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How to Organise a Live Role Playing Chronicle
By Alex Gill
I have been involved in live role playing games (LRP) since 1994 and have had the opportunity to participate as both a player and organiser in a number of both successful and unsuccessful games. My aim in composing this essay is to provide some observations based upon the successes and failures of others and myself that may be of value to other organisers. The focus will be on issues related to a long running LRP chronicle rather than one off LRP games.
I will state at the out set that my definition of a successful game is one that provides an enjoyable and satisfying experience for the players. This is the most important rule of all; the game must be run for the benefit of the players and with their needs in mind.
A LRP is NOT a tabletop role playing game. This may seem obvious but most organisers and players come to the hobby from tabletop games and often see LRP as an extension of tabletop games rather than what it is; a totally different activity. The problem is that table-top games are Descriptive, the players and organiser describe the environment and actions to one another and events are resolved using game mechanics. LRP is Immersive, players and actors act out their interactions with one another and the environment through the use of props.
Ideally in LRP the organiser should only provide a brief description of the play environment and have placed props (at a minimum cards or labelled boxes) to represents objects and actors with which players can interact. In LRP the use of game mechanics should be minimised to resolve dangerous or impossible events such as combat or magic. Social interaction should always be role-played; resorting to game mechanics is disruptive of immersion and is used most often by individuals compensating for poor role-playing.
If a LRP game is to be an immersive experience for the players they must participate in the events occurring rather than being passive observers. For this reason avoid the use of scripted scenes acted out by actors. Though acted scenes are used in many chronicles to provide information or action, they are never successful since the players are observers, not participants and thus lack engagement in the scene. Thus players are often either uninterested in the events or if interested they are frustrated by their inability to effect the out come of events.
Setting — In preparing a chronicle for play organisers often develop or make use of published backgrounds, which may be very detailed and elaborate. Unfortunately there are three other components of the background which are commonly neglected and which may result in problems with the chronicles development, these are Motivation, Authority and Consequences.
Motivation — Here I am referring to the motivation for the characters to spend time together. Since a LRP chronicle may contain anything from 10-50 players it is by necessity a social game, thus there must be a motivation for the characters to spend time together. Useful motivations are economics (trade between characters in game), access to information or training and an external threat. A strong game should make use of all of these elements. If motivation is not established in the chronicle the game will quickly become based around the player characters screwing one another over.
Authority — All societies have rules and codes of conduct that govern the lives of their members and the society of your game should be no exception. Without such rules and their enforcement you do not have a society and this makes it very difficult for a game based on social interaction to function. Most game settings establish some sort of social rules but organisers may neglect to ensure that these rules are enforced. I have seen far too many Vampire chronicles in which the Masquerade was a joke. Thus the organiser should establish some form of authority, such as a Prince, Elders, etc, to enforce and maintain these social rules within the game. At the start of a chronicle this role is best taken by an non-player character(s) but as the chronicle progresses it can be possible to turn over this role to a responsible player character(s) by such mechanisms as accession, election or revolution. The characters in the authority role must have the means to enforce their authority and should do so in a consistent manner.
The presence of a strong authority in the game has the following benefits. It provides a stable social environment for the player characters to act in. It provides a mechanism for protecting weak characters from assault, theft and harassment by more powerful characters, which will encourage the participation of new players. It gives players who want to play rebellious or non-traditionalist characters an authority and traditions to challenge.
Consequences — If there are no consequences to the actions of characters then they are faced with no real choices and no real difficulties to overcome, resulting in a game without meaning or drama. Keep in mind that the actions of the characters do not occur in a vacuum, they will affect the world around them and others will react accordingly. This may actually be used to develop the game as the characters seek solutions to problems created by earlier actions. In terms of setting have some idea of what sort of forces may react to the actions of the characters, such as law enforcement, politics, economy, etc. For example: A person close to the characters dies; as known associates they become subjects of the police investigation which risks revealing activities that they would prefer remain unknown. A character takes over a major local industry and shuts it down; the increased unemployment leads to increased crime and other social problems.
