Archive for category Role Play

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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Create your own plot by saying “Yes, and…”

There are many stories which take place at LARP events. The staff only directs a fraction of them. The rest emerge from the ongoing collaborative efforts of the game’s players. Like any form of improvisational theater, players can build on one another’s offers using a technique called “Yes, and…“, advancing the story in whatever way is most interesting for those involved.

One of the secrets of LARPing is that  the people who are most entertained at an event are the ones who entertained others. Think of yourself not as the audience to the NPCs’ performance, but as a character in a collaborative story in which everybody is the audience.

When you speak with other characters, pay attention to potential offers, hooks that you can build upon. Any time somebody engages the story, don’t just observe it, react to it and create the next narrative element. Your reaction becomes a cue, an offer for other players to build on as well.

Here’s one example of how this technique can be employed to generate plot over a long period of time:

Frederick writes an article for the local paper about a difficult decision his party had to make during an adventure.

Alora likes Frederick’s article, and asks him if he’d mind writing an article which puts her party in the spotlight.

Frederick decides to tag along with her party as a reporter, and takes notes on how the party behaves.

Alora’s party mate Iago, intrigued by the media attention, begins to act like a celebrity.

Vincenzo and Wintermoon decide that they’ll become Iago’s fans. They ask for his autograph and gush over their encounters with him.

Winden wants to be famous too, so he challenges Iago to a competition.

Winden wins the competition, and Vincenzo and Wintermoon decide to become his fans instead…

There’s an awful lot of plot there, and none of it was directed by a staff member. The Yes, And… technique is one of the most basic ways to create your own plot and ensure that you have a fun event no matter what the staff is doing.

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How to Foster an In-Game Community

The players of a LARP are a unique kind of society. In addition to their out of game friendships, they belong to a complex in-game network. This community of characters is often known as the “town”. Many people play significant roles within the society. Being socially acknowledged as a blacksmith, healer, sherrif, or outlaw can be very rewarding. As an added bonus, the sense of being a “town” seems more real as these roles become prominent. The LARP directors can encourage the development of this network by making it a part of the game.

Relationships – Characters form relationships whenever they interact. Whether their interactions are cooperative or competative, their relationships are intensified by undergoing stress together. You can encourage interesting relationships by providing a variety of challenges which will cause the players to cooperate or compete in different ways.

Build Roles though Roleplay – Give players the opportunity to demonstrate their role in a meaningful way. If a character is cartographer, create scenarios where other players must rely on her maps. If someone plays a tavern keeper, give him rumors and news he can share while other characters sip drinks in the tavern. In short – make people’s character concepts a part of the setting by weaving them into the game.

Traditions and Holidays – In ongoing LARP campaigns, customs and rituals create a rich sense of local flavor. They’re also a great way to let players experience your setting.

Local slang, a certain way of greeting each other, or a particular style of costume are things which make a place feel like home. Create a list of customs and make sure the NPCs are familliar with them. Ultimately, whether the players adapt them into the society is up to them. If an idea doesn’t seem to take, don’t push it too hard.

Holidays also lend to the community’s versimillitude. A holiday should have an activity that everybody can participate in, something that they come to expect every year. Feasts, anniversaries, spring hunts, and other celebrations should be incorporated into the weekend schedule.

Encourage Talents and Crafts – LARPing is an interesting hobby, and LARPers tend to have other interesting hobbies. Encourage people to bring their talents and crafts to the game. Give them opportunities to showcase their dancing, leatherworking, storytelling, and musical talents (to name a few).

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Module: Faevors

This is a module in which players seek a favor or information from a Fae lord (or lady). They must attend a High Tea and figure out the nuances of fae etiquette. This is a basic, skeletal writeup which should be easy to flesh out and adapt for your game. If you don’t like reading module writeups, stop here!

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The Cast: Recurring NPCs

Recurring NPCs, (sometimes called “Town NPCs” because they are characters who hang out with the adventurers in “town”) are a way of keeping your players in touch with your chapter or event story. Each chapter or event should have several NPCs which serve as the focal point for the plot. This is not to say that the focus IS these characters, but rather that the focus on the players comes through these cast members.

These plot controlled characters, or Cast,  can serve your plotlines in many useful ways.

Designing a Cast

In the absence of visible plot, your chapter’s theme and atmosphere will be carried through these recurring NPCs. Think hard about who you’d meet if you hung out in your game world. Who are the people who would get you involved in the action?

The cast will serve as the hooks and foils for much of the chapter’s plot, so they need to be versatile enough to get involved in different plotlines. Create NPCs who seem both relevant to this year’s storylines and relevant to the character’s general motivations. If your chapter runs a war plotline, consider an NPC who is a high ranking officer in the army. If there’s a lot of ancient magic in your plot, the mage’s guild master might end up playing a critical role.

In some ways, your cast members represent what is relevant about your chapter’s plot. They can stand-in for entire groups or factions – for example there might be a city of Sarr nearby, but there’s one matriarch who comes to town and represents the group.

