Sunday, October 11, 2015

5-Yard Penalty for Failure To LARP

I went to two LARPs last night, and completely failed to actually play at either of them. I'm frustrated with myself for my recent inability to come out of my shell. I am also absolutely puzzled at the unnecessary complexity of character creation at these two LARPs, and the lack of a good summary or tool for new players. I plan to got back, because the hard part is over and I might as well get some value out of the night I invested, but I imagine that there must be a large number of potential players who are just turned off and away by the initial hurdles.

Both LARPs were at the same location, and apparently they have a total of 4 LARPs that run there every weekend. Three use the old (pre-reset) World of Darkness setting, and one the newer (but still nearly a decade old) World of Darkness. I made characters at Changeling and Vampire, the other two games are Werewolf and nWoD mortals game.

Now, before I get into my gripes about the experience I had, I should temper it with acknowledgement that this may not have been the typical situation. The LARPs had just moved to their winter location, so it's possible that the venue transition may have shaken things up a bit. Also there was a big competing event this weekend (a 6-month special event at a boffer LARP called Alliance) that greatly diminished the player turnout at the Vampire game at least, and a couple of the Vampire Storytellers were either absent or late as well. Any of these factors may have reduced the effectiveness of the staff to facilitate a new players entry into the game.

As I said, both games use the old WoD setting(s). They don't use the oWoD LARP rules (Rules of the Night, or Shining Host), instead they use a home-brewed system called "Mod-Dot" that is effectively a filter applied on to the tabletop rules. One game uses Changeling: The Dreaming 2nd Ed + Mod-Dot, and the other uses V20 (Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition) + Mod-Dot. Mod-Dot, if I'm understanding correctly, replaces each dice roll with two rock-paper-scissors matches. These RPS matches function rather like FUDGE dice, in that they generate a plus 2 to minus 2 modifier to your base number of successes, which are derived from your tabletop dicepools by some similar formula (not sure if it's 1/2 or 1/3 x dicepool). If you win both or lose both of the RPS tests, that's essentially a critical and triggers another two tests so the modifier can range out to plus or minus 4 (or maybe further, I'm not yet certain what happens when you score two wins followed by two more wins). I didn't participate, and merely watched from a distance, so it struck me as a lot of work for such a strongly centered bell curve. By my math, you have a 78% chance of scoring with one success of your default result. Compare that to FUDGE dice which have a 63% chance of scoring within 1 of the median result. My one complaint with FATE (which uses FUDGE dice) has to do with the overwhelming strength of that bell curve, and here's a system that out-FATE's FATE. Or, so it seems to me from my outsider's perspective. I haven't actually played with Mod-Dot yet, and it's apparently functional enough for several local LARPs to use it for many years. At first glance, it strikes me as more complicated than both the tabletop rules and the old White Wolf LARP rules. I wish either game had a hand-out that covers the mechanics of Mod-Dot, because after 1 night in proximity to it, I'm still pretty iffy on the core resolution mechanic. That said, one does not LARP for the rules, one LARPs for the story, the setting, and the scene.

Unfortunately, I didn't know the Changeling setting all that well. I had emailed the Head Story-Teller a few weeks ago to ask about the game, and we'd exchanged some conversation, but I didn't really have a solid character concept going in. I'd suggested that I'd probably play a Troll because it was one character type I'd remembered from my ~2 sessions of Changeling experience over a decade ago. He encouraged me to not limit myself to a core book character, and showed me lots of Kith write-ups (more or less character classes for Changeling) that came from various sourcebooks or were derived from the old Arcadia CCG. Some of this he'd sent me over a week before, but it was the week where I got a promotion and worked overtime, so I had still had _so_ much to read at the session. There were several people (including the HST) willing to help me out with the process, but their approach was pretty much "let me read you a giant list of options", rather than either making suggestions or asking questions that actually narrowed down the giant pile of information I needed to sift through. After more than an hour of reading I fell back on the Troll idea I'd emailed two weeks back, in hopes that something simple and mildly familiar would let me actually finish my character in time to play or at least watch some scenes. Unfortunately, the wealth of expanded character options continued past basic concepts and into a huge Merit and Flaw list, plus I had to at least skim over the lists of Arts (special powers in Changeling, akin to Disciplines in Vampire, or roughly equal to spells or feats in D&D). Again, so much reading.

