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Divination in Gaming, Part Two: LARP Edition

About a week ago, I wrote a few words about the function of divination in tabletop gaming. As is common in this blog, I'm coming back to discuss how the same idea works in live-action gaming. Just like every other time I've posted about LARPing, I'm really talking about the games that are within my experience: Shattered Isles, King's Gate, Wildlands South, Eclipse, and Dust to Dust. I don't know the systems of other games well enough to comment on them in detail.

In my previous post, I touched on the difference between "sensing" spells and "pluck information from the aether" spells. That distinction is at the forefront of any discussion on divination in LARPs, even more so than in tabletop games, because the GM is not omnipresent. In a tabletop game, all information flows from the GM, and divination magic is an excuse to ask questions that the GM would otherwise be completely justified in not answering. In a LARP, there are plenty of cases where one character might use a sensing spell (something akin to D&D's detect magic or the like) on another character, without the presence of a marshal (the general LARP term for an impartial game master). This emphasizes the niche of effects that provide clues rather than answers, since the person playing that character may be a player or a short-term volunteer, and thus won't have broader Plot knowledge.

Ironically, because of emergent behaviors from players and NPCs, there are also a lot more cases where the marshal could not possibly give a correct answer. Documenting the relevant information for the marshal's sake is important in some cases, and impractical or unnecessary in others, but that's going to influence where it is or is not practical to build in sensing spells. Tracking spells (comparable to locate person or locate object) are mostly off-limits, simply because the marshal can't know. I recall a case in SI when a certain cursed item was supposed to be permanently traceable by the bad guys, but the item was a little smaller than a tennis ball and dark gray in color. When a player hurled it into the woods, nothing short of a full sweep of that area of the site would have had even a vague chance of recovering the item. Thinking of that situation has informed some later considerations of how Plot can manage information that the NPC antagonists should have; the important thing is to make sure that just tossing the bad thing into the woods (or the lake, or a trash can for that matter) is never, ever the best answer.

Investigation Spells

But I digress. Let me just say that many sensing spells are fine; DtD uses Sense Magic, Sense Health, Identify Magic Item, a few different illusion-sensing spells, and a few others. There is a Sense Truth effect listed in the rulebook, though it is not widely accessible. Together, Sense Magic and Sense Health cover the same ground that Magic Sense and Life Sense covered in SI and KG, though we reworked exactly which questions fall under each effect. Together, these effects represent a long list of questions and follow-ups to determine details about the state and nature of a person or thing.

There are no spells to detect secret doors, because such an effect would remove the whole game of carefully searching a module area for the secret door trigger(s). Some have proposed a spell that told the caster whether or not there was anything to look for in the first place, but thus far we've preferred to telegraph that information through story, tone, and other subtle cues (as well as occasional surprises).

There are really seriously no spells to detect evil, because Evil is not a tangible concept that goes on someone's character card. You can only detect things that can be defined. It was a bit different in Shattered Isles, where it was feasible for a spell to detect Tal Shar corruption within a target's spirit. On the other hand, keeping that Tal Shar corruption a secret was a big, important part of gameplay for corrupted characters, because the playerbase had what we can fairly call a hostile attitude toward Tal Shar corruption. Thus, spells to detect corruption were even less common than spells that hid corruption (among other things that they effectively concealed). DtD has a completely different approach to the concept of "corruption," and thus has no comparable effect. Everything worth saying about magical corruption was said with skill and grace in the Shattered Isles and King's Gate campaigns.

Identify Magic Item (and Eclipse's Identify Psychic Phenomenon skill) are a lot like identify in D&D, but without any material-component cost. I'm horrified to think of how much money the PCs would burn on using ID Magic Item if a component were required. Anyway, "standard" magic items (such as things enchanted with Forge Magic) simply allow players to treat what's written on the item's tag as in-play knowledge. Non-standard magical artifacts (relatively common in every LARP ever, as Plot Widgets) might give more unusual feedback from the effort: a description of a vision is relatively common. This avoids giving a direct answer, as the function of the magic item is a significant plot secret to unravel - but this is all okay because the playerbase expects their answers to be deferred in this way.

Speak with Dead is one of relatively few spells that runs close to being the same in LARPing as it is in D&D. There's only one area of the game in which this spell turns problematic, and it's the same in both gaming environments: some factor needs to be built into the spell to prevent the deceased from reporting the identity of their killer, or else murder mysteries become a lot more contrived and awkward. As long as there's a reliable solution for that (and ideally it applies to murder victims who get resurrected as well), Speak with Dead is a really cool effect to include. Oh, also, villains are warned not to tell too many of their plans to anyone who might show up for a field battle. As long as you take care of those potentially plot-ruining cases, Speak with Dead is great for giving players a chance to be clever, but within the limits of what that target knows.

This more or less covers the field of effects that give clues rather than answers. I recall that Wildlands had far fewer forms of magical sensing - I recall Ethereal Perception, Healing Arts, and not a whole lot else, but then the rules of the NERO WLS campaign were never my strong suit. Oh, and there was an Astral Perception Lost Art, I think? Anyway, because of the game's approach to spells and magic, magic was not a major tool to investigate unusual phenomena, and sensing effects were not a major way to gather information.

Then There's Divination, For Serious

In Shattered Isles and King's Gate (but not in Eclipse or Dust to Dust) there was an Advantage called Divination. Wildlands South had the skills Dreamer, Precognition, and Insight. In their initial draft, all of these except Insight were abilities that exchanged CP for the possibility that Plot would give the player visions of past, present, and future. The abilities carried no specific guarantee that these visions would manifest, and they implied no ability on the player's part to seek out information or ask questions.

The skill Dreamer was a prerequisite for a whole bunch of further skills that worked only during the course of Dreamer modules. The issues surrounding the idea of Dreamer modules and skills are manifold, but completely outside the scope of this post; the short version is that when players spend CP on skills, they become disappointed if they can't use them with a certain amount of regularity. I was the Dreamer Skills marshal for the second Wildlands South campaign, which involved very few Dreamer modules, but I am pretty sure I delivered between four and six different dreams to the Dreamers every event. The dreams were obscure and full of portent; I am more certain that the players enjoyed them than I am than they got a lot of useful information out of them. The other apparent problem is that there were more Dreamers than dreams to hand out, so some number of players might have felt that their skill was wasted.

The Precog skill more or less did what it said on the tin; when Big Danger was approaching, the player might get an impression of that danger's approach. I don't know much about how consistently this was used in the first WLS campaign, but my recollection is that the second campaign didn't support this skill with particular consistency - it relied on us to send out a marshal track down all of the Precog PCs and give them the very short briefing. When the committee is working on getting everything together for the next big action of the event, this is the first thing to get cut or forgotten.

Insight is the outlier, the skill that sometimes gives direct, actionable information. The stated use of this skill is for a player who is stuck on a puzzle to spend a daily use of Insight for a hint, or the immediate solution to one step of a multi-step physical or logic puzzle. This skill more or less worked, since most of the time that a physical or logic puzzle is in use, a marshal is immediately at hand to act as the Insight spirit, and the marshal is typically pretty motivated to let the skill work just to keep the action of the module moving.

(Not discussed: the Conjuration of Divination spell, because to the best of my knowledge it appeared in the rulebook but never showed up on camera.)

You can probably guess that the majority of this post is about the ability the shows up in the post's title. Aren't you clever! This next section is going to discuss reasons DtD didn't carry over certain rules from SI and KG; as usual, keep in mind that I loved those campaigns, and nothing I say here takes anything away from that.

