Why NERO Needs Slash Five

I’ve been following the discussion about the Slash Five playtest for a few days now. A lot of people seem really excited, others less so. This post addresses the people who aren’t sold on it yet.

A lot of people seem to misunderstand the intent of the playtest – and they dismiss it because they think it’s supposed to be addressing something it’s not, like speed of combat, or fighter/caster balance. It’s just about making the math easier, an issue which some people don’t think is an issue. So today’s post is about Gameplay Complexity, one of those barriers to entry that we tend to ignore.

I enjoy trying out all sorts of LARPs. Including NERO chapters, I think I’ve played about 50 different games at this point. A few hours drive from me, there is a little cluster of LARPs which are based off each other. I think this is because of the “splinter effect” — you love a game, and eventually you hate it, so you drive 15 miles up the road and start your own LARP. (I’m willing to bet 50% of LARPs start this way) So that region has a half dozen games which are derived from each other.

As an outsider, some of their local customs seemed weird to me. At one game, my weapon failed safety check because it didn’t have tape on the grip (which doesn’t bother me because I wear gloves). According to local lore, graphite cores will shatter into a million pieces, and if a splinter get into your blood, you will probably die. I asked if that had ever happened and the safety marshal said “I saw it almost happen last month”. Okay, when in Rome… I had to borrow some grip tape from a player to fix my “broken” weapon. I noted with amusement that one LARP’s mortal issue is another LARPs total non-issue.

That particular community is influenced by MMOs in how their skills work. In one game, certain skills have a 1-5 minute “cooldown” (like World of Warcraft). You are expected to track your skill cooldowns yourself. You can’t use the skill again until enough cooldown time has passed. If you use three of these skills in a row, they expect you to keep track of all three cooldowns during combat. I sure couldn’t do it! I can count seconds pretty accurately when I’m focused on it, but not while I’m hopped up on adrenaline and yelling numbers while swinging a sword. But when I told somebody that I didn’t think I could accurately count cooldowns, they acted like I was missing some kind of basic cognitive skill – “Seriously, you can’t count to 60 seconds?”

I went to one of those games with my plate mail. In that game, if you get hit while wearing armor, you have to quickly perform three math operations.

  1. If you have a point of Durability left in your armor, you must subtract a point.
  2. This lets you apply your armor’s damage resistance to the number you were hit with (reducing it to a minimum of 1).
  3. Then you subtract that number from your remaining hit points.

The director told us, proudly, “It’s the most realistic armor system we’ve seen in a LARP.”

I watched people wrestle with all these complex gameplay mechanics, and I saw what kind of play style it rewarded. Some players were cautious about cheating, so they didn’t wear armor, and they only used their cooldown skills after they were CERTAIN enough time had passed. More competitive players used their skills judiciously — they would use those skills as soon as they had finished cooling down. And if it was dire need, maybe 50 seconds is close enough to 60 seconds that nobody would call them on it. And of course, nobody DID get called on it, because the rule is “do your best” (translation: we know you can’t track this stuff, so just keep the cheating to a level no one will complain about). It seemed like the people who play by the rules were at a significant disadvantage.

“This is really complicated!” I said to a director. “Yeah,” he said, “ehh it’s not for everybody.” I guess that includes me. The game was geographically close enough to me that I would have become a regular player if it wasn’t so overwhelming to keep track of everything.

To me, this was a good lesson that sometimes a game’s problems can only be spotted from outside of it. Nobody in the game saw cooldown time, or three math operations per weapon swing, as an issue. But as an outsider it seemed ludicrously complex. Survivor Bias means that we only get feedback from people who haven’t quit, so the issues that drive people away, or keep them from joining, are somewhat invisible to us. Our impression of the games issues are distorted, so we need to listen to outsiders and new players.

The Math in NERO is one of those invisible issues. Yes, most of us existing NERO players are pretty good at keeping up with the math. But not everybody is. And some people are really bad at it, but still want to play NERO. And more importantly, one of the most common complaints we hear from new or potential players is that it’s too hard to follow all the rules. To this, somebody will reply, “Well they should brush up on their math skills,” or “They’ll get it eventually.” (and what if they don’t?) This is just a way of ignoring the problem.

