Archive for May, 2010

Developing Local Culture

NERO’s primary advantage over other LARPs is its gigantic collaborative setting. Every NERO chapter represents a location somewhere in the world of Tyrra (specifically, the continent of Avalon). Your character can travel all over the country, experiencing Avalonian culture one kingdom at a time. In this post, we’ll talk about things which bring Tyrran culture to life.

Avalonian Coherency

Avalonian culture emerges from the reference points which each chapter shares. If you’re a knight in Ravenholt, people in Therendry understand and respect the trials you went through to be knighted. You can meet members of a healer’s guild in almost every chapter. All the Evendarrian chapters share a King. During a NERO weekend, you’ll hang out at a tavern, go on adventures, slay monsters, find treasure, and participate in plotlines. When you talk to other NERO players, you’ll have similar experiences no matter where they play.

Local Flavor

Over time, each chapter also develops its own distinct culture. In one chapter, nobility is treated very formally. In another chapter, necromancy isn’t such a big deal. Somewhere else, goblins are actually kind of friendly. This is cool because it gives players something to reference when referring to places they visited. The distinction between areas gives each location its own unique flavor.

I encourage people to develop local cultures – so long as it doesn’t vary too far from Avalonian coherency. By cooperating with other players, you can create traditions or fashions by which your chapter will be known. Here are a simple few things which can really bring a local culture to life.

  • Slang: develop greetings, nicknames for certain races, or other local expressions. When people travel to your chapter, they’ll notice that people talk differently there, much like how slang develops in the real world. For example, in Greyhelm, people greet each other by saying Salud. In the Sutherlands, a gold piece is always referred to as a crown and a platinum is called a tenner.
  • Fashion: try to get as many locals of possible to wear similar costume pieces. Perhaps people from the Dragonlands tie their wrap pants at the calf. Perhaps people in the Hinterlands tend to wear long scarves. Maybe there’s a particular pin, badge, sash, or amulet that denotes you live in Tyrangel. Perhaps a particular style of mantle or half-cape is preferred by the people of Ravenholt. Everybody who fought in the war of against the archlich honors the fallen by wearing or carrying a beaded bracelet.
  • Weapon Design: encourage people in your chapter to adapt weapon construction customs. Maybe swords from Kaurath have a particular style of cross guard. Or Voltan shields are of a certain color or shape. The people of Hawthorne’s Bluff like a short gold tassle to hang from their weapon’s pommel. All visitors are welcomed by being given a tassle for their swords.
  • Gestures: people from Elan salute by bowing at the waist. People from Greyhorn salute by putting their fist over their heart. People from Ashbury shake hands at the wrist. People from Nevermore always kneel on their left knee.
  • Holidays: Once a year, everybody in Dragonaire celebrates the Duchy’s founding by giving gifts to one another. In Whitestone, it is traditional to plant a flower or tree during the first autumn event. In Avendale, there is a public hunt in the spring, in which a stag is released into the woods and chased down by the locals. Whoever fells the beats (without killing it) may sit at the noble table at the feast that evening.
  • Food: Develop local favorite dishes and serve them up in the tavern. If possible, utilize food which theoretically could be farmed in that region.

Building on a Foundation

Although a chapter’s plot team manages the basic information about a game’s setting, the culture is sustained by its players. Each of us is responsible for highlighting or accenting what we think is cool about playing there.

Whenever possible, enrich the setting by participating in it.

  • Pass on information about the setting, referencing it in your stories and conversations. For example, if you’ve heard that Avendale City is a very well-to-do place, you could tell a story about the ritzy tavern you visited while you were there. This helps everybody develop a similar impression of the area.
  • When you give an account of something that happened, build in more detail, enriching the setting through retelling. In LARPs one is often asked to pretend that a barn is actually a cave or a spooky dungeon. When you tell stories about the cave, add details which make it sound like you were really in a cave, such as the temperature, the darkness, or the odd smelling mold. You may not have had an authentic cave experience, but vivid descriptions help others imagine you did.
  • Don’t be afraid to start any of the above flavor suggestions. And be sure to participate when others try to start their own.

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“But Is It Fun?”

“Is this going to be fun?” is the most important litmus test for anything you run at a LARP.

Your plot, encounter, or NPC may be pretty epic and cool in your head, but it’s possible that you are ignoring how players will experience it.

Keep in mind that players come to the game with a spectrum of motivations. Some love story, some love overcoming challenges, some love treasure, some just love being in their character’s headspace. As such, your content needs to include rewards for numerous play styles.

For example, you may be writing an encounter in which the players finally meet the NPC they’ve been looking for, and he imparts a wealth of knowledge onto them. In the script, you’ve blocked out two hours for roleplay with this NPC.

In practice, a few of the players will want to interact with the NPC, and the rest will probably hang out  and wait for something more their speed. Is this two hour long dialogue going to be any fun for them? But if wandering monsters attack the area while the dialogue is going on, you’ve introduced a tactical element to the encounter which will entertain those seeking more visceral rewards.

If your encounter isn’t fun, it doesn’t matter that your plot is engaging, the monsters are well costumed, or that the rewards are glorious. The players will react with boredom or frustration.

Too much of any one thing is not fun.  A weekend packed with mindless battles can be as boring as a weekend with no battles at all. Being kidnapped, stricken by disease, or trapped somewhere can rapidly become monotonous. If your script includes the words “the players do X for Y hours”, go back to the drawing board.

LARP is both a form of gaming and theater. As such, it’s about experiencing something (as opposed to hearing a narration about it). Focus your efforts on making the players’ experience as fun, memorable, and interesting as possible. The best way to do this is to hold each plotline under a magnifying glass to see how fun its parts are.

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National Staff: A Guide

This post is intended for new NERO National staff members.

Hi and Welcome to national staff!  First, we’ll talk about what national staff actually is, and then I’ll warn you about some of the pitfalls you’re about to encounter.

The “National Staff Member” is one of the most misunderstood characters in NERO’s Out-Of-Game Cosmology. National Staff members are selected by the owner, Joe Valenti, to complete a task or advance a project. This is all that national staff really means – Joe trusts you to make NERO better in some capacity. We all think that NERO isn’t reaching its potential yet, but we disagree about nearly everything else. We don’t have an e-mail list, we don’t meet face to face, and we don’t have any special super powers.

As a national staff member, you might be tasked with writing documents, collaborating with chapter level staff members, or developing some aspect of the game. At game-time, you might be play certain NPCs or coordinate plotlines.

Rewards: Your compensation for these herculean tasks is goblin points. As a fairly advanced NERO member, you probably already understand what a joke these are – you are essentially trading real labor for a tiny amount of power in an imaginary universe. At a certain point, XP is a poor reward. So in order to remain motivated, you need to focus on the real fruit of your labors, that your actions improve NERO. What we do creates cool, memorable experiences for our audience. If you get a kick out of this, you’ll be fine. If you expect fame, fortune, or status, you will be let down.

The Pitfalls

There are  two major things which will get in your way.

Hurricane Valenti – Joe V, known casually to his friends as “The Destructor”, is a chaotic force. Anyone that has met him will attest to the phenomenal amount of energy which pours out of him at every waking moment. In addition to working a full time day job, Joe runs the company himself,  so he needs to be on a million different pages at once. This makes it difficult for him to focus – he is usually putting out fires and cannot spend too much time on minutia. This is where the national staff comes in.

It is said that there are two types of NERO staff members: those that can work with Joe V and those that cannot.  He has a strong personality, and that leads to rather polarized reactions to him. He often changes his mind, changes direction, or otherwise befuddles those who are working under him. If you are not prepared for this, it may be jarring.

Joe draws a lot of aggro – that is, when somebody dislikes him, you will often be included. People who are biased against Joe V will actively work against you, even if their issue has little or nothing to do with your project. This stems from the misconception that the national staff is a unified team synonymous with Joe’s will, and not a bunch of ad-hoc project managers. As a staff member, you must accept this chaos as part of the job description.

The Haters – Oddly enough, the largest obstacle to “fixing” NERO is often its own players and chapter owners. There are a lot of people out there who have a bad impression of or relationship with the national organization, and will try to resist or obstruct anything it produces. Ironically, these are the same people whose game you are trying to improve.

Whenever you are doing something which affects  a large number of people, some of them will dislike it. This should not be surprising – you cannot please everybody, especially NERO players with strong opinions. Even if your project is awesome, some people will regard it with hostility or suspicion and will take it out on you personally. You will be flamed. You will be trash talked on public Internet forums and in private conversations. You will be accused of doing things to benefit your character. They will react to relatively minor things with a disproportionate amount of vitriol. These people’s goal is to get you to stop doing what you are doing.

NERO is a large organization, and as such, it has a lot of institutional resistance to change.  Any time you change something, there will be a group of people who feel like you’ve just slain their sacred cow. Some of them will have a lot of trouble dealing with this. They’ll injecting as much emotion and toxicity into the discussion as possible, polluting any chance to have an honest discussion.

This is why there has been a ten year gap between the 8th edition and 9th edition of NERO rules. It’s not that we didn’t want to keep making improvements to NERO, it’s that it is very challenging to make changes to any large system. There are people with a vested interest in keeping NERO the way it is right now. They do not understand that National is on their team, and will bitterly and stubbornly resist anything it does.

For example, a few years back, I’d been working on a book called the Guide to Tyrra. One of the sections, “Places of Tyrra”, was supposed to include a few paragraphs about every NERO chapter. The goal was to put each chapter in a global context, thereby making our 40+ chapter setting a bit more coherent and tangible.  Trying to get information from local staff members was like pulling teeth. Many regarded me with suspicion or outright hostility. Few cooperated. When I passed around the first draft for comments, I received angry e-mails from staff members about how I was intentionally mischaracterizing their chapter. Even upon request, most offered no constructive advice about how to improve the entry on their chapter, and in some cases demanded that I delete the entry entirely. One chapter owner sent out a mass e-mail which advised chapters to not cooperate or participate in the Guide. I am sad to confess that I stopped working on it that day. This is why NERO can’t have nice things.

Sometimes you will feel like you are perceived as this corrupt force whose goal is to invade and screw up local games. The national staff is often characterized as a shadowy group of villains (or incompetents) who sit around a table, smoking cigars and planning how to make NERO worse.  Sadly, this mischaracterization is often propagated by the players who love NERO the most.

There is a rather predictable cycle of participation at the top tiers of NERO. Remember how I said that there are two types of NERO staff members? The ones who cannot work with Joe V become frustrated that he does not share their vision, and often spend their energy working against him and his projects. Usually, the biggest opponents of NERO are the ones with the most invested in it (such as chapter owners).  When someone pours a lot of time and effort into the game, it’s easy for them to become frustrated that it’s not developing in the way they’d prefer. Rather than channeling this energy in productive or creative ways, they attempt to undermine or destroy the forces of change. I have seen this happen to dozens of people. They love NERO so much that they feel they must destroy it.

How to deal with it?

The silver lining is that the haters are not in the majority. 80% of the complaints are generated by less than 20% of the players and chapter owners. Most people are happy to see new energy and new momentum in the game and are willing to support you.

For the most part, it’s best to avoid engaging people who will steal your energy. Respond to legitimate discussion, but ignore hostility or closed minded opposition. Spend your time focusing on how you can be the force of positive change, don’t let yourself get drawn into nitpicking or arguments. NERO is a pretty resilient organization, it will survive even if your project doesn’t pan out how it was intended. There are no good or bad changes – every change has subjective degrees of both. The important thing is to maintain your positive energy and keep your distance from those who try to deplete it.

And luckily, most of the interactions between the NERO staff and the NERO playerbase are quite positive. NERO is so awesome because its players are awesome. But if you’ve ever run an event, you know that once in a while, there’s a player who is doing their damnedest to have a bad time. If you focus too closely on those players, you’ll lose sight of the people who appreciate your efforts.

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