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Comedic Narrativism and the Arabian Nights LARP (long!)

Started by Walt Freitag, December 20, 2002, 09:25:09 PM

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Walt Freitag

I'm posting this description of the Arabian Nights LARP I've mentioned in some previous threads. For two reasons: I promised to do so many weeks ago on this pretty decent LARP thread, and I want to be able to refer to it as an example in at least one other thread topic I'm planning to start, as well as for this one. Ultimately what I want to discuss here is the feasibility of Narrativism that is "comedic" in a specific way: the questions of moral import being explored actually have relatively straightforward expected answers. Explaining why I regard that as "comedic" and why I think it's worth discussing requires me to lay out Arabian Nights as an example.

Arabian Nights was written and first played in 1988. I was one of many people who worked on it. I was the "rules guy," the lead designer of the core game mechanics, but others contributed ideas in that area as well. The lead author of the overall project wasn't me, it was one Russell Almond, a long-time Arabian Nights fan. (Just this year, he named one of his new infant daughters Shahrazad, so either the experience warped him for life, or the whole project was a result of pre-existing warpage.) The event was a Society for Interactive Literature production, and adhered to the SIL LARP style in its broad outlines, including:

- Players cast in character roles described on character sheets pre-written by the game authors.
- The pre-written character roles form a gigantic web of pre-existing relationships, and establish character goals and motivations calculated to bring them into conflict and cooperation with one another.
- Indoor play over the course of a weekend.
- No physical simulation of combat (such as boffer weapons).
- Game play tokens including game money, physical items, cards for items, abilities, and statuses (with rules printed on them for playing/using each one, rather than global rules for doing so).

The mechanics were designed to achieve specific goals unique to this particular LARP, including:

- Represent the capricious quality of fate that predominates in the Nights takes, in which characters often suffer harsh fates, sometimes deserved and sometimes not, without demoralizing players in the process.
- Represent within the LARP the stories-within-stories element of the Nights.
- Make the Shahrazad frame story important in play.
- Include, for color purposes, a large population of characters that would not normally be considered suitable for play in a weekend-long LARP, such as beggars, slaves, condemned prisoners, enchanted animals, castaways, and inconvenient corpses.
- Allow over two dozen gamemasters to interact with up to 200 players without the need for high-level coordination between them.

The game mechanics center around six "Virtues" that each character possessed or lacked to varying degrees. The Virtues are:


If this list looks suspiciously familiar (hint: strength, intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, constitution, charisma), it's partly coincidence and partly not. These six Virtues really do represent a fairly unbiased distillation of the most important personal qualities explored in the original Nights. But that we ultimately ended up with six of them rather than five or seven was probably AD&D influence at work, and listing them in the order we did was deliberate.

Interestingly, at that time the various authors who worked on Arabian Nights had, between them, written and run at least forty large-scale LARP events, and this was the first time any of us had ever used a suite of tabletop RPG-like character requisites in a LARP's game mechanics. In fact, normally our LARP systems did not imitate tabletop rules systems in any significant way.

Quote from: In the rule booklet IWhat the Virtues are Good For

Use of some items and abilities, and performing some game actions, depend on having a certain minimum Virtue score. Examples: the book written in a strange tongue that only one with high Knowledge can read, the holy artifact that only the Pious can wield... the artful slave girl who will only be faithful to a man of great Prowess, the political office that only one of highest Esteem can hold, and the wide desert that requires great Perseverance to cross. Such items, abilities, and obstacles will usually specify the necessary requisite as part of their description.

Other players will sometimes be looking for people with certain Virtues for various purposes. For example: a Sultan might wish to find a person with sufficient Cleverness and Esteem to fill the office of Vizier...

Achieving a particular high Virtue can be a goal in itself. The search for Virtues such as Esteem or Knowledge or Piety is the center of many people's lives.

Any time you undertake an action that must be mediated by a gamemaster (such as "I want to try to sneak into the Sultan's treasure room") it is more likely to be successful if you have Virtues appropriate to the method you try to use.

Virtue scores are the basis for the Conflict System, and will determine the outcome of most Conflicts between players.

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: [omitted for now, see below]

The Conflict System is, as stated, based on the Virtues.

Quote from: In the rule booklet IConflict between characters occurs throughout the Arabian Nights. Sometimes this conflict takes the form of actual fighting, but just as often it involves trickery, tests of knowledge, or verbal argument. The outcome of conflict can hinge on a person's Esteem (as onlookers drag the opponent of the Esteemed one off to court) or Piety (as the opponent of the Pious one repents of the wrong he's doing) as easily as on Prowess. Conflict, therefore, takes many forms and has many different outcomes.

Each side of the conflict declares which Virtue they were using in the conflict (instigator first, then opponent, who must name a different Virtue than the instigator). The winner is the side having the highest total of the two Virtues named. Players are encouraged to narrate how the Conflict actually plays out based on the Virtues used and the outcome.

The effect of winning or losing a Conflict depend on which Virtue was used by the winning side. For example, if the winner uses Prowess, the winner may kill or do any desired physical injury to the loser, or force any other capitulation as the price of not doing so. (Capitulation deals involving future actions are non-binding, though, being made under duress.) Note that this represents the opportunity for the winner to do these things, not the legal right. Winning a conflict and maiming or killing the loser, even as the defender, is still likely to result in investigation, pursuit, and prosecution, at least in the parts of the game space representing the civilized (classical Arabian) world.

Winning a conflict with Knowledge allows the winner to ask questions that the loser must answer truthfully. Winning a conflict with Cleverness allows the winner to take the loser's possessions, without legal recourse. Winning a conflict with Perseverance makes the winner immune to any further conflict initiated by the loser for several hours. Winning a conflict with Piety shames and humbles the loser, forcing them to donate their money to the temple and heed words of wisdom offered by the winner. Winning with Esteem results in the loser being prosecuted in the Court of the Khalif (which gets played out in the game) or performing personal services for the winner.

With so many important uses for Virtues, the game is designed to make players want to increase them. And the crux of the design is the mechanism for doing so. To increase Virtues, players enter stories-within-stories. They go to a dervish (a gamemaster) and request a "story" about the Virtue they wish to increase.

Quote from: In the rule booklet IThe dervish will proceed to "tell you a story," But this being an interactive game, you won't just stand there and listen. You will become a character in the dervish's story. You will receive a whole new character sheet and other materials (Virtue card, items, abilities, etc.).

Most of the sub-stories are written with several interrelated character roles, which the dervish must fill all about the same time (either by assembling a group to "hear" the story at the outset, or simply casting several players in close succession into the needed roles.) Players may leave a sub-story at any time, but are encouraged to give every sub-story role a try no matter how unpromising, and also not to use leaving the sub-story as a way of avoiding an imminent unpleasant turn of events.

Quote from: In the rule booklet IWhen you exit your story, return to the dervish who sent you there. The dervish will determine what changes, if any, occur in your Virtues. The dervish may ask you something like "what have you learned from this experience?"

The Virtue award for participating in stories is based primarily on your role-playing, not on your character's apparent success or failure. For example, if you become a love-struck youth in a story, it might be better to dramatically pine away and die (as so many love-struck youths do in the Nights than to resort to deceit or force to gain the object of your desire.

You may or may not gain the Virtue you were looking for, and you may gain some other Virtue instead. Which Virtue you gain is mainly based on which Virtues you demonstrate while playing. You may have to convince the dervish that you have indeed learned something or demonstrated something about the Virtue you seek. Remember that showing negative consequence of the lack of a Virtue can be just as instructive as showing the advantages of possessing it.

The stories within stories mechanism also served as a way to make the world more dynamic by having player characters play roles that wouldn't be suitable permanent roles for LARP players.

Quote from: In the rule booklet ISome story characters are very simple, requiring only a bit of fun role-playing. For example, if you seek Knowledge, you may find yourself assuming the role of a sphinx, asking riddles of those who pass a city's gate.

Other story character may be ordinary people, such as beggars, thieves, tradesmen, or slaves... Some story characters are extremely powerful individuals, but they may be asked to use their power only in certain ways or for certain specific purposes. Because this is only a temporary role for you, the dervishes will feel no compunction about putting you in unpleasant or hopeless situations. Don't expect fairness. Role-play whatever fate allots you, and you will be rewarded.

Some story characters, like the aforementioned sphinx, may have limitations on the places or circumstances in which they are allowed to interact with other characters. Usually, though, your character inside a story can mix freely with main characters or characters from other stories.

In rare cases, when you are in a story, it may be possible or even necessary to go into a story-within-a-story (there are many examples of this in the Nights). To do this, you must go to the same dervish whose story you are already in.

So, each player has a "main" character role that they return to throughout the game and whose Virtues they are often trying to increase; and during the game a player can play many different characters in "stories" and even occasionally in "stories within stories." This slightly recursive schema has one more benefit: by extending the hierarchy one level in the other direction, the whole game embraces the frame story. As we tell the players:

Quote from: In the rule booklet IThe events of the Arabian Nights take place simultaneously on several different "levels" of story. On one level, you are Shahrazad, the storyteller of the Arabian Nights tales. All the other players are also Shahrazad. As Shahrazad, it is your collective responsibility to create and tell tales that will amuse your husband King Shahriyar while also teaching him the Virtues that he needs to learn. How well you do this will determine whether Shahrazad lives or dies.

And the section of What the Virtues are Good For that was omitted in the quote above reads:

QuoteMOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: Increasing your Virtue scores is the way to save Shahrazad from the headman's axe. The increase in Virtue scores achieved by all the characters in the game will determine whether King Shahriyar is sufficiently enlightened by your tales to spare the storyteller.

In our interpretation of the frame story, Shahrazad's salvation comes from the transforming power of stories rather than from merely keeping Shahriyar in suspense from one night to the next. While this extrapolates considerably from the original text, it's a fairly common idea in modern criticism of the Nights.

As a finale for the game, the players get together in the final two hours of play in six groups, one for each of the six Virtues. Each group must create, based on the experiences of their characters, a five-minute story about its respective Virtue. The groups perform each story at the finale as one of Shahrazad's stories told to Shahriyar.

Shahrazad, naturally, is spared, and everyone lives happily after. (Not ever after, though. Arabian Nights stories end with a more complex formula that basically says, "...until they eventually ended in ruin and death, as all things of the mortal world do.") I won't pretend that there's any chance of Shahrazad actually getting the axe, unless for some reason that I cannot imagine in advance, a consensus were to arise during the game in favor of such an ending.

Now, looking back on this design, it strikes me how modern and Forge-y some aspects of it appear, at least to me: subsuming combat within a more general system representing a broader range of conflict; details of the actual events of conflicts narrated (or at least imagined) retroactively after the outcome is determined; open encouragement of Author stance (which went directly against the prevailing LARP grain of seeking as-strong-as-possible player identification with character); throwing players into smaller-scale focused stories often with kicker-like initial situations and with explicitly stated themes (the Virtues) to be explored; explicit rewards for such exploration (interestingly, based not on a judgment of the quality of the player's role playing, which the "dervishes" rarely get to observe, but for their own after-the-fact self-judgments of the meaning of what took place); and the metagame self-awareness, of stories being told for a purpose, that swirls through all the layers of the game.

