Improving brute force design

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There’s an article in the Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book which I think is worth further discussion: “The Blockbuster Formula: Brute Force Design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry” by Eirik Fatland & Markus Montola. The article is about how combining an old (and implicitly deprecated) design method - “brute force design” - with newer Nordic techniques (360 degree illusion, play to lose) made “Monitor Celestra” and “College of Wizardry” a success.

(I am assuming here that you know what “Monitor Celestra” and “College of Wizardry” are. If not, google them and squee).

The interesting concept for us here is “brute force design” - which in Nordic land used to be called “organising larp”. And it looks very familiar to us. Fatland and Montola characterise the brute force method like this:

  • Characters are split into groups with conflicting agendas (orcs want to kill elves)
  • There are subgroups inside groups (the elvish general wants to attack head-first to show bravery, while the king favors a stealthy approach)
  • There are power hierarchies (the general commands the officers who command the soldiers)
  • There are secrets, which players can discover, hoard, and trade (the general is a traitor plotting to kill the king)
  • There are puzzles that can be solved (assemble a torn-up treasure map)
  • Runtime game mastering is conducted by triggering events, introducing surprises, and inserting messenger characters (an NPC scout enters the tent of the king, informing that a horde of undead is approaching the camp)

The design principles:

  • “more is more”: the organiser throws enough plot at the game to ensure that something happens. “The results of that are unpredictable and chaotic, but seldom boring”.
  • Colliding power hierarchies: games are implicitly zero-sum, with winners and losers. There’s easy dramatic tension from the possibility of rebellion, usurpation and succession.
  • Hidden narrative: secrets and puzzles combine to provide backstory
  • Play to win: players will try to achieve their character’s goals. Which they sneer at as gamism rather than a shortcut to drama.

So, the first discussion point is what do we do differently here? I can spot a couple of things. We’re not so big on power hierarchies, for a start. We have kings and things, but there’s not a great deal of ordering people about in-game. We do have conflicting groups/factions, and subgroups within them though, because its often an wasy way to write.

We’re not that big on run-time GMing. There are games which do, but there’s also a strong tendency to eschew it entirely, stepping back to a pure facilitation role (“does this thing on my character sheet mean what I think it means?”; “yes”). Personally, my goal as a GM is to be able to spend the entire game in a corner cackling to myself at the fun the players are having. The entire game should be on the character sheet, and I shouldn’t have to do anything after game start except refill the water jugs.

And I’m not so sure we’re that serious about “play to win” either. Yes, the GMs expect people to (at least initially) pursue the explicit or implicit goals on their character sheets - if only as an initial character motivation. But we also recognise that there’s a gap between character goals (I want to get away with murder) and player goals (I want to be taken down dramatically), and so we frequently have explicit advice to players that a “secret” on their character sheet is something you want to tell to everyone you possibly can within the bounds of dramatic plausibility (which requires steering). We also write goals to encourage action rather than inaction (“don’t get caught as the murderer” becomes “pin the murder on character X”), and write intentionally open goals to encourage introspection (“decide how you feel about Y”; “decide what to do about Z”).

The article has a good discussion of both the strengths and weaknesses of this design method. Strengths: easy mapping to common fictional types, produces good scenes for players, resilient (because plot is redundant). Weaknesses: players disabling each other’s plots, potential for monopolization, tension between “play to win” and “playing in-character”, non-functional characters. Most of which we would categorise as consequences of poor design. Monopolization is a sign that there is not enough plot, so everybody fights over it. Tension between IC and OOC goals is a sign of poorly written character motivations or poor goal specification; either write your characters so that they want to win (thus removing tension over strategic choice), or write them explicitly doubtful and turn that tension into a virtue. Non-functional characters are a sign of poor plot design, which we solve by making them relevant or by writing piles of soap opera (and we love our larp soap opera).

(Unmentioned weakness: Aristotelian curse. Still not sure what to do about that one in a short game yet, though the Czechs have suggested a partial solution for long games).

Second obvious discussion point (which I’ve addressed some of above): how do we avoid those weaknesses?

In Nordicland, these weaknesses (or, alternatively, a culture of poorly-designed larps) encouraged criticism, and a series of manifestoes which highlighted them and suggested alternatives. So we got Dogme which outlawed backstory, secrets, “main plot”, supporting characters and action (defined as “superficial”; fun is bad, m’kay?), targeting monopolization, non-functional characters and colliding power hierarchies. And we got Turku which outlawed props, mechanics and acting, and advocated immersion - targeting play to win and hierarchies. They threw away Brute Force Design and created a new larp subculture focused on minimalist and transparent design, producing games which were about IC introspection and bleed.

In New Zealand, we responded to those weaknesses by designing better larps.

Seriously. The larps we write now are on average better than the ones we wrote ten years ago, which were better in turn than the abortions I helped write ten years before that (which fortunately are lost to history). While we have hits and misses, we’ve learned more about what works and what doesn’t, and we’re better at avoiding the obvious pitfalls.

I don’t know how to end this post. But people might want to think about what problems we’ve missed, and how we might design around / to solve them.

[quote]In New Zealand, we responded to those weaknesses by designing better larps.
[/quote]

Yeah! We rock!

I like chaotic games with unpredictable endings.

Something I like to put into larger games are resource puzzles - either there’s a limited resource that several people want or there’s a Stone Soup - if several people (from different factions, ideally) combine their powers they can get something really cool.

It isn’t always successful - the Mad Science in Tesla’s Wedding never really took off; in Fragrant Harbour those blasted monks with the incense recipe put it together in, like, half an hour, the beggars. But the City Works plot in FH seemed to keep people involved pretty well.

Ideally, it gives factions a reason to talk with each other, and no easy answers.

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Giving the players a little meta-knowledge seemed to work well - letting them know there was a wedding ceremony in ten minutes and it was best to resolve plots by then, or whatever.

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And then there’s the eternal question of floater characters - the buffer you write for the inevitable last minute player drop-outs. They need to be able to be taken out of the game without ruining other people’s plots, but you want them to be engaging… The article didn’t really seem to cover this.

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(I’m not sure the games I write are the same genre as what they’re talking about, though - my ideal game is two hours long with a bit of scrap on each side for wind-in and wind-out. The difference in scale is staggering.)

There are games that manage to collapse the Aristotelian Conflict here by doing a few things that are mentioned in the article. ‘The Universe’ at Kapcon this year was structured in such a way that it explicitly would not offer closure. It was also a small game, which mitigates some of those issues more.
In contrast to this, ‘Crisis Point’ had a number of issues with the crescendo of action. We aimed to mitigate a lot of that by making a lot of those conflicts ‘soap-opera’, to use your term, Idiot, so that it was mostly only the end of the world that seemed to pile up particularly. Whether it worked, I’m not sure. The thing I took away from the game is that my GMing style has shifted markedly towards running things on the fly. I’m looking to move towards the type of GM style that you talked about - ideally, I’d love to sit in a corner and watch the game unfold, and for several reasons I can think of, that’s something I haven’t accomplished yet.

One idea that’s listed in the article, that for me is the ideal for a flagship game, is ‘distributing the climactic moments in time’. The article’s perspective on this seems to be that it’s something that needs to be cued. I think that many players actually have the instincts to end their stories when appropriate, and while the end of the LARP is always hectic, it’s less hectic because some players opt to have their climactic moments at about the two-thirds mark of the game, and spend the last little while exploring the emotional repercussions of the actions. The dramatic ‘I am your father’ moment becomes not the emotional climax, but rather an entrance point to a new narrative: the emotional drama of what has already befallen. One of the comments on the post discusses this: having the climax of the game at the midway point, and then having an entire day of play based on the fallout from that. I’ve noticed this is a common aspect of play in 33AR - a narrative climax towards the end, but an emotional climax earlier than that. Saturday is a day for plot; Sunday is a day for feels. I like it that way, as it allows players to get a greater grasp on their characters.