The way character creation works in tabletop White Wolf games is that you get a small number of points to spend in each section of the sheet, followed by another pool of freebie points to spend wherever you want but at sort of an exchange rate (such as 7 Freebie points for a Discipline rank in Vampire). The character sheets didn't list the exchange rate. A person walked up and offered to help just as I was wrestling with that, so I asked them about it. They told me there is no exchange rate, just add 15 dots to things. I foolishly took them at their word, thinking they were one of the Assistant Story-Tellers since they were over there offering to help newbies fill out paperwork instead of playing in any of the many scenes going on elsewhere. I should have known better, but instead I accepted their word and my math got completely messed up. I finished my character right about the time the game was wrapping up, and only discovered then what a mess my sheet was.

Now, I had chosen the Changeling LARP because an acquaintance had invited me to it and the Werewolf LARP that followed it. He didn't show up to Changeling. I don't know if he made it to Werewolf or not. It was in the other part of the building, whereas there was a Vampire LARP in the same space where the Changeling game had just finished. I was a little let down to not get to play in that first game, and I only knew Werewolf a little bit better than Changeling, so character creation was likely to take nearly as long and involve almost as much reading. Vampire, on the other hand, that I knew really well from my years of running a V:tM LARP. So rather than head to the other area in hopes that maybe the guy who invited me would show up late, I decided to just do Vampire. Surely, I could bang out a character in a hurry.

But as I mentioned earlier, only a lone Assistant StoryTeller showed up to Vampire on time. A couple others were late, and I gather that at least one of the STs went to Alliance instead. The one that was there didn't have the needed materials to begin character creation. She did have character sheets, so I started planning and lightly socialized while waiting. The thing that held me back was the beads they needed to draw. This group uses a system to allow differing levels of character power and rarity while eliminating all danger of favoritism. You draw three beads from pools corresponding to the ideal mix for the campaign. If you get a lucky draw, you may start with extra XP, or be allowed to play one of the rarer clans or bloodlines. So I started mentally sketching out a Toreador, but had to wait to finalize it till the beads arrived. By then, there were four other new players, and only one copy of the rulebook. So while each step of the process took me a lot less time, I had to frequently wait my turn to look things up while these two guys read every single Merit and Flaw to their non-gamer friend they'd brought with. So slow.

As it turns out, my bead draws gave me completely normal starting generation and basic clan choices, so it started off as an easy build. However, I drew a bead that gave me a bunch of bonus XP to spend. So creation went in three stages: normal points, freebie points (using the various conversion rates as mentioned above) and experience points (using a totally different conversion rate). On paper, my character looks really strong, which is kind of funny as I was completely prepared to play a wimpy little Toreador for just the easy hook in to characterization that provides. And it may still play out to be wimpy, if the obfuscated values of the bead draws means that most characters already start with as many or more XP than I got. The overall power-level of the chronicle is not yet transparent to me.

And I guess that level of complexity and confusion is why I'm here griping about a game that I totally plan to play and enjoy. They said attendance was down because of the competing event, but it still seemed like a big group and probably a good place to game and meet new friends. I'm most likely going to have a lot of fun, but that's because I'm going to power through the initial awkwardness of it all and dive into character and plot. And all of this headache could have been made so much easier for new players. I find myself wanting to lay out a one-page summary sheet for each of these games. At the top it would say which rule books are considered canonical for that game, then explain the Mod-Dot success formula that modifies the engine in those books. Below that would be a listing of the three beads you draw and what options they unlock for that chronicle (and a statement about what percentage of the pool is each bead level). You'd know at a glance what kind of character you could make, how potent or rare they were in the setting, and where to go for more information on the game or rules.

In terms of my old crunchometer system, I had rated oWoD at a crunchy but playable c12 level, and the Mind's Eye Theatre LARP rules at a somewhat simpler c10. After this level of exposure, I'm inclined to eyeball Mod-Dot at around a c20. Thus far it is significantly crunchier and more complicated than I prefer, but I'll give it at least a few sessions for the plotlines or the playgroups to engage me. I used to have a lot more tolerance for needless complexity and the character niches that complexity carved out, but over the decades I've been shown repeatedly by games like Amber, Microscope, and PDQ that the best RPG experiences don't require complicated rules and fiddly modifiers. Good games are made from rich plotlines, nuanced characters, and the presence of good friends.

By the time character creation was all done, it was after midnight. The game had been running since 10:30, and would be continuing for more than an hour. About half the players were sitting around in the main room quietly playing with their phones or having whispered conversations, and the rest were off behind closed doors having private scenes. There was no obvious in-roads for actually joining a scene at this point. I was tired, discouraged, very hungry (hadn't eaten in over 8 hours) and a little grumpy, and I had a long walk home ahead of me, so at that point I bailed. I'll get a fresh start at the next session.


digital_sextant said...

Keep it up! I look forward to hearing more updates.

rbbergstrom said...

I went back the next week and got to play a little. A much better experience. Not sure when I'll find the time to blog about it in depth, but I plan to go back fairly often.