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:
- This will be a LARP in the American Theatrical style. No foam weapons, and the game runs similarly to a tabletop roleplaying game.
- Sessions take approximately four hours and can be linked into an ongoing game.
- The game can be played with minimal intervention from a Game Master, although an organizer may help with bookkeeping.
- The game can be played while standing and moving around, with limited interference from out-of-character mechanics.
- Direct combat is not useful. Any victories or defeats will happen through social interaction.
- Special in-character skills or abilities may help a character, but they will not take the place of social intrigue.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.