In initial writing, the Divination Advantage in SI and KG was identical to either the Dreamer skill or the Precog skill, as described above. The player was free to describe any one particular supernatural-ish means of gaining information: dreams, automatic writing, haruspicy, tarot reading, runesticks, random hunches, object reading, and so on. As an Advantage, Divination could only be bought at character creation without special Plot permission, but if you bought at least one level of Divination, you could keep buying more levels. In theory, this had no upper limit, and each additional level increased the frequency, depth, and/or clarity of the information. Writing a different vision for every extant level of PC Divination is ridiculous, though, and I would be surprised if they ever actually did that.

The other tough thing about this, as with all of the skills in Wildlands South, is that the Plot Committee has to remember every player with the ability and track them down to give them information. If the player(s) with the greatest number of Divination levels get the same vision in more detail as players with fewer levels, the latter group probably wonders why they bothered developing their skill to whatever point they have it, so a separate vision for every diviner is important... and that's a whole different workload issue.

In the second Shattered Isles campaign, players demonstrated an increased expectation that they would be able to activate their Divination ability at certain times to conduct an investigation. Correspondingly, it became more acceptable for players to prompt marshals with a request for information, which helps with the issue where marshals have to remember the skills on 60-100 character cards. In the uses that I recall, this was actually fine: there weren't a whole lot of other evident leads, so the clues we got from their visions gave us something to work with. This is pretty much the ideal handling of a low-end player-directed divination power - the story continues where otherwise it might not. Clues good, answers bad. It doesn't scale well with additional levels of Divination, and there was no implied times-per-day limitation.

Given that the second SI campaign and the first KG campaign were more or less simultaneous and shared most of their playerbase, KG followed suit in its nominal handling of Divination (as best as I understood - my KG character never got anywhere near Divination abilities). For various reasons, a much greater number of PCs invested in Divination early on in KG, and using them in a coordinated way meant that no plotline could keep much of anything a secret, if one player-directed Divination was at all capable of building off of the information gathered by the previous player. I don't know if this was actually common; I do know that there was a plotline that ran most of the length of the first campaign such that every player-directed use of Divination was bad in some cosmic way. It was a pretty reasonable story-side solution to a gameplay problem.

This hit its most egregious case in the second KG campaign. This wasn't Plot's fault in any apparent way, but players convinced themselves that they could and should use Divination to ascertain the wisdom of any given plan, transforming this "random bit of information" skill into an augury spell. As with my first post on Divination, the most important point by far and away is to get everyone involved in the game on the same page. Once the game hits the point where no rational character would proceed with any plan that hadn't been vetted by a trusted diviner, the campaign has become a pretty compelling work of speculative fiction, and possibly a subtle meta-commentary on how people handle uncertainty, but it might not be a game anymore. Now, KG 2 didn't reach the point I'm describing, but it was the apparent trajectory of Divination rules as a whole. (There's another topic for discussion here, someday: how to push back against a shift in player expectations, when doing so makes the players unhappy but protects the long-term health of the game.)

We had a lengthy conversation on how we might handle the Divination Advantage in DtD, during the early development stages. That thread was nearly sixty posts long, and encapsulated just about everything I've said on the topic so far. We ultimately decided that it was better to cut player-directed Divination of this kind completely. We left in a wide variety of sensing effects, but decided that players didn't need to spend CP to receive visions that the needs or whims of Plot inclined us to give them.

The other form of magical information-gathering in the game, displayed in a playtest event but not used since then, is based off of my recollection of how WLS's Conjuration of Divination worked. Certain methods allow the players to attempt to attract a powerful Falar spirit, at which point (if they have the means) they can bargain for or compel answers from the spirit. These are murky waters of social interaction for the players, though: more like casting commune to talk to a being that doesn't really like you and needs some inducement to see any good reason to help you.

In summary: the two most important lessons of Divination for tabletop games are just as valid in LARPing. To preserve the mystery, dole out clues rather than answers. To keep everyone happy, the game-runners and the players need to be on the same page as to how the rules will be implemented. (There is essentially no case where this is not the most important thing.) Unlimited-usage abilities that require the presence of a marshal or the attention of the GM are really never a hot idea, if the players aren't well aware that the marshals have better things to do.

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