Archive for May, 2011

Getting Creative with Transforms

Hi, I’m Jyn!

Dan asked if I’d share some thoughts I wrote about transforms and transform plot over here at NEROlogy.

Transforms seem to stir up a lot of mixed feelings, because some people associate them with less than stellar experiences. However, they offer some amazing opportunity for creativity and personalization when they are handled well. So here are some examples of great things I’ve seen done with transform plot in the past. I hope you’ll comment with your own examples and ideas too.

NPCs that are transform hooks AND something else

Transform plot can be really narrowly focused, so you don’t want to send out an NPC to do only that, if you can help it. So you double up. For example:

  • A dream elemental NPC who is an IG marshal for dreamvisions, and is the guy who gently suggests that people go to bed when major plot is done for the night. He’s also the guy that people talk to if they want a dream transform, and who trains and tests PC dream elementals
  • A life elemental who is delivering info for a major plotline can also be a point-of-contact for a PC who wants to become a life knight.
  • An undead hunter can be a mod hook, and also answer PC’s questions about how to join his order.

This works best if you get a sense of what kind of transforms PCs are interested in, so you can make sure the appropriate NPCs are out there, doing various other things. Then it’s just up to the PCs to approach them. Having a variety of potential transform-hook NPCs also lets PCs learn about what’s possible so they can decide what they want.

Transforms as an opportunity for more cool costumes

How much costuming people do for transforms seems to vary wildly between chapters, but I really dig games where the transformed folk have special masks and costuming for when they go active. None of this “visibly a phoenix” stuff; the girl has red, feathery wings and fiery costuming! (Full disclosure: I’m a mask-maker, so I have a vested interest in convincing more people to get cool transform masks!)

Transforms as a part of ongoing plot

Transform plot doesn’t have to be something that happens instead of a main storyline; it can be a part of it.

There is an elemental NPC who will only give certain plotline information out in exchange for service. So to get the info the PCs need, someone has to accept a transform from the NPC (and possibly do specific tasks for her).

or

There’s a major plot arc that involves fae courts. The PC base is doing mods, encounters, and fights to help the various courts defeat a mutual enemy. As a way of thanking the PCs who helped them, the leader of a court offers the opportunity for PCs to join their court as knights or champions(possibly after some further questing). Those PCs who join the court receive some kind of appropriate fae transform.

This sort of thing can also be personalized- In one such situation, there was a PC who was interested in fae plot, but his character also really cared about money, to an obsessive degree. So he was offered the chance to earn a leprechaun transform. His stat card was custom-written so he could utilize his money to be more effective when his transform was active.

Plot for scroll-earned transforms, too

Some people draw a major distinction between transforms PCs gain from interactions with NPCs, or transforms cast from formal scrolls. However, for the most part, they can both be handled in similar ways.

A PC wants to be a treeant, but has no idea how to go about pursuing this through plot (he’s never met a treeant NPC), so he has someone get a scroll for him instead. He has the scroll cast on him, and on another PC. One of the staff members sees that they’re really into this thing, so he makes a treeant NPC to go talk to them and test them, teaching them what treeants have to learn. Even though they already have their transforms, this NPC can help them get them higher level/re-upped, as well as teach them IG what they need to know to be a proper treeant.

Plot that is fun for non-transformed folk

There also seems to be this idea floating around that all transform-related plot is destined to be unfun for non-transformed PCs: dull and envy-inducing. That isn’t necessarily the case at all though! You just have to come up with cool, useful, and interesting things for the other PCs to do.

So the treeant guys’ first test is to be able to conceal themselves in the woods, and they have the time between events to prepare. The guys get all their natural-colored costuming, and bark-looking masks. One of them buys a ghillie suit! The next event, they are told at the appropriate time to conceal themselves by the NPC treeant.

Then the NPC goes and hires a group of players (lower-level and out-of-chapter guys, if I recall correctly) to go find these guys who are hiding in the woods. They split up and canvas the area, and eventually locate both of the hiding PCs. 

The non-transformed characters had an absolute blast, though I’m pretty sure some of them to this day have no idea the people they were hunting for were PCs. The transform guys pass their test, and the the other PCs have a great time hunting for them, and get treasure. Win-win!

Transforms as player-directed plot

Few things get players as invested as giving them the reins a bit, and transform plot can be a neat way to do that.

A PC approaches a dream elemental NPC and tells him that he has had a lot of interaction with Dream in the past, and would now like to work towards getting a transformation. Over the next few events, they have conversations about it in which the PC is asked what he wants his purpose to be as a dream elemental. The PC says he wants to give people hope in bad situations.

