Thursday, July 15, 2010

A new LARP: Nero

Last weekend I participated in a new LARP (live-action role playing game) called Nero. It is quite different from any of the LARPs I have played in so far. Some of the key differences are as follows:

Format and Quests

In Nero, you are "in game" for the entire time from when you get there to when the game is over. (Events are the entire weekend; they last from Friday night to Sunday morning. There is one event every 2 weeks to a month.) This means that, for example, you can be walking from your cabin to breakfast, and be attacked by monsters! So you always have to be prepared. There are also quests that you can go on, called "mods" (short for "modules.") There are a few different ways to get "mods":

1. Sometimes NPCs will come into the tavern and be there to give you quests. (So just like I said that Amtgard was live-action Dungeons and Dragons, this is more like live-action World of Warcraft.)

2. There are sometimes "town mods" that everyone paticipates in, like when the entire town is attacked by monsters.

3. In the woods there are "mod cards" laying on the ground that say things like "You see a shack in the woods. If you wish to investigate, see plot."

There is an "NPC camp" where the "plot team" (the team running the quests) is housed. If you get a quest then you go to the plot team and they run it. Sometimes you have to wait in a queue if all the NPCs are busy running other quests (see, it's live-action World of Warcraft).

Character Creation and Advancement

To create your character you first choose one out of four classes: fighter (melee weapon user), rogue (sneaky thief), scholar (spellcaster), or templar (hybrid fighter/scholar). Then you have a certain number of "build points" to spend on your stuff. You start off with 30 build points but can get more even prior to your first event via "goblin blankets" (see below). Then you spend your build points on skills, like the ability to use certain equipment or cast certain spells, or special powers like "waylay" (allows you to sneak up behind an enemy and knock him unconscious with one blow) or "healing arts" (allows you to tell how many hit points someone is down and whether he is unconscious or dead). As you advance and get XP, it gives you more build points. Some players who have been playing for a long time have over 200 build points.

XP gain is measured in "blankets" - each "blanket" is a number of XP equal to the number of build points you have. The number of XP needed for each build point goes up quadratically with the number of build points you have, however, so your advancement slows the farther up you get.

There are three ways to get XP:

1. Each event, you get one blanket just for showing up. This is your "Base XP."
2. Each event, you can "max out" and get one more blanket. You can do this one of two ways: (a) turn in silver pieces equal to the number of build points you have, or (b) volunteer to play an NPC (i.e. a monster) for 4 hours.
3. Each month, you can also get up to 4 blankets worth of XP from "goblin blankets." You buy goblin blankets with "goblin points," which you get by donating needed items to the group and through other kinds of service (like helping to clean up the site).

Before I got to my first event, I looked on their web site and they said they needed electronic anti-pest devices. I went to Wal-Mart and found a package of 5 of them for only $25, so I got the pack, kept one for my apartment, and gave them the other 4, and they gave me a whole month worth of goblin blankets, so I ended up with 43 build points to start. I played a scholar, and this allowed me to buy lots of spells and a couple auxiliary skills.

Combat and Spellcasting

In this game, players have a certain number of "body points", which are like hit points in other games - each hit takes off body points, and once you are down to zero body points you are unconscious. You can also wear armor, which gives you "armor points." Armor points are like body points, except they are taken off first (so they're like a shield that enemies have to get through), and you can "refit armor" by spending a minute outside of combat, which gives you all your armor points back. You can also buy a skill called "dexterity armor" which gives you extra armor points without having to wear actual armor. Many players have 20-40 body points, plus at least a dozen more points worth of armor and assorted protective powers. As a first-level scholar, I had a measly 4 body points. That means for me that it is a good strategy to stand back and cast spells, and not get in close. When you swing your sword you do a certain amount of damage, based on what kind of weapon it is, what weapon proficiencies you have, and if the weapon is magic.

As for spellcasting, that works by having "spell packets" that you throw at the target. You only have a certain number of spells per recharge cycle - spells recharge at 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM each day. I had a total of 21 spells per cycle, but they run out pretty quickly in combat. Of course as you get more build points you can buy more spells, and more powerful spells. Some people who have been playing fora while have 60-70 spells per recharge cycle, plus they are more powerful so they need fewer spells to kill a monster. My strategy was once I ran out of spells, to go play an NPC until they next recharge cycle, so I could still fight and do something useful.

Death and Resurrection

Unlike in Amtgard and Belegarth, in this game death is a big deal. The way death works is as follows:

1. If you are knocked down below 0 hit points, you start a one-minute "death count." During this time someone can heal you or "First Aid" you to stop your death count. If you run out of time then you are dead. An enemy can also "Killing Blow" you while you are on the ground to kill you immediately, but most monsters don't do this.

2. Once you are dead you start a 5-minute "dissipation count." During this time someone can cast a "Life" spell on you to raise you with no penalty. However if you run out of time then you dissipate, and have to go back to the resurrection circle, which is located in a cabin. Then you have to wait for someone "invested in the circle" or one with a certain special power to come by and start the resurrection. The resurrection takes 15 minutes.

3. You keep track of how many times you resurrect at a circle. Each time you resurrect, you increase your resurrection count by 1. Then, if your resurrection count is greater than 2, you draw a stone from a bag with 10 stones, N-2 of which are black, where N is your resurrection count. If you draw a black stone you are permanently dead and have to create a new character. (Some players, however, create backup characters and level them up with goblin blankets so that if their main character dies, they don't have to go all the way back to level 1.) You can also spend goblin points to reduce your resurrection count. You can spend 100 goblin points (each goblin blanket is 50 goblin points) to reduce your resurrection count by 1, but not below 2. (This even if you "buy back" every death, there is still a 1 in 10 chance of perma-death for each death after the first 2.)

I had to resurrect at a circle one time that event. I died when fighting goblins and nobody had a life spell, so they had to take me back to the tavern to get me a life spell. Unfortunately they took their time gathering treasure after the goblin fight, and I wanted to tell them that they had better hurry up since the 5 minutes were counting down, but of course I couldn't say anything because I was dead. They carried me back but the dissipation count ran out while I was about 200 feet from the tavern. Fortunately the rule is that at your first event, your resurrection count cannot go up (just to give a break to new players.) At least now that I understand the game better, I can make sure to invest in better defenses next time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Origins, Part 2: The More Things Change...

One cool thing at Origins was the dealer room, a large room where lots of game companies were demonstrating their new games. Many people in the game industry were there, including Lou Zocchi, the inventor of the 100-sided die*, and Steven Long, the writer of the HERO System rule book. (It's too bad that I forgot to bring my iPhone so I could take pictures, that I didn't bring along any books for autographs, and also that I didn't get around to telling Mr. Long what I thought about the quality of his writing**.) Another thing I learned was that the popularity of sequels is not limited to movies and video games. Even in board games there are a lot of expansion packs and sequels being sold. Also even games that are supposed to be new often borrow a lot of mechanics from other games. For example, I participated in a demo of one game with the following characteristics (the implication should be obvious from context even if you don't know about the game):

1. In the game, players are working cooperatively, and win or lose together.

2. The game is played on a map consisting of interconnected regions. There are several types of objects that can be in these regions, including (a) players, (b) "tokens", which players are trying to get rid of and which come in four different colors, and (c) "special markers", which help players move around the board.

3. During a turn, the players whose turn it is does the following three things in this order: (a) take a certain number of "actions," (b) draw two cards from a "good deck" and keep them, and (c) draw one or more cards from a special "bad deck", do stuff based on what it says on it, then discard it.

4. Actions include the following: (a) attempt to remove tokens from the region you are in, (b) move to an adjacent region, (c) move to any region on the board by discarding a card matching that region, (d) move from one region containing a special marker to another region containing a special marker, and (e) discard a card matching the region you are in to place a special marker in that region.

5. When you draw a card from the "bad deck", it will tell you where to put new tokens. If a card tells you to place tokens in a region, and there are already three tokens in that region, you instead put one token in each region adjacent to that region. If this happens too many times, you lose the game. You can also lose the game if the card tells you to put tokens of a certain color out, and all the tokens of that color are already on the board.

6. The goal of the game is to "complete" all four colors. You can complete a color by going to a certain location and discarding a large number of cards of that color. Once a color is completed, tokens of that color still appear as normal, but it is possible to automatically remove all tokens of that color from the region you are in when taking a "remove tokens" action.

7. This game is NOT Pandemic, nor is it, according to the game designer, "anything like Pandemic." It does, however, cost about twice as much as Pandemic. (The game is, of course, Defenders of the Realm.)


*Several years ago, I did a standup comedy routine about Dungeons and Dragons, and I said the 100-sided dice were "too much like frat brothers" because they "kind of rolled around a lot and wouldn't stop until they landed on the floor." I was not the only person who thought this, because since then Mr. Zocchi has redesigned the die to add a hollowed out inside with pebbles in it as a "braking system" so it doesn't roll around too much.

**What I think about his writing is that the system itself is great because you can create almost any power you want with it, but he is in desperate need of an editor (the credits in the book do not have an editor listed). This is because most of the book is filled with a lot of excess verbiage. The best example I found is the following (copied verbatim, including the parentheses:)

A mentalist who achieves this level of Mind Control could make an enemy attack one of his (the enemy's) allies/teammates (instead of the mentalist's allies/teammates, whom the enemy is fighting) or even just surrender. He could even make the enemy direct his attacks against himself.

My proposed rewrite is:

A mentalist who achieves this level of Mind Control could make an enemy attack anyone that that enemy could legally target, including itself.

I showed this to Dave, the GM of our Hero System game, and he agreed, saying that "when a computer science graduate student can write more clearly than you can, it's probably time you should get an editor." I actually think, however, that computer science actually teaches you to write more clearly: a lot of what math and computer science are about is finding ways to express complicated concepts in unambiguous and concise ways.