What I’m describing here is the same reason the incense in ‘Fragrant Harbour’ went so fast, I think, Catherine: I was driving that as quickly as I could because I wanted to start exploring the repercussions of Lightning creating the incense, rather than devoting the attention to the process of it. Finishing that incense would resolve the tensions between the groups of monks, give Lightning a sense of achievement so that he would feel capable of dealing with his romance, and generally open up a number of narrative options that could be explored however I wanted to. That said, I definitely know how ‘wonderful’ it is when players resolve your big thing in twenty minutes, so…

They’re really difficult to write. I found when adding characters to Flight of the Hindenburg (ones that I wasn’t sure would eventually be played) that non-reflexive plots worked. Find an existing plot. Work out an un-used angle on it that doesn’t particularly rely on the other characters knowing about it. That’s your floater. They’re the person who’s heard you pulled the heist and wants to nab the goods off you, or the one who is in faction A but has moral qualms and wants to be recruited as a spy (and has a plan of who to approach and what to offer - the other end doesn’t know the approach is coming, but if they follow their goals, they’ll involve the floater in their plots). It doesn’t work with all plots, but it can let you add a handful of characters to a big game.

(Little games are another story. I have a thing about not writing redundant characters, and about interweaving my plots like crazy. Which makes it very hard to cut people. Some modularity works, but its very difficult in a 15 - 20 player game, the size we usually write. When everyone is important, no-one can be sacrificed).

Its the design method, not size or length. They used it to write weekend-long games apparently. We use it to write 2-4 hour one-shots.

I should have put a big YMMV after those comments. It doesn’t work for all types of games, and its not what everyone wants to do, and that’s fine. Do what works for you. But I’m lazy, and I like to spend my GM time sitting on my arse.

That’s a really interesting point. Some of my favourite larp experiences have been playing the feels (being found out as a [SPOILER] in one game and dealing with the emotional repurcussions as it ruined my family relationships - that was great). There are clearly people who enjoy this, or play for it, so how can we support it? Write plots with aftermath (that don’t effectively remove you from play, but let you hang around in desolation)? Mention it in the briefing so people know they can steer for it? The Czechs used brute force in de la bete and scheduled people (break off your engagement with X by 3pm Saturday), but that seems artificial and dictatorial; we’d just write that as an immediate goal: “break off your engagement with X” and cue the player implicitly to do it quickly by providing a clear steer towards what happens afterwards - “so you can pursue your relationship with Y”. Not foolproof (nothing is), but it’d probably work.

[quote]What I’m describing here is the same reason the incense in ‘Fragrant Harbour’ went so fast, I think, Catherine: I was driving that as quickly as I could because I wanted to start exploring the repercussions of Lightning creating the incense, rather than devoting the attention to the process of it. Finishing that incense would resolve the tensions between the groups of monks, give Lightning a sense of achievement so that he would feel capable of dealing with his romance, and generally open up a number of narrative options that could be explored however I wanted to. That said, I definitely know how ‘wonderful’ it is when players resolve your big thing in twenty minutes, so…
[/quote]

Huh. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think I’m going to have to have a good think of how I structure games… (And no worries - I put in lots of plot threads as backup.)

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Oh - two mechanical tricks I found useful:

  • In the ‘hidden secrets’ category, attaching Item Cards with game mechanics to some of the props for Tesla’s Wedding gave a lot of hidden nooks that players could poke at without having to haul in the GM every damn time. Wouldn’t use this for every game, but certainly a keeper.

  • Player echelons! We did this in a rough kind of way for FH, a lot more formally in the second run of TW. In large games, it can actually be pretty awkward finding some character you’re supposed to have a lot of plot with, but you don’t recognise them - so I’ve spent time I could otherwise be roleplaying squinting at name badges. In TW I made up about five or six groups - based somewhat on who knew each other, and somewhat on who could plausibly have been travelling together - and marked them with a coloured sticker on the badges. So, a) at the start I could just ask the players to organise themselves (and they did) and get the groups to go in at a comfortable rate and b) the characters they saw in the first ten minutes or so, and formed a rapport with, were for the most part the ones they were interested in/had plot with/part of their posse. Definitely doing again.

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EDIT: Oh yes - if your character sheet, counting a cheat-sheet for background and any mechanics, doesn’t fit on one double-sided piece of paper, then you’re doing it wrong. (I prefer something I can fold into A5 size booklets - easier for players to handle. But YMMV.)

There are, quite simply, limits on how much information players can keep in mind and still hold any immersion.

