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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  1. #1 by John on April 29, 2011 - 10:17 am

    I love this idea! How can we get the player base to provide their own “monster” encounters though? PvP can get dangerous for all PCs involved, and some players seem to only be entertained by swinging pipe.

  2. #2 by phiend on May 9, 2011 - 5:02 am

    I have just started assisting with running a new game, I have also staffed in several other NERO games and one thing I like to do is instead of or in addition to running NPC shifts, I have players submit modules and then run them. Tell your players that instead of spending X amount of time NPC’ing an event for their silver blanket, they can instead write up a small mod (1 to 2 hour) and run it. They can also get their friends to npc it, but they don’t always have to find the npcs themselves, if they do it gives them more freedom for time slots than if monster town has to supply the npc’s. These have to be submitted before the event and loosely stated. Staff will do final approval and stating and give times it can be ran. These cant further any of the large plot lines however if the player wants to create a small plot line and do several of these mods over several events that’s fine and we will even work with them to help them write it. This way it gets players involved and they can see peripherally what it’s like to run the game and are less likely to be obstinate when the inevitable problems occur in normal mods. Also some rules, the mods can’t benefit their characters or their characters groups. Staff will supply the marshal to make sure they are following the rules and not targeting anyone. If groups do this, we can sometimes give that group some in-game benefit as well, like plot information or a BGA type thing to explain the absence of their characters.

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