And meanwhile, we’re losing players to games which are more accessible. Lots of LARPs out there have figured out how to get players plugged into the heart of the game right at their first event. NERO’s math and progression curve mean that you need to be a newbie for a few YEARS before you get to play with the big kids. You have to wait for special newbie modules and can’t meaningfully affect many of the spotlight encounters. That doesn’t strike me as good business sense OR good game design. (but progression speed is a separate issue, another fish to fry on another day)

I was searching the web for feedback about the Slash Five playtest when I found a message board discussing LARP rules. The topic was “When are there too many rules?” One guy said it well: “I’m of the opinion the second your game has to regularly deal with numbers that go into 3 digits, you are officially in ‘too many numbers’ land. Even the NERO players are getting to the point of ‘This is too many fucking numbers, get back to sanity'”. Then he linked to the slash five playtest.

Take note of his phrasing: “Even the NERO players are getting to the point…” Our competitors love to point out that NERO’s numbers are higher and more complex than the numbers in most LARPs. And that’s because our math was never intended to be this high. In early NERO, people swung 1-5 damage and had under 20 hit points. If they had known that the game system would eventually lead to people swinging 17 damage against a monster with 115 hit points (while a nearby caster peppers the monster with 35 damage packets), they wouldn’t have set it up that way. If that player was supposed to kill that monster with seven swings, the same effect could be accomplished with much simpler math: the player could swing 3s and the monster could have 24 hit points and it would be the same exact fight.

Count by 3s until you get to 30. Now count by 17s until you get to 170. Do it now, quickly as you can! One is easier than the other. Maybe you are gifted and they both seem equally difficult to you. But do you want to limit access to the game to ONLY people who are above average at math? Now put yourself in the shoes of somebody trying to recruit new people for his or her game – why would you want to limit your potential customers to only math whizzes? What advantage do the high numbers provide over the low numbers?

I find it dismaying that many people have made up their minds without actually testing the system. Change makes people uncomfortable, I get that, but we have gotten a lot of resistance to the suggestion of even TESTING a new idea. Or worse, people that won’t test it with an open mind – they have already decided they don’t like it and are ready to unleash their poison at first opportunity. How can we collect meaningful feedback from playtest surveys when people test it purely to justify their distaste?

In 2006, the NERO Rules committee met in person. We talked about the many barriers to recruitment which NERO faces, and the ways we are falling behind our competition. Joe Valenti and Noah Mason and I had just returned from Germany, where we played a 3000 person LARP called ConQuest Mythodea — it opened our eyes. The rules in that game are very easy to follow, and as a result, combat actually felt more engaging. We talked about how to grow NERO into a larger game, and we realized that it’s a hard sell right now if you’re not already involved.

On that day, we developed a 5-year plan (okay okay okay, at present it’s looking more like a 10-year plan): first, get rid of the 100+ pages of playtest material, minimizing the amount of reading you need to do before you play. That was the scope for 9th edition. Second, once the table was clear, we’d focus the playtest system on making the game clearer, easier to run, and easier to recruit. Most previous editions of NERO have focused on putting bandaids on tiny game balance issues, and it’s caused the rulebook to grow and grow (both in length and complexity). People who already play under it think it’s fine, but 120 pages of text + 100 pages of playtests was far too much for newcomers. So it’s time to walk it back. (and to be clear, we’re talking about gameplay complexity, not gameplay depth)

It took a long time to get to where we are today, but it’s finally time to start thinking fresh thoughts about NERO. I think the core experience of NERO (and most Fantasy LARPs) is basically this: get together with your friends, talk to an NPC, go into the woods, slay a troll, and open a treasure chest. The question before us is: how can we make that experience as fun and accessible possible? Many of us are jaded, cynical, set in our ways. Maybe changing the game will be a breath of fresh air and get people charged up again. Or maybe not. But it’s worth trying, right? Otherwise we are committing to rigidity, we are refusing to adapt to the demands of the LARP market, and NERO will shrink every year until it simply fades away.

  1. #1 by Daniel Burke on October 10, 2012 - 7:33 pm

    To all of this I say: Its about fucking time.

    As someone who started at the end of 6th edition and made it up to the start of 9th – having played in dozens of games with hundreds of mechanics – there is a lot of clutter in NERO. This is a lovely solution the gordian knot of combat. Make combat easy to understand.

    Even better a person need not even CALL damage unless they have a modifier such as ‘Magic’ or a number greater than 1.

    I will however project – and this is purely my opinion – that there are plenty of people who are passionate and excited about the game, but are jaded and cynical towards some of the decision making processes that have pushed it forward. There is no shortage of flack and vitriol across the net of people in positions of ownership coming down pretty hard on any attempt to change the game that they didn’t sprout themselves, and more than enough people who “Know how to fix NERO”.

    Hint – Its not broke. It needs touching up but it is not at the stage of ‘burn it all down and start over’. At that stage we’d just drop franchise rights and all buy into accelerant game rules or even simpler rules like Dagorhir.

    Dan – Is there a list of chapters will be using /5 for testing in the coming months, who is on board and who isnt?

    • #2 by rasputin75 on October 11, 2012 - 2:17 am

      To elaborate on the quote from Ford, I remember the exact circumstances of the number inflation. In the beginning, one handed weapons did (1) damage, and like Dan B suggested, damage need not be called. Two handed weapons did (2), so with these, or if you had an Endow, you would call “double”. In rare cases, someone swung for 3 or 4, but don’t worry about that.

      The whole reason the numbers were doubled was to have 2 handers only have a 50% advantage over 1 handers.

      Everything spiraled upwards in the following years.

  2. #3 by phiend on October 11, 2012 - 7:32 pm

    I am of two minds with this playtest. I 100% agree that the math is a problem with NERO; it’s something I have been complaining about for years. I have had a thought in my head for some time to video record several angles of some players fighting (with varying damage calls) and at various points stop the fight and ask each player how much HP/Armor they have left. Then go back and watch the video and look at what the actual number is. I would place money on no one (barring some sort of savant) being 100% accurate. The problem I have is I don’t think the lowering the numbers will necessarily change that much. Maybe you got from a 0% accuracy rate to 15% accuracy rate, but to me that isn’t a fix, it’s a band aid. I mean really who hasn’t done the trick where you start shouting random numbers when someone else is trying to count something. It works because our brains have trouble keeping a running total with conflicting data being thrown in. I think this playtest will improve one on one fights, but with multiple people swinging at one target, I think you will see the same problem. My belief is that when you have to keep track of varying damage numbers while also calling your own damage and protective only a small percentage of people can keep up with that. Yes I think that percentage would be higher with low numbers, but I don’t think it is a majority of players.
    One thing that I have seen help with this problem was a “flurry rule”, basically it’s that you can only make 3 attacks and then you must have a distinct pause in your attack. This created a flow in the combat where you would attack and then go defensive for a few swings and players seemed to fall into a rhythm and the pause would allow them to catch-up their mental math.

    • #4 by silway1 on October 13, 2012 - 3:13 pm

      That sounds a lot like you’re saying “It will help.” It doesn’t need to be a magic bullet.

      • #5 by Corey Kump on October 14, 2012 - 5:01 pm

        Sadly, that’s the argument I’ve seen a lot of people make.

        “This changes balance slightly and makes playing a fighter less appealing to me. Oh, and it doesn’t fix stuff perfectly, so clearly it doesn’t achieve its goal of fixing this thing that I have learned to handle.”

      • #6 by phiend on October 15, 2012 - 2:41 pm

        I think it might help, however I don’t think playtesting it with the current rules will give meaningful results. I think you would be better off trying to establish actual data. I think videotaping people fighting and comparing the results would be a good step towards generating this data, but I’m sure there are other ways as well. I think that there are many things that need to be changed along with this step and I think that if you just change this one thing the amount of negative feedback will make it harder to tell if it is helping and harder to make the needed changes.

      • #7 by phiend on October 15, 2012 - 2:47 pm

        Sadly, that’s the argument I’ve seen a lot of people make.
        “This changes balance slightly and makes playing a fighter less appealing to me. Oh, and it doesn’t fix stuff perfectly, so clearly it doesn’t achieve its goal of fixing this thing that I have learned to handle.”

        Well if a lot of people are making it, perhaps you should have an actual answer for it other than your wrong because you are making the same argument everyone else is making.

      • #8 by noah on October 16, 2012 - 3:07 pm

        I think that Dan actually did answer it really well, both in this article and in the “Slash Five FAQ” article. This playtest has an extremely narrow scope and is only meant to address one specific issue. Furthermore, it’s designed to make the game easier to learn for new players, so the fact that many of our existing players have learned to cope with the more complex math is irrelevant.

    • #9 by Trey Martin on October 16, 2012 - 10:07 pm

      I think phiend hit the nail on the head. The issue isn’t really the “complexity” of big numbers. The complexity comes from having to make multiple calculations at once.

