The LARP Ascending

(With apologies to Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Angela Webb posted today at about LARPs, and how they might be of interest to MMO developers. To her, they represent player-generated content.

This is exactly how I started LARPing. At my first event, I was given a boffer weapon and a costume, a few instructions, and off I went to terrorize the town as a level-2 goblin. I had a blast ambushing players on dark trails with my foam weapon that did a crappy two points of damage. I was such a noob. But, I learned how to use a sword, contributed to the fun of others, and figured out some basic rules of the game.

One of the things I say to my friends about EVE Online is that humans make much better villains than computers. I think Angela’s run at being a goblin supports that.

One of the commenters to Angela’s post recalls the guide program in Everquest, where volunteer players assumed unusual avatars and carried out heavily scripted and supervised events.

I recall that Everquest, at least at some point, gave players the option to play a low-level mob, much as Angela did. I’m not sure whatever became of that.

I myself have some background in LARPing, but not of the boffer-sword variety. I played in games run by Steve Balzac and Aimee Yermish through the Society for Interactive Literature West (SILWest). They began by running LARPs at MIT while they were students there, and continued when they came to Silicon Valley to work. Now they are back at MIT, and I haven’t talked to them for a few years.

Steve and Aimee’s games did not use boffer swords. There was a combat resolution system which typically was turn-based, and gave you a few tactical options. As often as not, there would be magic abilities, or lasers or something else. There were costumes, most definitely. They would run their games at hotels, first as part of a sci-fi convention, but later, as its own event. We had very strict rules that we could never, ever, utter the word “bomb”. We used a substitute word, I think it might have been “banana”. Gameplay would last a weekend, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, with a group dinner and rehash Sunday night.

The GM’s had hours, and combat and thieving were only allowed during those hours, even though the game depended on an honor-system, where low-scale conflicts could be resolved without a GM. But you could stay up all night and talk with people or work on puzzles.

Each player got a premade character with an elaborate background and motivations. Also some items and abilities. Games were constructed with many different groups with different interests, divided loyalties, and potential for spying and intrigue.

Furthermore, there was a “big plot” that developed over the course of the weekend, typically something that threatened everyone, or nearly everyone in the game world. So players had reasons both to cooperate and to compete, to trust and to suspect.

The games were incredibly engaging, exhilarating, and exhausting. I miss them.

The content was enormously expensive to create, and didn’t leverage all that well. Every character had a 3-ring binder full of background information, a good portion of which was specific to that character. As a commercial enterprise, I don’t think it works. However, the lesson remains: Human beings make much more interesting adversaries than computers.

As a sidelight, I note that we had many women playing in our games, far more than you see in net-based pvp games. Even though there was a decided pvp content. I don’t care to venture a guess as to why, but I note that the game was a lot richer than a “I beat your brains out” format such as exists in first-person shooters. Negotiation, spying, manipulation, and simply chewing scenery were all part of the fun. And my, oh, my, it WAS fun.

That’s a high bar, and it won’t work as such, in an MMO format where you log in at any time, and play casually. Part of the appeal is the “I’m going to do this and nothing else for the next 48 hours. Maybe I’ll sleep a little.”

In order to make player-generated content really work in an MMO, the entire structure needs to be changed, I think. Humans as gnolls outside of Qeynos have limited appeal and a bunch of problems. I mean, it seems like something that might be fun for a little while, but ultimately boring. What would make life interesting is if the gnoll faction had some goals of their own, which put them in sometimes in conflict with the humans of Qeynos, but also with the centaurs in Thundering Steppes, and with orcs everywhere.

Players in a game in which the content revolves around doing quests will resent the intrusion of other players ruining their day, and mucking up their plans. So the point of the game would have to involve goals that are intrinsic to the factions somehow. The best goals would be only partially overlapping, as in, I want to destroy Qeynos, but I also need to gather components for a cure to the plague that’s making all the gnoll children sick. That is, you don’t want a binary, all-or-nothing, mutually exclusive goal.

Another thing that doesn’t work is the sense of time in an MMO. Time moves very slowly in an MMO or not at all. They are like the old style of TV show, where every episode leaves you exactly where it started. This is antithetical to LARPs and also tabletop roleplaying, where it is axiomatic that what you do matters. Your success or failure has consequences to the world.

Because of this put me down as thinking that should multiplayer games incorporate more ideas from LARPS, it’s going to have to involve a lot more rethinking of the genre. In fact, they will likely be enough different that we might not call them MMORPG’s at all.

One thought on “The LARP Ascending

  1. After we relaunched Meridian 59, our main events coordinator was also a LARP organizer. He brought a lot of great ideas to the game, even though he wasn't always very technically adept. He learned well, but I remember talking to him about how similar organizing events in a game and organizing a LARP were for him.I disagree, however, that this needs to be a function of player-generated content or even a special function like an “events coordinator”. If we want to see this in games, we need to make it a priority. Players need to demand this type of dynamic nature to the world and support it. Developers need to start exploring this space and investigating how players can interact more fully with the world.Ultimately, I think it conflicts with the theme-park nature of most games. Most people find it more frustrating than fascinating when their world is disrupted. Going out of Qeynos and finding a mass of gnolls marauding so that you can't complete quests is likely to be irritating to people. In simplistic design terms, the risks of having smarter enemies out front marauding and laying seige to the city doesn't meet the rewards for a possible victory. So, it doesn't happen.Too bad, though.

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