Finally strongly enforced authority and consequences have an enormous advantage in that they drive out power players or munchkins from a chronicle. The aim of these players is for their characters to rack up as high and spectacular body count as possible and to bully weaker characters. They will quickly become discontented with a chronicle in which these activities are interfered with. These disruptive players add nothing to a game and their absence from a chronicle is to the gain of both organisers and players.
Telling the Story
Plot — Most chronicles are based on the players working their way through plots planned out in advance by the organiser, this is a good basis for single event LRP games, however I have found this to be problematic in ongoing chronicles. In an ongoing chronicle the individual players have their own interests and concerns, which they wish to spend their time on. I have seen organisers create elaborate, epic plots only to be disappointed by the discovery that the players are simply not interested. As the organiser has invested a lot of time, effort and creativity in developing the plot they may respond by forcing the plot on to the players. Players invariably resent this forced participation in a plot.
An alternative, which I have found to be very successful, is to instead concentrate on character rather than plot. Instead of developing a complex plot create a number of antagonists and assign objectives to them, the objectives of the antagonists may or may not conflict with players goals. Then have the antagonists work towards their objectives over time as if they were independent characters. The story develops naturally from conflict and interaction between the players and the antagonist characters. Players may be made aware of antagonists as a consequence of their actions or antagonists may be activated as the players explore the world of the chronicle. The great advantage of this method is that it gives players enormous freedom of action within the chronicle and allows them to take positive action as opposed to continually reacting to prescripted events. Another advantage is that as the organiser you don't have to panic when the players adopt strategies to deal with antagonists that you did not foresee. Rather than struggling to force the plot back on track simply decide what the outcome of the players actions will be and decide how the antagonists involved will react to the changed situation. Though this method will make demands upon your creativity and adaptability, I have found that it increases my enjoyment as an organiser to be able to observe a plot evolve over time in often surprising directions that I could not have predicted.
Perhaps the most difficult task in plotting is to provide players with plots for their characters to get involved in while respecting their right to not get involved. One method is to provide clues to plots that the players can pick up on and choose to get involved in as they see fit. Players once involved in a plot will recruit other players into the plot as they seek allies and assistance. Additionally, if players start poking around with something you did not anticipate why not create something for them to find and allow the plot to develop from there?
The true strength of any role-playing game is in character so you should take your NPC's very seriously. NPC's can be broadly divided into three categories Spear Carriers, Minor and Major NPCs.
Spear Carriers — These are the background extras, the security guard the players must bypass; the members of a hoard of Femori or Orcs that the players must fight. They don't have a background as such and are not intended to be an important challenge for your players.
Minor Characters — These have some temporary involvement in the plots the characters are interested in. They require a basic background.
Major Characters — these characters are the focus of one or more plots and who may reappear through out the chronicle regularly. They need as fully developed backgrounds as a player characters.
If the players take a particular interest in an NPC don't be afraid to increase the status of a NPC character to that of major character.
Most importantly though always remember that NPC characters exist for the enjoyment of the players. They exist to be the allies or enemies of the players, and not as player characters for the actors and organisers. Too often I have seen organisers introduce NPC's into a game which they are too attached and thus refuse to let the players interfere with. Another risk is that powerful NPC characters become the focus of the game. No matter how cool and interesting you find your NPC it is important to remember that it is the player characters that are the focus of the game. Players have no interest in being involved in plots that only serve to show how insignificant they are compared to your NPC. Remember that all NPCs, like all plots should be considered disposable in the interests of the players' enjoyment. Do not be afraid to let the players neutralise or kill NPCs that oppose them.
An important issue is the power level of NPCs, particularly those who are intended to be adversaries of the players. This should be guided by the intended purpose of the NPC. If they are supposed to represent a minor threat to the players they should be weaker or less numerous than the players. NPCs that are supposed to represent a significant threat to the players should have power levels similar to the player characters. The use of extremely powerful NPCs should be considered very carefully, as they do not make suitable adversaries. The problem with extremely powerful NPCs is they may be too powerful for the players to effectively oppose, players will normally avoid such NPCs and may resent being forced by an organiser plot into what appears to them to be a suicidal confrontation. The best way to create a challenging adversary is to create one of similar power levels as the characters but who is cunning and intelligent and avoids direct confrontation. The difficulty of the players may be more in catching or defeating the plans of the NPC than actually defeating them in battle.
