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