Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Idle Hands

A few days ago, Darius posted a link to this, a video game where the players are all cooperating bridge crew. The details are a bit scarce, but the basic idea is pretty clear.

This got me thinking about games like this (including tabletop RPGs). Games where there are a fairly large number of players cooperating. I've run scads of them, so I have a pretty good eye for how party dynamics tend to develop.

The difficulty in any party-based game, whether it's a bridge crew or a team of adventurers, is that not everyone is always busy. It's very easy to end up with a minimal role - a mistake made in a lot of old LARPs. "Color characters", we derisively called them. The same problem applies to characters that have the same amount of business but dramatically different amounts of tension.

The classic example of a color character is a LARP in which a few characters are simply "henchmen" or "thug". It's possible to write such characters to have an interesting role, but classically their role is just to follow the boss around and be muscle when they need to be. 90% of the time, they do nothing.

This is "realistic", sure. And some players can turn this kind of crap role into something entertaining, but rarely without upsetting the whole boat. In general, the use of color characters is a sign that your LARP design is painfully oldschool.

The classic example of the "tensionless" character is the cleric in a D&D game. The cleric can fight and heal, but it's pretty rare for them to feel tension: healing is rarely tense, and they rarely have an actual dog in the fight. They're just playing fighter support, and they know it. Even though they get the same number of rolls and have access to the same complexity of combat as the fighter, the tension just isn't there. They're just fighting to pass time between throwing heals and turning zombies.

These two kinds of characters - tensionless and color - are the banes of every team game. They are going to plague a game like a "bridge crew" simulator especially hard, because there is very little crossing over from one role to another. If you're an engineering officer, you might become important if things are going badly, but you're basically a cleric: you have no 'natural' role to play unless things get bad.


So far, I've been casting tensionless and color characters as uniformly bad, and I think that they are. However, it's also possible to make the opposite mistake, and desperately try to keep everyone busy all the time.

If we fall back to the bridge crew example, not every player needs to always be working flat-out. The immersion is quite strong due to the physical setting. Momentary downtime could be useful to build tension and immersion, as players sit by helplessly awaiting the next moment. This is generally quite difficult to do in a low-immersion setting, but in something like a LARP it can be fairly effective if your setting fits your setting. Physical setting fits your game setting.

A major difficulty is the modern person's reaction to a lull: Facebook.

Trained by almost two decades of on-line games, players have learned that the game is only one of the ten things they do while playing the game. They fill the empty grind time with random internet doings.

This will prevent immersion. If you are playing a game in person, absolutely ban non-game activities, especially if people are using computers. They can do non-game activities if they need to, but they need to leave the game arena to do so. Otherwise, even momentary lulls will sabotage the flow of the game as the party is torn apart by their secondary pursuits.

Ahhh, such concerns are at the heart of LARP design, and LARP design is at the heart of in-person AR games like the bridge crew example.

It would be interesting to do more of these designs, but it takes a large number of players with a big chunk of time on their hands, so you basically need a college.


Darius Kazemi said...

My solution to the bridge crew scenario would be to include things that a bridge crew would actually do to pass the time. LOTS of booze on hand for us to drink. Maybe have an official game at hand: Space Poker or Space Chess or whatnot. That way, Klingons appearing on the radar can INTERRUPT OUR GOD DAMNED SPACE POKER GAME. NOBODY MESSES WITH MY WINNING STREAK (etc etc). I'd be thinking about the downtime scenes in Battlestar Galactica. It would be awesome to do a light LARP overlay onto the bridge crew game too. For example, each crew member has their own secret goals they're trying to reach, and those goals may be related to the ship simulation (get the warp core to overload so you can save it an be a hero) or not (get the captain to yank the microphone away from the communications officer).

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, you're taking it out of the arena of a bridge crew simulation and you're instead making it a starship life simulation with bridge crew moments. That's a reasonable way to do it.