Saturday, January 25, 2014

LARP Design: Law and Justice

In response to a question from a reader, I'm tackling what is, in my limited knowledge, one of the great unaddressed issues of LARP-running: the long arm of the law and imprisonment, both by PCs and against PCs. Now, I bet you're thinking of that one time there was a trial, or that one time you took some NPCs to the Plot cabin to be imprisoned. Imprisoning NPCs is certainly the easy part: the prison can be off-camera when needed. You start to run into problems, though, once you implement in the obvious and release it into the wilds of emergent gameplay.

Now, part of the problem is that LARP setting writers don't usually put as much thought into constructing a legal system that meshes with the realities of gameplay as they do to other things. This includes me, so don't think I'm going after any of the other games I've played or read about. Another part of the problem is that most setting writers aren't scholars of medieval jurisprudence or, for that matter, any other past or future era. So let's look at some general cases.
Quick terminology note: I don't know of standard terminology to differentiate things players resolve with their out-of-game ability from things players resolve with character stats. To keep this post remotely readable, "material" scenes or challenges use the player's ability to find clues, solve problems, or otherwise perform the task. "Representative" scenes or challenges are solved with things found on the character card. Situationally, I may prefer one or the other, but let's take it as read that I'm not making a value judgment or trashing that thing you like.

Investigating PC Crimes

Sometimes PCs break the law of the land - those laws that are so basic and necessary that they didn't require detailed design thought, like theft and murder. Some PCs are upright citizens, while others are knaves and blackguards of the worst sort - they're adventurers, what did you expect? Anyway, the odds are pretty good that a PC will run afoul of the law at some point, or if not, will at least be accused of same.

This opens the door to two issues: Investigation and Trial. 
In the Marath Suvla criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the Town Guard, who propagate investigate crimes; and the Khedive, who might or might not do anything about it, depending on his mood. (Akathian jurisprudence is capricious.) These are their stories.
(Joking.) Anyway, investigation. Investigation is very much at odds with emergent gameplay (that is, gameplay driven largely by player actions, in which Plot reacts nimbly.) A good material investigation scene takes time and preparation. Tuning difficulty on a material investigation is art entirely without science; this is a universal truth of puzzle creation. Now imagine that the investigation, if successful, would incriminate a PC. How could the Plot-created interchange of player conflict possibly be fair in the eyes of both sides? Broadly, Plot's sole responsibility in PvP situations is to show no favor and make sure that the rules are obeyed both in letter and spirit. To phrase that another way: to let emergent play be the truth, no matter what.

The realities of LARPing don't include bloodstains, fingerprinting or higher forensic analysis (remember, a single player might be one of several different characters), torn clothing, shell casings (or ballistic examination), damage to doors, furniture, or architecture... et cetera. I've had two experiences with a staff member attempting to establish clues that would have incriminated me or my team. Neither of these were positive experiences, but I'm going to describe them only in general terms.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Design Idea: Subdue By Threat

In working on Quintessence, I've been trying to think of situations, either realistic or cinematic, that other tabletop games don't model well, if at all. So when Kainenchen and I watched Stardust the other day, I was struck by the many times that a character sets a blade at another character's throat, and the latter is subdued. This is completely reasonable in film, and in real life, right?

If you've seen a system for this kind of thing in a tabletop game, or even text that calls it out as an option, I'm interested to hear it. I can't think of one off-hand, so I came up with this. It is particularly suitable for cinematic duels, capturing guards by stealth that you mean to interrogate, and forcing the last opponent in a battle to surrender.

Subdue by Threat

After rolling damage and applying any mitigation with a melee attack or a ranged attack within 30 feet, if the attack deals enough damage to reduce the defender below 0 hit points, the attacker has the option to place her blade at the defender's throat, heart, or other narratively-appropriate vitals. The damage is not dealt at that time, but the attacker can use a Coup de Grace/Killing Blow as a reaction, without a new attack or damage roll, in response to any action, or as an immediate interrupt triggered by the defender taking a move action. In this specific case, the attacker should be allowed to use reactions and immediate interrupts on her own turn, even if the rules otherwise forbid this. As usual, the attacker can only take reactions or interrupts in response to things she can perceive.
It's up to each game table to determine what kinds of actions are perceptible - that's a bit beyond the scope of this document. For something like 4e D&D, I'd suggest, that it's an interesting detail if a Second Wind isn't perceptible, allowing the character to recover enough to knock aside the attacker's weapon. Also, creatures with regeneration aren't likely to remain Subdued by Threat for long, unless the held damage is truly massive. Dramatic reversals are a good thing, right?
To model the moment in Stardust where Tristan reveals that he has a knife against Septimus's belly even as Septimus has a blade to his throat, I would point to the Sleight of Hand skill, which from the start is designed to avoid perception, or Stealth (same idea). Of course, this doesn't do much if the attacker still has a pile of hit points left and the defender can't do enough damage to Subdue by Threat.