Even the bad guys can have cast members. There’s a lot of intrigue and drama possible if there’s a questionable character in town you can spy on, assissinate, or make deals with. It also makes the conflict with the villain very present, local, in-your-face. You’ll have to come up with a way for the villains’ lackeys to walk around in town without getting jumped by every do-gooder with a sword. Perahps the character is an ambassador, a slave who can escape now and then, or a turncoat.

Cast members should have big, memorable personalities. Take the time to design interesting characters who are fun to interact with. In addition to a character history, hobbies, pet peeves, habits, and neuroses are great ways to bring a character to life.

How to Use a Cast

Because Cast members are relatively accessable, they should try to develop personal relationships with most of the players. This gives you an excuse to hook nearly any group with nearly any cast member. Since cast members often represent some element of the game’s theme, plot, or atmosphere, it gives players a personal way to relate to those concepts. For example, if your season plotline is about a war against Orcs, having a soldier or orc that the players can talk to gives them a backdrop to react to the story even if they’re not directly involved in the plot.

Cast members need to be able to spout information about the setting. They are the player’s proxy for the citizens in our imagined game world. For example, the players may want to know if their spell worked and the crops stopped dying. Due to the way LARPs operate, they probably can’t just visit a farm and take a look. But they can talk to one of the local cast members, who likely knows a thing or two about the local conditions.

The Cast member’s role in the story need not be cut-and-dry. These characters can be more intersting if they’re complex. Maybe their allegiances shift over time, or they have certain topics about which they are untrustworthy. You should seldom be able to peg a cast member as a “good guy” or “bad guy”… they often have internal conflicts and gray-area motivations just like any player character.

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Narration

What makes Live Action RPGs different from tabletop RPGs? In a Live Action RPG, you experience the game rather than hearing about it. You become the hero rather than describing his actions. You are immersed in the LARP world in a more tangible and real way than you ever could experience in a tabletop game.

In LARPs, we create scenarios which would never happen in the real world. Adventurers deal with things like flying citadels, expeditions to the plane of fire, and supernatural forces which can’t be simulated with our meager special effects budget.

This is where many bad directors rely on narration. In a tabletop game, you’d describe the spooky forest to the players. In a LARP, however, the description of the spooky forest is not sufficient to make the players experience it. They should feel like they’re really in a spooky forest.

I caution larpwrights and game directors to avoid narrating the game. Narration only widens the gap between the game world and the real world. I recall entering a dungeon at a NERO event and being told “You’re in a blue stone room. There’s a door to the east and to the north. There’s a crystal ball in the middle of the room.” In reality, we were standing in a field with no props or setup to help us “see” the dungeon we were exploring. Instead of walking up to the crystal ball and looking at it, we’d describe our actions to the marshal. I remember feeling frustrated at this experience – is this a LARP or a tabletop? Our characters explored the labyrinth verbally, occasionally breaking the dialogue to fight some monsters. It felt hollow.

Avoiding narration means not creating experiences which you cannot effectively represent. Sure, we can all use our imaginations, but there’s something viscerally different about fighting a character who says “I look like a ten foot tall giant” and fighting a character who is actually on stilts. Covering the room in fake spider webs is much better than saying “the tomb is filled with spider webs.”

In short: Gaming requires imagination. But we should strive to create LARPs that require as little imagination as possible.

Part of this process is also creating a game world which can be represented by LARP tools. Don’t send your characters to the middle of the desert unless you have a part of your campsite which feels like desert. Don’t rely on effects like flight, invisibility, or knights on horseback – you simply can’t create that experience in the game without drawing attention to the out-of-game mechanic mediating it.

You can’t, of course, make a wooden cabin look exactly like an ancient burial crypt. But with props and atmosphere, you can suggest it in a way that it’s clear to the players and they won’t have to break game to ask what they’re experiencing.

One way around narration is to create a type of narrator character, called a confederate. The confederate either directly follows the party, or makes appearances during the adventure. They often are the ones describing game effects which are in place. They react to what’s going on. Their reactions create a sense of reality that you cannot accomplish by describing a situation to players. Confederates are a much more immersive way of marshaling the game than forcing characters in the game world talk to an out-of-game referee.

For example, a guide (module hook) might follow the players into a tomb. The guide is quite vocal about his fear of undead. As the players go deeper, he keeps asking about whispers he heard in the shadows. He thinks a corpse blinked at him. He is nauseated by the smell of decay. He gets more nervous as the players go deeper, raising the tension.

The players then experience the tomb by proxy; they actually experience it through somebody else’s experience. They feel courageous because they are juxtaposed with a coward. And you never had to describe it for them!

INSERT:   “We’ve arrived at the blightmarsh! Watch your step – if you fall off these slimy rocks, your foot will be withered. But lucky us – that plant over there is called boonblossom. If you spend ten seconds inhaling its pollen, it’ll cure you of all necromantic effects. It smells terrible though. And it gives me a horrible rash, so I’m going to sit over here while you guys handle this one.”    -Janus Two Pence, pay-by-the-hour guide to the dankest places in Kitheria

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