Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Rule of Woodlice

There's an occasionally quoted rule of thumb in certain LARP circles called the "Two Dead Woodlice Rule", which approximately states that one should never introduce a plot that couldn't be solved by the aforementioned pair of isopods if you ever want a chance of players solving it.

It's a rule that I deeply dislike.

I'm going to talk today about this theory, depth, complexity, and storytelling. Certain assumptions will likely about, but that is as much a result of my personal preferences as anything else.

If you are familiar with the youtube channel Extra Credits, you may have come across this already. If not, a number of their videos on game design are worth watching. They focus on video game
Pictured: Half of an average player party
design, but a lot of the ideas that they talk about are pretty relevant to larp. In particular, I want to talk about things that spiral off from this video, whilst vaguely touching on this one on exposition.

We can consider larp analogous to video games in certain aspects, especially when the focus is more on a single-author-creation than on a collaborative-creation, which is to say that the majority of setting material is written by the game organisers rather than the players. It's important to note that there isn't a sharp distinction here - all games fall somewhere between the two extremes. The analogy is most fitting in this first case, as it describes a system written by one party, to be primarily experienced to a second party, to whom they must communicate the elements of the system in order to allow the second party to experience it as fully as possible.

What is, then, "full experience"? Simply put, it is the sum total of the possible actions that can be taken by a player within the framework of the game. This framework is created by system designers, whose role is then to communicate such information to the players as to enable them to have the choice and opportunity to take any possible action within the game. The full experience is not something that can ever be reached, for taking any particular action necessarily forbids taking some other action; it is perhaps better to say that players should be able to make as many free and meaningful choices as possible, within the framework of the larp.

It is also worth explicitly stating that, as implied above, any action undertaken within a larp represents a choice on behalf of the player. Sartre aside, it is worth noting that participants within a larp can potentially have a much greater freedom of action than in most other forms of interactive culture.

This freedom to make meaningful choice is synonymous with the concept of depth. Choices must be meaningful, as for a choice to be false (as in the case of a strictly dominant strategy), or ultimately arbitrary (where the outcome of the choice is beyond the understanding of the player, and is thus equivalent to an essentially random outcome or an entirely fixed one) reduces experiential depth. Players should thus - in theory - be able to predict the outcome of any choice (within margins of error as defined by the frame) based on information that they have, or could acquire.

This is not to say that it is essential for there to be no secrets within a system or setting, although that is an approach that is used in certain Nordic larps. Nor is it saying that there need be a strict degree of causality within a larp; it is rather that players should know enough to make choices that have an impact on their experience of play.

There are thus two essential limiting factors to player agency: concealment, and complexity. Concealment, as alluded to above, is where certain facts of the system or setting are kept from the players. There are various kinds of concealment that we can describe: Total concealment, in which specific information is kept from the entire playerbase; partial concealment, in which only a proportion of the playerbase are privy to the specific information; strict concealment, in which there is no in-character way of gaining that information; and weak concealment, in which there exist in-character methods of acquiring the information in question.

Other than the fact that Coyote was clearly up to no good, obviously.
Note that a single system can easily use multiple levels of concealment for different pieces of information; consider, for example, Maelstrom's native herb descriptions (weak-partial, as it was freely given to one part of the playerbase and could be relatively easily discovered by others), versus the exact process by which the gods chose how to respond to prayers and supplications (total, and fairly strict, as no more than the barest information was provided to any part of the playerbase, and the exact out-of-character process of judging responses was not discoverable through in-character means).

Partial concealment is by its nature weak, or at least as weak as those who have the information wish to make it. Total concealment, however, is discoverable at the whim of the organisers alone. The former could be said to increase player agency - as indeed does weak concealment in general - whilst the latter can be said to decrease it, as it binds the scope of meaningful action.

The typical result of combat in Insurrection
A second consideration is complexity, which can simply be defined as the amount of knowledge that a player needs to be able to make a meaningful decision for a given choice. From a mechanical point of view, consider the difference between the combat system of Odyssey (more-or-less fixed and predictable number of hit points, all weapon blows do one point of damage, a few fairly intuitive special calls) versus that of Insurrection (quite famously convoluted, and once described as "all calls having two parts - the first to tell you which set of resistances that you don't have will let you ignore it, the second whether you can scream or not as you die"). In the former case, it is far easier to make a meaningful choice in regards to weapon selection, fighting style, and so forth than in the latter, as the amount of information that one needs to understand and memorise is substantially lower.

Similarly, complexity can be seen in setting as well as system. In all settings, there will be a minimum amount of information that a player must know in order to meaningfully interact with the world; the information provides context, without which all decisions are fundamentally arbitrary. The amount of detail that a player must know varies substantially between systems and situations, and can include out-of-character skills: for example, certain plot documents in Empire are written in other languages, including Latin and Welsh; the knowledge thus required to make sense of an object within the setting is thus substantially increased.

Complexity is a two-edged sword in larp: an overly-simplistic system or setting provides too little depth as the potential for meaningful choice is limited. Paradoxically, too much complexity has an equally inhibitory effect on player agency - the higher the "information barrier", the harder it is for players to make non-arbitrary decisions.

Mentioning no crafting systems.
Concealment and complexity can combine to make a system near-unplayable; to protect the guilty I shall name no specific examples, but if a core mechanic of the game is both exceedingly complex and not fully divulged to players, then it is likely that a substantial part of the playerbase will feel that they have no agency whatsoever when it comes to choices made around that mechanic. It is possible to work complex, ill-explained mechanics into a system without producing this kind of effect, but it is difficult.

We can see thus that it is in general worth reducing complexity to a relatively low level, at least as far as things that the entire playerbase will need to know. This thus places a low information barrier on participating in the larp at any level, thus improving player agency across the board. However, in order to increase depth, we might wish to increase the maximum complexity that exists within the framework to a level substantially higher than this.

There are certain methods of doing this - most noticeably via concealment, and by modular design. Concealment relies upon the players to desire discovery in order to be useful in this way, and thus best suits games in which such discovery is fitting with the overall themes. This can apply both to system and setting - consider a particular mechanic that only comes into play in unknown but discoverable situations, or some facet of a setting that is deliberately concealed but might be found out in play. Such concealment cannot work if it is strict; there needs to be a mechanism by which it
A surprisingly easy ritual, once you've got the one weird prereq
could be conceivably learned, or else it is merely more arbitrary noise for players to have to work around. Total concealment gives the organisers the ability to fine-tune the point at which increased complexity is revealed, whereas partial concealment does not, and tends to become fully revealed rather quickly (note the old adage that once three people know a secret, it's no longer a secret).

Second, let's consider modular design. Rather than deliberately concealing parts of the system or setting to reduce the general complexity, one might hive off certain pieces of information as being addenda to the general body of the framework. This is most commonly and simply done with system mechanics, assuming that only players who make an active choice to engage with that part of the system will need to understand or memorise the mechanics. Examples might include the workings of Odyssey's world forge (which only really needs to be understood by one specific character class, and even then only if they choose to deal with the world forge; note that it is also subject to a degree of weak concealment), or Empire's ritual metaphysics (which barely need to be understood by anyone, save research magicians, and even then there's rarely a need to have it all memorised).

Medical skills, for example, rarely need to generally understood
Aspects of setting can likewise be made modular, with a degree of "core knowledge" that is required reading for all players, and as many additional details as required. The key to doing this well is to condense what absolutely needs to be known into as simple a form as possible - Profound Decisions do this well in both Odyssey and Empire, by providing bullet-pointed "key facts" about aspects of the setting in their documents, along with reams of additional information.

We might stereotype these approaches as "The Maelstrom Method" of primary concealment, and "The Empire Method" of primary modularity - though of course most larps use a balance of both methods. Primary concealment reduces the "buy-in" of complexity by making much of the information about the setting and system unavailable to the average player, whereas primary modularity keeps information freely available whilst lowering the complexity of that which a player needs to know to "buy-in". Both have their benefits, but both have their risks.

Primary concealment has a tendency to lead to complexity inflation, in which the required baseline of knowledge that is needed to fully engage with the game world tends to increase over time. This has a tendency to go hand-in-hand with power creep, and has the effect of severely disadvantaging new players, who need to swallow a large amount of information (much of it second or third hand, most likely) in order to reach the average level of understanding.

The result of these problems when both applied to Maelstrom
Primary modularity, on the other hand, is less vulnerable to this effect, but suffers from the problem of inconsistency. This is a particular issue when setting complexity is modular - it is all to common for players in this kind of game to end up with entirely erroneous assumptions about basic facts of the gameworld if they have only read a portion of the briefing material available. It is also more difficult to impart a "strict culture" within parts of a modular setting, as the more that is set in stone within the framework, the more complex the general information requirement becomes. This has the secondary effect of encouraging projection of real world concepts into areas of the gameworld that are
undefined, which can lead to all manner of unintended and frame-breaking consequences.

It should be noted that neither of these problems are unique to either method, but can be found to varying extents in varying game frameworks.

This all being said, how can we increase depth without over-burdening players with complex rules and settings, causing an upward spiral of baseline complexity, or risking players ending up wildly off brief?

My general feeling is that an attitude of "show-don't-tell" may be the solution to this, at least as far as setting details go. By designing aspects of system, setting and world to be interlocking, self-revealing and self-reinforcing, it may be possible to ease players up the learning curve, allowing a smooth increase in the upper level of complexity without significantly disadvantaging or over-burdening new players, and without leaving too much room for erroneous assumptions about the gameworld.

How to do that in practice? Well, that's going to be another post, I guess.

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