Real-World Complexity and Plot



Many players play characters who perform activities such as international negotiation, supply-chain management, scientific research, or running a barony, yet these types of activities are rarely actually played out on stage, and are usually relegated to IBGAs where you often skip directly to the outcome (e.g. Plot says “you look at such-and-such scientific data and discover X”, rather than giving the player the data and allowing the player to discover X on their own) From talking to Plot teams, it seems the reason for this is that creating something approaching real-world complexity would require too much work for Plot teams (e.g. Plot would have to set up a system to generate the data required).

However, it seems that if such complexity could be made to work, it could add a lot to the game. It could provide more interesting non-combat things to do, without requiring nonstandard effects or abilities. It could make playing characters that do these kinds of things more interesting. Ad it could also make these kinds of activities more accessible: if running a barony is done entirely through IBGAs, then only the Baron gets to even see what's going on, but if there's a system where things like e.g. collecting resources to build buildings, setting up infrastructure, etc. can be done in-game and have in-game effects, and this is a system that's learnable by players, then other players could be involved in the process because they could, for instance, learn the system and provide suggestions, or observe the in-game effects and react to them.

So, I have been thinking about how can we solve these problems and include this type of “real world” complexity in the game. It occurred to me that these types of “role-playing” exercises are often used in the real world – for instance in business schools to teach negotiation techniques – and designers of these exercises face a similar problem: they need to come up with a scenario that has a similar structure to a real-world scenario, yet is still simple enough to set up in the time available. So I have been looking at these real-world scenarios to get ideas.

A Case Study: Negotiation Scenario

The following is a negotiation scenario described in the book Negotiating Genius, by Harvard Business School professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman. It is a scenario that they have used in their classes and some but not all students come to the optimal agreement, so it seems a good candidate for a scenario complex enough to be nontrivial but simple enough to be easily describable.

The scenario involves a production company selling syndication rights to a TV show to a television station. There are two items which are up for negotiation: licensing fee and number of runs per episode. The following information is provided to both parties:

  • The show will get a Nielsen rating from 3 to 7.

  • The advertising revenue from the show will be $7 million if the rating is 3, increasing by $1 million for each rating point above 3.

  • The number of runs per episode can be from 4 to 8 – the production company wants lower (to avoid having the show overexposed) and the station wants higher (to get more revenue)
The following information is provided only to the production company:

  • You predict that the probability distribution of possible ratings is [10%, 10%, 10%, 50%, 20%] for ratings [3, 4, 5, 6, 7].

  • Each run per episode above 6 reduces the residual value of the show by $250,000, while each run per episode below 6 increases the residual value by $250,000.

  • If you cannot reach a deal with the station, another station is willing to purchase the rights for $3.5 million for 6 runs per episode.
The following information is provided only to the station:

  • You predict that the probability distribution of possible ratings is [20%, 50%, 10%, 10%, 10%] for ratings [3, 4, 5, 6, 7].

  • Each run per episode above 6 increases revenue by $800,000, while each run per episode below 6 decreases revenue by $800,000.
There are a few “tricks” in this scenario that will help in coming to a good agreement (the purpose of including this scenario in the book was to illustrate these points):

  • Since the production company's estimate of the ratings is higher than the station's, if the production company holds out for too large a percentage of (their estimate of) potential revenues, this will be higher than what the station is willing to pay.

  • One way of sweetening the deal is to add a side payment based on what the ratings turn out to be. For instance, if the station agrees to pay the production company $1 million extra if the ratings end up being 6 or higher in exchange for a $1 million refund if the ratings end up being 5 or lower, then this will increase the perceived value of the deal to both parties (since each party thinks they have a greater-than-even chance of winning the extra “bet”) even though it doesn't add any extra money to the pot. (Another advantage of this kind of side payment is that it reduces the incentive to lie about your estimate, since you might have to “put your money where your mouth is.”)

  • Since the value of extra runs per episode to the station is much higher than the cost to the production company, a “compromise” deal of 6 runs per episode is suboptimal. Increasing from 6 to 8 runs per episode, while increasing the licensing fee by $1 million, increases the value of the deal to both parties.
(While some of these tricks might seem obvious once you see the whole scenario, remember that each side only sees their part of the information. This is part of the strategy of negotiation – there may be reasons not to tell the whole truth, but that might also prevent you from coming to a win-win deal.)

