Friday, March 24, 2006

Evolution of a METEOR!

Self-centered post about a game I made.

METEOR! was the first LARP I wrote. I wrote it specifically to see how LARPs reacted. I took a bunch of eightiesish movie characters and rammed them into one game. People like Miyagi, Indiana Jones, Batman, Mr. T, and so on. Pretty much just wrote down their names, gave them some special abilities, and set up some basic plot things.

I ran it... and people loved it. They demanded I run it again. Then, again. Then, again. Now it has been run six times. It is almost certainly the LARP which has been run most frequently at WPI.

Personally, I hate it. The game is poorly designed and very GM-intensive. But the way it's designed, you can't simply add more GMs. So it's GM-intensive for no more than three GMs, and even that is pushing it. Which means that players spend a lot of time waiting and shouting, "GM! GM!"

More than that, the game is unbalanced and, due to the game mechanics, unbalanceable. It's a hideous mess.

It's popular for three reasons. First, it involves well-known icons. People already have emotional ties to these characters. This makes it very easy to get excited about playing them. Second, it has a lot of direct feedback as the GMs make shit up based on what you do. Lastly, I always run a "dead dog" where I explain what happened and people share stories. These three things contribute to a very emotionally "fun" game, even though the gameplay blows, half the game is waiting for a GM, and nobody has any useful directives or objectives.

In the first runs, there were only about five villains. This led to a rapid "shaking out" into good guys and bad guys. Both groups had some internal strife, but not much, because they were focused on defeating the other team. The nature of the game usually led to the realization that whoever gets a cool doodad first wins, so both teams go about exploring the "cool doodad" part of the game. Which is exceedingly GM intensive.

Because the villains almost always grouped into one giant team (occasionally with an outlier), this always led to one titanic battle at the end of the game. The villains, I found, rarely had nearly as much fun as the protagonists. They spent the whole game running and lurking.

For the most recent rewrite, I increased the number of villains from five to seven, and added five "gray" characters. Sure enough, the villains and non-villains mingled better. The villains were not forced to lurk nearly as much, and I think they had a better time.

However, because they did not team up into the monolithic "team evil", there was no single confrontation. Instead, the various plots went off every half-hour or so for the duration of the last two hours. While this pleased the villains, the heroes were left flat. There was a continuous rain of evil, and putting out fire after fire isn't made much fun by the rules. Also, when to end the game was difficult to decide, because there was no final confrontation. This fact was exacerbated by the high player count, which meant there were more teams and confusion.

(I think the other two GMs might think that the lack of a big confrontation is due to the "no GM communication" system I instituted, but I think that was relatively minor: it was the fact that there were functionally five different "team evils" that was the real problem.)

This isn't to say the game wasn't fun. The moon got blown up twice. William Shatner became Lord of Hell, and got summoned by the vampire trying to summon the Lord of Hell. David Bowie continually backstabbed the other villains to gain power, and there were montages all around. Batman and the Penguin had a combat scene unrivalled in Bat-fiction. Oh, and Chuck Norris was actually the guy from quantum leap in Chuck Norris' body. Fun times.

But I hate the design of this game, and I don't think I'll ever run it again. There are a lot of things to learn:

Team size is important. Monolithic sides tend to focus the game into a single cinematic encounter, but have to be carefully managed to keep them from (A) tipping the game balance too early or (B) being irritated or bored by the numerical dis/advantage. Diverse teams tend to be balanced (if you set them up right), but have a really shitty sense of pacing. (I plan to solve this with game mechanics in ASTEROID!)

Using readily recognizable icons is great, if you're a total biter like me. Not only does it provide you the writer with a powerful focus, but it gets players excited and provides them with a clear idea of what to play and how to play it. It's kind of unfortunate that it's borderline illegal, and certainly not publishable for profit.

The game physics allow for a number of absurd combos which win the game. :P

Lastly, METEOR! is a brutally fast-paced game. Any players who have a hard time keeping up the energy level and social aggression this kind of game calls for will tend to fall behind. Then they get dropped. I generally lose 3-4 players every game. They fall behind, stop having fun, and drop. Their situation is almost never really that bad: the rules don't allow for your situation to get that bad.

Hey, I said it was poorly designed. I wasn't freaking kidding.

ASTEROID! is going to be the video game version, if I ever design it. The plot is simple: SINISTAR has eaten most of the video-game worlds. You play a video game character - either a protagonist or a villain - to try to stop SINISTAR. And, of course, accomplish your goals.

Unlike METEOR!, ASTEROID! is (will be) about half LARP, half board game. Protagonists have three lives, antagonists have the ability to build lairs. Controlling who can enter what lairs, when, will allow me to manage the pacing of the game. A rigid rule set will radically reduce the need for a GM to handle common things like combat or leveling.

Of course, protagonist doesn't mean "good", it means "three lives". And antagonist doesn't mean "evil", it means "builds lairs".

I think it's going to be a bit like Lord of the Rings the Board Game combined with METEOR!. I think it's going to be fun. But, as I mentioned, I've barely touched it.

Anyhow, I'm exhausted. Definitely time for bed.


Kestrel404 said...

I had a long, rambling comment about my previous experiences in your runs of Meteor!, but it pretty much boils down to this:
1. Everyone knows that the villians are villians, because everyone knows everyone else's characters. You cannot hide what you are.
2. Being an 'upstanding member of the community', AKA a villian with a secret identity, you have much more freedom to mingle with the superheros, for roleplaying purposes if nothing else.
3. The players tend to behave appropriately for their characters (not always true). So the hero that always attacks the villians (like Batman) as long as he knows they're villians, will generally have a very hard time interacting with them.

Basically, what I'm saying is, without a common enemy, the heros and villians never had any good reason to interact, except as 'good guys' versus 'bad guys' to see who comes out on top.

I have two suggesstions:
If ASTEROID! has readily identifiable bad guys (I'm assuming it will), give them some ties to legitamacy, so they can say 'but wait, I'm not evil, simply misunderstood'. This should mitigate the initial response of 'he's evil, let's get him'.

Second, after you've made and run Asteroid a few times with a new system, go back and do a Meteor 2.0, with a new system and using the lessons learned from Asteroid. It's a hugely fun game simply BECAUSE of the characters used. It's more easily playable than Asteroid! will be. Having the characters be stolen from video games means that it will attract a slightly geekier audience. Not bad or difficult, considdering where you are, but Meteor has more recognition value for just about everyone.

Craig Perko said...

Of course I agree, but when I added more reasons for people to interact, the game's pacing crashed. So, Asteroid is going to have to fix that.

I doubt I'll ever remake METEOR!. By the time I get around to it, I'll want to sell my games, and METEOR! cannot be sold due to excessive copyright infringement.