the wielder will use it to save the smith's life can feel churlish. (Also, characters don't need new weaponry often enough to keep the smith busy - another reason for Forge Magic to be as it is.)

Getting Money Out of the Economy

So some players will be flush with cash, while others will look at weapon and armor maintenance costs as a serious burden, possibly even out of reach. As with any haves-and-have-nots situation, it makes some odd things happen; with the extra money to pour into "more awesomeness," there's a great chance that net income improves. Once this happens, the plot committee probably wants to do something to suck money out of the economy and restore some balance. (Because of the greater number of players, this has even more in common with the concepts behind federal monetary policy than tabletop GMing.) Since taxation is not a going concern, the idea is to make sure there are high-ticket items worth wanting, the expenditure benefits more than just that one player, or the expenditure resolves an off-camera problem (such as, say, dipping one's toe in domain-management gameplay). In games that use metal coinage, there's an even stronger need to keep currency returning to Plot's hands: the props are too expensive to readily replace, but treasure can't keep going out until some of it comes back in. A gambit by one player or group to hold all the money just by physically possessing all the props is something I see as metagaming and poor sportsmanship, since in-play there is no comparable limit to how much coinage can show up in the world.

Introducing high-ticket items that are worth wanting can be a problem, especially if those high-ticket items provide a permanent benefit. In-play auctions in which characters sink hundreds of (denomination) into rare and valuable items are often breaches of the normal world-law that permanent magic items are not for sale. A permanent magic weapon generally means that the wealthy character will quickly gain even greater levels of wealth. This can be a problem with temporary enchantment as well, but at least the character will have to pay again in the future. Additionally, such auctions are large in-town encounters that reward the characters who have already been rewarded. It's tough to do in such a way that characters with only "average" amounts of money can enjoy the encounter as well. The good side is that, if collusion between the players is sufficiently discouraged, you might be able to get one wealthy player or team of players to make sure that the interesting item costs absolutely as much as possible.

A variant of the above is a research system: using a large pile of money to speed up research hastens a process that the player could complete just by taking more time. I only know the back-end details of the DtD research system, of course, and I can't discuss those in much depth here, but most proposals for systems that I've seen in other games include a significant monetary factor. All that's necessary to keep this going is to make sure there's a nigh-endless list of more things to want. To this end, I've always liked having one list of spells, production items, and so on in the rulebook, and another that is to be discovered in-play. This is an idea I fully support introducing into tabletop games as well, but for some reason new crunch of this kind in splatbooks is usually treated as common knowledge.

Anyway. The idea of the expenditure benefiting more than one player might take the form of securing a shipment of supplies that will be widely distributed - perhaps a 24-hour-duration item that can't be stockpiled, or something like that. The point here is that if the expenditure makes the wealthy character look awesome for generosity and the rest of the characters look awesome by its inherent benefits, that's win-win. The only (potential) downside is the risk of anti-climax if the benefit makes an encounter go too easily. Any interpretation of "buying off an opponent" might fit into this category.

Off-camera benefits can be a hard sell, since it relies so heavily on the consensual-reality nature of things to feel like the benefit exists. On the other hand, if done right, the wealthy character pays in-play money to feel cool without disrupting anyone else's gameplay. In a sense, it's a lot like buying a cosmetic item or companion pet in an MMO: the game balance needle doesn't budge, but everyone walks away happy. If the game has a fully-developed domain management system, as some games have had, the purchase has mechanical benefit, but I think it's pretty acceptable for domain management to be highly wealth-driven. (Also, I've never given even serious consideration to how to balance a competitive domain management game.)

In general, I like to see games give players an interesting variety of low-, mid-, and high-ticket items to want that are still part of the game's balance assumptions. Here I have to give Eclipse a lot of credit; the game embraced its nature as a science fantasy game and included a huge range of electronic and mechanical widgets (nothing is as much of a game-changer as walkie-talkies), as well as weapon and armor upgrades, and attached a steep upkeep cost to many of them in the form of power packs. The idea of buying something cool that benefits the whole playerbase is there as well: the workbenches that double every crafter's production points are not cheap to replace. It certainly would have been possible for one player or team to keep that all to themselves, but that hasn't come to pass so it hasn't needed solving. That said, I suspect that the players who benefit most also contribute the most to its replacement.

Okay, I think I'm done for now. This is the part where I open the floor to commentary.

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