Incorporating This Into LARP

So, imagine that one wanted to incorporate the above scenario as a roleplay mod in Alliance. (Of course, one would make it fit the time period: one would use, say, a playwright selling his play to a theater rather than a TV production company selling a show to a station.) What would be the challenges:
  • It would probably not be too complicated or require too much work to set up and explain. I explained the whole scenario above in just a few paragraphs.

  • It does not rely on unfamiliar concepts. All the key concepts (different people having different sets of information, distributions of random outcomes, things having different value to different people) are common features of both RPG and tabletop games, so most players will have some experience with these.

  • Probably creating a fully fledged business simulation system where a scenario like the above naturally arises out of player interactions would require more complexity than Alliance can really support. While the game has some “business” aspects in e.g. the crafting and ritual system, it's not nearly as well developed as in some other games.

  • However, the above “system where the scenario naturally arises” isn't necessary, just as it isn't necessary for anything else that happens in the game. When a plot team sends a bunch of orcs to attack the town, Plot doesn't have some sort of system on the backend to track how the orcs build up their forces and keep track of their readiness to attack so that an attack “naturally” arises – rather, lot just decides this would be a good time for an orc attack, and sends out orcs. Similarly, in the above scenario (let's say it was a PC playwright negotiating with an NPC theater representative) Plot could just print out the playwright's information set and give it to the PC saying “this is your assessment of the situation”, then print out the theater's information set and give it to the NPC as part of their briefing, then send out the NPC.
Another Example: Scientific Research

Another activity sometimes performed by PCs is some form of scientific research – like someone studying the secrets of magic or an alchemist inventing new concoctions. Again, often this is performed in IBGAs with skipping straight to the end result for what is discovered, while it may be more interesting to have the discovery process itself be a part of the game. Here is an example of how such a discovery process could be made a part of the game. Let's say that the PCs discover an area with lots of unknown alchemical ingredients, and the PCs want to mix them together to produce useful items. One could do the following:

  • Come up with a system for what determines the effects of a mixture based on what goes into the mixture. For instance, one might use the system from Skyrim (each ingredient has four possible effects; up to 3 items can be mixed together; the mixture has an effect if that effect is on at least two of the mixed ingredients). But unlike in board games or video games, in this scenario nothing about the system is ever told directly to players.

  • PCs can, at any time, go to Plot and say “I am mixing ingredients X, Y, and Z together, what do I get?” Then they turn over the ingredient tags, and learn what they make, and get a tag for whatever they made.

  • If the PCs want to, they might decide to do systematic experimentation to try different combinations of ingredients to try to figure out the system. Of course, they will have to be strategic about how they do so, because each experiment uses up valuable ingredients. It will be up to the PCs then to record their results and try to figure things out.

  • Of course, things might still be useful even if the PCs don't figure out the whole system, for instance, a PC might observe “I mixed ingredients A and B and got something really good, next time I get an A and a B I'll mix them again to get the same thing” even if they don't know the rest of the system. Of course, the more the PCs learn about the system (and they might discover this over the course of several events) the more likely they will be able to discover, new efficient combinations.
The issue I see is that this adds a huge amount of complexity and bookkeeping on Plot's side. In a tabletop game, this would probably be a manageable concept. For Alliance, though, a team of just a few people is already donating a ton of their time to write events, answer IBGAs, handle character logistics, source all the physical goods (MI reps, costumes, weapons, armor, makeup, prosthetics, props, room decoration, lighting, etc) required to stage and run games, deliver all of the above to site, and manage the volunteer NPC team.

It's already a huge amount of work that nobody is really getting paid to do in the first place. Trying to provide that level of interactivity for ~40 PCs every month would be a huge time investment.

At least in SoMN, some of what you're asking for is handled in IBGAs, but there is a strong caveat to that system : Alliance is a Live Action game, so the things that matter happen at the events, not between. Between-game work for a LARP will expand to fill as much space as you are willing to allow it to, and quickly become a huge imposition on your day to day life if not kept in check.

Something like your Scientific Research could be cool, but would effectively require a plot person to be available whenever the PCs want to mess with it, which means someone who isn't out running mods for 5-10 PCs just to serve one crafter. Ritual casting already ties up ritual marshals this way, adding more systems to do the same does not seem like it would have a good effect. It also re-introduces the concept of Secret Rules, something the system has been shying away from because it has nasty effects on the game by creating situations where there are in-game advantages only available to an in-group simply because the only way to know how those rules work is to have access to them, and that is gated by PCs. Again, Ritual Magic used to work this way, until the database was made public.
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I think one thing that could be done to add more interesting complexity without imposing a great deal more time cost on the game would be to make more extensive use of the Merchant skill.

Coin is expensive, we're all well aware of this. So I would be very happy to see greater use of inexpensive glass 'gems', 'ingots', or other tagged reps with reference numbers engraved on them that correspond to a Merchant skill 'chart' that could be given out by Logistics to everyone with the skill. Those with the skill would be able to easily value these items, those without would need to find someone with it to get a good value on them. Giving the chart at Logistics (or printing it with the character sheet) would let the plot team change the values game to game with a couple minutes' effort (or just an Excel script to +/-5%) so that players memorizing the numbers wouldn't be able to have an exact knowledge of the value of a given good game to game or chapter to chapter, but could make a good enough guess to haggle.

So the chapter invests in, say, a couple bags of these.


For big several Gold gems, and a couple more of these for a few Silver to a couple Gold.

Someone (probably someone looking for GS) spends an afternoon with a code sheet and an engraving pen putting symbols or numbers on each of them based off of a chart that the game has, then they go into the treasure bucket. They go out as drops, players get to have the tactile experience of finding some cool gems, and anyone who doesn't want them can find a Merchant to sell them to or Merchant them back to Logistics for coin if they really want to.
So I would be very happy to see greater use of inexpensive glass 'gems', 'ingots', or other tagged reps with reference numbers engraved on them that correspond to a Merchant skill 'chart' that could be given out by Logistics to everyone with the skill.

The San Francisco chapter does this! It really adds to immersion- I quite like it. There have also been small rocks spray painted silver and gold with merchant numbers sharpied on them, to give a little variety to the typical plastic or glass gem.
Oregon and Seattle, too, have a "Merchant List" for exactly what you are describing. There was a vote on putting in a national list, but it did not pass. Talk to your owners about how they voted.
Oregon and Seattle, too, have a "Merchant List" for exactly what you are describing. There was a vote on putting in a national list, but it did not pass. Talk to your owners about how they voted.

I believe the Evaluate/Merchant list is shared between SF/Oregon/Seattle. In fact, I believe it was created by folks currently on SF Plot when they were Seattle Plot ~15 years ago.
Also worth mentioning is good use of plot/runner's time during an event. Is it entertaining a group of people or just one person doing research (which is prob why it works better as an IBGA). Now if it is a group doing research, then yes it is and fun (seen a group of alchemist rp researching and studying to find a alchemical cure for a lake tainted by a meteor), matter it could be several good mods. That said, I would prob just factor in how many craftsman/production you are researching with and roll a d20 to depend on success or failure.
I understand that Plot has a limited amount of time available to set up and run plots. That is why I am asking the question, “How can we incorporate these types of activities into the game without taking up too much of Plot's time?” Effectively, since the limiting factor in how much plot we can run is Plot team resources, in order to maximize the amount of interesting plot for all characters, what we're looking to optimize is the ratio [total amount of enjoyment generated by the plot, over all players] / [amount of plot resources required to run plot].

For instance, one way of doing this for the research plot example could be the following:

  • There are a large number of these “special components” that can be obtained. These are distributed as loot on monsters and mods, the same way that other loot is distributed.

  • Set up in a central area (e.g. the tavern) there is a “research apparatus” that is represented by a container to put used components in and a journal where experiments can be recorded. The research apparatus does not need to be continuously monitored.

  • Any PC can use the research apparatus (no in-game skill of any kind is required). The PC can do so by putting component tags in the container, then recording in the book which components were used.

  • Periodically throughout the event, a Plot member will go to the research apparatus, look at what combinations of components were used, write down what they produced, and replace the used components in the container with the finished products (note that it is possible that multiple experiments were performed during the period between each of these visits; this is okay) Note that this does not need to be done whenever a PC interacts with it: rather, the interaction is “asynchronous” (the PC puts the components in at one time, then sees what he gets at a later time). This enables the visit to be performed any time a Plot member has a few spare minutes, minimizing the disruption to other mods.

