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Author Topic: [Ends and Means] King Lothian's Court  (Read 6641 times)
Adam Cerling

Posts: 159


« on: September 18, 2005, 07:07:09 PM »

Previous threads in this series: its Debut in Indie Game Design, the playtest Werewolves in L.A. and the Memorial Day playtest.

Rochester, New York -- Last week I visited my old college town for a Friday night wedding. The friend I was staying with invited me to attend a one-shot Dark Ages: Fae LARP on Saturday. But when that night rolled around, she confessed to having little enthusiasm or preparation for the game. She'd really rather be playing than GMing.

Sensing an opportunity, I offered to take over for her with my nascent LARP system Ends and Means. The result, I'm pleased to say, was a grand success. Here's how it went.

The Players

I had thirteen players, half of whom were old friends from college, the people with whom I learned to love LARP. I knew they shared many of my tastes in regard to Creative Agenda. The other half were new faces, people who had joined my friends on the local LARP scene since I'd left.

Seven players were female, and six were male.

The Setting

My friend had pitched the game to the others as a flashback: it would be a night in the past lives of their characters from an ongoing Changeling: the Dreaming chronicle. So while it was a one-shot, several players expected to see tie-ins from their usual game, not to mention thematic repurcussions. The setting was Dark Ages Europe, where a Faerie King named Lothian was holding a celebration of victory over the goblin hordes to the south.

I took this sketch and just ran with it, without worrying much about the ongoing chronicle or its characters. I trusted that their character relationships would create the tie-ins they wanted, and that they'd later incorporate what repercussions they found interesting.

We were playing in a large university lecture hall, so the physical environment wasn't helpful for imagining high fantasy. But it did have a huge dry-erase whiteboard, which came in very handy for the next part.

Character Creation

Nobody had pre-generated any characters. I pictured a night in which people invented characters they weren't very familiar with or invested in, then milled about with them making empty conversation. Shudder.

I resolved to avoid that. The technique I used was a Relationship Map. As players trickled in, I asked each of them for a character name and a two-word description. I wrote this on the whiteboard and circled it. Then I asked, "What do you think about this person? About this person? Oh really? Hey, other guy, do you return that sentiment?"

All the players totally got into this method of creating their concepts. Relationships like "respect," "rival," "disdain," "big sister," "groupie," "infatuation," "suspicion," and the like soon cris-crossed the board in a huge messy tangle of lines. Within thirty minutes or so, everyone had a good idea about what their character was like.

One guy, talking about a Werewolf: the Forsaken LARP he was planning on launching, commented, "I am so using this to start my LARP."

Next I squeezed Ends and Means into a twenty-minute spiel, including questions taken. People took ten minutes to create Ends and Means for their characters, and distribute fifty points of Weight among them. Here is an example of one of the characters created:

Liusaidh, Unlikely Champion

Defending her honor (6)
Protecting the King's name (2)
Protecting her companions (5)
Leave a lasting legacy (6)
Her True Love (2)

Swordsmanship (6)
Secret-Keeper (3)
Heightened Senses (4)
Well-Known and Respected (7)
Metamorphosis Magic (5)
Aura of Fear (4)

A few people didn't really try to predict how to use the numbers: they simply split their 50 Weight evenly across the board. One fellow tried the strategy of playing high scores, even though it would earn him zero Focus Tokens. Nobody tried to play all low scores, but they did think up the idea during the discussion afterward.

Focus Tokens were distributed to each player by the following formula: Focus Tokens = (10 - Highest End) + (10 - Highest Means). Of the players whose character sheets I salvaged at night's end, the starting Focus Token distribution was ( 0, 2, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, 8, 9 ) - a mean of 5 and an average of 5.27.

(FYI, in a long-term chronicle this happens at the start of every game -- they players distribute 50 Weight among their Ends and Means, and begin the game with Focus Tokens in the quantity described above.)

Playing the Game: What Worked

1. Bored players bought a scenario.

One feature of Ends and Means is that if you're sitting on extra Focus Tokens, you can purchase a Scenario from the GM, which means he'll toss a new situation your way that's tailored to you. Early into the game, two players approached me, pooling their Tokens to purchase a Scenario.

"We're bored," they said. "We want a Scenario."

I loved that. I've heard "we're bored" in so many LARPs; it's usually followed by disruptive action by the players, to make things "interesting." Here, the players had a channel for their boredom. They knew just where to go and what it cost to have something interesting happen for them.

(For the purposes of the one-shot, I made the cost 4 Tokens. In a long-running chronicle the cost would be much higher, and payable not only in Tokens on hand but in Tokens you had left from previous games.)

