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PvP: Boffer LARP Edition

A couple of weeks ago, Harbinger Readers JohnKazuo and Ms. J replied to my post on PvP design to specifically address the dynamics of PvP in LARPs, and now I'm returning to the topic. To state a few things up-front: this has a lot to do with pure aesthetics, and I am absolutely, 100% NOT judging what anyone else likes. The only measure of good or bad is whether the game is (either tactically, strategically, or both) fair, the social contract of the game is upheld, and enough people have enough fun that the LARP can continue to run (chiefly this means not driving off all of the newbies).

But first, we have to define our terms. It's not simple in LARPs the way it is in video games, because LARPs embrace far more complex social dynamics than the average MMO (RP servers and guild infighting notwithstanding). When people talk about PvP in boffer LARPs, they're usually talking about in-play bloodshed, with varying levels of lethality, but talking to Ms. J and some really excellent commentary in G+ by +Wade Jones and +Timothy Clancy has forced me to consider the broader spectrum and how social conflict factors into things. I can't speak in an informed way on salon LARPs, even though they motivate my posting about social conflict.

My LARPing History (Just the Highlights)

I've been on staff for three LARPs at this point: StarQuest, Wildlands South, and Dust to Dust. I have played Shattered Isles, King's Gate, and Eclipse extensively. StarQuest was a very small game (I expect that our peak player draw was near 30, give or take) with no PvP violence that I recall at any point, and only modest social conflict. WLS's first campaign (the one I didn't work on until taking the Blood Oath at the very end) was a small-to-medium game, with significant PvP violence and even more social conflict. The second campaign had only a small amount of PvP violence, and (I think) somewhat less social strife. SI saw only a small amount of PvP death or bloodshed, but a ton of political conflict. KG had very little violence, but even more political conflict, and a lot of big talk about one team attacking another - I'm happy to say that this never erupted into a full-on fight. Eclipse has had, as far as I know, two PvP deaths, and Dust to Dust none (but we've just started Season Two).

Social Conflict

The boffer LARPs of my experience tacitly or explicitly encourage PCs to form teams of anywhere from three to twenty players. The tacit form comes down to player housing - if you're going to stay in cabins on state parks, your character's personal security is a shared risk, and you very badly need a certain minimum of trust with the other people in the building. It helps if you enjoy their company, because you'll probably spend some percentage of your event hanging out in your cabin, and life is better if that's a positive experience. Shared protection from danger, pooling resources to keep one another alive, and camaraderie: this is a pretty good working definition of a team.

Once there are two teams, I can almost promise that there will be social conflict. When you have three or more megateams (8+ players) and five or more smaller-but-indispensable teams (3-7 players), all of them motivated toward friction by their culture packets, their self-interest, and the intrinsic dynamics of a crowd of 40+ people... social conflict is the order of the day. That's fine! It's great if players will entertain themselves while Plot catches some shut-eye or sets up the next module or whatever. We're still talking about non-violent stuff here, as a baseline. If there are X-many desirable pieces of treasure and X+1-many teams, whee, what you have is some politicking.

I'm going to brush past issues of plot favoritism, player popularity, and such. Plot should do everything in their power to avoid playing favorites, and targeting wallflowers with Cool Stuff (as long as the wallflowers haven't specifically said they prefer to avoid being in the spotlight) is Item One in the LARP-runner's Best Practices document. Suffice it to say that (for complex reasons) Plot favoritism will be perceived even when it does not exist, and the Plot favoritism that does exist can't be reduced to zero anyway... I'm getting off-track here. The point is that these things will tip the scales in social conflict.

Aesthetically, I prefer games in which social conflict varies in tone from times of peace to times of intense conflict and a lot of grandstanding. Like the best TV dramas, tension should sometimes rise right to the edge of boiling over, because that's exciting, and then resolve in some way that lets the story and the characters move forward without putting everyone in their own pine boxes. Ms. J's comment on this is very important: if it is at all possible, people who are engaging in in-character conflict should spend time together in a strictly out-of-character mode, so that they remember that it's about gamesmanship but not out-of-character enmity. (If you are LARPing with someone you have OOC conflict with... that sucks, and pursuing IC conflict is far more likely to generate explosions.) I like it when characters or PC groups can win or lose, but still bounce back to be ready for the next conflict, and enjoy roughly the same odds of success as before (possibly after licking their wounds for awhile).

The games I listed above are all heroic fantasy (seasoned with "dark" or "space" as appropriate). The emotional structure of the stories usually includes the sense that the characters hate or strongly dislike one another at the beginning, but they are forced to work together by circumstance, and they learn to coexist, putting off their differences until the end of the current emergency... at which time one hopes they have replaced their conflict with friendship. (At least in King's Gate's case, I came away with the strong impression that, with disaster averted, the characters would take about six months to breathe, and then begin a bloody purge of the survivors. I'm glad the campaign ended before that part.)

Which brings me to...

Bloody Constraint

Violent PvP can vary wildly by motivation and stakes, so let's look at some of the configurations, starting with the lowest stakes and consequences.

Tournaments and Dueling
This is a flavor of violence with a whole lot going for it. It's a pressure valve for social tension in a game (just like in real life! It's great like that) because it's staged, in-game-regulated competition between people who have probably been thinking real hard about who would win if one group jumped the other, without the fear of death at the end thanks to the prevalence of healing magic. In games without a lot of social tension, a tournament is just a good time all the way around, because there are enough people for everyone to have a good fight even without any NPCs.

Further, tournaments and politics go together like mint and chocolate. Tournaments are an opportunity to watch the opposition in action, both for player skill and character abilities. I particularly like tournaments for summer events, in that they include plenty of time for players to cool off and drink water. One excellent King's Gate event had a fighting tournament that ended in my character fighting one of his close friends in a game of ten touches, with the caveat that the victor had to win by two touches. I was proud to lose in the final round, with a score of 14-12. (There have been other fights I was proud to lose - I'm a decent enough fighter, but I've wound up in tournaments against people who are legends within our community, so I'm happy whenever I don't humiliate myself.)

Duels are similar, but with a wider variety of stakes - duels to first blood, to submission, or to the death are all common. I'm personally of the belief that a Code Duello improves damn near any conceivable LARP setting, for all the same reasons that real-world cultures developed such codes in the first place. The problem with tournaments and dueling in LARPs is that characters heavily invested in fighting stats can gain a commanding or even unassailable advantage, and that's where the fun stops. So, you know, don't hand out immunities in your rules design. Because balancing a single character to operate in PvP and PvE can be difficult, consider including a (possibly supernatural) mechanism that levels the field for tournaments and duels.

Looking back at my previous post on PvP, a tournament or duel is a LARP's closest parallel to instanced PvP. The in-character need to stop characters from bleeding to death is what keeps us from exploring the more involved models of PvP team sports such as Warsong Gulch or (dare I mention it) Huttball.

Mind Control
Something akin to mind-controlling a PC to attack and possibly kill his friends is a pretty universal trope. Since the mind-controlled person is typically blameless, the rest of the PCs don't hold the character accountable for anything done during that time, and hold back just a bit as they work to take him down. Some players enjoy an excuse to beat up their friends (because hey, it's just a part of the plot), while others are uncomfortable or even bitterly opposed to games using such mechanics. One of my most exciting single days of LARPing was one that I spent with my character replaced by a bad guy, otherwise known as the old Hag-in-a-Balthasar-Suit trick. It let me think about the game around me in a totally different way, without causing me so much stress in worrying about consequences that I wouldn't have fun. This was very early in my LARPing career, and it was pretty much the first time I had been the center of attention, so that felt awesome. Importantly, my briefing from Plot was not to go on a killing spree, but to watch and wait (violence followed later on).

Because feelings are so mixed on this point, leave an out for players who can't stand it. That choice doesn't have to be mechanically equal, though it shouldn't come across as punitive, either. We ran an encounter in DtD, for example, in which characters could accepted being mind-controlled for a short time, as the price attached to getting to mind-control the field battle boss for a short time. As a strictly opt-in situation, the players who can't stand this kind of thing just handled a different part of the field battle's challenges.

One other thing - for this to work as I've described, it's important for Plot to telegraph to the non-controlled players that their treacherous friend is controlled, rather than just... well, you know. Otherwise we're talking about a fast track to one or more deaths. I've also heard stories of players deliberately getting themselves mind-controlled and commanded to do whatever it was they wanted to do anyway, so as to retain plausible deniability. It does make for good speculative fiction, though IC justice mechanisms are generally not sophisticated enough to account for such a thing.

Punitive Killing
Most games have a complicated rules relationship with death. Since the game environment is often incredibly lethal, and because one bad mistake can lead to a character walking off alone and getting murdered by spiders or Marakai or whatever, the default state is for death to be temporary. In CI/Ro3 LARPs, and in Wildlands South (like most NERO-derived games), characters have to draw from a deck or bag of randomized components upon receiving a resurrection effect. That draw has some chance to result in permanent death - a chance that increases with each death that character takes. In other games, characters have a knowable number of lives, and that number increases over time; from what I understand, permanent death is essentially unknown. In either of these systems, characters can suffer a punitive death in the same way that a real-world mob boss might punish someone with severe injury or maiming: the subject will get better, but he'll never quite be the same as he was before.

In CI/Ro3 games, this is not common, whereas I have heard many stories of exactly such a thing in NERO and SOLAR. Having grown up with the CI/Ro3 games, I am not all that favorably inclined toward the punitive kill; in CI/Ro3 systems, they are quite likely to become accidental permanent deaths, as the killer is counting on someone finding the spirit and/or body before the next dusk or dawn, and getting the body to a character able to raise the dead, and the victim drawing something other than permanent death. At least one "punitive" kill - a death that was not orchestrated to be permanent, but for which the killer attempted to frame another character - was investigated and ended in the killer's permanent death from execution, and years of recriminations thereafter. This situation might have been helped if the players responsible for the investigation had had more out-of-character contact and understanding with the instigating PC.

Notably, NERO and NERO-related games such as Wildlands South don't require a character to possess the ability to raise the dead, nor do they require that the dead character's body be brought to such a healer. Instead, the dead character dissipates into a spirit-form and goes to the Healer's Guild, Tower of the Heart, Sorrow Forge, or what-have-you, where the character is (relatively) automatically resurrected, assuming the randomized draw is successful. The benefit to this, in terms of a punitive kill, is that the character returns to life far from the crime scene, so the player's enjoyment of the game is not as severely reduced as it is in CI/Ro3.

Permanent Death
In CI/Ro3 games, it's relatively feasible to plan a permanent death. Get the target alone within five minutes of sunrise or sunset, complete the kill, and keep characters with resurrection skills far away from that character for the remaining few minutes. All known resurrection effects fail on someone who has been dead past sunrise or sunset. It's safe to say, though, that far more players have planned out how they would complete such a kill than actually carried through with it, and that's fine. The CI/Ro3 community has long preferred to steer itself away from offing characters, and we see exceptions as shocking. Still, there are right times and places for such things, and the community has never shown any interest in making such a kill more difficult.

It all comes down to the community's unwritten social contract. The CI/Ro3 community has been such that killing a non-violent NPC still has the capacity to be shocking, and can lead to IC investigation and punishment. External threats are the primary sources of violence, and no single group of players can expect to stand alone against them. I have my thoughts on why we do it this way, though it's hard to state them without implying criticism of communities that do not share this approach. Ms. J wrote a bit about the social contract of the Camarilla, though, that may be a helpful point of comparison.

"If someone was an adversary and played a good game, you went ahead and congratulated them for it. At least, that's how it worked where I was. In my experience, the number of people who RageQuit (tm) after having things go against them IP was relatively low. And, importantly, that was a permadeath system -- no coming back once the deed is done, but everyone is also equally at risk. The faction building and preplanning was absolutely staggering, when it came to taking out a powerful players -- but the organization went out of its way to make sure that people playing leadership characters got that their role was to help facilitate the game on the PC end as well as to play their own character. Even if you were going to be a bad guy, the idea was to play it in such a way that everyone could have a good time with it -- again, at least in my experience."
There's a substantial sentiment in CI/Ro3 - explicitly stated as such in the Shattered Isles rulebook, in fact - that players can be anywhere from "shiny good" to "very tarnished sort-of-neutral," but should stay away from outright evil. The sorcery rules of SI and KG played a huge role in shaping this sentiment, to such an extent that it persists even in Eclipse and DtD, where corruption of various kinds does not seem to have a major mechanical impact. There is, therefore, not an aspect of the social contract focused on reminding bad guy PCs to direct their actions in such a way as to keep the game fun. I think the game and the community would be improved if more of us kept this in mind. While this kind of meta-awareness would change the feel of the game, the players who already live by this rule - even if they have not verbalized it - are the ones everyone most wants to be around. Everyone should be pouring the same effort into welcoming new players into the game and helping them find their feet - this includes me, and I'm terrible at it because I'm shy around people I don't know. Anyway, I'm wandering far off the point.

The other differences in our social contracts - the assumption that PC groups are actively plotting not just their own advancement but the destruction of other PC groups - I would not like to adopt into CI/Ro3 games. Much as I enjoy cooperative board games more than competitive ones, and PvE in video games more than PvP, I also prefer to enjoy high action without ending someone else's fun for the weekend, or even the next hour or so. I'm not an exceptionally competitive person, so the tension of violent PvP conflict (including the planning and paranoia stages) is more fun to me as a seasoning than as a main course.

None of this has touched on the LARPs that draw several hundred or a few thousand players. Unsurprisingly, those do tend toward PvP, if only because generating content on that scale is prohibitive. I've also failed to answer JohnKazuo's question, and that's because I don't have a great basis for the comparison. I can speak to anecdotes of things working or not working, but (as I mentioned) I've known of small games that were PvP-heavy and larger (80-100) games that weren't. Speaking only for DtD, the game works the way it does because that's what we like and it's what we think our community likes, not because we think one thing or another is a more advantageous business decision.

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