Goal Lists

I had a random little idea that came up during a discussion about goals lists.

Goal lists are a fairly common feature of theater style character sheets. Frequently, character sheets include a character history, a who-you-know list, a list of character abilities, and the last section is often a list of goals to achieve during the game. There’s often somewhere between 2 and 8 of them (sometimes more, sometimes less) and they can be very broad (i.e. “make sure the party goes smoothly”) or very specific (i.e. “find your lost necklace”). They can be very mechanical (“win the battle represented by the war game”), or very interpersonal (“obtain forgiveness from your long lost sister.”) And sometimes they can seem like the writer felt every character needed a minimal amount of goals, and tried to pad out the list.

Players react very differently to these goal lists. Some people love the direction, and without them may find themselves wondering, “what is it I’m supposed to be doing here?” Being given a long list can be a reassuring sign that the character is important with plenty to do, and checking them off can be very satisfying. And some people just like to have them as a simple summary and guideline to refer back to.

On the other hand, some people find them to be very “rail-roading”- meaning they represent excessive control by the GMs over the characters (instead of letting players interpret what their characters want based on the histories.) Especially when it comes to emotional and/or interpersonal goals, which are typically strongly influenced by each player’s individual take on their characters.

And it’s not uncommon for casting questionnaires to ask how people feel about goal lists- do they want a lot of goals? Few? Very specific ones, or ones open to interpretation? And I had an idea. For a LARP where the writers have written goal lists for all of the characters, the questionnaire could ask, “do you like having goal lists?” and if they answer no, don’t try to cast them as someone with a shorter goal list… just leave it off. And if someone enjoys having goal lists… simply include it.

Of course, this need not be a hard and fast rule- for example, if some characters don’t lend themselves well to concrete goals, that one could just never go to someone who asks for a lot of concrete goals. And some LARPs have a character or two with goals that really should be spelled out as important to purse in order to keep the plot moving. (Ideally, LARPs would be written in such a way that they wouldn’t fall apart if one goal wasn’t pursued, but let’s be honest- most of us theater LARPers know of some villain character whose player decided off the bat that their character reformed and there went the primary source of conflict!) And certainly, if a LARP has mechanics that require goal lists (for example, I’ve seen characters with the ability to force another player to read them a goal off their list,) every character would still need a minimum.

But in most LARPs, I think this might be a decent way to alter the character sheets a bit to suit the players’ tastes. It would also be interesting to see what kind of effect this might have on how characters gets interpreted- without these goal lists, are players more likely to deviate farther from GM expectations? Or are goal lists more or less just a convenient summary that don’t really direct a player’s idea of their character?

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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12 Responses to Goal Lists

  1. Tony V says:

    Excellent thoughts and summary, as always. It certainly makes some sense to express the same goals different, based on what the players want. So I could see doing that, that way.

    But I feel the conflict is a little false from inside the game. It was my impression that LARPs overall decide between freeform or railroady, and that determines a lot of the game. Writing some characters as freeform, and others as railroady sounds unworkable. What about a railroady character who is dependent on others, but they have freeformed into going totally separate directions? What about a freeform player who is trying to do something cool and new with a railroaded player? And of course the GM either has designs about where they want the overall game to go, or they don’t.

    Or perhaps your (much broader) experience than mine disagrees.

    • Ivan Zalac says:

      I see railroad and sandbox (its opposite) as two opposite sides of the spectrum, and lot of space between them (see: The Mixing Desk of Larp), both of them tools and neither a bogeyman.

      There are plenty of larps with almost fully sandbox characters, as well as almost fully railroaded characters – in that case they’re called PCs and NPCs where the distinction is made (though in such cases NPCs are usually “expendable”), but there are other examples as well.

      E.g. in my larp “A Party Full of Secrets”, two characters play the married couple – they’re somewhat central to the story and they’re more railroaded than the other characters (their friends who are more sandboxy). It’s doable.

  2. Ivan Zalac says:

    Goal lists are not the usual feature of Croatian larps. I did encounter them once (in an Italian larp “Il Negoziatore” (The Negotiator), written by Angela Caputo, on a run one month ago produced by the Trieste Larp Factory), and I did not mind them. In fact, I believe this particular larp has been enhanced by them, as the characterization in the character background hasn’t been clear enough.

    Some larps which I wrote, while not having explicit goal lists had implicit goals in the background of some (though not all) characters (other details were usually intentionally vague, for other effects). So I would say having them implicit or explicit is more or less a matter of the writing style. The bigger difference is, I’d say, if a playstyle of a particular larp (or its participants) is play to win or play to lose (to create more drama).

    • Fair Escape says:

      With regards to playing to lose- I’ve definitely seen some goal lists with the added GM note “You should try to attempt this goal because it’s meant to be fun to try, even though it’s highly unlikely you’ll succeed.” Some players love that kind of thing- because they feel they can go all out and failing won’t be a let down because they knew all along it’s likely, and some players just find near-impossible or impossible goals to be frustrating.

  3. One larp I played in recently had, in addition to goals, a list of “achievements”, things to explicitly do in-game: “Cover up yor mob dealings ineptly in front of your daughter”; “Tell someone you’re a respectable businessman”; “Embarass your daughter with stories about things she did as a child” (Yes, I was the mafia guy at the PTA meeting). Its both explicit direction, and also insights into the nature of the character and their relationships to others, and was quite inspiring.

    As for the main point, chopping off goal-lists for people who don’t like them seems to be a perfectly workable solution, though at the cost of creating more work for the GM (in that you have to write goals, then chuck away some portion of them).

    • Fair Escape says:

      Yeah, it’s probably a more appealing solution if you plan to run the LARP many times, because then there’s a good chance the goals for any given character won’t get chucked every time.

      Also, I know some GMs who find creating lists of goals useful for characters even if the players don’t see them, because it’s a useful way to evaluate a character to see if they have enough to do.

  4. Kevin Riggle says:

    I find them a useful way to organize information for the player’s quick reference. (If I’m reading a character sheet on short notice, eg. as a last minute addition or to refresh my memory before a game, the goal list and “who you know” sections are places I’ll focus.)

    And they’re a good way to see as a GM if I’ve underplotted a character. (“Huh, this character has only two goals” or “Wow, these goals are really boring.”)

    As a player, I expect not to complete all my goals — because I lose the plot, because it goes sideways (eg. player chemistry just doesn’t work for a love plot), or because I just run out of time, so I have no problem deprioritizing goals I’m less interested in.

    As a GM, I expect my players to do the same, and figure that I need to provide them enough plot for them to still have fun even if they drop a couple goals on the floor.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    There’s an intermediate way to do it, which is to have goals that are very nebulous or open to player interpretation. For example, you might have a goal “Find a boyfriend who you like”; the implication is that you don’t have a preset romantic plot with someone but would want to have one depending on details of PC chemistry.

    And sometimes these are necessary to move the plot. In games with factions, people on the fence could have a goal, “Decide which faction to join.” Perhaps you play a king who has to choose a successor.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think any point on the scale between “direct, specific goals” and “vague, generic goals” is going to make some players happy and others less so, including the ones in the middle. Your example is probably inoffensive to everyone, but some people will think it barely makes a difference over having no goals, and others will say, “well, I may want to remain single, or independent.” I think many writers try to include a list of goals that all fall on different points of the scale.

  6. As a writer, my goal lists are more of a “Sorry you had to read twenty pages of background, here it is in bullet form/” Perhaps changing this to summary would be more meaningful.

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