Running the Game
Organising Staff — Do not attempt to run a LRP chronicle on your own, recruit at least one or two others to aid. The sheer amount of work required to run a game makes this essential. Just as importantly a team of organisers can plan and discuss the game together providing a much larger pool of creativity and opportunities for constructive criticism.
You may often find that you require more NPCs present than you have organisers. The best solution to this problem particularly for minor roles is to recruit players to act for you. Many players enjoy the opportunity to play adversaries for an evening. In smaller games which wish to have an action component the role of adversaries can be rotated between players.
Games — The game events themselves can be divided into two types: the Social game and the Action game. The Social game event is focused on the players meeting and socially interacting. This type of game is very simple to run from an organiser point of view. Your duties are to provide a site and to moderate any disputes or handle any information gathering the players are up to. At an action game the players are involved in some activity such as combating enemies, investigating a mystery etc.
Though it is not unusual for organisers to try to run combined social and action games I have found this to be problematic. I prefer to alternate between the two, this gives the players the opportunity to discuss their previous actions and plan new ones before proceeding to the next adventure.
When preparing for an action game try to develop it from the ongoing plots in the game and if possible allow it to be precipitated by player character actions. Avoid the random Threat of the Month, it may give the players something to do but if occurring too often it will simply become boring. Also give very careful consideration to the challenges that the players face. In general try to make them fair challenges (adversaries, mysteries, problems) that the players are capable of dealing with. This is not to say that the characters should face no danger or chance of failure, but they should always have the opportunity to succeed, to do otherwise always results in unsatisfied players who feel cheated. This is most difficult in mystery type games. Remember that what may look like an easy solution to you may be much more difficult for the players to reach. As they do not possess the overview of the situation that you enjoy as an organiser and that the sharing of clues between players in the game may be incomplete. Finally be prepared to accommodate the players when they conceive of a reasonable solution to their problems that you had not foreseen.
Scheduling — Do not try to hold games too often, recognise the limits of yourself and your staff. Players will be more satisfied with a well run game once a month than a half-organised mess every week. A good way to manage record keeping and the ongoing development of plots is to hold intersession meetings between game events. Rather than a formal game the intersession is simply a meeting which players and organisers attend. It provides players an opportunity to role-play interaction between their characters outside of the game events. Organisers are available for players that wish to update their character records or pursue ongoing plots that are not yet suitable for development into a game involving the majority of the players.
Running a successful live role playing game presents a much greater challenge than a traditional table top RPG. This is not simply due to the logistical complications, significant though they are, of hosting 10- 50 people who are currently vampires, werewolves or hunters of Lovecraftian horrors. The greatest challenge is that it is a totally different medium for story telling than the table top RPG, as different as theatre is from film.
LRP is a relatively new medium for story telling and all of us involved in the hobby and those who wish to participate in it still have much to learn before we master it. Like any creative medium you must learn by doing and by studying both the successes and failures of others. This essay is an attempt to share what I have learned from my own mistakes and successes with you. If there is one concept that is crucial to the success of a LRP it is this. You must provide room for the creativity of the players, because the organiser of a LRP is not like the director of a film or a play where the actors are on stage to act out his vision. Rather you are working with them to create a story together. A story that has the veracity of life, for like life the end is unknown.
A final thought, LRP may appear to be the youngest of games but it is in fact the oldest. When we were children we called it Pretend, and like Pretend the aim of LRP is to have fun.
Alex Gill bought a copy of the D&D basic rules in New Zealand at the age of 12. This was the beginning of a dependency that has stretched 20 years. He considers himself a non-typical gamer, hates Star Trek, considers the vast majority of fantasy literature to be crap and enjoys long distance running. Now completing a Ph.D. in frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba, this essay is based on eight years of experience as both a player and organiser of live role playing games in Edmonton and Winnipeg, Canada. If you are interested in some of his past work visit www.drkwrestling.com/~gteeth/.
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