The King’s Musketeers has come and gone, and despite all my misgivings, I had an excellent weekend. There was a lot of exciting dueling, intrigue, cut throat politics, war, poetry, drinking, gambling, romance, vendettas, disguises, and dancing.
I think the mechanics were a particular strong point of the LARP; they had some pretty cool and unique systems for things like combat and public scandals. I particularly had fun with their romance mechanics, and I think a lot of other players did, too.
The basic structure of amour in The King’s Musketeers was centered around characters performing travails (pronounced truh-VYE) for one another. Each character has a list of their hearts desires, ranging from simple (“dote upon my every word for five minutes” or “come carousing with me”) to more difficult (“obtain Rare Item X for me”). Many of the travails are customizable. For example, some of them might specify the item to be obtained, but some characters had “Obtain _____ for me.” The blank can be filled in by the player being wooed with either a common little widget, or a particularly hard-to-get MacGuffin. This allows players to decide how difficult their hearts are to win.
Any character can ask another to name a travail for them to perform. After accomplishing it, the woo-er returns, and can take a peek at their woo-ee’s Heart. Hearts are printed on index cards, and detail the character’s goals, along with an ability that is gained by winning their love. They can then ask for another travail, if they desire, and continue completing tasks until a predetermined number of tasks are complete, at which point, the characters have fallen in love and exchange hearts.
Marriage, incidentally, is entirely separate from all of this. Though hearts exchanged between people wed to others was a cause for scandal.
The rules in The King’s Musketeers detail various situations (such as two people chasing the same person, or stealing hearts after one has already been won.) Disagreements regarding the completion of travails could be brought before the Court of Love, which allowed women to gather and pass judgement on matters of the heart (which had in-game consequences, many of which were rather amusing.)
It’s unlike any other approach to romance I’ve seen in LARPs. (With the exception of Torch of Freedom, of course, as that game used pretty much the same system with a few minor tweaks.) I noticed several advantages. The biggest one, in my opinion, is the way it encourages plot sharing. I think a lot of people are hesitant to share their goals with others. You never know who is secretly directly opposing you, friends with your enemies, or wants that MacGuffin for themselves. And some people just want to accomplish stuff on their own. But this system of romance encourages people to tell one another their goals, and offer other players more to do in LARP. Quick example- in Torch of Freedom, I knew nothing about some of the game’s MacGuffins, and never would have spent any time searching for them if the characters I was wooing hadn’t asked me to. There’s no guarantee asking someone for a travail will lead to fun and adventure, but it’s an easy in-game excuse to go looking for something to do should someone need it.
Another major advantage is that it changes romance from a strictly interpersonal, role-playing style plot into a mechanical, goal-oriented plot. This is probably more of a matter of personal taste- some people want their romances to be strictly interpersonal, role-playing style plots. But it’s not either-or. I don’t think this diminishes the chance to role-play out intense personal scenes. In fact, it does a good job of providing little moments that are ideal for role-play. Asking for a travail, letting the person know you completed them, reacting to a glimpse into their true heart, completing the last one and exchanging hearts. Stealing one. Confronting someone who stole one. Good stuff.
The other half of romance becoming a goal-oriented plot (in addition to a role-playing plot) is that it’s impossible to resolve in a single moment. I’ve seen the occasional romance plot in a LARP get resolved by two players coming face to face in character, confessing their love and deciding to be together in one brief moment (or else deciding against it right away). Potentially problematic when a romance plot is written to keep a player occupied for a much larger portion of a LARP. This can happen when a player decides a romance plot is dull, or doesn’t find the both sides of the conflict surrounding the romance compelling. In this system, even if it isn’t compelling, completing the sub-steps along the way (i.e. completing each travail) can still be entertaining.
The downside I’ve heard mentioned regarding this romance mechanical system is that it takes away some of the choice from the players regarding when and how their characters fall in love. Once someone completes the final travail for you, that’s it- your heart is given to them, theirs to you. It’s possible to have your heart stolen by another after that, but you can’t initiate the trade by performing travails for others. (And altering the system to allow people to pursue others even after exchanging hearts would negate the in-game significance of the exchange.) This is particularly problematic for those of us playing peasants. A character’s rank in society dictates how many travails it takes to win your heart- six for kings and queens, one for peasants. If I hadn’t advanced in rank, my romance plot would have been completed much too fast for me.
Which actually makes me appreciate the idea of customizable travails that much more. One can’t refuse to give travails when asked, and can’t refuse to accept them when they’re completed, but one can design them to be particularly difficult or easy, depending on how much you want the woo-er to succeed at winning your heart.
The variations on this romance system also made for neat characterization. Cold-hearted characters would reveal hearts that weren’t hearts at all. Fickle characters had multiple fake hearts to hand out. Arrogant and self-involved characters had the ability to endlessly request “just one more travail”.
I think if I were to use this system in a LARP of my own, I’d have a few changes:
– A minimum of two travails per character. Maybe even three.
– Every character must have at least one customizable travail. (Otherwise, a player may be disappointed if they all seem too easy or too hard.)
– Torch of Freedom had a system for broken hearts- I thought that was a neat way to mechanically represent an emotional consequence. I’d probably include it.