At Gencon this year, I ran a 7th Sea LARP for about 40 people. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback and people asking me exactly how it worked, what game design process I went through and a bunch of other questions. Since I’ve gotten so many questions, here are some answers.
Now, just to let you know, this is a behind the curtain essay. If you’re the kind of person who watches a magic trick and doesn’t want to know how it works, I highly suggest not reading after a certain point. I’ll let you know when that is. But first, just a quick summary of how the rules worked for the folks who played the game in Indianapolis. Also, if you’re gonna be at Strategicon in Los Angeles around the end of August, this is the larp I’ll be running, so you may also want to avoid the spoilers listed below. I’ll be making some changes, and the game literally changes at the players’ whims, so don’t expect too much “advantage” from reading ahead. Besides, this is a live action roleplaying game. Who the @#$% tries to win a roleplaying game?
(Psst: vampire larpers.)
Oh, that’s right. Never mind. Forgot I asked.
How the Game Works
I set the game in the city of Five Sails. Now, Five Sails is an independent city-state. It belongs to no Nation. “The City where everyone is a king, but nobody wears a crown.” (I stole that line, by the way.) Now, the city is divided into Districts, each “governed” by one of the Nations. There’s a Vodacce district, a Castille district, a Commonwealth district, etc. Every year, the governors of each district vote on a mayor.
Well, the mayor is gone. Presumed dead. Presumed murdered. And one of the governors is responsible. May not have done it themselves, but one of them has the mayor’s blood on their hands.
The players each represent a faction of Heroes working for one of the governors. In the Indianapolis game, I let the players choose which governor they wanted to work for. (This is the first thing I’m changing for the Los Angeles version: players will get divided randomly by drawing numbers out of a hat.)
First Economy: Traits
The game had a number of economies going on (things the players could use during the game.) The first was Traits.
Each player had an index card sized character sheet. The card had only the five 7th Sea Traits: Brawn, Finesse, Wits, Resolve, and Panache. Heroes had scores of 2-5 in their Traits. I also gave some return players (folks who had played in previous 7th Sea larps and brought the same character) and folks who dressed in costume a bonus ability they could use during the game. I had a half-Sidhe pirate, a Montaigne Porté mage and an Eisen mercenary who all got bonus stuff on their sheets.
Next, I introduced the players to the Clues on the table behind me. Each Clue was in a manilla envelope with a cryptic description. Each envelope also had a number of Trait points the players needed to spend to open the envelope. Brawn: 10, for example. That meant the players needed to get enough players to agree to spend 10 points of Brawn to open that envelope and read the Clue. Some Clues were cheap (Finesse: 5) and some Clues were expensive (All Traits: 5). The value of the Clue corresponded to the number of Traits the players had to spend.
Each Clue read similar to this one:
The Governor of ___________________ District owed the Mayor 10,000 Guilders.
I told the players they could fill in whichever governor they wanted. It could be the Vodacce governor, the Castillian governor, etc. And they didn’t have to fill it in right away. They could keep it, show it to the players representing another governor’s interests, and bargain for a trade of some kind.
The clues were deliberately vague for a purpose: at the end of the game, everyone would vote on which governor was responsible for killing the Governor. More on that in a bit.
Second Economy: Guilders and Improvements
The players also had a number of Guilders (coins) they could use as they saw fit. They could use the Guilders to buy Clues, for example. But each district also had a number of Improvements it wanted built in its part of the city. Montaigne wanted a new opera house, Eisen wanted a new garrison, etc. Each Improvement cost 10 Guilders. Once a player–and it had to be a single player–gave over the 10 Guilders for the Improvement, they got the card. Completing an Improvement was worth one Trait refresh. That is, a player could turn in an Improvement card and completely refresh one Trait (Brawn, Finesse, etc.).
Third Economy: Hero Points
Players also had Hero Points they could use like Style Points in my Houses of the Blooded larp. In short, I offer you a Hero Point and ask you a question: “Isn’t it true that I beat you in a duel two years ago?” You can either say, “Yes” or “No” to this question. If you say, “Yes,” you get the Hero Point. If you say, “No,” I can offer your more Hero Points or just move on to another player, offering them the Hero Point.
