Courtly Intrigue LARP Rules Part 1

I’ve found myself longing to play in a Live-Action Roleplaying Game that focuses on courtly intrigue. What I mean by this is the social sparring, witty repartee, and backroom dealing that happens among aristocrats in the movie Ridicule or among university professors jockeying for tenure. I’ve experienced some of this when playing Vampire: The Requiem using the Mind’s Eye Theatre rules, but that game has a major problem for me. Characters can kill each other with strange powers, so someone playing the political game has to also worry that the person they’re verbally sparring with can decapitate them with a swipe.

I’m working on the rules, but I want to design in the open so that I can get feedback and suggestions. Here are my base concepts for the game:

  1. This will be a LARP in the American Theatrical style. No foam weapons, and the game runs similarly to a tabletop roleplaying game.
  2. Sessions take approximately four hours and can be linked into an ongoing game.
  3. The game can be played with minimal intervention from a Game Master, although an organizer may help with bookkeeping.
  4. The game can be played while standing and moving around, with limited interference from out-of-character mechanics.
  5. Direct combat is not useful. Any victories or defeats will happen through social interaction.
  6. Special in-character skills or abilities may help a character, but they will not take the place of social intrigue.
  7. While a player’s strategy and charisma will be helpful, a player lacking social skills or cleverness can still have fun and influence things.

My idea so far is a combination of concepts from the card game Whist, the TV show Survivor, and the mancala game Oware.

Status and Characters

Social status is tracked using playing cards; a character with more cards has higher status. At the beginning of a campaign, a deck of cards (or maybe more) is divided among the players. Players may conceal their cards or show them, and may trade among themselves or even hide cards in the play area. A concept I borrow from Oware is that as a player’s collection grows it becomes harder to quickly count their number at a glance. A player may not demand a count of another player’s status, so there is more uncertainty the higher a player’s status.

As I describe this, I realize that it may provide awesome flavor to use tarot cards instead of playing cards. I’ll need to think about how that would change conflict resolution.

Players have characters they play; they invent the characters themselves and possibly assign some traits. Maybe one character gets bonuses in a certain situation, or has a special tactic they can use. In White Wolf’s vampire LARPs, some characters can turn invisible and spy on others. This could be an interesting ability, whether it’s literally invisibility or just an aptitude for eavesdropping. Perhaps a player can’t move their feet while hiding; that would be an interesting mechanic.

Conflict

When two characters come into conflict, they can risk status against each other. A character might insult another, or try to out-debate them, or intimidate them. Each player chooses a card from their status hand and holds it out face down. They turn their cards up simultaneously; the higher card wins, and the victor takes both cards into their status hand.

Additionally, characters can lend support. This might be in the form of applause, laughter, comments from the sidelines, or looking imposing. The supporting players hold out face-down cards toward the player they support, and turn their cards over at the same time as the contestants. The highest card among everyone determines the winning side. The victorious contestant takes all cards bid in favor of the losing contestant (and can distribute them among their supporters if they wish to).

Some cards will be special. If I go ahead with playing cards, I’m thinking that the Jokers will beat every card but a two. In the case of Tarot cards, perhaps the major arcana (the trumps) can beat any card except a higher-ranked major arcana, and the Fool will win if and only if there is a major arcana played on the opposing side.

Elimination

At the end of a session, players will be able to eliminate other players. I think that using a Survivor-like system would be interesting here: perhaps a player can choose to spend any number of cards to target another player. These serve as votes; the character with the most cards bid against him is eliminated. Perhaps he is assassinated, exiled, or just forced out of the social circle. Regardless of the method, the character is unplayable and the player may make a new character. The cards bid to eliminate, as well as the cards of the victim, are distributed evenly among all players.

End Notes

Those are the basic concepts. What do you think? I still need to figure out if I want to define a setting. I also need to figure out what sort of special skills or abilities a character might have. These ideas are all very early, and they might be changed before everything’s done. I’d appreciate any comments or thoughts you might have.

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14 thoughts on “Courtly Intrigue LARP Rules Part 1

  1. Hello! As someone who mostly or exclusively practiced larp through very artsy/experimental venues, but who’s main pastime is tabletop role-playing games in the Forge-inspired fashion, I can’t help but feel that you’re approaching this like one would approach tabletop design, rather than larp design. In my (limited) experience, larp design is more fruitfully approached as event design, rather than portable rules-system design, and I urge you to make an attempt with that angle. Currently you’ve got a set of conflict-resolution mechanics, which is rad, but I question whether conflict-resolution mechanics are even useful in a larp — sure they’re not *necessary*, as 90%+ larps I experienced didn’t have those.
    Try setting up [what for a tabletop RPG would be] an example campaign, or one-shot: what do you need besides conflict resolution? I think you’ll discover most of the design for a larp really happens at *that* level.
    (I’d really love to have an ongoing conversation re: this.)

  2. I definitely like approaching LARPs as events; I’ve run several which started from a story/setting seed and had rules only as a just-in-case afterthought. However, most of my experience LARPing has been in the White Wolf style, where you’re basically acting out a large-scale tabletop campaign.

    Coming from the perspective of a designer who mostly works with video games, I find it interesting to find how to make story emerge from rules. Sculpting a scenario with a set design would certainly scratch my itch for courtly intrigue, but I’m most interested in creating a system which can create many such situations and enable an ongoing game.

    Concept 7 above is definitely relevant. In a game without mechanics or stat tracking, a less socially-gifted player will have a less rewarding time and will fare poorer. And while I believe that aesthetics and mechanics are closely wedded, I still think that interesting mechanics can stand on their own.

    This all said, I have very little experience with more artsy LARPs. I may be misunderstanding their potential and their strengths.

  3. Right, I was obviously underestimating the immediate relevancy of #7, and maybe I was assuming – by habit – that the role of conflict resolution mechs in larp has to be relegated to actions which can’t actually be performed by the players (such as violent fighting, supernatural powers or, depending on your safety rules, chasing) nor agreed upon peacefully (sexual interactions).
    So you plan to use the conflict resolution mechs for “social” conflicts, such as persuasion, seduction and witty retorts? To what degree? I mean: how much of the interaction you want to be acted out, and how much of it you want to replace with the mechanical/symbolic interaction?

  4. I’m imagining that two players will be roleplaying, having a conversation. Agnes accuses Brian of having some part in the sabotaging of her business plans, and then says, “You speak about honor and fair dealing, but you’re nothing but an underhanded cur!”

    As she says this, Agnes’s player holds out a card. Carlos supports Agnes, so he says, “It’s true! I heard him arranging the whole thing last week!” He also holds out a card. Brian says, “That’s preposterous. You’re just constructing fantasies!” and holds out his card.

    The three turn over their cards. If Agnes wins, any uninvested spectators should roleplay disapproval of Brian. Maybe Agnes issues a final quip or Brian confesses and tries to justify himself. Agnes winning just means that she is the winner of this social exchange, and Brian loses status to her.

    If Brian wins, he successfully dismisses Agnes’s accusations, and people roleplay accordingly. I see the cards as a way to resolve the difficult question of “who made the better argument?” or “did the insult stick or fall flat?”

    I can even imagine it going into more exotic territory. Say two characters have a duel. They may decide who gets shot as a consent-based thing, but a card pull decides who wins the social fight. Maybe David gets shot in the shoulder and Edgar wins the duel, but because David won the social contest Edgar is regarded as a brute and a bully.

  5. OK, so players still speak all of their character’s “lines”, but the cards decide who’s got the “better” line.
    I’ve been using similar methods in tabletop role-playing games (Dogs in the Vineyard is a famous example of handling loaded conversations/verbal conflicts this way; there are so many others), and in that case I think they’re extremely effective. I doubt the efficacy of such a method in a “larp” proper, though… But before I go into the details of this, how large a larp are we talking: how many players, and in how large a space?

    I also think (though I admit I don’t particularly care) that this method is not completely effective in realizing you point #7 above. It’s an equalizer, of course: it ensures that a player can author a cheesy line but still “win”, of course, while another player making a great retort could still lose; but in practice I think such results can, in the worst case, be so grating to the ear that they highlight the cheesiness of a given player instead of compensating for it. The corrective use of support cards from audience players makes such a result less likely, of course, but can only do that through re-instating individual player skill as the decisive factor.
    To accomplish your #7 point, instead, I’d rather create another “arena of play”, one which would be independent of social skill, and make it a major factor in the game. A resource-management aspect, maybe, or a gambling aspect. Social skill and charisma then become a way to compensate low assets from the other “arena”, but any individual player can do as well by possessing a single strong suit as by being “average” in both fields.

  6. What if the cards represent “favors,” and are the means of conflict resolution in all arenas except social situations? Then social interactions would be unburdened by mechanics, but could be used to convince people to trade or provide cards or support.

  7. It’s a pretty straightforward way to go. In that case, though, in the interest of your #7 point, I suggest you provide some important venue of conflict which is not just “any miscellaneous conflict which eventually happens” and can only be resolved with cards/favors. This because larps are largely social events, and a “courtly” setting reinforces that. I’d use some ongoing, larger picture conflict which is going on “off scene”, such as positioning troops for an upcoming civil war, acquiring arable land in the inception of enclosures (or rights over land in faraway colonies), or industrializing the country.

  8. At the moment I’m liking a collaborative story environment, where players come up with their own motivations. The general context would be set, perhaps nobles meeting for parties, but each player would make up a story about why their character is here and what they want to accomplish. Whatever a player’s story is, it requires the same amount of favor to be spent to resolve it.

    So one character might have starving people back home, and she’s seeking to secure trade deals and technology to feed her citizens. Another might want to build an enormous statue of himself. In either case, they might each need to spend twenty total units of favor to accomplish their goals. Of course, favor also needs to be spent in the course of eliminating social rivals or defending oneself from elimination.

    I can easily see (and perhaps the mechanics should encourage) two players deciding to make themselves rivals in each others’ stories. Perhaps they are opposite sides in a cold war, and are racing to spend enough favor to crush the other side.

    If a character’s goal is achieved, they might retire and the player create a new character. Alternately, they could make up a new goal, this one more difficult. It could require 25 favor instead, and the next one 30.

    A conflict shared by the entire player population would be hard to manage in a GM-light game, I would think. It would either come across as generic or constricting.

  9. You’re really designing this as it was a tabletop role-playing game… and making it sound like an interesting one, actually.
    Having a component of collective brainstorming and back-story creation before acting scenes out “in a larpy way” works well, in my experience, for one-shot games with a very limited number of players: “jeepforms” like Doubt, say, which are actually tabletop role-playing games for all design considerations except that the players stand up and act out characters with their full body (but there is no, for example, multiple simultaneous actions going on in separate rooms or corners of a large room). I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for a campaign, as it works in campaign-oriented tabletops (“jeepforms” are always one-shot just because the Jeeps themselves are campaign-averse). I’m more worried, though, about going for a larger number of players, as I fear it may make the managing of it all exceedingly difficult, the resulting game a random mess, or may prompt falling back to a strong organizer-centric method as a default.

  10. I also have a lot of experience with IRC freeform roleplaying, where a general setting is created and players then bring in their own characters with their own motivations. That’s entirely consent-based, and in many cases there isn’t even an approval process. It’s just a bunch of people meeting in a bar, telling each other their histories, and then often having romantic relationships or sparring matches or going off on little adventures that are GMed by one of the players, but still in a freeform style where nothing can happen to a character without the player’s consent.

    Is your concern with regard to management the complexities of having side conversations and so on? Is it having a cohesive setting that doesn’t feel like Superfriends or fractured fairy tales? I’m not quite sure I’m understanding your primary worries.

  11. My primary concern is that in larp proper – unlike in tabletop or in IRC freeform or in play-by-post, etc. – no one player (nor organizer) has access to full information regarding the ongoing game. This is a crucial design feature to consider, regarding larp: you can make it a larp-only-in-name, by designing it in such a way that all of playing happens as a (single) Shared Imagined Space (in IRC you may not be paying attention, but all of playing is flowing through your screen, and all screens are the same) or embrace the complexity of multiple, simultaneous threads which only larp allows. Mechanics such as the ones you propose usually fare better in the former case. In the latter case, large amounts of peer-created content are feasible, but its creation need happen apart from the game proper – the groundworks of it at least – like in pre-game workshops or via e-mail conversations.

  12. Credentials: Iven’t much experience with roleplaying… stuff, but I am struggling to get my first Tabletop going with LORE (Don’t take offense when I say I had to overhaul it).

    A few things.

    *What if someone refuses a challenge? Is that possible? On one hand you can produce an unrealistic situation where someone can take an insult in front of a crowd and walk away with his reputation intact (good idea for a perk), and on the other hand you can produce an environment where the weaklings are constantly assaulted since they can’t defend themselves.

    *I don’t like that no one can be killed. It should simply be that they can’t be killed easily, I think. The easiest solution would be to integrate Paranoia/Assassination (thank you for the link Greg) rules, plus the need to kill them ‘quietly,’ or else in a duel. A neat side effect of this is that some people could choose assassination as their objective. Rather than trying to garner political support for some project, he’s just trying to put someone down. The political maneuvering would probably be little more than a ruse, though it could help to have others on board.

    *I don’t like the way that cards simply and concretely win people…stuff. To make a comparison, it feels like it would end up like ‘The Day,’ and victory would be little more than pre-determined. Plus, it feels a little too far off to the side to make performance based off of extremely simple rules. So, a possible solution would be to make the actual words and actions weighty. Good quips would be worth as much as +2 (which helps to give the attacker an edge; something I especially kinda like) and vice versa.

    *Maybe you could make certain cards better at certain kinds of actions. For instance, all the clubs could be more effective at situations involving fraud, hearts involving multiple people, etc. It complicates the game a good bit, but it does mean that the underdogs always have a shot.

  13. I definitely like the idea of characters being killable (or exileable, etc.) but only with difficulty. I’m playing around in my head with the idea that a player can spend favor at the beginning of a game session to mark another character for elimination. That character’s player then has until the end of the game session to gather enough favor to prevent the elimination or they are killed (or exiled or stripped of their title, etc.).

  14. This probably isn’t the kind of feedback you’re looking for (and I can’t provide any feedback on LARP design), but when you mentioned professors jockeying for tenure my first thought was “That’s not really what you’re looking for.” Even aside from the question of how much politicking goes on in tenure decisions, getting tenure itself is a very long haul — the better part of a decade — and at least in theory doesn’t put people in direct competition. (If you have a tenure-track job, after a certain number of years you go up for review and have an up or down vote for tenure.)

    If I were doing something academic I’d focus on the process of hiring for tenure-track jobs. There people are in direct competition; for a given job, only a certain number of people will be called for the next stage of interviews, and only one person will get it. And face-to-face interviews and schmoozing play a much larger role there than in tenure reviews (which basically involve portfolio reviews of one sort or another). But you could still have hidden cards for things like strength of argument; the less charismatic LARPer might still be able to succeed by pulling out an ace for an unbeatable argument.

    There’s also a wider range of possibilities available there; instead of just an up or down decision you could be up for more desirable job. Do you wind up at Cushy Ivy League U. or at The University of Overwork at Armpit?

    For an added fillip you could do something like the British university interviews, where they actually invite all the final candidates to the campus for the last round of interviews and tell the one who got the job before they leave.

    This may be more realism than you’re looking for, but I thought it might be worth the feedback. (I’d have about as much interest playing the LARP I’ve described as a veteran with PTSD would have LARPing the war they’d just fought, I guess.)

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