So the PC is given a series of tasks, over the next several events, where he has to talk to people who are feeling despair, and inspire them. So the main plot of the weekend might involve a liche who destroyed a town, but this PC’s specific task would be to talk to the survivors and encourage them to persevere and rebuild. His transform quest is somewhat self-directed, but it’s integrated into the existing plot of the game, not divorced from it.

When the PC has completed all of his tasks, he gets a transform with a personalized stat card– he has some of the usual dream elemental abilities, but not all; instead he has abilities that let him cast inspiration or renew the abilities of others with a rousing speech.

Transforms as a level equalizer/social switch-ups

Part of the problem with character level in NERO is that it often restricts which PCs can do fun stuff with each other. Transforms usually draw those lines in different ways, so a transform mod can provide an opportunity to hang out with different people than usual. If they’re both transformed, a 10th level guy can be as effective as a 40th level guy. Also, rather than go on a mod with people your level, or the people from your barony, you could go on a mod with all the elemental-transform people, or all the nature-themed-transform people.

Transform opportunities from emergent plot

Sometimes you plan out in advance what transforms are available through a particular plotline. And sometimes things just come to you:

There’s a fairly new, very young player, whose character is a gypsy rogue. The weekend plot has to do with elementals attacking and some weird elemental gateways.

By happenstance, this rogue finds himself caught on the other side of one of these gateways on the plane of earth, with an angry earth elemental. The elemental rants about how awful Tyrrans are, and why he’s mad, and threatens the gypsy. In classic fashion, he talks his way out of it, promising he’ll be the elemental’s ambassador, and convince those awful Tyrrans to stop whatever they’re doing.

So throughout the course of the weekend, as PCs are dealing with the plotline, this gypsy is the go between for the PCs and the earth elementals. PCs do various tasks to close the gates and solve the weekend plotline, and the gypsy keeps reporting back to his elemental boss. They have a lot of conversations like:

“Ahh, so you have told the Tyrrans of our might, and have convinced them to surrender their puny efforts to attack my realm?”

“Uhh, sure, ‘zat ees exactly vhat happened.”

Of course the staff member playing the elemental knows that’s not quite what happened, but his NPC doesn’t, so the charade continues, until the end of the event, when the plotline is finally solved, and the gateway closed. The earth elemental then rifts into town to congratulate the gypsy in front of all the PCs (and to see if someone tells him the real story).

Elemental: “I have come to congratulate my ambassador, who has single-handedly crushed the enemies of the earth realm and destroyed the accursed gateways that were eroding our home. Huzzah!

Crowd of PCs: Wooo, yaaaay! Huzzah! Go gypsy kid!

(Seriously, not one person outed him or tried to take partial credit for what was obviously a joint effort. It was hilarious and awesome.) So the gypsy gets a boon from the earth elemental.

Later, after being encouraged by other PCs, the gypsy tells the elemental that he’d like to use his boon to get a transformation. However, he tells the elemental that he values his fair, delicate skin, and doesn’t want it to turn all rocky. So the elemental offers to empower him as the ambassador of the earth realm, to represent them on Tyrra. After a few diplomacy-themed tests, the gypsy gets his transform and a personalized stat card.

He’s a newish player, so it has to be pretty simple, but also thematically appropriate. He gets some immunities (like to control), a handful of defenses, and no offensive abilities, but he gets a special power that lets him negotiate with someone in safety. While he is negotiating, he can’t use any other skills, but he calls no effect to everyone expect the one he’s negotiating with. The effect ends if that person attacks him, or if that person is attacked.

It was perfectly apropos for the player, the character, and the IG situation, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing that would be in a standardized transform database. Nor should it be, I think. Part of the value of the transform to that player was that someone took the time to customize something just for him.

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Analyzing the Monster Database

One of my current quests is to learn more about the logic behind how NERO monsters are currently built. (I’m currently working on a monster build guide and a scaling guide which may facilitate a revision of the monster database.) I was interested to see some of the data about our monsters displayed visually. So I got a hold of the NERO National Monster database in excel format. Here are some charts I made to examine the relationships between level, body points, and weapon damage.

As a bit of background: the National Monster Database is a set of 319 monster stat cards which are distributed to all chapters of NERO. Chapters don’t have to use these monster’s stats, but it’s encouraged that they do so that there’s continuity in the creatures you encounter all over the country. During the game, the stats are often tweaked and tailored (this is called “scaling”) to adjust for players they’ll be facing – as well as other concerns of the LARP weekend.