As with any hostage-like situation, the defender's allies (if any) will want to intervene. This is where I'm running into some complication, but let's see if I can work it out to be something simple. The ways I see a character wanting to intervene are:

  • moving the attacker away from the defender
  • moving the defender away from the attacker
  • using Subdue by Threat against the attacker
  • forcing the attacker's weapon away from the defender (this is the hard part, design-wise)
  • altering the attacker's goals (natural persuasion or charm person), or otherwise incapacitating her by magic
  • restoring enough hit points to the defender that he is no longer subject to the Subdue by Threat
Moving the attacker or defender follows the normal rules for forced movement. Anything that allows the defender to take a move action triggers the attacker's immediate interrupt, as noted above.

If both the attacker and defender are subject to Subdue by Threat, the situation becomes a standoff, and either a whole lot of people will die as part of a chain of reactions, or they will negotiate some other settlement. This situation doesn't particularly need additional rules, except to note that it returns to a standard Subdue by Threat if any participant who was Subdued by Threat escapes the threat.

Forcing the attacker's weapon away from the threatening position, without the attacker getting to inflict damage on the defender as a reaction, is a question of pure speed. My current thought on that is to have the intervening character make an attack against the attacker (in 4e, having the intervening character's attack target Reflex is thematically appropriate). On a hit, the intervening character and the attacker roll Initiative (this does not modify their place in the initiative order; it's just the existing way withing the rules to test reaction speed). If the intervening character wins, the Subdue by Threat is disrupted; if the attacker wins, she can take her reaction to Coup de Grace the defender normally. The intervening character's attack does not deal damage.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

LARP Design: the Module Party

LARP-running has any number of challenges that tabletop gaming can't reasonably face. The specific case I want to talk about today is module parties. I assume modules aren't a significant part of salon LARPs, though of the three salon LARPs I've played, two included adventure sequences outside of the main area of gameplay. Boffer LARPs very commonly include modules, and one of the constant questions is "how many people can go?" Modules are often rich with plot developments, action, and treasure - the exciting stuff. On an in-play level, there's also often more danger and narrative importance - which means that in character, it makes sense to want to reduce risk.

Reducing risk is good character decision-making, but awful for entertainment value. Reduce it enough, and there will be people just standing around - they couldn't have known this ahead of time, but they might as well have stayed in town. In general, you don't want players to have to make choices based on good gameplay for themselves or others, though a certain sensitivity to leaving room for others to have fun also is an important element of sportsmanship. As far as that goes, failing to reduce risk when you can is a good way to invite a messy death in for afternoon tea.

That means that it's squarely on Plot to figure out why only so many people can go, and not more. Oh, one more than the module runner planned for isn't a problem, but (x+3) is a threshold of a problem, and beyond that it's all but certain that someone will be twiddling his thumbs. Working on limited resources, a module runner can't possibly entertain everyone - there's a time and place for modules that include the whole playerbase, but that's an entirely separate matter. Players usually understand when not everyone can go along, though very large teams often run into the problem of having to ask several team members to stay behind. (Very large player teams, or "mega-teams," are yet again another conversation. They do have their up-sides, but there are a lot of inherent challenges.)

These ideas are a primer for beginning staffers or a recap for the experienced, not master-class material. If you're an experienced LARPer and LARP-runner, I'm not dropping any truth bombs here, but maybe laying out the basics will trigger a new idea for someone, or one of my enterprising and good-looking readers (who are at least 10% more attractive to members of the gender(s) they prefer, if any, than people who do not read this blog) will add more ideas in the comments.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Two Alternate Settings for Domain Play

While writing my recent post on Birthright, I got to thinking about other settings that could use its model of domain play, reskinning concepts appropriately. These ideas aren't fully fleshed out by any means, and I don't have immediate plans to run either of these - though developing a riff on Birthright's domain play could be a useful rules module for Quintessence.

The Psychic States of America

"Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind's elation..."

In this setting, characters struggle for psychic control over the American populace using psychic power, the news media, government surveillance, and corporate marketing. So, you know, any time between 1950 and the near future. The holdings are relatively straightforward in their translation: government surveillance replaces Law holdings, corporate marketing replaces Guild holdings, news media replaces Temples (because I'm not actually cynical about religion), and psychic power replaces sources.

