Saturday, February 7, 2009


A couple of buddies of mine are playing in a Vampire LARP here in town, and last night it was one of many topics of conversation. They revealed to me that they'd just recently (despite having been playing for months) learned two very odd rules of the LARP's setting.
  1. There are no bombs. Explosives just don't make it into Seattle, as the police and border patrol are really good at finding them.
  2. There is no internet. No windows, either. Computers have a DOS prompt and a monochrome screen.
The game is indeed set in the modern day, they tell me, and people have cellphone cameras in-character. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around these decisions. I've never played with this particular LARP group, so it's possible there's some mitigating circumstances I'm unaware of, but from my vantage point this just seems like so much crazy talk. As a result, my response (below) may seem kinda crass at times, for which I apologize.

The "No Bombs" rule I can kind of understand. I played in a game once where some yahoo exploded Elysium, killing several characters and doing Agg damage to just about everyone. I certainly felt like he was ruining the game. So, I can see how a blanket ruling that you just can't smuggle bombs into the city might seem appealing.

But what did my friends do this past month when their request for a bomb was turned down? One of them took his action for the week to purchase a huge amount of gasoline. The other took his action to buy bulk supplies of packing peanuts. Dissolve styrofoam in gasoline and, according to the Anarchist's cookbook, you get low-grade napalm. Since Vampires have an unnatural fear of fire, it's in some ways better against them then explosives are, though I'm sure it's stinkier and requires greater quantities for the job than C-4 would.

My point is, that while there's plenty of reasons that blowing up Elysium is bad, you can't stop it by claiming there's super drug-sniffing dogs at the edge of town. If you try to limit such game-breaking activity via in-character constraints, it only encourages players to get creative. They saw it as a challenge. Given only an in-character rationale, they might crash a plane into Elysium, or a tanker-truck full of home-made napalm into the Prince's haven, or they invest in Police Influence in hopes of making confiscated C-4 go missing from the evidence locker. The explosives are merely a symptom, not the underlying root cause.

There's certainly uses for which Explosives are non-broken. Your vampire wants to build a new Haven deep in solid bedrock - explosives are the way to do so that doesn't break the Masquerade. He wants to defend that same haven with booby traps that will be active even while he sleeps - there's very little even arguably wrong with that. He wants to wage a messy resource war by blowing up buildings that other players have Influence connections at - depending on the scope of what he's doing and whether or not it'll bring DHS and BATF down on your city, it might or might not be acceptable. He wants to boobytrap several other player's Havens so as to vaporize them without warning - that's probably right out, or at least the victim needs some sort of chance to spot it.

And that intent is exactly where the issue is. When a player tries to do something that will ruin everyone else's fun, it needs to be stopped. Rigging Elysium to explode falls into that category, but so would breaching the Masquerade on live television. Are you going to rule that "within the setting the FCC prevents all live broadcasts", just so you don't have to worry about that? Probably not. So why should bombs be treated any differently?

Saying "no bombs" is easy, but it completely misses the real issue. The better way to deal with it is to ask why the player wants the bombs. At that time, explain to them that for the sake of verisimilitude you'll give them access to the bombs, but that it makes you, as the Storyteller, uncomfortable. Make it clear to them that if they intentionally create a situation where their bomb plot succeeding is clearly at odds with the enjoyment of the rest of the group, your decision will be easy. As GM, you have an obligation to provide a fun experience for as many of the players as possible, even if it means his carefully orchestrated plan failing spectacularly.

If you have that conversation, those otherwise likely to nuke Elysium will reconsider it. If you aren't blunt about it like that, they'll just find some dastardly alternate way to sew chaos and devastation, because they think it sounds like fun.

The other part makes no sense at all to me.

The lack of internet, Windows, everything you expect about home computing, etc, is a pretty major deviation from "it's set in modern day". I can certainly think of reasons for deviating from reality like that. The game is set in Seattle, after all, so maybe backstory of one of the first PCs or NPCs involves killing Bill Gates or some other past action that prevented Microsoft from ever existing. Or maybe the GMs just didn't want to deal with all that potential Computer Influence (for which the default rules of the game don't really have a system) and Industrial Influence so they eliminated the elements of the local setting that would have required it. They may even have held back computers expecting some player to want to be the Gatesian pioneer in that arena, but the players just missed it and nobody has pursued that opportunity.

But if you're going to deviate from reality like that, it needs to be front-and-center. The description of the LARP is no longer "Vampire: The Masquerade", it should be "like Vampire: The Masquerade, in a slightly altered setting that's like the modern day except with seriously stunted computer technology and no internet." It shouldn't be possible for multiple people to be playing in your LARP for 3+ months without having been told about this alteration that's absolutely vital to understanding the head-space of a modern character. I suppose it's possible my friends missed this detail, but they were adamant to me that there were no clues: never told it before, nothing in hand-outs they'd been given or on the LARP's website.

Suspension of Disbelief may require some ripple effects coming from that setting variation, as well. Camera-phones seem like a stretch if there's no computer revolution predating them, and no way to upload and share your photos. If computers still have the old monochrome screens, why would cellphones have color displays? If not for the advances in technology for home computer's monitors, we wouldn't have flat-screen plasma TVs. Colleges wouldn't have big Computer Science departments, and the departments they would have would have diminshed computing resources - so Education Influence gives lesser benefit than it did before. Same for Health Influence, because a stagnated computer industry means reduced tech for life-saving, and all the records must still be paper-based and hard to search. Sweeping alterations to the setting pour forth from this decision, but it sounds like they haven't been taken into account at all.

Or, again, I suppose it's possible there's some factor I'm unaware of, which the three friends playing in the LARP weren't able to explain to me.

I'm not just some random crackpot here ranting about how someone else's campaign sucks without a leg to stand on. I've got some measure of experience at this sort of thing. For several years, I ran a LARP. It was set (initially) in 1850, and at the end of every 4-to-6-month story arc we'd advance the timeline by 10 to 20 years.

Up front, in big letters on the character-creation packet, it indicated that this was an alternate timeline and an alternate setting. It went on to mention there was no Camarilla nor Sabbat, the werewolf NPCs were non-cannonical and didn't worship The Wyld, the Tremere-Salubri backstory had been altered, and we're using Koldunic (not Vissitudinal) Tzcimsce. Don't assume anything is true about the secrets of White Wolf's setting except for very basic things every neonate would know, such as names and archetypes of the clans, general vampiric strengths and weaknesses, etc. For the sake of the story, our out-of-character goal was for Albuquerque to become the most prominent city west of the Mississippi, and certain PC actions have resulted in Tesla defeating Edison, but other than that, you could generally assume most of history played out largely as the history books record it. Feel free to ask the STs and/or heads of the households if you have questions about anything specific.

This caveat did a good job of introducing the players to the setting, and prepping them for the notion that our game was non-standard. When and if something came up that someone wasn't aware of, they generally rolled with it, and weren't afraid to ask the GMs "what would my character know about this?" 9 times out of 10 the answer was along the lines of "Nothing. You've never heard of it before. Steam-powered cyber-werewolves are not an established part of the setting, it must be something new the evil railroad barons whipped up. Now you know something the other players don't - hopefully it won't eat you."

No comments: