Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Night the PCs Stole Plotmas

I've written a fair bit on the subject of player agency. I suspect I find it more interesting than the topic probably warrants. There is a reason for this. It has to do with a situation in which I set out to respect player agency as much as possible, and the players took advantage of that fact. As I mentioned before, I once was one of the Storytellers for a vampire LARP. This experience resulted in the third and - thus far - final time I pledged to myself that I would never ST a LARP again.

That's not to say that it was a bad experience, or that it was a bad game. On the whole, I think it was successful. Some people seem to still hold the events of that year in high esteem. Others refuse to ever speak of it again. I suspect a lot of my fascination with player agency comes from all the times I've thought about how things went that year.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I'd like to elucidate a not-insignificant difference between tabletop and live-action roleplaying. Namely, LARP games are larger. The game in question had about 30 players and 4 storytellers (STs), including myself.

Tradition in DCP is to start a new chronicle from scratch in the fall, running ~10 sessions, ending in the spring. The year I helped run the game we had a number of meta-game goals. First and foremost amongst these was making a priority out of player agency. Some recent chronicles had had fairly stringent railroading when it came to the main plot. In many cases, it seemed that the players could not affect the eventual outcome.

We wanted to change that.

So, we decided from the start that our villains would operate within the rules of the game, gathering influence in the shadows to start and acting more overtly only as they became able. There would be increasing hints to their existence and plans. If players reasonably could come across the villains and their plans, they would. If player action hindered the villains, the villains would take a hit. If they prepared enough and had a plan going into the end-game, they could survive, or even win the day. If the players ignored the warnings, then they'd likely all die. We wouldn't use storyteller fiat to veto a player action because it threatened to hurt our villains.

We also decided that most of the political power in the game would rest in the hands of the PCs. We would limit our NPCs to only necessary roles and those would be built to the same power levels as the PCs. To ensure that one group or player wouldn't use their power to ruin the game for others, we set up a balance, with three opposing power blocs: the Prince (the ruler of the vampires in the game's city), the Primogen council (made up of the most politically powerful vampires other than the Prince), and an embassy of foreign eastern vampires.

One of these power blocs, the Prince and two of his supporters, were secretly demon-worshippers trying to bring Ba'al into the world (this was not the most "out there" motivation amongst the PCs). The players found rules for soul-selling and infernal powers in some supplement somewhere. Essentially, they could gain power by buying the souls of other PCs and funneling that toward their eventual goal. We allowed this for a number of reasons, most importantly because actually accomplishing their goal was improbable, and the system had a number of balances built in. The biggest balance was that they needed other PCs to sell them their souls, but if anyone found out what they were doing, they would certainly be mobbed and killed.

For the first 4 sessions, this held true. Because they had to talk in circles around what they were proposing to other PCs, they couldn't convince anyone to sell their soul. It looked like they would spin their wheels, but not get anywhere on their main goal. This was the ideal outcome: the players have something to do, and the STs don't have to deal with everything that might arise from their success.

And then, this happened.

Almost as soon as the fourth session wrapped, they began to succeed. Once they convinced a couple of PCs to sell their souls it became easier and easier. They built a massive conspiracy of PCs in the game, allowing them to have corroboration and alibis from characters "unconnected" to them. The Primogen council had several members die mysteriously and by the time the foreign embassy realized what was going on, the Prince's faction was too powerful and the last opposing bloc was almost entirely wiped out.

By the last few sessions, we, the storytellers, were working with a completely different set of circumstances then we'd ever planned for. Although PCs were aware and preparing for our erstwhile villains, no one outside of the conspiracy knew much of anything about it. And those that did we confiding in the very people heading up said conspiracy. As the last session approached, the few PCs outside of the conspiracy who had any inkling of it allied with the only remaining group who could help oppose them: our villains.

Instead of the final session being a siege as the PCs attempted to fight off our villains, it was a series of assaults: first when the conspiracy attacked the still-unsuspecting PCs, then later when the remaining PCs and the "villains" struck back at the members of the conspiracy as they attempted to complete the rite that would bring a demon into the world. Death, damnation, resurrection, and explosions all played pivotal roles.

In the end, it made for an exciting story and a massive climax. I can say confidently that a lot of people really appreciated the amount of rope we gave them. On the other hand, some of the people who were among the unsuspecting PCs got killed in the conspiracy's first-strike and were (understandably) less than happy about their characters dying as part of a plot that they knew nothing about. Some people spent not-insignificant parts of the year upset with the STs over "unfair" rulings or plot elements that were entirely PC-instigated.

In hindsight, I can see all the ways we could have restored balance to the system or could have undone the "unfair" parts. But most of these solutions would have damaged the sense of agency that made so many other players enjoy the game.

Hopefully, this helps explain why I devote so many posts to the idea of player agency and railroading. In my gaming history, this chronicle stands out and I can't help but pull it out every so often and poke at it. One of these days, I'd like to post the whole story - either one this blog or somewhere else. I've still got all the e-mails from that year, and I think one of the other STs still has the summaries and character sheets stashed away. It would be a massive project, though.

But, it could be interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment