Introduction: Nobody starts at Level One

posted by Hedningen Original SA post

All right, despite my long-aborted attempt at finishing up the classic Swedish RPG Mutant , I figured I'd give another shot at this with something I'm a little more steeped in - the noble art of Live Action Role-Playing, or LARP. If you want more on Mutant , my posts in the previous thread have pretty much all the mechanics necessary to play translated - you just need to look at Basic Role-Playing to get the remainder, as it's licensed off of that.

So, let's talk LARP. I intend to go through a few systems that are moderately prominent in the US right now - there's a ton of people who do smaller games, home-built systems, and little groups, but that's not particularly interesting to talk about, as there's enough variance in those that most people would have almost no chance to go and check out a game. Instead, I'll be looking at a couple of national systems over my next few posts, along with a couple of regional games that have entered the public consciousness of American LARPers. At this point, I'm looking at working with NERO, Avegost, and Larpcraft - three semi-national/national systems that all have some pretty unique foibles and different methods of handling running around in the woods hitting each other with foam weapons.

                                    NERO Live Action Role-Playing
Of course, no discussion of American LARP is started without referring to NERO, the granddaddy of them all. Currently helmed by Joseph Valenti (who will get his own write-up later in this discussion for some of the hilarity involving his approach to related games), they started up in 1986, adopted the name NERO (Or New England Role-playing Organization) in 1989, and started having some larger-scale events. In 1991, Dragon Magazine published an article on NERO, which brought a lot of attention to it and made it into the beast of a system it is today.

For a lot of people, NERO is American LARP, with all the baggage that comes with it - costuming can be ridiculous-looking, players will be shouting LIGHTNING BOLT over and over again, and the weapons are little more than foam-wrapped sticks. Still, as with any organization of this size, there's some variance - in areas with a lot of SCA crossover, there's some excellent costuming being done, and people have done good things with the system. Love it or hate it, they were a huge boon to the American fantasy LARP scene in the 90s.

Right now, we'll be looking at the 9th Edition NERO Rulebook, available for free on their website - if you want to witness this absurdity in all of its glory, then go right ahead.

Chapter 1: Getting Started
The first chapter opens up with a bit of in-game fiction - I say "in game" because it's describing what a player should be feeling. Our hero is fighting against a deadly necromancer, and by the power of their imagination, a lot of really awesome things are happening - rooms darken, undead rise, and amazing magics are worked by the players. It paints a very scripted, stilted version of what might actually happen in a game, right down to the damage calls by the players in the middle of some otherwise unremarkable fantasy writing.

The chapter then goes into what NERO is and the philosophy behind it - it's like tabletop role-playing, but outside and for real , with flesh-and-blood people acting out all of the roles. It's a game where you can (supposedly) do whatever you want, make any kind of character that you'd like, and play in a rich fantasy world - depending, of course, on the number of people who can make it to a game, the props and setting that the team working on that particular chapter design, and a host of other factors.

We also get the basic mechanics of NERO - you are always your character, combat is represented by actually hitting people with padded weapons, and magic is represented by throwing fabric-and-birdseed packets at people. There's also the rundown of the types of events - a Day event takes place over a day, a Weekend event takes a weekend, and longer events are possible. One important note is that once an event begins, it goes on 24 hours a day until the scheduled end time - this creates some interesting possibilities for players to sneak around and be dastardly.

Up next is an important concept - the 4 Most Important Rules , designed to maximize fun while minimizing risk to the parent organization. They make sense from a legal perspective - US injury and liability laws are Byzantine, restrictive, and liable to screw a gamerunner out of all of their money if someone sues for injury.

Okay, now that we've covered the introduction section, let's talk about NERO's basic rules. This requires the discussion of XP (experience points) versus BP (build points). Experience points are what you earn from attending events - which have a listed maximum amount that they can give out - which are then used to buy BP, which you use to get skills for your character. Every 10 BP, you gain a level, and the cost for a BP increases as you gain levels - designed to allow for slower growth as players get more experienced. It also goes over the basic races and that your character will have one of four classes in this section, along with the absolute basics of combat - you may get hit with a weapon.

It also discusses the combat system a little bit - each player has a certain amount of armour points and hit points. Whenever you're hit with a weapon, it does damage, which you subtract from your totals. Weapons have variable damage - whenever you swing, you announce how much damage your weapon is doing.

We then get the example weekend - a bit of goblin combat, some explanations of the rules in action, and the idea of what a game entails.

Finally, there's a good section on making a believable character background - I actually kind of like this part, because it goes over the common mistakes people make when creating their first character, right down to ridiculous names and overly-accomplished starting characters. While it's short, it actually covers a lot of things I think that starting players need to know when writing bios, although it's a bit skewed towards younger players.

Chapter 2: The Basics
Chapter 2 starts getting into actual rules-text, so there's a lot more to look at here. First off are the classes - NERO does pretty well with just four, leaving it up to the players to come up with background, fluff, and ideas for their characters.

So, pretty basic classes. Now, let's move onto the real meat - the various races of NERO. Some of them are just human variants, whereas others are non-human races, requiring make-up and specific costuming to represent. All of them have additional abilities if you have costume requirements.

Just as a note - there are no physical requirements aside from costuming to be a member of these races, so you can end up with some ridiculous-looking people. A 4-foot half-ogre is just as likely as a 7-foot dwarf.

Now, I bet you can see a few problems with this - first off, good costuming is difficult as hell, and with so many races with disparate make-up requirements, there's a good chance you'll see someone with a ridiculous costume, shattering the illusion that you're running around in a pseudo-fantasy world. As anyone with make-up experience can tell you, making prosthetics look natural requires a decent amount of skill and practice. While all of these races create a tremendous amount of variety, it also creates a lot of strain on organizers and players - if you're aiming for a quality event, you either need a staff that knows how to train people on make-up skills or hard-and-fast rules on the quality of make-up allowed. This is, of course, a slippery road to fall down - when I cover Avegost, I'll be hitting the other end of this spectrum, colloquially known as "Stitch Nazis" - but in general, keeping up standards is A Good Thing.

There's also a note about in-game culture at the end - basically, NERO has some pre-existing cultures, but if you want to add something new, you need to run it by the Plot Committee before you can say it or you risk upsetting the delicate balance of the game world.

After talking about Races and Classes, the rulebook goes into the three game states.

Out of Game is any time you're not participating in the game, signified by a white headband. Bathrooms, some cabins, and showers are all OOG, and no one can do anything to you while you're not in the game, but likewise, you can't do anything in the game.

In Game is the default state. You're participating in the game, you can hit people and be hit, and things are neat. It diverts - rather jarringly - to a sudden discussion of armour and hit points, along with the definition of being alive, dying, and being dead. If you're knocked to exactly 0 hit points, you're unconscious and can recover to 1 after a minute, but if a blow would reduce you to below 0, then you go to -1 hit points and enter Dying begin your dying timer - one minute to receive First Aid or die. If someone doesn't manage to do that, then you're Dead - all of your effects vanish and only certain magic can revive you. You must lay on the ground for five minutes - after five minutes, your body magically disintegrates, you become a spirit, and only really, really powerful magic can revive you.

Of note in this section is the discussion on Killing Blows - you can automatically kill an incapacitated target (someone paralysed, held, unconscious, or immobilized) by holding a weapon up against them for a count of Killing Blow 1, Killing Blow 2, Killing Blow 3, <damage> . This brings them immediately to the Dead condition.

The third condition, Spirit , happens when you've been Dead for five minutes. You put on an out-of-game headband and report to the Resurrection Point to register that you've died. You can't interact with the world and you can only walk - no running ghosts. You can get resurrected at the Resurrection Point via a 5-minute ritual, re-appearing with no possessions or effects, but with full hit points and abilities. You get two guaranteed Resurrections, but after that, there's a chance something goes wrong and you permanently die, barring the powers of Money appealing to the organization for the resurrection of your character.

There's also a nice note about first-event deaths - if you're going to your first event, then there's no chance of permanent death, unless you're abusing things horribly. It's a good way to ensure that people get hooked and show up to at least two games.

Finally, we reach the Experience tables. Rather than awarding experience based on what your character accomplishes, you receive experience for attending events - depending on how long the event is, you multiply your character's current Build Points by the multiplier, and that's how many points you get. You can also pay 1 in-game silver per additional experience point, up to the amount that you would earn normally - allowing players to double the amount of experience gained at an event. This . . . is just a weird rule, as far as I'm concerned.

Finally, we get to the point in the book where it explains how many experience points you start with. You get 65 XP, which equals 30BP, which means that all players start at . . . second level.

That's right. Level one is pointless. Nobody starts at level one. Instead, you start at level two.

The table lists how many hit points you have at the level and how much build points cost in experience points for that level. This two-tiered system is kinda weird, and I'm definitely not a fan of it, as it introduces some odd artificial gaps in the system which we will doubtlessly plumb as we continue on.

Now that we've introduced the basics of NERO, we'll discuss the nature of skills, magic, and spells, also known as "Why is everyone yelling numbers and how do I do math in my head while swinging a sword?"

Skills: Gypsy Curse is another interesting one

posted by Hedningen Original SA post

It's time for some more NERO-based entertainment!

                           NERO Live Action Role-Playing, 9th Edition
Chapter 3: Skills
This chapter describes all of the available skills for characters in NERO. As a start, we're introduced to the concept of Skill resets - some skills are only usable a certain number of times per day. There are two types of resets - Standard Reset , which occurs at 6 PM the next day or immediately before an Adventure module - a way to have parties leave for specific scenarios, and Limited Reset , which is an optional rule for some chapters that allows some skills to reset at 6 AM the next day. This is designed to create some limitations in skills, but due to the wording, it makes it mechanically disadvantageous to use some skills after midnight or very early in the day.

Next, we get to a little disclaimer regarding skills - these are skills that your character has, rather than your own, personal skill. As such, if you don't have a skill to use a certain weapon, then you can't pick it up and defend yourself with one in a moment of desperation. Instead, the swings represent what your character is capable of - damage and ability is reflected by mechanical skills, rather than personal ability.

I'm going to admit - I have a huge problem with this. It takes personal abilities out of the equation, arbitrarily restricts what players can do, and makes it so that what is meant to be a live experience frequently comes down a numbers game. Think about it - even someone who's never handled a sword can figure out how to pick one up and block with it in a moment of desperation. As you'll see from some of the skills later on, this also leads to a number of restrictions on players as to what they can do. It changes the game from "I have trained and developed personal skills in fighting" to "I have larger numbers on a sheet" - which, by the combat rules, which are lightest-touch, means that rather than emphasizing learning skill, games can easily come down to people machine-gun tapping one another and shouting numbers.

Next up is the spell system. Spells are memorized in slots - you buy the ability to memorize a spell, then you get spells. This is organized in a pyramid - you need two level 1 spell slots before you can buy a 2nd level spell slot. The maximum slots you need of a level you need is four - unless you want to add more spell slots of a higher level spell. If that sounds vague, then you're reading it the same as I am.

On to skills! Skills cost different amounts of Build Points for each class - a Fighter has an easier time learning fighting skills, whereas a Scholar has a harder time. This means that everyone can develop skills in different areas, if you've got the Build Points for it. At the same time, certain classes have pre-designed routes they should take.

Now, what are some amusing skills?

First off, there's Assassinate/Dodge. It's a double-skill, which either allows someone to backstab for 100 damage once per day or use that skill to "dodge" a weapon or packet that hits you by calling dodge. You can buy it multiple times, each of which adds another daily attempt and, every four levels, gives you one "super-assassinate" for 200 damage. This is the first in a series of "Parry/dodge" skills that, again, remove player skill and turn things into a numbers game with "Whoever has the most uses of hit-negating abilities lasts longer".

Gypsy Curse is another interesting one - it allows a Gypsy to curse a target by calling out their name/description and listing the actions. It's intended to be embarrassing or humorous - you can force a player to role-play a certain way, give them warts or physical deformities, or make their personality change. It can be a cool tool for RP, but again, it falls into the really racist "Gypsies are magical people with a cruel sense of humour" interpretation.

Read and Write is another interesting skill - it's assumed that players can neither read nor write if they don't have this skill. It can be a good idea - we're role-playing in a medieval society, so not everyone is literate, but it can lead to some weird metagaming when your character can't read, yet you can read signs. It could lead to some interesting RP, but it tends to be more overly restrictive, and it can be seen as an experience sink for people working with fighter skills.

Stop Thrust allows you to hit an opponent, who can only use dodging skills to stop it - no blocking with a weapon or shield. They cannot advance towards you for five seconds - essentially stopping them.

There's also a brief aside on Archery - note that using real bows is prohibited in NERO. Instead, you use props that look like bows and throw packets, much like the magic system. This means that bows have very little range - exactly like their real-world counterparts. From a liability point-of-view, this makes sense - they're a big national organization, after all - but there's been a number of innovation in combat-safe arrows and bolts that actually give a bit of range to folks. Again, verisimilitude is lost in favour of mechanics.

That wraps up the interesting skill sections - we'll cover some of the elements later when discussing magic and how hilarious it can get in terms of damage differences. A bit short, I know, but rather than going through and listing all of the skills (most of which are variations on "You can do this thing, which does extra damage or allows you to perform a specific action"), I figured I'd give the summarized version of events.