Players can also ask me questions about the city, the mayor, etc., by offering me (the Host) Hero Points. If I say, “Yes,” I add it to a list of truths about the city at the front of the room. If I say, “No,” I can’t be bribed. It’s just one and done with me.
Hero Points give the players the opportunity to create stories and backgrounds between themselves, create rivalries, allies and enemies. You cannot force someone to take a Hero Point. It’s 100% consensual. (Because RPGs are more like sex than most people realize.)
Finally, there’s the Artifacts. Hidden in the game were four Syrneth Artifacts: relics from a civilization that walked Théah before humans. If a group found an Artifact, they could use it to establish whether a governor was a Hero or a Villain. Of course, this significantly influenced the question of which governor was responsible for killing the mayor.
The Pirates and My Ringer
Oh, and in addition to the city factions, I also had a pirate faction. They were in town and offering their services to help solve the murder. I made up the pirate faction as soon as I saw so many people dressed appropriately. They turned out to be a loud, rowdy group who sang shanties and did their best to cause trouble.
I had Jessica along as a ringer. She was playing the half-Sidhe pirate. Jessica is perfect for this job. She’s helpful, knowledgable and when you give her the ability to do anything, she uses it responsibly. So, I gave her the power to do anything. She is a Sidhe, after all.
How It Played
The players made their character sheets out–a total of two minutes–and listened to the description I gave above, the whole spiel took about ten minutes. That included questions. After that, we were ready to play.
Each group started haltingly, testing the waters. Except the Eisen bunch. They went straight to work.
Two duelists–one a Montaigne and the other a pirate–seemed to start a kind of rivalry. They came to me and asked me how the system would handle a duel. I told them, “Offer each other Hero Points. Whoever accepts gets to say who won the duel.” They apparently decided to spend the game collecting as many Hero Points as possible to offer the other at the end of the game to win the duel. That meant they had to say “Yes” to a lot of things to get those Hero Points. And, at the end of the game, they offered each other a mass of Hero Points and agreed on a winner. But more on that later.
The flow of the game was groups of players trying to work together to get as many people they could together to “find clues.” One by one, they opened them up and decided on how to fill the blanks.
They exchanged Hero Points establishing relationships with each other, creating rivalries and friendships. And they showed the Clues to each other as they opened them, asking rival factions how much they wanted to pay to keep the Clue from pointing at their governor.
And I… did… nothing.
Honestly. I’ve heard so many people tell me how busy a GM is at a larp, and during my larps, I largely walk around and listen or sit down and watch. That’s because with Hero Points (Style Points in Houses of the Blooded and Blood in my little vampire larp), the players make the drama. I don’t need to do anything. I just toss the pitch and let the players hit the ball, and let them field it.
Because every player has Hero Points, they’re all empowered to make decisions. They can see a player they want to engage and can offer them Hero Points to engage them. I give them the power to do it. But more importantly, I give them the permission to do it. Hero Points are abstract, they aren’t just GM encouragement. They’re a mechanic. And because of that, it’s okay for you to spend them any way you want, so long as you can convince someone else to say, “Yes.”
In a matter of an hour, three of the four Artifacts were found. The players decided which governors were Heroes and which were Villains. The fourth was in Jessica’s possession, and I knew she’d have it show up when it was appropriate. One group who found one of the Artifacts asked if they could use it on the captain of the pirate faction. I told them, “You have to get his permission.” So, they went to him, offered him Hero Points, and he agreed to become a Villain.
And speaking of Villains…
These were mine. My friends I met in Italy. They were the representatives of the Vodacce district. I asked if they would play Villains for me, and they jumped at the chance.
I gave them Villain Points instead of Hero Points. And I said, “Tell the players that Villain Points act exactly like Hero Points, but when you spend them, something awful might happen. Be sure to tell John when you spend them.”
They asked me, “What do Villain Points do?”
I told them. And they smiled. But that’s for later.
