Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Broken Promise of SA 2.0

  I want to note that I wrote this over a year ago when I stepped down from the Rules Team at SA. I was asked to wait to publish it because of some of the details it contained. There were attempts to revise it into a conversation between two people regarding the subjects it presents. It's been over a year at this point; I feel I've waited enough. It hasn't been revised or updated from the point of view of approximately October of 2014. I know that some rules have been changed, revised, and updated. But I feel that the underlying issues are likely to remain.
  In full disclosure, I probably won't ever be returning to SA. I've taken a role on Plot at SPITE which provides a very similar factional town feel to SA. While some of the same issues are present in SPITE, I feel that the leadership of the game is much more willing to address these issues rather than try to sweep them under the rug.


There have been some outstanding successes and some dismal failures found within the rules set. From a designer/developer perspective, I want to walk through what worked and what didn't in order to really show where the system remains strong and where it needs to continue to be refined. As I step away from the Rules Team I want to note that I feel the rules are in no way complete, stable, or solid. But continued progress on the rules hasn't really been a priority for the organization.


Energy Economy
 The infinite energy complex is dead. This has radically altered the game and finally disconnected the close interaction between Shifters and Wraiths. Honestly, at this point, the two really don't have a whole lot to do with each other. This is as it should be and I think the game is better for it. This was really what the game needed. It was the biggest and probably the most shocking change to the game.
 The addition of nodes has also created several interesting zones in the game. In my original write up of the rules I had people spending 10 minutes regaining energy at a node rather than 1 minute. I'm still not sure of the right decision here, but the nodes are clearly the right idea to create a game zone with interesting areas as well as handle the external sources of energy for these PC groups.
 While I consider the nodes a success I'd probably start messing with the amount of energy they provide. My experiences indicate that the target of 40 energy is probably too high. A 20 energy character could blow their entire energy pool three times per game without having any problems. This ended up being an easier game of resource management than we had intended. I might go so far as to cut this number in half and only have 20 floating energy. I feel this would do a better job creating a higher level of threat. This would be easy to handle by giving sorcerers 10 energy at sunrise, dropping haunts to one of each type, and cutting four of the shifter glades.

Character Creation
 We really opened up the options in character creation. Bringing in a handful of merits, lores, and clear rules on purchasing learned powers has given players the option to build more diverse characters at character creation. This comes at a significant cost but I feel it has helped experienced players enter the game with richer characters, ultimately making the game richer. Choices such as playing a Brujah that learned Valeren, while costing more XP, is a much richer addition to the game than just another Salubri.
 I've been excited to create and play new characters under this system and I've seen a number of people excited by the potential as well. I think this was a strength because it opened the box in a game that felt very boxed in at new character creation. There was fear that opening up BSD, Baali, and other “bad guys” as character creation would create a griefer issue. This fear has yet to be realized as I don’t think it really exists. The few PCs we’ve had in game that took these options have generally been clever, or devious. Overall I feel that new characters have become more exciting, which is why we’ve had so many of them.

Agg Damage
 This was one of the most heavily contested changes we brought in. It has created a very interesting level of depth into the game. I don't feel like this has really been explored as deeply as we had hoped but I feel that it is working. Someone throwing agg causes a big change in how PCs deal with a problem. From what I've seen the added math of agg hasn't been a problem and it has given ST a big tool for challenging players. While I think ST is yet to really make appropriate use of the ability to deal agg, I still think the concept has served to be quite a success.

Combat Feeding
 Vampires are still an incredibly powerful force in the game, especially when dealing with other vampires. Their power level drops drastically when dealing with Non Vampires and their ability to be an all game all-star has been seriously diminished. The new rules for feeding have allowed for successful feeding by vampires in social settings, the agg has made it undesirable, and has removed it as a combat technique. Feeding being removed from Wraiths has also had a significant effect on making damage the biggest way to deal with combat encounters rather than draining. It has also removed the parasitic relationship between wraiths and the living. Now, wraith are more able to be either friendly or not with the living based on their character concepts.

Sort of Successes

 I feel we clarified and fixed a number of broken powers but some still remain. We may have gone too far with obedience, making it a very weak power. Cloak seems more properly balanced and Presence has received a major functional upgrade. The removal of Regenerate and the old Majesty, as well as the burn out rules, has altered the survivability of certain PC groups while drastically increasing the survivability of certain NPC groups. Killing someone remains expensive but very feasible. I’m happy with the direction here but feel the continuous tweaks are required. Horrid Reality remains incredibly powerful, as does Venom Blood while Daze seems much weaker than previous incarnations.

 I think we started off on the right foot with rituals. The new requirements add a lot of direction to the game and removing the silly limitations from the previous version has made rituals a big part of the “end game” of SA. Unfortunately, many of the rituals aren’t really completed, balanced, or well honed. Rituals were the last thing completed by the Rules Team as the new rules went into effect but they weren’t as well reviewed as other sections of the rule book. Some of the potential of the rituals is fantastic but I don’t feel that ST has done a great job getting the new rules for rituals into the players hands. There’s rituals to make a caern, the process for hiving a caern has changed, there’s a ton of cool changes that players haven’t adapted to yet because they haven’t seen the rituals yet. The Rituals are good in concept but not really well written or balanced.

Spirit Rules
 You guys don’t know it yet but the spirit rules are awesome. They’ve been ratcheted up to 11 and can provide a great source of challenge for Shifters looking for a fight. Again, like rituals, much of this hasn’t been realized by the playership because of how ST has handled spirits. At some point there’ll be an ST that realizes the tools that are there and makes the game fantastic for shifters.

 While most of conversion went over pretty smooth, the tags at conversion proved a major debacle. I’m relatively sure there is items that are running around that should never have existed. The system was designed so that no fetish is capable of swinging Fire without paying energy, no weapon longer than a dagger could be both silvered and made into a fetish. I’m not sure where the communication broke down here but I don’t think that tags ended up converting into the same rules set we had created for them to exist in.

 I feel like the change to the reliance on willpower hasn’t worked as intended. Personally, I love being able to take every mental thrown at me, at least for a few seconds. The majority of the playership doesn’t do this. Willpower is still a default response to a mental attack. What really happened was that the majority of old players and staff made characters with 8+ willpower under the new rules system. Honestly, I think this was bad for the game. Keeping willpower at 6 xp made it to cheap not to buy. I think I would have liked to have seen a tiered system for purchasing willpower where your second point costs six XP and your 10th point costs 15 or so xp. Currently, the 2 willpower for the cost of a learned level 3 power isn’t balanced. Willpower is just too useful not to have lots and I don’t think the game is actually more fun when you have lots of willpower. My priest has one willpower, and I’ve never spent it.

Adoption and Enforcement
 I’ll be honest here, I don’t think the rules have been adopted yet. I feel that this problem is two fold but most of the issue falls on the problem of enforcement. SA is the only LARP I’ve ever played with such a low level of rules knowledge among its players. It’s also the only LARP without some level of in game rules enforcement. I’m pretty sure the two are linked. Every other LARP I’ve experienced handles this much more professionally than SA. Attempts to correct people on incorrect rule usage is met with hostility on pretty much every level. I would say that overall the majority of the players don’t have a passable grasp of the rules. I see so many rules broken every event that I’m not even sure where to start to fix this, but I will say the biggest transgressors are ST. ST violates so many rules and tenants of the game that in any responsible LARP the individual members would likely end up banned from play. This isn’t a new problem, it existed under the old rules set and was evident in the example of ST killing a PC by misusing a power, then informing the individual how a power worked incorrectly.
 When creating the rules, the rules team believed that having a clearer and more coherent rules set would encourage better rules knowledge. This clearly hasn’t been the case. Even though the rules are much more consistent than ever before, there has been little to no change in rules knowledge among the playership. In a LARP I don’t expect perfect rules usage. I’ve forgotten to do the 10 seconds of RP before Possession, gotten the stages of death incorrect, misread how a power works, miscounted energy usage, swung my weapons too fast, and used Gauntlet Walk too fast after attacking. Errors happen, it’s a part of the game, especially in the heat of battle, and I’m the person who knows the rules best. The game has lots of rules and it gets confusing. But what I don’t see is a community of people working together to enforce the rules. Instead there is an overall casual approach to the rules which causes a “rules optional” environment to develop.
 At the last game the number of rules violations by ST in the combat at the tree was amazing. Some of these were on issues they had been previously warned about. Some were on “secret ST” powers, but none were acceptable. At this point, due to my own experience, I have absolutely no faith in ST to follow the rules of the game as they have been written down.
 One thing I’ve been pushing for a number of years is the existence of some sort of Rules Marshall program at SA. Most other games have people that are responsible for rules oversight which may or may not be the same people as the ones that are coming up with the rules. Currently in SA it is impossible to give a rules correction to someone without it coming off as an attack. The lack of an impartial arbiter of the rules increases the difficulty of bring about any sort of expectation that the rules exist to be followed. I’ve seen instances of two people taking different interpretations of the rules and sticking to their own understanding regardless of what they are being told. With a small rules team, it simply isn’t possible that there will be a rules member there for every improperly used rule.
 The final piece of this is that people need to get off their high horse about not wanting to interrupt a scene when someone has broken a rule. Nothing is more jarring to people who know the rules than someone breaking them. Signature calls become part of the music of the game and someone randomly inserting illegal power usage or incorrect signature calls breaks that down immediately. It is better to have a game in which someone can instruct another player that their call is a flub, stop for a moment to explain a rule, or raise a flag when someone repeatedly breaks rules than to have a game where the immersion is so special that it is not worth following the rules of the game. I view the rules as the contract between all players and staff in a game. While you may occasionally make a mistake, the expectation needs to be that you aren’t allowed to break the contract. If you do, there needs to be people standing watch to make sure it’s followed.

ST Rules
 The blame on this particular issue doesn’t quite lie with any one person or group. The big issue here is that the ST rules were never completed. What ST has been using for the past year is a mashup of rules I wrote for Magic Items, Shifters, Vampires, and Spirits, and what Trevor put together for Mages, Fae and Demons. The rules I put together were never reviewed in a meaningful way and most of Trevors were just quickly glanced over. This means that the entire ST book isn’t really balanced in any meaningful way.
 However, this isn’t the greatest failure in my mind. The biggest failure lies in the hand off from the rules team to the ST team in creating guidelines that fit within the rules system we had created. My original desire was to put together a real Storyteller Guide which included how powers were intended to be used, taught, viewed by the world at large. Also instructions on how common certain subfactions should be in the game world. Instead of creating a basic set of instructions and guidelines, we gave the STs some pretty powerful tools and just trusted that they knew what we meant -- they didn’t.
 This issue first came apparent with the power Tainted which adds the Tainted meta call onto every attack. This was intended to be a power that indicated “this creature is just plain dirty” and that you really can’t get into any kind of altercation with it without coming out tainted. Though it was a level one power in a BSD tree, I had always envisioned it as fairly uncommon among NPCs. Being the big ball of ickyness is great for that one guy in the group or a decently beefy bad guy, but I had never thought that we’d see put out on every bane as happened in the first few games. To their credit, once we informed ST of this they toned it down significantly.
 Though the Tainted power was the first instance of this, the pattern of using powers as was not intended was repeated again and again by ST. This isn’t really their fault as we never gave them any direction, but it has created a number of issues that have been terrible for the game. Another example of this is the commonality of Gaultlet Walk on spirits. Gauntlet Walk is a fairly rare level three power. It isn’t something that lots of spirits should have, or want. In fact there is a power that is available to spirits that NEED to do things in the realm which is available to spirits, it is Appear, the wraith power. Even Appear I’d expect to be a very uncommon power among spirits. There’s no reason for spirits to be in the realm any more than there is reason for Vampires to be in the umbra. Unfortunately, seeking to create threats to the town, numerous spirits were given the Gauntlet Walk power. It only took two games before the veil in Seaton Carou was as shredded as Ushaw Moore. It was shredded by STs partially because of this oversight.

 One of the things we talked about commonly while working on the rules set was making sure the rules prevented ST from griefing the playerbase. It was commonly discussed and believed that the rules set needed to decrease the options for ST to play unfair with their NPCs. Powers like Stonehand Punch replacing Realm Strike existed solely because of the lack of trust the Rules Team had in making the game enjoyable if they were able to attack the realm from the umbra in a meaningful way in which their could not be an form of return fire. Even though this limitation exists, STs have been caught multiple times trying to break this rule and beat on PCs from the Umbra. It seems even when it’s against the rules, they still want to grief PCs.
 What I think is needed here is a ST book that actually gives directions on how to use the rules to tell a story. The ST rules should be more like a Dungeon Master’s Guide and less of a Monster Manual. The last edition I handed over while on rules team included restrictions on how many of various subfactions ST were permitted to send out in a given event or year. This is to prevent the issues we’ve seen like using mages and fae as bruisers in order to ramp up difficulty of an encounter. It should also prevent the extensive use of special NPC snowflakes (like Rokea) as a lazy plot devices. I have little faith that these changes will be used and implemented but I do feel they are incredibly necessary.
 The other part of the ST book needs to be a guide to inform STs on how to make meaningful and powerful characters, how to run a game that preserves the veil, and how NPCs should treat things like someone wanting to learn their gifts. Unfortunately, these things have previously been left up to ST discretion which creates massive inconsistencies ranging from totems demanding the death of someone for teaching tribal gifts to NPCs handing them out for free. While some feel that these world consistency points don’t really fall into the realm of the Rules Team, I feel it is necessary that those who put powers into trees have some say in what they mean being there.

 While there is clearly a lot of potential in the rules set, I can’t say that I’m really happy with the result. I feel that much of the potential has yet to be realized and that the game we’re currently seeing isn’t any better than it used to be under the old rules set. It feels newer and there’s a few shiny new toys but considering the damage done to old characters in the conversion, I don’t feel we came out very far ahead. The game can now be more meaningful, impactful, and contain sharper edged stories but only if ST pushes it in that direction. I’ll be honest, I feel the location reset did more for the game than the rules change at this point.
 Finally, I don’t feel that players can trust ST to follow the rules. This is huge, but their violations have been so consistent and egregious, working against both the letter and spirit of the rules set, that I don’t feel that they deserve the privilege of having hidden rules. Because of this I’ve linked the latest version of the ST rules as I’ve stopped working on them since leaving the rules team. These rules will surely change and be overruled, but based on progress on them over the past year, it likely won’t be anytime soon.