  • The journal stays with the research apparatus and any PC can look in and see what was produced.
  • You do not use craftsman, production, or any other in-game skill to research. In order to figure out the system, you have to actually figure out the system based on the data that you get.

This could solve some of the problems mentioned by other posters:

  • It does not require an undue amount of time intervention from Plot. Distributing the loot hardly requires additional time – the new items are just distributed the same way as other loot. And managing the research actions does not require a Plot member to be “on call” the whole time – it only requires, maybe once every few hours when someone has free time, spending a few minutes going to the research apparatus and processing the experiments until then.

  • It is not just something that “one crafter” can do. All PCs who are interested can participate. The only thing required to do experiments is the component tags, which in this idea are distributed far and wide, so anyone who goes on mods should have a chance to acquire component tags. And looking at the journal and trying to figure out the system from the existing data can be done by anyone, even without any component tags.

  • It does not create a system where some players have inside information and others don't. All PCs have access to the same data: the information in the journal. Over time this data will get more complete, and the PCs can, if they want to, work together to try to get more complete information, but at any given time no player has access to more information than another player.
As for the example of the negotiation scene, it's unclear to me what additional bookkeeping such a scene would require above and beyond what any mod requires. One way I could imagine this mod being run is that an NPC playwright comes into town and seeks a group of PCs to help him negotiate with the theater representative, and offers to pay the PCs, say, 25% of the value of the deal. Then they do the negotiation and report back to the playwright, the playwright computes the value of the deal and gives the PC their share, then leaves, and that's that. The whole point of this kind of setup is to allow for creative options and different degrees of success without necessarily requiring lengthy follow-up.

Another way of framing the whole problem is like this. We're looking to set up problems that are easy for Plot to generate and administer, but hard for PCs to solve. A simple example (probably not very interesting, but it illustrates the point): you could have a traveling salesperson come in and give the PCs a map and ask them to find a route to visit every town on the map while not traveling more than a certain distance. Then when the PCs come back to Plot, its easy for Plot to check if the route they found fits the criteria, but it's hard and challenging for the PCs to find that route in the first place.
What happens when a PC walks off with the journal, or the items left by plot from earlier experimentation? Further, what happens if a PC wants to keep their experiments to themselves, and/or set up their own apparatus to do so? When considering the time investment, please also consider the need to make and label the components, create/deliver/set up/tear down/store the apparatus, and field the inevitable questions from players.

In your example regarding the Playwright, that sounds like an idea for a mod, but again is not something I'd expect to be able to hook more than a single player for and keep them entertained given that it is a solely RP mod that doesn't really have a great deal for a group to contribute beyond their 'face' doing some dealing.
I believe the Evaluate/Merchant list is shared between SF/Oregon/Seattle. In fact, I believe it was created by folks currently on SF Plot when they were Seattle Plot ~15 years ago.


Oregon and Seattle, too, have a "Merchant List" for exactly what you are describing. There was a vote on putting in a national list, but it did not pass. Talk to your owners about how they voted.

And as an aside, if someone wanted to tell me what the worries were about the system itself, I could probably be talked into designing something that addresses those worries. I fully support the idea of a national merchant's list.

To address the topic at large.

I have run some research mods in the past and I've turned logic puzzles into physical manipulation instead of just doing it out on paper. It was to make a panacea if I remember correctly. These certainly can be fun, but are a lot of work. My personal preference as a plot member and player is to keep the majority of these actions as IBGA and then pull out the mod when scientific research culminates in creating the cure for a magical disease or deal with supply and demand issues with angry farmers and merchants when a drought effects the crops, etc.
That said, I would prob just factor in how many craftsman/production you are researching with and roll a d20 to depend on success or failure.

To me, this would completely defeat the purpose of the research quest. The reason I would be interested in a research based mod is because I would be interested in actually figuring out a solution to a puzzle. To just roll a die or use a skill and say "Okay, you do the research and find X" would be a big letdown - it would be like if you spend a long time preparing for a big fight and when you got there Plot said "We're not going to run the fight, we'll just say you guys won."
At the same time, making production skills not matter in something like that heavily devalues having build in them in the first place.

In theory, at least, a number of build of Production should be as useful as the same number of build in Weapon Proficiency or spells, as our scaling is based on build total. Making a 'mod' where those skills should be of use rely instead entirely on OOG problem solving skills seems to poorly serve players who want to play characters of that sort.

"Be all you can't be", remember.