I also told them, “Your job isn’t to thwart the players. It’s to get thwarted by the players. You are obstacles to overcome. Let them do it.” They agreed.
So, I gave them Villain Points, a bunch of coins to bargain with, and they were off.
(And that’s Jessica grinning in the background.)
How It Ended
The players managed to discover all the Clues and Artifacts and get all the Improvements made. (That tells me I made things too easy for them. I’ll change that for Los Angeles.) Jessica gave out a few faerie gifts and it looked like the Eisen were in a clear lead for “most productive faction.”
The two women (Pirate and Montaigne) who wanted to perform a duel did so. I set it up like the pro wrestling larp my friend Dan and I run: I had them sit in two chairs just out of reach of each other and asked them to narrate the duel to the other players. They offered each other Hero Points to determine the winner and the Pirate came out on top. They narrated the duel with a lot of pantomime and drama and because the other players didn’t know who was going to win, they were cheering and booing the whole way.
After considering all the Clues, each faction voted on who was responsible for the mayor’s death: the Montaigne governor. And then, when it was all over, I had everyone vote on which player would take his place. Then, we all cheered, I closed the game, and we took pictures.
Spoilers: Behind the Scenes
Like I said, a lot of folks asked me to break down how I pulled all this off. It must have seemed like an incredible feat of game design engineering. At least, that’s what I’m told. People asked me how I kept all the players so entertained. “I’ve never been to a larp where I wasn’t bored at least part of the time.”
Well, here’s the big secret, folks. And, like I said, if you don’t want to know any spoilers or see how the trick is done, turn away now. Just stop reading. And now, with no further ado…
… I made it all up.
Seriously. I just made it all up.
I sat down on the morning of the larp and wrote down 30 Clues. Took me about forty minutes.
Then, I thought about what kind of cool thing the players could do with the Artifacts. I took a shower–the source of all good ideas–and thought about it. I decided, “The Artifacts let the players decide which governors are Heroes and Villains.” That worked.
How many coins did I give each faction? Eh, I made it up. I had a bag of coins and I decided some factions should get more than others. I knew the Montaigne faction was the smallest, so I gave them the most coins. Seemed to make thematic sense. (Also, the Montaigne faction came damn close to winning the election. They were good players.)
And finally, while I was running the game (which was me pretty much walking around and watching), I rewarded players with Hero Points and Kewl Powerz. Like giving some folks a free Trait Refresh. Or giving others bonus Brawn.
But the most important thing I did was trust the players. I gave them the ability to be GMs themselves (with Hero Points) and let them go. And when one of them got a little over-eager with the idea, I reminded them, “This is just a game. There’s no winning or losing. It’s about telling a story.
Now, you may argue that “winning” is figuring out who murdered the mayor. Yeah, sure. I guess. But really, everyone was going to vote on that anyway.
You may say that getting the Artifacts was winning. Yeah, sure. I guess. But it wasn’t zero sum winning. You didn’t win because someone else lost. You wanted to say something true about the governor, and you did. Great! You set a goal and you got it. But that really doesn’t count as “winning,” does it? At least, not at another player’s expense.
The players set their own agendas and had the tools to accomplish them…as long as they got consent from other players. And that’s really how the game runs. That’s the big secret:
Give players the power to be the GM and trust they’ll tell stories with it.
If you tell players that’s what your game is about–like I did–they’ll generally do it. Didn’t Mr. Miyagi teach us all that? Let me paraphrase: “No such thing as bad player. Only bad game. Game say, player do.” The game says, “Here’s narration rights. Be responsible.” Do that, and players will, generally, do what they’re told.
A bunch of larp people were at the game and they commented on how it seemed there was no system. No formal dueling mechanic, no mechanic for sorcery, no mechanic for mass combat. “Yeah,” I said. “We don’t need it.”
And that’s the truth. In a cooperative storytelling game (like RPGs and larps), what mechanics do you really need? I’ll tell you what you need: a mechanic that encourages people to cooperate and tell stories.
Everything else… it’s just nonsense.
Oh, and what do Villain Points do?
My Vodacce players know. Ask them. I’m sure they’ll quote you a fair price.