A topic that has recently been on my mind: ways to guide players through GM-less arbitration of mechanics.
The sort of LARP I had in mind while musing over this topic is the lit-form theater LARP with a decent amount of PvP content and mechanics structured to arbitrate actions taken by one character against another, or one character against the environment, but I think this topic still has a lot of relevance to other forms of LARP.
Many of these LARPs include some kind of text within the rules documents instructing players to get a GM if there’s ever a question about mechanics; others instruct players to get a GM by default, regardless of whether or not there is any question about the mechanics. In some cases, this might be because there is some element of the mechanics opaque to the players. For example, some LARPs use a combat mechanic where characters are assigned combat skill rankings, but aren’t privy to how they stack up against one another, and GMs secretly compare rankings when combat breaks out. But even when all of the relevant information is available to players, some LARPs still choose to require a GM be present, especially if the mechanics are complicated and benefit from someone neutral who is focused on keeping track of stats such as hit points, or damage.
I think this sort of thing is slowly falling out of favor in the local theater LARP communities. We seem to be trending towards minimizing GM presence in LARPs and simplifying mechanics such that players can handle them quickly by themselves. (I have no data to back up these claims, just my personal impressions.) But so long as we still have outcome-determination mechanics and PvP/PvE content in LARPs, and mechanics require arbitration, how do we do that while minimizing the presence of GMs?
Here are some methods/guidelines for GM-less arbitration in LARP I’ve run across in the past:
1. Randomized Outcome. Find a way to randomize the outcome (eg flip a coin, roll a die, use an app that randomly selects an option, write the options on pieces of paper and select one without looking.)
Pros: For situations with a limited number of discrete outcomes, it’s neutral and fair, and assuming you have a convenient tool on hand, it can be very quick, as it doesn’t require time spent out-of-character figuring things out.
Cons: this only works for situations with limited number of discrete outcomes, and players can easily find themselves in a situation where there are no tools readily available to randomize an outcome.
2. Best judgement. Players are instructed to use their best judgement and guess what the outcome is most likely meant to be based on their understandings of the mechanics.
Pros: players are inclined to do this anyway — it’s many players’ first instinct in any case. For the players inclined to think to themselves,, “I think I know what the outcome is meant to be, but I’m not 100% sure, so I will double check with the GMs,” this reassures them that they aren’t required to consult a GM. It doesn’t require an outside party or tools, and while a player might choose to deliberate for awhile, it can be as fast and smooth as a simple internal decision that doesn’t require breaking character.
Cons: it doesn’t help in situations where players feel they can’t guess what is intended by the mechanics, or situations where multiple players are involved and disagree on what the outcome should be. This is a fine place to start when it comes to creating guidelines for GM-less arbitration, but there are plenty of situations where it’s just not going to be sufficient.
3. Neutral Third Parties. Find a neutral player (or players), explain the situation, let them decide.
Pros: Theoretically ensures fairness with human thought behind it (rather than randomness). It’s also potentially a nice option for involving a player who seems to have nothing to do during a LARP, possibly enabling, through steering, for them to become involved in-character as well.
Cons: It requires not only the player or players involved in the mechanic dropping character, but also involves bringing another player (or players) out of character with them. It’s possible for no neutral parties to exist if all characters are on one side of a plot or the other. And it’s not necessarily safe to assume neutrality in a game where much of the information is hidden. For examples, an apparent neutral third party might secretly be a villain attempting to mastermind his downfall. Said villain now must either reveal that they aren’t neutral, or face the challenge of giving a fair judgement despite being secretly invested in the outcome.
4. Negotiation. Assuming the decision involves more than one player, the relevant players simply have to come to an agreement on what they’d like the outcome to be.
Pros: It can be a less contentious, more cooperative form of LARPing, where players feel they have some collaborative agency over the story.
Cons: It drops players out of character, and out-of-character negotiation can be pretty awkward and/or fraught. Players might simply be unwilling to concede a zero-sum situation, or feel pressured into accepting an outcome when they’d rather have a neutral GM abitrate. This system tends to favor players who are pushier, and disfavor players who are shy about advocating for themselves. There’s also the possibility that players simply won’t be able to come to an agreement if they’re both invested in mutually exclusive outcomes.
4. Narrative Focus. Pick the outcome you think would make the best story for the LARP.
Pros: Like “use your best judgement,” this is often a seamless approach, especially if only one player is involved. Might require some brief out-of-character discussion if multiple players are involved. Works best if the players are not in an antagonistic situation. Can also be beneficial to the narrative flow of the LARP overall.
Cons: Like best judgement and negotiation, it’s much less likely to be useful in situations involving multiple characters in antagonistic relationships/situations. Players also may simply lack the information to know what outcome is best for the narrative of a LARP.
5. Player Enjoyment Focus. Pick the outcome that would lead to your best enjoyment for the LARP. This is quite similar to Narrative Focus, but in this case, players are encouraged to focus on themselves as individuals, and not the LARP as a whole.
Pros: Much like Narrative Focus, with the added benefit of not risking players feeling pressure to be responsible for the LARP as whole. Players probably also have a better sense of what would make a LARP scenario enjoyable for them, rather than what would be best for the LARP overall.
Cons: Also like Narrative Focus, but with even greater emphasis on the individual, so even less likely to be useful in an antagonistic situation.
6. Err on the Side of Avoiding Metagaming. If you’re ever not sure, just pick the outcome that would be less beneficial for your character.
Pros: Other options assume a level of trust in players not to cheat. And by and large, in LARP, I think this is a reasonable assumption. In all my years of LARPing, I’ve always been under the impression conscious, intentional cheating is pretty rare, though some players may subconsciously convince themselves to interpret ambiguity in rules in their own favor. This version steers players away from that.
Cons: Again, this version doesn’t work for multiple players aiming for mutually exclusive outcomes. Many players may simply not like this version, and may consciously or subconsciously try to steer away from situations where it would be applied.
Notably, these guidelines aren’t mutually exclusive. One could create a set of rules that enables players to consider multiple options, perhaps with a hierarchy built in. For examples, “if you are unsure about the outcome of this mechanic, you are welcome to guess based on your best judgement. If you feel you can’t guess, you may get another player to arbitrate, or, if one is not available, flip a coin.”
If you’ve run across any other guidelines for GM-less arbitration, feel free to let me know in the comments. Did you like them? In what ways did the work well, and in what ways can they fall short?