      And, it isn’t like going to /5 is going to get rid of big numbers. I mean, at the last event I attended, I ran a module which had several characters who were level 50+, and one who was just a few shy of being 100th level. Fortunately, the really big guy was a caster. But if he had been a fighter under /5, it would not be unreasonable for him to call between 20-30 with his weapons. Sure, he’s an extreme example, but his character proves that over time character under /5 will still get out-of-hand. Sure, maybe you kick the problem down the road for a few more years, but as the average level of players continues to grow, so will the numbers. It is an inevitable consequence of any system that allows open-ended advancement.

  3. #10 by Jordan Burch on October 16, 2012 - 9:27 pm

    I can agree with Dan on this, it will make numbers easier in combat, though I get the sneaking suspicion that I would feel like all of my efforts leveling as a rogue or fighter would be too painful. having to purchase 5 prophs at 15 build each just to get an increase of 1 to my swing sounds painful.saving up 75 build to get a numerical increase of 1 even as a low level player is a long time. I agree the numbers need to be reworked for nero but the skills need to be reworked to go with this change to hopefully reward players with a mighty blow system to grant mini slays to fighters for each proph they get to differ the monotony of spending 75 build without any real change.

    • #11 by Trey Martin on October 16, 2012 - 10:17 pm

      I think that this system would be very demoralizing, especially to younger players who want to explore melee classes. It can already be frustrating for fighters and rogues to watch their spell-casting buddies buy several new spells every event, while they have to “save up” for their next proficiency. In /5, this problem is exacerbated rather dramatically.

      1st Level Scholar – 7 spells.
      1st level Fighter – Calls 1.
      2nd level Scholar – 13 spells.
      2nd level Fighter – Still calls 1.
      3rd level Scholar – 17 spells.
      3rd level Fighter – Still calls 1.
      4th level Scholar – 20 spells.
      4th level Fighter – Still calls 1.
      5th level Scholar – 23 spells.
      5th level Fighter – Still calls 1.
      6th level Scholar – 25 spells
      6th level Fighter – Still calls 1.
      7th Level Scholar (81 build*) – 29 spells.
      7th Level Fighter (80 build*) – Finally calls 2. Woot! (NOT!)

      *And this is actually a fairly unrealistic fighter build. No slays, no florentine, no shield…just 1-handed edged and damage. The scholar build is much more commonplace, as most scholars tended to buy spells obsessively until they have at least one 9th level. In reality, it will probably be at least another 2 levels before the fighter is actually ready to buy his +5.

      Converting a 50th level fighter into /5 isn’t so bad. But to someone trying to claw their way up from 1st level, there is a HUGE inequity here, especially when one considers the recent changes to the national goblin policy limiting the acquisition of extra blankets. Do you really think a young fighter is going to be willing to wait a full season or more just to gain 1 additional point of damage?

      • #12 by phiend on October 16, 2012 - 11:20 pm

        Yes, and this is why I don’t think playtesting this in the current game is going to give viable results as to whether this is a good change or not. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be the final answer, but I also don’t think it’s enough to be playtested in a game in which the players care about their characters. This needs to be tested in an environment completely outside of the game. First I question whether it actually fixes the problem it proposes to fix. Please don’t take that as I don’t believe it will mitigate the problem, I do, however for something that changes the game this much, I feel that it should be backed up with actual data. Second, I don’t think viable data can be gathered by playtesting this in “live” games. Part of why I feel that way is because of the way playtests have been handled in the past, they just became part of the game. T here were playtests that had been in test status for 10 years or more and because of that I don’t think players will treat this any different. The game has lost its ability to accurately playtest a rule. I don’t know how many people I’ve seen state that they would never play in a game with this playtest. Why would a statement like that even exist if the game had handled playtests appropriately?

      • #13 by JJ Bartlett on October 22, 2012 - 1:40 pm

        It depends on whether or not they feel even vaguely effective with swinging 1s. If most of the monsters running around have 3-5 hit points and they can actually cut them down, then yes, it’s not so big a deal that it’ll take longer for them to get to swinging 2s.

        It’s not about how fast you swing more damage, it’s how effective you are starting out.

      • #14 by Trey Martin on October 23, 2012 - 12:54 pm

        “It’s not about how fast you swing more damage, it’s how effective you are starting out.”

        I disagree. If think that few players would accept having to play for basically an entire season before obtaining any noticeable advancement, and especially when their spell casting companions are gaining several new skills per event.

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