One of the plotlines that often doesn’t work out well for me is the straight McGuffin plotline - you want this thing because you want it, and someone else also wants it because they want it. I’ve often ended up trudging around different people asking them if they know anything about X, being told no, and moving on without much roleplaying interaction. (This may be a comment about my investigation skills. :wink:) The variants that I’ve found more satisfying are Stone Soup like Cat was talking about; or an Anti McGuffin, where the player who starts with it wants to sell it or offload it for some reason, so they have an incentive to tell people about it; or a McGuffin Plus like Russ mentioned - once you’ve got the Thing, then something else interesting will happen. Or even just good information early in the game about where it is, so that the game is about how to get it, rather than where it is. Although from a design point of view, if the McGuffin Plus is set up as a PVP plot, the writer needs to be OK without it activating - I remember in the second run of Hindenburg there was a player who was very successful at blocking another player who was trying to perform a ritual, so a particular dramatic scene didn’t happen.

And I like the Freeform Games I’ve seen, which have a lot of emphasis on making information available early in the game - so techniques like giving people rumours that they should tell someone in the first 20 minutes, and a running news service giving out bulletins through the game, and lots of information gathering abilities, and even suggestions on character sheets about “Why don’t you go talk to this character?” that will prime a useful encounter.

Other things I find useful:

  • Offloading as many GM-mediated tasks as possible (either simple rules, or game mechanics/information attached to an item, or background info stuck to the wall where people can check for details they forgot). It can take a lot of time to hunt down a GM, wait in line, and then ask them for information or to make a rules decision.
  • Putting GM-staged events early in the game. This lets them act as a warm up for the players who are still getting in character. Later staged events should be either very brief in time, or off to the side of the larp space and optional, because they block up player movement right when they’re trying to tie off the loose ends of their plots.
  • Pick an issue (historical, philosophical, whatever you’re interested.) Write a character who exemplifies every point of view you can think of. Instant tension and drama!
  • Give people opportunities to look for emotional resolution rather than scoring points against each other. And open ended problems - you know there’s a solution they could find in the game, but if they think up some other solution more power to them.

Also, I dislike the term “brute force design”. I think it’s a very disparaging way of talking about a design style. YMMV.

So come up with a better one and propagate it. Until then we’re stuck with a Nordic straw-man label.

(Fair Escape’s “Pop-larp” isn’t quite right; its describing the product, not the design method)

And that’s good advice on McGuffins. Personally, I like McGuffins that do things (possibly unknown to the current owner). A key component in a ritual, key information that will lead to more plot, an item with special powers… I also love sticking the rules on the item (and having items around the venue with rules stuck to them) to keep GM workload down.

I call it the “tangled web”. To get across the built-in inter-connectivity and the intrigue at the same time.

Which is kinda pejorative too, now that I think about it. Sounds like a random mess. :wink:

So come up with a better one and propagate it. Until then we’re stuck with a Nordic straw-man label.
[/quote]

“Panoramic larp” -

Authored design? The game is written both before and possibly (responsively) during by the GM(s).

I always thought of them as “intrigue larps”. The main activity in the game is people finding out information, acquiring things from each other, and making deals. (And falling in love, gambling, grieving over a death etc.)

Compared to the kind of larp where everyone is dealing with a negative external event (eg “you’re all locked in a submarine and everyone else in the world got killed by a nuclear bomb”, “you’ve all been drafted and this is the hour before you start basic”, “zombies!”) What would you call that? Experiential?

And then the rarer kind, where the structure of the game comes from a positive creative activity. Ryan’s meditation group game from years ago was like that. And someone wrote a Rock Band game (was it Mike Curtis?), and Hannah’s BDL One Act Play game. The structure of the game comes from the activity, and the characterisation and roleplaying fits in around that. It’s a different writing style again, the way I think about it.

The thing about “panoramic” is it a) covers the sense of scope, b) implies that the work is based on a theme, and c) a good panorama is busy - it isn’t just sight-lines and perspective tricks to make your focus point more focal - everywhere you look there’s something going on. In a panoramic shot, if there’s a field tucked in somewhere, it’s a jolly good field, a field with dramatic intensity. A good larp of the kind we’re talking about will give weight and interest to Spear-Carrier #3 as well as The Evil Queen. “Panorama” implies that.

