Gamemastering, Role-playing Games

In LARP, we are never agreeing to CvC

What’s going on surrounding the drama of character conflict and death in Vampire LARP is based in a deeper issue about what a LARP or an RPG is.

“By making a character, you agree to CvC.”

This is a pretty old refrain in every game with permadeath, and I’ve heard it in everything from Vampire to boffer. CvC stands for ‘character vs. character conflict’, also known as PvP for ‘player vs player’, and is usually used in terms of characters being killed by other player character. But I am not actually agreeing to CvC. Neither are you. None of us are.

Not boundless CvC.

When you play a LARP or any RPG, you are agreeing to participate in a shared fantasy with common standards. A fantasy without common standards isn’t really shared. There’s a cool book by Gary Alan Fine called Shared Fantasies published in 1983. It is one of the first serious academic books on RPGs. He identifies the following as a core component of what makes an RPG function –

“Because gaming fantasy is based in shared experience, it must be constructed through communication. This communication is possible only when a shared set of references are available and exist for key images; and a clear set of expectations exist for which actions are legitimate.”

– Shared Fantasies: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds

When we agree to play Vampire the Masquerade, Monsterhearts or Bunnies and Burrows, we are agreeing to participate in a shared fantasy world with a set of expectations and references determined by the source material and the staff. One of those expectations in Vampire is the possibility of legitimate character death. But it is not the only expectation, and that word legitimate is really important. If other expectations are violated and those key references aren’t upheld, everything risks being delegitimized.

So, no, we aren’t agreeing to CvC. We’re agreeing to a shared world that includes CvC but where there are expectations as much on the aggressor as anyone else to uphold all the other key expectations of the shared fantasy world. When someone believes these expectations are violated and that leads to a character death, it delegitimizes the death in their mind.

And that’s when the problem starts.

Artistic depiction of what’s about to happen after a delegitimized character death. Except with more typing and manifestos, like this one!

If you want the crunchy bit of the rules as the only shared consensus, that’s fine. But nothing about Vampire the Masquerade sells the game as a sport with no other expectations. What it does sell itself as is a byzantine political drama and undead soap opera. While death is accepted, it is only accepted within the context of those references and expectations by a large number of players.

Ludonarrative Dissonance and Breaking the Contract

Ninety percent of the drama I see in LARP is from a fun vocab word – ludonarrative dissonance, when the realities and rules of the game do not match the expectations set for the story being told. The other ten percent are unpopular or unlikely shifts in the narrative in a way that seriously alters the experiences of the players, or just conflicts of personality.

To reduce ludonarrative dissonance, it’s not about banning CvC or allowing only consensual character death. It is about analyzing and clearly setting the expectations of the shared fantasy you are creating with each other. It means educating the players and reiterating those expectations to players that violate them, and in some cases, removing them if they are unable to abide by the shared fantasy you are trying to create.

In the original blog post that coined the term ludonarrative dissonance, Clint Hocking says that a game makes two contracts with the player – the ludic contract and the narrative contract. The ludic contract defines what are viable courses of action within the rules. The narrative contract defines what the fiction we are creating is. You have to have both to have a role-playing game.

So if the only expectations you want to exist are the crunchy rules, where only the ludic contract is honored, you are going to be in for a rocky ride. The audience for that is actually quite small. Competitive sheet building with pro-wrestling style shit-talking weirdly laced with game world terminology isn’t much of a role-playing game. It’s like curling – it strains to be interesting as a sport and its appeal is confusing to outsiders. And like curling, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s for a rather niche audience and I’m wondering why it is being featured so prominently sometimes.

I guess this is blockbuster curling, or maybe regional event curling. But no amount of cool lighting from the convention staff is gonna make me understand the appeal. Televised curling just confuses me, okay?

If you violate the narrative reference points for a player, you will be just as much as a cheater in their mind as if you lied about what’s on your sheet. You have broken the narrative contract that they made when they invested time and energy into the game. It might not be fair, but that is what is going to happen. You will be the bad guy, the person who not only broke a deal but never got punished for it.

Chimpanzees beat the crap out of each other for things like that. It’s deep in our social instincts to seek disproportionate amounts of retribution for those who get away with breaking the social expectations and rules of a group. Especially when a deal is broken. We go full Thunderdome.

And saying you don’t like it and it shouldn’t happen isn’t going to stop the fundamental anger and social reprisal from happening. But upholding, reinforcing and communicating the other expectations of the game will help more than anything else will. Especially when the narrative contract tells you what you cannot do, beyond what is just on a sheet or in the rulebook.

Matthew Webb organizes live action roleplaying (LARP) events with his team at Jackalope Live Action Studios in Austin, TX. He can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Learn about their upcoming events by following Jackalope Live Action Studios on Twitter (@JackalopeLARP) and Facebook. All opinions here are his and his alone.

Game Design, Gamemastering, Gaming

You don’t design games, no one does

Featuring a completely contrived but interesting Four Layer Model for Gameplay

So, I create LARP experiences, design games and the like. That means I think a lot about what makes something a game, and I like teasing out how systems work. Sometimes I do this just for fun, and sometimes it reveals some important things we should keep in mind when we are designing, running and playing games with each other, since there are some great games as World of Warcraft which people enjoy a lot, and they even buy wow classic gold at https://gold4vanilla.com to get items in these games.

This is one of those books that either eats your brain or puts you to sleep in 5 minutes. Your mileage may vary.

A few years ago, I started unpacking the difference between a system and a game after reading the seminal and amazing book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a weighty 777 page tome about mathematics, rules and the nature of systems. And in spinning out these ideas, I came up with some categories of what goes into designing and playing a game. And I came to a beautifully weird conclusion

I don’t design games. No one designs games.

We design systems – and we might suggest, cajole, pressure and clear our throats while nudging our head in the direction of how they might be turned into a game. But only a player can choose which game they play, at brightrozee.com you can learn about the best laptops for gamers and developers.

Beyond that, as a designer, I’m powerless. And that’s wonderfully humbling and utterly frightening.

Unpacking the Game Box

Now, going up to a game designer and telling them they don’t design games is a pretty bold move. It depends on a lot of definitions of what a game means, what rules mean, what a system means; and my choices of definitions here are just one option among many. But I think they tell us something useful about how playing games really works.

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Game Design, LARP, Role-playing Games

The LARP Antagonist’s Oath

What is an Antagonist?

A protagonist and his or her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

– Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Antagonists are not just villains.

An antagonist is any character which is defined by their opposition to characters, or by creating obstacles and pressures for other characters. They can even be allies, but they exist to push a character’s limits or challenge their assumptions. They create growth and story.

The best antagonists are not limited in the physical or political conflict they create. They create conflicts in the minds of others – moral challenges and inner choices. They are the fuel of another’s character story engine. The challenge they present is meant to taken on and result in a better story.

LARP’s Unique Player Antagonists

The traditional role of the antagonist relies on the existence of clear protagonists on a journey for the antagonist to complicate and oppose. The antagonist can be a guidepost for the story, with other characters growing in relation to them. The antagonist can still develop as a character, but they do not grow with the same visible force and focus as the protagonist.

But in LARP, there is no clear single story. There is no camera following about one particular group around. There are often dozens if not hundreds of players involved in a LARP game.

So, every player might be someone’s antagonist, even though they are pursuing their own arc and story. True, a gamemaster might set up a major plot with an explicit NPC antagonist by which all players must struggle against. But there is another type of antagonist in LARP – the player antagonist, the character designed and destined to be a provocative force in a game.

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