I'm back from Empire, four days camping in sub zero temperatures that were completely and utterly worth it. I'd not taken part in LARP combats bigger than a skirmish before, it was a totally new experience for me. I'd read the term "battlefield confusion" but didn't know what it meant until I glanced over my shoulder to see the dozen allies I'd had a few moments ago dead or absent, our allies some twenty meters behind us refusing to advance, a surgery in progress between their line and the enemy with our generals shouting contradictory orders and information. As someone who holds that one of the main reasons for playing games are the emotions that it can inspire, it was a fantastic experience.
I've tried my hand at designing LARP games for some twenty to thirty people, nothing like the 1,500 players who showed up to Empire, but the experience equipped me to recognise some of the decisions that made the event great. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about some of the decisions that made the game great and how they might be applied to boardgames.
Balance is not always necessary or desirable
In my first skirmish I could take two hits and could deal a cleaving blow (one that removed a limb) twice. Our enemies each had six hits and could heal each other, either pulling a fallen ally from the floor or restoring three hits to one of their own. The difference it made to my experience was exhilarating, they had a clear mechanical advantage but we had more practice fighting together and more interest in watching each other's backs, it was exciting. Lots of board games have options for deliberately altering difficulty, but if something that would normally be a balance issue is chosen early enough in the game it can offer a way for experienced players to obtain more excitement by testing their skill.
Mechanics aren't everything
Every player had eight points with which to build their character. These could be used to obtain skills that allow you to survive more hits in battle, to deal more devastating blows, to access healing abilities and so forth. I spent some of mine on obtaining abilities that offered no mechanical benefit, for instance I could hallow an item such that whoever was holding it felt the need to look after their subordinates and make sure that they survive. This was not enforced by the rules and had no mechanical effect, a referee simply told the player concerned the impulse they felt and left them to deal with it however they liked. This sort of thing added a huge amount of fun to the game in various ways, from inspiring my captain such that she kept the group together on the field to causing an argument that almost escalated into the church dissolving the government.
Board games approach this in a number of ways, but it's rare for a game to explicitly put this sort of effect in a space normally occupied by a mechanic. While pictures and flavour text and similar have a big impact, it's surprising the extent to which players can engage with things in a game that act this way. Prophecy has a great example of this in the clover meadow card, which states that your character finds a four leaf clover that makes them luckier. No game effect. Some people hate this card, for doing nothing, others swear that it alters the entire flow of the game, a few souls know that it does nothing but find that they enjoy the game more for the reactions it inspires in others. This approach is not right for every game, but it's worth remembering that it is an option.
Don't underestimate what your players will contribute
A small team of writers putting together something that will engage over a thousand people have a huge task ahead of them. It's impossible for them to write an encounter for each individual player, so instead they created structures that gave the players space to make their own game. Assigning each player a role in the political structure would have been unthinkably hard, but creating a structure and letting players fill it how they liked produced a huge amount of play. We had a senate which was filled with elected candidates from each region, with votes depending on the regions philosophy (in my region votes were determined by magical knowledge). We had a synod, filled with priests each priest voting to appoint a cardinal based on the loyalty they considered most important. We had a conclave, filled with mages based on material support of those who owned mana. We had generals, appointed by their senators. These features all combined to create moments that none of the referees could have imagined. For example in one battle I found our senator immobile and wounded on the battlefield, sure to die if we didn't help him. We had our own senatorial candidate who had lost the election, but would replace him had he died. He'd been wounded by enemy and it would not have been our fault, but leaving him would still have been a despicable thing to do. That moment was not planned by any creator of the game, but it was imbued with meaning because of what we had brought to the game as players.
In boardgames there are plenty of times that games rely on what players bring to the table with them. Storytelling games are the most obvious, but it occurs in almost any game that involves over the table play, as existing relationships and play histories influence the deals players are willing to make with each other. Finally, love it or hate it we've had a very stark example of a game based on what players are willing to bring with them to the table:
So there we have it, three lessons from LARP for boardgames. Tomorrow there should be a new puzzle. While last weeks puzzle has been solved, nobody has submitted a solution for the one the week before that, so if you fancied racking up some easy points even a solution that kills one imp would be a winner at the moment. See you tomorrow.