Turning the old standard "requisites" into Arabian Nights' "Virtues" was the key step. The important change is not the changes in their descriptor words, which are trivial (though important for color), but their infusion with a modicum of moral weight, which makes a world of difference. Instead of just descriptors of what a character can do, they've become explicitly "what the story is about" on all the different levels of play from the frame story to the deepest sub-stories. In conflict, they're not so much "why you win" as "why you deserve to win" (a distinction that I want to look deeper into on another thread), which makes them as close a kin to Spiritual Attributes as to traditional ones. (The fact that they can all be increased by experiencing stories underscores what might not be immediately obvious, that even in the cases of Prowess and Cleverness, the Virtues are more a matter of attitude and inspiration than of genetics or training.)

Also, while it might first appear that some of these characteristics of play would apply only to the play within "stories," it actually has a strong effect on how the "main" player-characters are perceived and played as well. It's a bit stealthy, because on the surface the game gives the "main" player-characters all the trappings players of this type of LARP would expect, including character goals represented as being important. But at the same time, the sub-story mechanics and the frame story mechanics are reminding them that the "main" characters, too, are just characters in a story, whose only real purpose for existing is to save Shahrazad; pursuing goals is important only insofar as it helps to make one's story interesting. Furthermore, the world of the Arabian Nights is a capricious one, liable to deal out undeserved rewards or unexpected setbacks at any time, which further encourages players to play for the moment and be more story- and less goal-oriented. In such a dynamic world where long-term strategy is rewarded minimally at best, a "main" character who dies or is reduced to an unplayable condition is almost as easily replaced as a sub-story character. (Such fates were very common for the characters in the original Nights, far more so in general than in the specific stories that have become most familiar in the West.)

Of course, the Virtues in Arabian Nights (the LARP, that is) lack the depth of the type of thematic stats often discussed here for Narrativst games, like Sorcerer's Humanity or Enlightenment's worldly/spiritual opposing pairs. They aren't designed to frequently give rise to tragic damned-if-you-do-etc moral dilemmas, although they can do so occasionally. While different Virtues come into conflict with each other within the conflict system, this is usually a relatively superficial form of exploration. More generally, in Arabian Nights, the Virtues come into conflict with lesser considerations like desires for wealth, power, status, revenge, and survival. All of these elements are well represented in the game. I didn't discuss them before because they're part of the basic fabric of this style of LARP. But in Arabian Nights the game framework makes these things clearly secondary. (Your characters' wealth or survival do not help save Shahrazad.) So most moral dilemmas that arise are false ones.

This is a characteristic I associate with literary comedy (and I do regard Arabian Nights, the traditional tales as well as the LARP, as basically comedic). In modern comedy the moral issues are things like: Honor a promise you made, or keep the money? Marry for social status, or for love? Admit your mistake and make amends, or try to cover it up? These are false dilemmas, in the sense that it's not really a dilemma, there's a clear answer. Comedic stories revolve around the discovery of that answer.

Which brings me, finally, to the question I wanted to discuss in this thread: what are the barriers to role-playing Narrativist comedy? (Please, don't equate comedy in this sense with humor; comedy in this sense supports humor but humor isn't a defining quality of it.) In a world characterized by the conventions of comedy – most notably including second chances rather than irrevocable choices, characters who need – and manage – to change rather than being fated by their fundamental natures, and simple answers that may be difficult to recognize among the distractions and temptations of life rather than irresolvable dilemmas staring you in the face right now -- is Narrativism as GNS defines it viable? And if not, why not, since comedy of literary merit clearly exists, from classical plays to Shakespeare to Dickens (A Christmas Carol is on my mind right now, for some reason) to Groundhog Day?

I'm not going to insist that Arabian Nights LARP is unambiguously Narrativist, or assume that if it is, that that proves anything about the prospects for comedic Narrativist tabletop play. LARPs are different and some of the basic assumptions underlying the GNS model don't apply. But I thought it might be a useful reference point for this topic anyway, because it's the clearest example that I'm familiar with of a game design in which exploration of matters of morality is fundamental to play, yet for the most part that exploration is comedically superficial, with good dramatic results.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere