Archive for April, 2011

Making The Membership Fee Work For Your Chapter

NERO National recently announced that it is reinstating the annual $15 NERO membership fee. Noah Mason posted  here  about the need for a fee, and Bill Tobin addresses some of the critiques about it here. Rather than talking about the pros and cons of the fee itself, I’d like to brainstorm some ways that you (as a game director) might be able to retain your players and soothe some of the [understandable!] frustration surrounding annual dues. Think about it this way: if you implement a plan to help cover your players membership fee, it could actually draw people to your chapter.

  • Reimburse players for their membership fee after they’ve attended at least three of your events during a calendar year. (make sure to communicate with other nearby chapters who might be using this promotion so that players don’t get reimbursed multiple times!) This rewards loyal players and incentives repeat customers.
  • Some players feel it’s unreasonable to pay two different membership fees. If you charge a local membership fee for insurance and database access, roll this price into the cost of your event ticket instead. That way, players are only paying for one membership and won’t be tempted to move to another chapter to avoid your local fee.
  • Plan a local membership drive. This could be a great opportunity for community-building. Host a movie, pizza, or game night and charge everybody five bucks to attend. This money can be put towards poor college kids, NPCs showing up to check out the game, first time players, or other people for whom $15 a year is a dealbreaker. People who are generous enough to donate straight into the fund should be blasted in the face with goblin points and regarded as local heroes.
  • Pay your players’ dues if they donate $15 worth of props, costume, spell packets, food, or other goods that you would otherwise have to buy. For example, a player could bake a bunch of pies and serve dessert to everybody in trade for their membership dues.  This way, you’ve made the membership fee pay for a direct and visible benefit to your game.

Any other constructive ideas? Leave a comment and share!

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Plot as an Expression of Community

Back in 2006, I played a gigantic German LARP with Noah Mason and Joe Valenti called ConQuest Mythodea. We stayed with this Sicilian order of paladins called the Ordo Solis. They had a great attitude which I wish I could bring into NERO.

The head of this giant team explained to me that they got kind of bored with the one-sidedness of many RPGs… you have a Dungeon Master or director, and he comes up with a story and scenario. In his story, the players are both the characters  and audience. As a player, you’re mostly limited to responding to the plot being run for you. But eventually you may want something that the script can’t offer. You often need to find rewards outside of the plot.

The Ordo Solis solution is to create a team (with like 40+ people) which has its own internal hierarchy, its own quests and missions, its own rituals and customs, sub factions, a unique religion … basically an entire paladin culture. If they go to a bad game, they’ll still have an entire weekend of LARP plot which they can feed each other. Once a year they go on a week long in-game camping trip – with no hierarchical plot or scripted combat – just because they have so much fun being part of the group.

The more I think about our form of theater, the more I think it’s wrong to put a small group of staff members at the nucleus of the game. When a staff member gets burned out and hits the eject button, there’s a big hole left at the chapter. NPCs disappear. Plot threads get cut. The game suffers for the absence.

Each chapter is really two organisms – a business and a community. You need the business end in order to rent the campsite, buy the props, make sure there’s food, print the tags, update the characters, all that jazz. But I think the game’s content should be more of a product of the community.

If you’re a PC at a weekend, and you have an idea for an encounter or character or something that would make the event more fun or interesting, I think you should be able to walk into NPC camp and get the resources to execute it. If the staff is willing to work with players who want to improvise, then you may get an event where everybody is entertaining each other — instead of waiting bored in the tavern for the next NPC hook to come out.

Part of our model is that when you pay to PC, you expect that you’ll get to go on plot and modules. And this makes many people assume that running plot and modules is labor, it’s the crappy job that you do when you can’t afford to PC. And I think that’s a bad attitude – a lot of people would have fun running plot, but we mystify it and make it opaque. We treat staff like an elite club, the wizards behind the curtain. There’s this myth that staff members need to be A-Game NERO players who commit to running years of plot. I think it’s okay for anybody to try their hand at running something, even if it’s something really small.

I’m surprised that more people don’t know this: the people who have the most fun at an event are the people who entertained others.
Up here in New England, if you line everybody up and point to somebody at random, there’s a good chance you’re pointing to a former staff member. A lot of chapters are having trouble finding staff members because everybody’s so jaded and burnt out. Of COURSE people don’t want to sign up – permanently staffing a chapter is a HUGE commitment! It takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and you sometimes have to meet absurd expectations.

I like to imagine a game where the event cost isn’t paying for the staff’s performance, it’s paying for access to this really exciting community where everybody’s entertaining each other. I envision a tradition of plot/NPC reciprocity. Maybe a player would say to his friend, “Tell you what, I’ll come in for an hour as your long-lost brother if you’ll play my apprentice during the feast.” Or: “That guy over there looks really bored, let’s come up with a quest we can give him.”

I’m sure we could come up with some kind of incentive to encourage players to take an active hand in making the event fun for everybody. Maybe that’s a better way of maxing out… instead of turning in silver at check-out, you have to create content for others during the game. If you run a module or encounter, you get the participants to initial your card. If you get three sets of initials, you’re maxed out.

In the D&D 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide II, there are a lot of great notes about collaborative plot. If a player asks the DM, “What’s the nearest town to the west of here?” the DM should be comfortable saying, “You tell me!” — and then building on the response and weaving it into the ongoing story.  It’s okay to give your players some control over the plot and the setting, it makes them feel invested, like they own it too. This attitude of collaboration turns an RPG plot into a true group storytelling experience rather than a one-way transmission from director to audience.

Food for thought.

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National Plot: The Local Impact Model

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about National Plot. I’ve come up something tentatively called the Local Impact Model.  It might be a more efficient way of running large-scale plot for a big game like NERO.

There are 40+ chapters of NERO which all exist in the same world. Each chapter has its own plot team. There is also a “national” plot team which theoretically manages the overall setting and some plot lines which take place in multiple chapters at once.

In the past, this has been somewhat inefficient. It requires national staff members to travel all over the country to run plot, and it requires that local chapters be receptive to it. These are both problematic. We’ve tried a number of ways to make it smoother, but running plot in more than one chapter, let alone 40 chapters, is always a logistical nightmare.

For example, I recently found out that there was a drought in the year 609. The plane of water was damaged by something that happened during a national plot line, and it had consequences all over Avalon. But I wasn’t playing at one of the chapters that featured this plot, so I had no idea. I think there’s probably a better way to present a world event!

So let’s step back a bit and take a look at what National Plot should do…

  1. National plot lines should create shared experiences in all participating chapters. This heightens a sense of common culture. Certain current events should affect everybody in the world, and this will theoretically add to the sense that our world is a real place. A player from Pennsylvania should be able to talk to a player from Ohio and say “Remember the earthquake of 612?” and the other player will say, “Yeah, one of our barons died in that earthquake.” They have unique experiences connected by a common event.
  2. National plotlines should make the actions of players outside of your chapter directly relevant to you. As is, there is little reason to gossip about things that happen outside of your chapter. People may slay a dragon in Atlanta, but we won’t hear about it in the northeast unless somebody was actually there. I think that a well organized National plotline should make you care about how players in other chapters have solved their problems. If you travel to other chapters running the plotline, you will be able to impact things on a really large scale.

I’ve come up with a model for National Plot which addresses these things. In one sentence, the Local Impact Model of plot involves distributing a standard module which can be run in any NERO chapter and allows players to vote on the plotline’s outcome. I am posting about here to initiate a discussion about it. I’d love to hear your constructive feedback.

More below the break…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Reppin’

I’m amused by LARP slang. I love how each region has its own body of terms and buzz words.

There are two pieces of LARP jargon, however, that I want to vent about briefly. This is a pet peeve, not a big deal, but I want to say it…

The first occurs in the question, “Do you have First Aid?” This peculiar phrasing makes sense to us because of the way we build characters. You “buy” skills like First Aid, and then you either have them or you don’t. But from our character’s point of view, there is no character sheet.  You don’t “have” First Aid, you know it. Whenever somebody asks me, “How many levels of formal magic do you have?” or “How many proficiencies do you have?” I’m tempted to check my pockets.

The second piece of jargon is “physical representation”, often abbreviated to “physrep” or just “rep”. One the surface, it makes sense. The weapon sheathed at your side made of kitespar and tape isn’t really a sword, it represents a sword. It is a “sword rep”. Here, the word rep is referring to a physical object which exists in the real world, an object which signifies a real sword in the world we’re mutually imagining.

The same concepts exists in the theatrical world. It’s called a “prop”. If somebody in a play has a gun in their hand, it’s probably just a prop representing a gun.  But would the actors call it a gun rep? No, they’d either call it a prop, or just call it a gun. And the people in the play’s universe would never call it a prop.

Our usage of the word rep is inappropriate when we use it to refer to things which don’t need a stand-in prop to represent them. For example, the spell circle of power requires that you draw a circle on the ground to mark the border of the spell. In the common vernacular, this real line on the ground is called a circle rep. It often refers to a length of rope or wire which is used as the material component for the spell. You hear players ask, “Can I borrow your circle rep?” or “Which side of the rep are you on?”

In that context, what is the piece of rope representing? It’s representing itself! It’s an indexical prop (see p211) and doesn’t need the clunky “physrep” jargon. It is something that exists in the same form inside and outside of the imaginary universe. Our characters really are carrying around lengths of rope and wire, they are not “reps” for anything.

Like I said, these are little pet peeves, not really a big deal. They bug me because they are out-of-game language which constantly creep into in-game conversations. They draw my attention to the fact that I’m playing a game. To me, it’s sort of like if you’re watching a horror movie, and you’re really in the moment, and the guy next to you leans over and says “Relax, it’s just a movie.” I know that, but I’m trying to ignore it!

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Annual Dues and What National Does

National plans to reinstate annual membership dues. This is causing quite a stir in some groups, so I thought it would be useful to describe some of what National does, and what they plan to do moving forward. Here is a brief summary of what National currently does for the players:

  1. Produce and release the rulebook. We have the best looking rulebook of any larp in the country. Additionally, every Nero member gets a free download of the current book. For professional quality production and design we need to pay real money. For 9th Edition Joe had to pay for all of this out-of-pocket. They want to continue to develop and revise the rulebook and publish additional supplements and source books over time, but they can not do that without additional revenue. If you want nice books like this, you need to pay for membership so National can pay its staff.
  2. Advertising in magazines and on the web. While each local chapter does their own marketing as well, the National marketing initiatives attract new players at other chapters which we all get to meet and play with both when they travel to our game and when we travel to theirs.
  3. Marketing at conventions. This is something that National traditionally had done every year but was forced to cancel when they stopped collecting membership fees. National traveled to several conventions each year and inevitably recruited a dozen or two new players at each. These players became customers of each local chapter. It costs thousands of dollars to attend any given convention, but National receives negligible income in return since they are just generating customers for other people’s companies (the chapters.) The 7% royalty they get from each new customer’s event fees doesn’t come anywhere close to covering this cost. Like #2, we as players benefit from all the new players National recruits by having more people to play with when we travel and when they come to our games.
  4. National adjudication and review. If you have a dispute with your local chapter, there is a higher authority you can appeal to. Many players have taken advantage of this service over the years.
  5. Answering Questions, and Issuing Errata. The level of responsiveness from National has waxed and waned over the years, ranging from daily updates to months of radio silence. Obviously the goal is to respond to questions and concerns timely and affirmatively. Official changes to the live game rules have to be done very carefully, but also need to be done quickly enough so that if a major issue is discovered it can be rectified before too much damage is caused. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this effort also goes towards defending the organization from toxic members who misrepresent National or make outright false and inflammatory statements. This takes valuable time and effort away from all the productive endeavors listed here.
  6. National plotlines. Dan Comstock, Mickey Golosovker, Dave Epstien, Kevin Sterbakov and Joe Valenti ran national plotlines at various chapters consistently over the last ten  years or so. Joe and Kevin ran some stuff at ARGO several years ago and I had a lot of fun with it.
  7. National source material. All the racial handbooks, the Evendarr history, the maps of Tyrra and Avalon, and all the other free source material on the National web site had to be created by someone. One of National’s major initiatives right now is a complete overhaul of the web site, and they can not afford professional quality work without at least the base level of revenue required by any organization of this scale, which annual dues provides.
  8. National member and character database. National provides a central store for all Nero members and their characters that can be accessed and updated online, with integrated support for Goblin Stamps.
  9. National Game Forge logistics database. The new treasure and production item tag database has been updated and is currently being released, replacing the old Filemaker Pro databases.

On the subject of the database, there is tremendous value in having all the chapters comply with it. On average, National catches about six build cheaters per year. Most of us have groaned and rolled our eyes about players who miraculously explode in levels all at once, but there’s nothing we can do since their characters are tracked at a different chapter. Likewise with the people who get bazillions of Goblin Stamps for having daily “plot meetings” at the pub with their buddies on staff. If you don’t want build cheaters to have an unfair advantage against you, it is most certainly in your best interest to encourage universal compliance with the National character database. Furthermore, if there is a major change in ownership or staff, or if your chapter closes completely, you know your character will persist and be available no mater what. There is no awkward transition between owners with the potential to lose your sheet or somehow be missing dozens of events, as has happened to far too many players in the past.So those are the things that National already has in place and has traditionally done in the past. Here’s a sneak peek at some upcoming projects from Nero National:

  1. Web site overhaul. We will be completely overhauling the layout and design of the web site, as well as adding a slew of new features. This is something that players have been asking about for quite some time. The primary goal is for Nero to provide the best online experience of any larp. In my opinion, this the most exciting development National has on the horizon.
  2. Newly reorganized Plot, Rules and Infrastructure teams. National is currently revising the structure of all the various staff positions that make the company work, while integrating the new projects into the organization. Overall they are adding dozens of brand new positions and are drastically expanding their operations.
  3. Expanded and more responsive National plot services. Both traditional services such as Plot Submissions and Role-Play Sessions will be available for players to directly interact with the National plotlines between events. They will also be releasing “a la carte” adventure modules.
  4. New Publications. The Formal Magic and Cantrip Handbook will be released later this year, with a series of other official publications following it including fully illustrated Race and Culture Source Books as well as a quarterly newsletter.

Most of these tasks can be done through the magical power of Goblin Stamps, but certain things require professional quality work which can only be acquired with real money. Writers, graphic designers, web developers, and advertising all cost money. Membership dues have been a necessary revenue stream for Nero National for most of its existence. This is not a revolutionary concept. Organizations ranging from the SCA to community softball leagues charge dues to cover the management’s operating costs and expand their groups, and truthfully the majority of them charge more than National is currently asking for.

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