Again I think we need to seperate the design method (“throw lots of plot at the players and see which ones they go for”) from the end product (a larp primarily about intrigue - though that tends to be a feature; a larp with lots of little detail - though that would be an example of good design). And when thinking about it, its also important to acknowledge that this technique can lead to bad larps - ones which don’t have enough plot, with goals poorly aligned to characters etc (its just that we write less of those now than we used to, I think).

“Authored” design isn’t bad, as it stresses a core feature: all the design work is done upfront by the authors, rather than e.g. in a workshop (or in play) by the players. All the plot is seeded in advance. Front-end design? Pre-seeded design? Pre-loaded design?

Steph: I think I described BNLAE as an experiential larp, because it seemed primarily to be about recapturing the experience of being a small child. But again that’s a result not a design methodology. BNLAE is recognisably a pre-loaded design with events to drive the experience.

There may however be interesting thoughts to be thunk about character- vs event-driven larps (where the pre-loading is done), and I think there’s a contrasting “situation-based” design methodology where you don’t preload the characters with plot (and maybe not even think of them at all as part of your design process, beyond specifying certain broad parameters that the players need to comply with during character creation e.g. ordinary people living ordinary lives on an ordinary street in smalltown USA in October 1962; gay men in NYC in the early 80’s; refugees who have made it to Australia on a boat from NZ). The plot isn’t pre-seeded in the characters; instead the game is about how the characters react to the situation they’re in. Lots of Nordic games seem to use this method.

Ooh, the good old discussion over nomenclature. :slight_smile: (I like the term “front end design” Idiot, BTW).

So here’s my suggestion.

Axis 1: Writing Method
Front End Design - larp with prewritten characters, possibly GM scheduled events
.
Hybrids - GMs define the setting and rules and maybe NPCs, players make up their own characters, as usually happens in a live action campaign
- GMs prewrite characters in a theatre-style game and then ask the players to personalise them eg Dread-style "answer these questions about your character
.
Player Led Design - in the pure form, the GMs provide the mechanism of the game, but everything else is generated by the players, maybe in a pregame workshop, maybe in discussions before the game. Think story games, like Shoshana Kessockk’s Dangers Untold larp or the Nordic art larp scene.

Axis 2 - Game Style
Panorama - eg a Kapcon flagship. The game is all things to all people, with a mix of intrigue, emotional, comedy, exploration and what have you plotlines
.
Intrigue - a game primarily about discovery of information and making deals
.
Situational - the interest of the game comes from the setting, it usually starts with a Bang trigger from the GM eg you’re in a submarine and the world has just ended. You’re locked in a room and there are zombies outside! You’re a gay man in the 80s and the AIDS epidemic has started. What do you do?
.
Experiential - the interest of the game comes from an activity that has been preloaded by the GMs eg kid’s birthday party, acting competition, rock band - the roleplaying will happen in the interstices of the activity.

Plus lots of hybrid games that combine multiple approaches.

Thoughts? (I may be having a boring day at work today…)

[quote=“Stephanie”]Axis 1: Writing Method
Front End Design - larp with prewritten characters, possibly GM scheduled events
.
Hybrids - GMs define the setting and rules and maybe NPCs, players make up their own characters, as usually happens in a live action campaign
- GMs prewrite characters in a theatre-style game and then ask the players to personalise them eg Dread-style "answer these questions about your character
.
Player Led Design - in the pure form, the GMs provide the mechanism of the game, but everything else is generated by the players, maybe in a pregame workshop, maybe in discussions before the game. Think story games, like Shoshana Kessockk’s Dangers Untold larp or the Nordic art larp scene.[/quote]

This combines two things which can be controlled seperately: setting and characters. In your classic preloaded theatre-style larp, the GM controls both. In a Nordic art larp, or your standard fantasy boffer campaign, the GM controls the setting, but the characters (with various degrees of constraint) are designed by the players (through workshops, pre-game submissions etc). Some tabletop storygames put the setting in the player’s hands as well; Dangers Untold doing this wouldn’t surprise me, since it struck me as a tabletop story game done standing up (and thus wasn’t very interesting to me).

The game styles don’t seem to be an axis so much as a collection of different things (to which we can add Amnesia games, waiting games, horde games, tale-telling games…)