NELCO 2014 Continued: Describing Game Mechanics

Seeing as how Intercon O is right around the corner, soon I’ll have more panels and workshops from PreCon to report on. But I never finished my post-event reports from last summer’s NELCO. So now my goal has become to finish describing my experiences at NELCO 2014 before Intercon.

The “Describing Game Mechanics” panel and workshop on Saturday, and presentation on Sunday, were all focused around the idea of creating a system to describe any given LARPs game mechanics. Many LARPers like to know what kind of mechanics to expect when signing up for a LARP, and having a clear description in the game’s blurb can really help a LARPer figure out which games to play, whether it’s choosing the types of mechanics that they’ve enjoyed in the past, or knowing which games have systems unlike any they’ve experienced when they want to try something new.

This is a subject that comes up often at Intercon (as well as PreCon and NELCO).  We come from very diverse backgrounds. The MIT community is different from the Brandeis University community which is different from the British theater LARPing community, etc. Different LARP communities have very different expectations for mechanics. What some LARPers might call “mechanics light” other LARPers might call “mechanics heavy” which can lead to some confusion in expectations for a LARP.

The panel was run as a background to provoke thoughtful discussion, the workshop was run to come up with a universal system for describing, or coding, mechanics, and the presentation shared the ideas the workshop had come up with. There is a powerpoint on the presentation that will soon be available, as well as a video of the panel that preceding the workshop. But in the meantime, here is a summary.

First, a quick definition of mechanics — mechanics are a set of rules that allow characters in LARPs to perform actions that a player cannot or will not do (e.g. combat, magic, sex, etc). This includes allowing characters to act as though they have skills, knowledge, or resources that the player does not have.

There are three components to the system that the NELCO workshop devised:

  • the domains — the actions or groups of related actions — that have mechanics
  • level of involvement in the LARP
  • descriptive keywords

The first component describes what actions, skills, or knowledge are represented by the mechanics of a given LARP. “Combat” is probably the most frequent example offered. “Magic” is another. Some LARPs have systems for romance, i.e. determining when a character falls in love.

There are three levels of involvement in this system: Heavy, Light, and Flavor.

  • Heavy: mechanics that are “heavy” are likely to have the majority of the characters use it. They may be unavoidable. (For example, “combat” might be heavy in a LARP where there is no way to avoid a fight once another player has declared their intent to attack you.) Players can expect to be using the mechanics for a significant percentage of their time in game. The results of using the mechanics will likely affect the outcome of everyone’s plots and goals. Heavy mechanics often need to be explained to everyone prior to LARP start.
  • Light: mechanics that are light are likely to have less than half of the players using it. Asking to be cast in a role that is highly unlikely to use (or definitely will not use) may restrict your casting somewhat, but it is likely the staff can accommodate the request. Players who do use the mechanic may spend very small amounts of time using it. Not everyone will be affected by how the mechanics are used.
  • Flavor: Very few characters are likely to use “flavor” mechanics. It is possible that many characters are simply unable to use them. It is easily avoidable, and unlikely to have a significant impact on the outcome of anyone’s plots or goals. (They usually are just there to add flavor.) It is often unnecessary to explain flavor mechanics to everyone — it might only be explained in pre-game emails to the players who expect to use it.

This is probably the trickiest part of the system to use, since there are no hard lines. What constitutes unquantifiable variables, such as how significantly a mechanic impacts people’s plots, is up to a GM to decide. I know of some games which had runs that were very violent and used the combat system frequently, whereas other runs involved nothing but cordial, professional behavior between the characters. The best we can do is try to guess.

The third element of this system involves keywords that indicate how the mechanics might work out. “Live action” or “boffer” might be one tag to indicate that players will actually be swinging foam swords. “RPS” (or “Rock Paper Scissors”) might be another. “GM fiat” might be a tag to indicate that GMs will be determining outcomes on the fly. Similarly, LIT is another one that gets tossed around, and it stands for “limited by your imagination and the GM’s tolerance” — whatever you think you can do, you can try and see if the GMs will allow it. Another tag might be “DKWDDK” which stands for “Du Kannst Was Du Darstellen Kannst” means “you can do what you can portray,” meaning if and only if you the player can do it, your character can do it. “Hard skill” (or “player skill’) and “soft skill” (or “character skill”) would be helpful as keywords for allowing players to see if any of their real life skills might be usable in a LARP.

To give an example, a Star Wars LARP might be tagged, “Combat, light, RPS. Force Abilities, flavor, LIT. War, heavy, board game” in a blurb. This would let players know that there might be combat, which is represented with player rock, paper, scissors, a rare few characters may be Jedi or Sith, but their Force related abilities won’t really affect much — just allowing, for example, Jedi to say “I levitate this pen to prove I’m a Force User” but murdering other players with a Vader-style Force choke won’t be allowed, and all of the players care about and have a role to play in an ongoing war, and giving troops orders to move will be represented by moving pieces around a tabletop board game.

I like this system quite a lot. It reflects the ways the community already often thinks about and describes mechanics, but codifies terms like “light” and “heavy” to help prevent differing standards from confusing players. If it were to become common, it might prompt GMs, when bidding LARPs, to remember to include information they might otherwise think doesn’t belong in a blurb or simply forget to include.

Of course, it’s not perfect — bidding LARPs is already considered to be a laborious, involved process, and GMs feeling pressure to include this information (even if it never becomes mandatory) might feel like just adding more of a burden, especially to GMs new to the bidding process. Terms like “heavy” and “light” don’t actually become more meaningful or useful until this system’s becomes commonly known, and it still doesn’t create crystal clear expectations. And not all mechanics may need to be included in blurbs. For example, some might categorize the use of nametags as a mechanic, as it often represents knowledge the characters have (one another’s identities by sight) but the players do not. But unless nametags have more significance than that (such as including codes that reveal information to a subset of players), it’s probably unnecessary to describe them using this system in game blurbs. We don’t want to overload game blurbs with too much content. That said,  I would still be very interested to see GMs give this system a try and see if and how LARPers feel it helps the sign-up process.

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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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