2. Pitting Ends vs. Ends creates beautiful Narrativist moments.

Sure enough, the players wanted action. They suggested that goblins attack the castle. I looked at the Ends on their character cards. One player was a knight with "Defend the Weak (8)" and "Bring Righteous Wrath to the Unworthy (5)". The other was an archer with "Protect People I Care For (7)" and "Obtain Physical Posessions For Myself (6)".

I told them the scene would begin with the archer; I shooed the knight off to join the others, as he'd be warned about the commotion presently. I described to the archer how she caught a glimpse of a goblin scouting party -- only one of them was wearing a valuable-looking necklace. Would she creep out from the castle to get a clean shot, claiming the spoils? Or would she go back and sound the alarm?

It was wonderful, watching her weigh the decision in her mind. After thinking hard for a few moments, she went back to sound the alarm -- hoping there'd be a chance to score the booty later.

Later, as the goblins were attacking, I faced the knight with a similar moment: A small weak goblin fell wounded before him, cowering, pleading for his life. Would the knight defend the weak? Or smite the unworthy?

Again, I saw a beautiful moment of hesitation cross the player's face, before he ultimately chose to spare the goblin.

Other Ends vs. Ends I inflicted on players included these:
[li]Be loyal to the King's will, or pursue your True Love? (She chose the King.)[/li]
[li]Pursue a chance to rise through the ranks, or go to destroy an enemy? (She chose to kill her enemy.)[/li]

I also pit people's Ends against one another in two cases, giving them new material to roleplay with one another about:
[li]The Archer's End of gaining personal power, vs. the Knight's End of bringing righteous Wrath to the Unworthy[/li]
[li]The Bard's End of remaining free, vs. the Dancer's End of seeing King Lothian be happy[/li]
[li]The Soldier's End of destroying all enemies vs. the Sorceress's End of being beneficient toward humankind[/li]

It was challenging to come up with good bangs on the fly, but it was a thrill to see them work. I can only imagine what I could have done if I had known about the characters ahead of time and prepared ideas for bangs beforehand.

3. Multi-player conflict was well-received.

When the goblins were attacking, seven people (including myself, as the goblins) chimed in with Stakes for the conflict. Everyone wanted to be involved! It was a little chaotic at first, but I managed to guided people through the steps of resolution without confusion. Each person in turn from the lowest Stake to the second-highest had the chance to Steal the Scene from everyone above them. In this conflict, the player with the second-lowest Stake emerged the victor. It cost her most of her Focus Tokens to Steal the Scene from six other players.

The victor had often GMed other games, so she was perfectly comfortable with taking over the narration. I just had to remind her to think like a GM and seek input from the other players in the scene, and also that she couldn't dictate others' actions without consulting them. I think I will have to give some structure to guide players in directing narration for a group.

At the discussion afterward, one player remarked on how much he enjoyed the goblin combat scene. In Mind's Eye Theater, such a scene could take an hour or more to resolve. We did it in ten or fifteen minutes. Others echoed his sentiment.

4. The Setting

The high fantasy, high magic setting complemented the system's opportunities for creative input. Seeing as how I haven't invented a setting yet to go with this system, I'll keep this success in mind, even though I'm not sure I'm interested in fantasy worldbuilding.

Playing the Game: What Didn't Work

1. Stealing the Scene is Too Easy.

This was the main topic of criticism and discussion after the game. High Ends and Means are too weak against low ones, with the preference given to Stealing the Scene in conflict resolution. One player brought up the idea of setting all your Ends and Means at 1 and coasting through conflicts on the strength of eighteen Focus Tokens -- a strategy that has been considered during every discussion I've had about this system.

It's time I address this issue. I've got to halve the number of Focus Tokens you can begin the game with, and I need a means for high scores to truly trump low scores, but at a cost. I've got some ideas percolating about how to accomplish that.

2. Large Groups Buying Scenarios.

Near the end of the game, five players with Focus Tokens burning a hole in their pockets came to me wanting to purchase a Scenario together. It was hard for me to make sure everyone got their money's worth: I could only imagine so many bangs to cram into one scene. I ultimately split them into two scenes: in one I pit the Bard's ends against the Dancer's, and in the other I pit the Soldier vs. the Sorceress, leaving one player to coast along for the ride.

Because I care very much about making Scenarios worth spending Focus on, I will have to consider what techniques to advocate in the text that will help involve everyone in group Scenarios.

The Verdict

This playtest left me psyched. The system already seems to hit a lot of the right notes. GMing it was a blast, and the players were encouraging in their criticism. Even if I'm only afloat on the flattery of friends, I'm grateful: I believe now more than ever that I've got something good here. It's just a matter of working out the rest of its shape.

Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.
Graham W

Posts: 437

« Reply #1 on: September 18, 2005, 10:56:53 PM »

This sounds excellent. I particularly like the buying of Scenarios (anything that gets players to come to you when they're bored is nice). And especially the idea of combining two incompatible moral ends to create a scenario. Nice.