So let’s take a look at some of the most important data: hit points, damage, and APL. All monster cards have an APL, or “approximate player level”. This is theoretically supposed to tell us which experience level players this monster is a good match against. When these monsters were created, there was probably some formula to calculate the monster’s APL, but I suspect this equation is lost to the mists of time. APL is a good method of ballparking a monster’s power, but shouldn’t be interpreted too literally.

This first chart displays the relationship between body points and approximate player level.

Based on this chart, a few things seem to pop out:

  • The majority of the content in the database is designed to fight characters of level 15 and under.
  • Past level 15, there is less fine differentiation between levels of monster power. Monsters are clustered around APL 15, 20, 25, 30, 35.
  • Before level 20, it’s very rare for a monster to have over 100 body points

The second chart displays the relationship between approximate player level and long/short weapon damage. This may be a bit misleading because many monster’s weapon attacks are dangerous because of their carrier attack, not their damage number. And monsters with two handed weapons often have much higher damage than long/short weapon users due to the monster’s strength bonus. That being said, we can still get a rough idea of how monster’s damage input is related to their approximate player level.

This chart shows us:

  • Before level 15, most monsters swing 5s to 10s.
  • Not many monsters swing 20s before adding PC skills and other buffs. So if you’re fighting a creature that swings 20s, it’s probably been scaled up.

Here’s the relationship between weapon damage and body points. I thought this might be useful because in my experience, directors tend to scale based on body points rather than player level anyway. Level is a rather abstract way of evaluating a monster’s power – body points and weapon damage are generally a more reliable measure of what it’ll be capable of and how long it will last.

The rule of thumb I’ve seen in many NPC camps is to stat monsters with about 1 weapon damage per 10 body. For example, you tend to see monsters with 40 body swinging 4s, 50 body swinging 5s, 60 body swinging 6s, et cetera. This usually gets tweaked after adding abilities and other scaling factors, but that’s the template. On this chart we can see that this is more or less in line with the monster database up until monsters have over 80 body. It’s rare for a basic monster to swing over 10s.

And in summary, here are the averages for each level bracket:

Level 1-10 Level 11-20 Level 21-30
Body Points 33.4 86.9 178.3
Weapon Damage 4.2 6.5 8.5

Based on this, we can say:

  • A mid level monster has about 3x as many hit points as a low level monster
  • A high level monster has about 2x as many hit points as a mid level monster
  • Weapon damage increases by about 1 point per five levels

Keep in mind that these numbers do not account for armor, carrier attacks, threshold, magic, player character levels, and other abilities which many monsters possess. But as a very rough thumbnail of the monster database, I thought this was very interesting.

Did you learn anything about our monsters from these data? Let us know in the comments.

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Tyrrapedia 2.0

One of my ongoing quests has been to help make the Tyrran setting more coherent and tangible. NERO’s main advantage over other games is that we have a gigantic collaborative fantasy setting with over 40 dramatic locations in the world that you can visit.

But in reality, it doesn’t feel like we’re all playing in the same world, does it? You play in one or more chapters in your region, and the rest of the world is kind of irrelevant. Think about it: are you worried about undead taking over the chapter on the other side of the country? You don’t care — it has no impact on the game you play. You rarely hear news from chapters outside your region.

One of the ways that I want to combat this is to establish a real setting guide. I want to capture all the information about our setting in one place so you can see how your chapter fits into the world context.

In 2006, I wrote a manuscript for the Guide to Tyrra, a big book about the Tyrran setting. Part of the goal was to compile and index the hundreds of pages of history, race packets, and other documents hosted on nerolarp.com. I also wanted to document the setting as it exists now and chronicle recent Tyrran history. A lot of drama and real-life chaos has happened in the interim, but the book is slowly inching towards publication. (quick side note: biggest factor delaying this publication? lack of budget) I gotta tell you – it was really challenging to write! In part because it’s hard to find all that info and put it in context, and in part because of a weird philosophical problem: When we’re talking about an imaginary world, what makes something true? The source documents for our setting contain numerous contradictions.  Whenever you declare something as true, you end up alienating the people who believe it is false. For example, does anybody know anything about the NPC Kingdom Dar Khabad? Is it one of the “three sister kingdoms” or has it joined the kingdom of Evendarr? Is it ruled by mages? mercenaries? A king? Even basic information about Dar Khabad varies dramatically by where you’re playing.