Likewise, it's not too great a stretch to use county lines as province boundaries and state lines as (starting) domain borders. The slightly more complicated re-skin is in the province level and magical power of each region, and the replacement of bloodlines. Unsurprisingly, this setting has no concept of the divine right of kings found in Birthright. The math underlying provinces is a bit changed as well: instead of (province level + magical power) being based on terrain type, my thought was that the total number they're split from represents population. Replacing province level, we have Control; replacing magical power, we have Chaos. Government surveillance, corporate marketing, and news media push a message of docility and order: useful for raking in cash and exerting one's authority over a conquered populace, not so good for spreading one's control to another area (since you need psychic power to fuel the supernatural stuff and assert your message over that of a competing domain).

The big thing I'd need to work out is thematic unity between the modern-day paranoia and the inter-regional expansionism. The likely direction here is for players to be something other than government officials, and the "military" that they command is something more unconventional. One possible version replaces the D&D character classes with MiBs (fighters), hackers (wizards), journalists (clerics... ish) and marketer/lobbyists (rogues). Like I said, there's a lot of tonal tweaking that would need to happen. One of the more cynical conceits of the setting is that even the counterculture is co-opted into the scheme of rulership and exists more to undermine enemies than to free anyone's mind.

All of the domain rulers are psychically gifted, replacing bloodlines. They receive a starting Psychic Power score. They gain new powers as this score increases, and the lower of Psychic Power or Authority Points derived from holdings determines their actual budget of Authority Points for the turn. I don't know what different flavors of Psychic Power there might be to parallel the separate bloodline derivations, but figuring out more of the conflicts players engage with would have to come first. Funny story: I'm not at all good at spinning out a whole setting by myself - I'd love to see the Comments section filled with awesome ideas.

In a lot of ways, this setting is a psionics-rather-than-magic, domain-management take on System Sans Setting's excellent Technocracy writeup. There's no reason it needs to be psionic rather than magic, either - that's just what occurred to me first. The concepts he plays with in that post - the imposition of order to counter Threats From Beyond, and enlightened despotism - puts a much more palatable and heroic spin on the whole setting.

The heroic parts of the game also emerge in the parallels of Birthright's monstrous awnsheghlien: the fear and superstitions of the people deliver psychic power to things out of urban legend and conspiracy theory. You know, death panels and so on.

Below the cut: playing with an idea for a magic-focused domain-management system for Dust to Dust. Note: Any information discussed here is a setting reinterpretation and not canonical.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Design Diary: Resolution Mechanic

This is another post about my work in progress, Quintessence of Dust, where I lay out the game's resolution mechanic and how I've gotten there. The first post and starting point on this topic is here.

I started out just wanting to experiment with something other than D&D Next's d20 + modifiers, or the d20 + skill die + modifiers model used in an earlier playtest packet. Replacing a d20 with 2d10 isn't rocking anyone's world in itself, but I thought about the Injuries and Wounds system in SIFRP. It's great and all, it really gets the grittiness across, but maybe I could make it easier to track if I trimmed out either Injuries (-1 to the roll) or Wounds (-1 die to the roll). Death-spiral mechanics are a Very Dangerous Idea in tabletop games, but I think there's a right way and a wrong way. More on that in a second.

Another not-new idea is a roll-and-keep die mechanic - roll however many dice, keep some equal or smaller number to total up your score. L5R/7th Seas does it, WaRP does it, Iron Kingdoms does it... it's one of the main techniques. I can't think of a system that has treated the unkept die as something worth using, but there are a lot of systems out there, so if I've overlooked one that does pay attention to an unkept die, please let me know. I occasionally have original ideas, but I feel like my strong suit is in stitching together other designs and ideas in a new way.

I first adopted the idea of not keeping all of the dice because, while a skilled character can do better than an unskilled one, I wanted to confine them to roughly the same band of success/failure outcomes, and govern the finer differentiation some other way. To put that another way, I think bounded accuracy is an incredibly useful idea for avoiding some of the long-term problems found in tabletop games.

My phrasing may make it obvious enough that the dice pools I'm working with don't add an ever larger number of dice to control their scaling, as in L5R or WaRP. The baseline dice pool is 2d10 + ability modifier (typically a range from -3 to +3). The third die comes from your skill training - for example, you might have a d4 in Stealth. Now, a d4 could roll higher than a d10, but the odds obviously aren't great. The skill die improves, though. The 2d10, on the other hand, are called "core dice" in the system, and they are mostly fated to go down over the course of an encounter. One of your core dice represents your physical capability, while the other represents your mental and spiritual state. This is where my death spiral mechanics come in - when you decide to take a Wound in order to mitigate hit point damage, you step down your physical die, in exchange for shaving a few hit points off of the incoming damage. There are also mechanics to demoralize opponents or magically assault their mental stamina, stepping down their mental die. The intention is that, since the mental die is seldom stepped down and the skill die never is, there's a significant mitigating factor to the death spiral.