Reading the last thread, the one with the Werewolf game, it sounds as though you were much happier with this playtest. What changed between the two?
Andrew Morris

Posts: 1233

« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2005, 05:23:51 AM »

Wow, Adam, even for only a dozen players, GMing a LARP at the last minute is an impressive testament to your skills -- either your skills as a coordinator or your design skills in creating a system that can be run at the drop of  a hat.

I have a couple of suggestions for the challenges you came across.

First, it seems somewhat odd to me that buying a scenario is cheaper for a group than for an individual. Unlike, say, manufacturing, scenarios don't get cheaper or easier to construct with more characters involved. In fact, they get harder. So it doesn't seem unreasonable that groups should have to pay per particpant . I think it would still be fair if you asked for individual buy-ins along with a group cost.

Second, in terms of buying the scene, not to say "I told you so," but...well...I told you so. Back in your first thread, I mentioned that the mechanic seemed particularly brutal, and it sounds like your players in this event felt that way too. Of course, you said that you wanted it to be brutal, so it could easily be a case of these particular players just not being your target audience.

If you feel this is something you need to change, though, I've got a suggestion or two. You could, as you say, lower the amount of  Focus Tokens handed out at the start. Another way is to simply raise the cost of stealing the scene to another set, flat number.

You could also solve the problem of a player taking all 1s by changing the cost of stealing the scene from one FT to a number based on the difference in total Weight. It could be one-to-one, or some other ratio if you think that would be too expensive. For example, I have a total weight of 2 and you have a total weight of 18. That difference of 16 weight coudl mean that I have to spend, for example, 8 FT (2:1), 5 FT (3:1), 4 FT (4:1), etc, in order to steal the scene.

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Adam Cerling

Posts: 159


« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2005, 06:06:36 PM »

Graham --

Thanks for the nice comments. I'm especially pleased with the Ends vs. Ends technique. I think if I have to answer that Forge question about "what gets you most excited about your game," I will point and say "that!"

My previous two playtests were run with groups much smaller than what I've designed the game for. This was the first game that hit the right number of people for a small LARP. It also helped that for the first time my players were experienced LARPers, already comfortable with the idea of entertaining themselves and one another without an omnipresent GM.

Andrew --

You flatter me! Unrelated to Ends and Means and my skills running it, I attribute much of the evening's success to the 5'x8' Relationship Map I scrawled across the whiteboard. I chose the right technique to draw the players in, not only in to the idea of their characters, but in to the idea of interacting with other characters.

But I won't sell short the system technique of pitting a character's Ends against themselves. That point of design was a tremendous enabler for me to GM so much on the fly. I think even a GM who relies more on prep could use it to great effect.

And you're right! You told me so. I didn't want to believe it, but I guess even players with high stats need love too. I suspect that one of the system's greatest flaws right now is that high numbers are so passive -- one the Stakes are set, you don't have the strategic decisions to make that people with low numbers do. I think the solution to the Weight 18 vs. Weight 2 situation will be have to be some manner of active defense that the high-Stakes player can choose to invoke, at a cost.

You're right that I should definitely lower the number of Focus Tokens people start with, too.

Thanks for the feedback! It occurs to me that I should also e-mail the players and encourage them to come post about the play experience from their end.

Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.
Andrew Morris

Posts: 1233

« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2005, 09:39:47 PM »

One thought on how to empower high-score players is to add in some mechanic that allows them to defend against stealing the scene. If you still want the balance of optional or limited-resource narration to remain with the low-score characters, you could say that every time the high-score player announces their score, they hold out their hand, containing either a Focus Token or not (it remains hidden). Then, if the low-score character wants to steal the scene, they can do so as usual. The kink is that if the high-score character put out a Focus Token, they counter the scene stealing. If they put out a Focus Token and the low-score player doesn't try to steal the scene, then the high-score character gives the Focus Token over to the low-score player. Or something along those lines.

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« Reply #5 on: September 20, 2005, 04:00:19 PM »

A Player's View
Having been at that game (as Laochas, the Impetuous Lordling, son to the king, general blowhard) I really thought the system did work well. I really like (Andrew's) idea about the being able to buy off a scene where you may win, but maybe it should be attached to the same rule as the buying off, like, (for example) when you need to give someone a bead for every time you've stolen a scene from them (1 bead first time, 2 beads second, etc) where blocking a stolen scene works the same way. It would simply become more difficult to figure out the buy off (or counter scene steal) once you got into larger group conflicts.

As to the scale when stealing scenes, I like that too...

All in all though, save for those minor considerations with scene stealing, and some concern as to how this will go with a less mature group of gamers, I thought the event went fantastically and would gladly play in the system again.
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