Originally, I had intended on including a lot of chapter-specific information in the Guide to Tyrra. I wanted to have two to five encyclopedia-style pages about each chapter. That would really bring the setting to life, wouldn’t it? This proved to be a very daunting task. Some people were amazingly helpful, others went out of their way to be counterproductive. Seriously, people actually worked to make sure I’d fail at this task even though I was basically trying to publish a commercial for their game. There’s also this catch 22 that some people want me to prove that I’m trustworthy before they participate, thereby hamstringing cooperative projects and ensuring their failure. Long story short, the Guide is now focused on general setting info, including material on races and world history, but does not include much geography or chapter specific setting info.

One of the things I realized is that there are more efficient ways of capturing that chapter-level creative output than relying on a single contact point to index all of it. Luckily for us, technology exists for exactly this purpose: The Wiki.

There used to be a NERO setting wiki called Tyrrapedia. It eventually shut down for a variety of reasons, but it did succeed as a proof of concept of how this medium could be utilized.

I am creating a NERO setting wiki, another Tyrrapedia, and I want to go about it in a slightly different way. You won’t be posting as your character, you’ll be posting as a scholar who is studying the region you’re writing about. That scholar has visited the region, and he knows most of the stuff that you know out-of-game — except secrets and information you should really find out when you’re actually playing the LARP.

Why not just post as our characters? Lots of reasons. My character has an agenda and he is biased in certain ways which counter the goal of an information wiki. And by making Tyrrapedia a theater for politics and personal character goals, we would be setting the stage for edit wars. That strikes me as incredibly lame… an edit war is something that exists squarely in the 21st century – if I engage in one, what exactly is my character doing? When I tell people about this, do I say I traveled thousands of miles to a scholarly institute where I spent a few hours crossing out information that other people had written and plugging in my own notes? It’s a stretch.

The scholars who are writing the Guide are NPCs. Therefore we shouldn’t have to worry too much about player-characters who will be disruptive, wikiturf, editorialize, or portray events in a personally favorable way. And if they do, we can always moderate it.

I want Tyrrapedia (and the setting it describes) to be a true product of the NERO community. Chapter staff members will be able to moderate their own pages and make sure that their setting is presented how they’d like. We’ll also be open to players writing about the setting and filling in all those little details which make it come to life.

Part of this will involve coming up with policies which will settle the inevitable disputes. Here’s an example of the types of inconsistencies that will occur: a few weeks ago at Ravenholt, I was walking around my manuscript for the Guide to Tyrra. I showed it to Jade Marston, a veteran NERO player who wrote the bulk of the NERO Sarr Race Packet. I thought she’d be thrilled because the section in the Guide on Sarr is very closely based on the published race packet. But she was actually quite frustrated. She said that when she wrote the packet, she decided that Sarr have the same lifespan as a human. But at some point, somebody who was editing the packet decided that each clan of Sarr has a different life span. Some clans have long lives, others only live to age 10.

I’m not sure who made this change. My best guess is that the original race packet was modified to jive with information that had been established somewhere else in the country. Jade was really frustrated by this – she’s been playing her NERO character for longer than many Sarr’s lifespan. She feels responsible for this data and asked me to change it to the “correct” lifespan.

This is the really frustrating thing about standardizing conflicting information. If I were to modify this piece of information to match Jade’s intent, it will alienate the hundreds of NERO players who have Sarr characters and have been roleplaying a short lifespan. But if I don’t change it, I’ll have stepped on the toes of an author who cares greatly about that information. There’s really no way to satisfy everybody, so the best I can do is to satisfy the most people. This is par for the course when collaborating with this many people – no concept survives untouched.

And this is why wiki is the perfect format to collect information on a collaborative setting. If there’s incorrect information on the wiki, you can correct it yourself. If the community is working together on the setting, we can establish consensus and work towards a coherent description.

Assuming everything goes fine on the technical end,  the new incarnation of Tyrrapedia should be launched in the next few weeks.  We will be accepting applications for moderators. I would like to get as many NERO members involves as possible — so long as they are interested in cooperating and can roll with the daunting challenges of this project.

And in the end, if we succeed, we will have made our giant 40+ chapter setting much more tangible and accessible. It will feel like you’re playing in one corner of a large fascinating world ripe for exploration. We will have captured a lot of data which currently exists only as an oral tradition. And we will be standing atop the largest and richest setting guide of any existing LARP.

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