In Character Onboarding for Chronicle Larps

Nobody knows what’s going to happen night-to-night in a chronicle larp, not even the storytellers. We try to guess, and we’re generally pretty good at it. But how do you prepare a new player for their very first game of anything goes? You can’t download your experience with a rule system, setting, and playerbase into someone’s head. Hell, most of the time people show up because they want to play with their friends, and if they’ve managed to pick up a fraction of setting or system knowledge ahead of time, you’re lucky. The only thing you can depend on is that a player will be at game, by the very definition of player. So, let’s do the obvious thing. To teach players how to understand a game that can’t be digested in one sitting, let’s teach them during the game. Ideally, we want to do it fast enough that they can play without being distracted by uncertainty. And to do it well, we have to do it intentionally.

Now, some lessons, you really want to teach out-of-character before ever touching them in a story. I’m not advocating against teaching people through workshops and similar here. But people learn how to behave in new situations by observing the people around them, so no matter what’s intended, new players will be learning about the game while they’re at the game. Your established players and your ongoing stories will be teaching that lesson. So, how to make it a lesson you intend? Instead of settling for whatever a new player picks up from what happens around them and risking them shrinking into the background, a new player specific plot hook can steer them to a better path. New player plots are meant to teach and to offer a player a safe place to flip the levers of the setting and see what happens. It’s a tutorial level, a game onboarding tool. In-character onboarding can also be about setting up teachable examples and mentors in the game structure; anything that uses in-character tools to set people up for out-of-character success. When new players get comfortable enough to chase the stories they’re interested in without fear of the unknown, then we know they’ve learned what they needed.

Teaching with Plot

There’s a couple of mechanics I like for onboarding plots. I like plots that require networking, because a storyteller can’t be everywhere and that makes other players key to in-character onboarding and norm-setting. I like plots that use NPCs to model behavior, because it starts people off with context for what they should and shouldn’t do. I also like plots that give players excuses to ask the questions they’d likely have been asking anyway. Here are some examples of plots I’ve put together following these patterns for my local Vampire: the Masquerade game. Each of these plots was made to be completed in a single four hour game session, with a minimum of storyteller interaction.

Networking Plot

The anarch gang ‘The Bumbles and the Bats’ are not known for paying attention to territory boundaries or kindred politics. However, Augie “The Beekeeper” recently discovered he could work with the Brooklyn Grange and the New York City Beekeeper’s Association to put bees on the roofs of… anywhere, really. Anywhere that will agree to host the bees. He’s not a big fan of coming to gatherings, but if you can persuade five or more kindred to host a bee hive at their havens and let a mortal beekeeper visit regularly, he’ll tell you a secret he heard from the other members of his gang AND sign you up for monthly honey deliveries.

The purest example of a networking quest, right here. It’s low stakes enough to be quirky, which can be a problem for player investment, but in this case Augie was an established NPC and running joke so it didn’t break the mold too much. The existing NPC also gave hooks for long-time players to relate this quest to past events, and gave the new player an NPC ally to call on when needed. Best of all, the reward of a secret works as an obvious lead-in to more stories in the future. I find rewards like this are best when they come with a how-to, because it’s not inherently obvious who might want a secret or how to act on it. But it is inherently obvious that a secret can lead to more story, so even if a new player is in need of some serious processing time when they reach the end of the game, it should still feel like a reward.

Behavior Modeling Plot

You meet a young-looking and very confused kindred outside the gathering. He says his name is Robert Baltor, of Clan Gangrel. Could you help him out a little bit? He’s only just come out of torpor after being rescued by parties unknown and deposited somewhere his sire could get to him, and he has no idea what he’s missed. Apparently the Gangrel left the Camarilla, then rejoined the Camarilla? Does he still hold his accepted status from Marislav? Does he have a Primogen? Is it (he winces) Brenda? He notes that he made a few enemies before his torpor, and he’d appreciate it if you could find the answers to his questions for him. He offers a trivial boon for the favor. And please don’t mention him to Brenda, if she’s still around, thank you.

So if you look at this plot and guess ‘New Gangrel Player,’ you’d be completely correct. Finding your Primogen and confirming your Accepted status are normal tasks for a new player, but here that’s conveyed by the NPC asking for help with those tasks instead of just telling the new player to do everything themselves. This puts the lesson into an IC context (and look at that setting history snuck into the questions!), and better yet, it provides a safety switch. Get the task wrong, and it’s not a problem for you– it’s a problem for the NPC. Or looking at it from a more positive angle, people are often willing to do more for someone who asks nicely than they are for themselves.

This NPC was also part of a plot that had fired off just before the new player joined, and though I don’t think that came out in the game, a particularly curious player could have found the ‘parties unknown’ among their fellow players and let them know their actions continued to ripple through the setting. The references to ‘Brenda’ similarly evoked older plots, giving established players something fun to play off when they encountered this story. Behavior modeling plots are great for displaying the consequences of actions without teaching hard lessons. Set the players to clean up something stupid an NPC’s done (that a player would also totally do) or let players get the spillover from an NPC’s success and you show them the levers of the game. NPC behavior modelling is a form of active learning that continues to be useful long past the onboarding period.

Question Plot

Constellation House is a new anarch gang moving into the city, led by Artui of Clan Malkavian. They’re too busy setting up their havens and herds to make it to court right now, but they’ll pay prestation if you can bring them a record of old threats the city hasn’t completely eradicated, so they know what to defend against. For up to three stories, they’ll pay a trivial boon. For more than three, they’ll pay a minor boon.

In their most generic forms, all of these plots are question plots. Asking “Do you have somewhere I can put bees?” isn’t too different from “Do you know who the Gangrel Primogen is?” isn’t too different from “What threats do you think still exist in this setting?” But the networking plot forces its player to speak to multiple people, and the behavioral modeling plot limits the topics at hand. This pure question plot could result in one very deep conversation with another player or it could turn into dozens of short conversations with everyone in sight. It also instructs the player to ask other players for their opinions instead of searching for a fixed answer like “[X] is the Gangrel Primogen.” This quest might be too much for a shy player in need of a safe hook, but it’s a great norm-setting quest. In a large ongoing game, player’s opinions do the majority of the work shaping the setting while the storyteller is off running scenes. Exposing new players to as many opinions as possible (What is considered a threat? What counts as resolved? Why?) helps them figure out how they can fit into a game’s established setting.

Teaching with Examples

Safe Spaces for Mistakes

So what if there was a game mechanic that was literally just “Expose everyone to as many opinions about the setting as possible, but with feedback?” In BNS Vampire, there’s a mechanic that’s quite easy to hack into this form, and it’s called the symbel. Any sort of competition could be made to serve this purpose, but I’m quite fond of having a pre-built contest/reward system, especially one primarily designed for social interactions. Symbels can be character sheet-based competitions or exhibitions of art and writing, but they’re also a great opportunity to play compare-and-contrast and the built-in social reward emphasizes this. There’s no punishment for losing a symbel, and since most of the contest can be made public, even players who don’t participate get to see a range of behaviors and how their fellow players react to each one.

Here are some examples of ways to run a symbel as in-character onboarding:

The Yearbook Symbel

Who will be voted “Most Likely to Become an Elder of The Camarilla?” To be nominated, a non-elder must find a sponsor to come to the symbel-runner and briefly explain why they think their chosen kindred deserves the title. The most convincingly exalted winner receives Victorious and a special prize directly from the symbel-runner for both sponsor and nominee.

This symbel draws the boundaries of ‘Elder’ status, something Masquerade players disagree on quite a lot both in and out of character. One of the limitations of the built-in symbel system is that challenges can only be issued to social equals or inferiors, but here we get around that by letting ‘superior’ status characters act as sponsors, tempting them with the additional reward, and letting any ‘sponsor’ take an in-character mentorship position. It’s only reasonable to explain why someone is likely to become an elder to them before you pull them up in front of the symbel-runner to try and earn a reward, right? The symbel ends with the symbel-runner explaining why they prefer one explanation above all others, and probably quite a lot of roleplayed arguments about that, all of which help to establish the game’s norms for what is or isn’t a good Elder.

The Puzzle Symbel

Our society has its Traditions, and like all rules, they have their various interpretations. Our symbel-runner has brought together a panel of experienced judges, and it’s up to you to stump them. Submit your most difficult hypothetical situations to be ruled on according to the Traditions, and the one causing the most interesting disagreement will be found Victorious. Bonus prize for the funniest one that’s also legally intriguing.

Bending the rules is a very important part of setting for Masquerade, but it’s also extremely nonintuitive for a new player. The ability to bend in-character social rules depends on knowing what other characters will or will not allow, exactly the sort of knowledge that builds up over time. This symbel runs right at that problem by making people say their character’s interpretations of the rules out loud and then applying those interpretations to a whole pile of examples. It sets people up to zero in on what’s actually possible. Now, there’s an obvious weakness here in regards to what characters are willing to admit to in public versus what they’d allow in private, but at the very least, this contest will establish a norm for what can be admitted in public. That gives new players a starting point for conversations about more private examples. A little humor never hurts for letting people get away with more scandalous opinions either.

Question, networking, and behavior modeling plots are great onboarding because they don’t require much setup or customization, and they don’t require any storyteller attention while they’re running. On the other hand, in-character events like these symbels require someone to do the organizing and to act as the source of truth, combining all the different in-character opinions into a lesson that fits the setting. In some cases, having a storyteller do this can be ideal, especially if you want to mix in anonymity to encourage participation. However, if you have a player who you trust to do this in-character, all the better. The same “play like a storyteller” aspects that make a chronicle game unpredictable can get you great results when you hand a player the general concept of a teaching symbel and let them decide what their character would do with it. If the whole lesson is running in-character, that leaves you free to build on it– for example, by dropping a workshop on out-of-character safety mechanics on top of an in-character game that touches on riskier setting material to create multiple layers of mental safety.

Game Social Structures

Onboarding plots and compare-and-contrast games are both useful events for teaching bits and pieces of a setting, but there’s also a great opportunity to intentionally manipulate what lessons new players pick up at a more basic level of game organization. A lot of games tie in-character social groups to mechanics like the merits that come with your boffer character’s backstory. Other in-character social groups are tied to philosophies that serve the game as sources of conflict and drama. But putting both of those aside, the most useful in-character groups for onboarding are the ones built around playstyle. Mechanics and philosophies can imply a playstyle, but new players often don’t have the context to interpret mechanics or complicated setting-based arguments and connect them to a specific game experience. Plenty of new players won’t even know what sort of game experience they want! But we know we want the new player to have mentors around to expose them to useful in-character lessons and we know in-character groups built around specific playstyles will gather lots of potential mentors together. For maximum onboarding value, design in-character social groups with clear labels including out-of-character labels, make them easy to switch between so new players don’t get stuck with any one playstyle while they’re experimenting, and make sure the groups have a good reason to recruit as much as possible.

When I think of in-character mentors, one concept I keep coming back to is the “Den Parent” role in Werewolf: the Apocalypse larps. This in-character position is explicitly there to teach a certain mechanically-differentiated set of characters about the game setting. However, new players can enter the game without being exposed to the Den Parent if they don’t want to play low-rank cubs, and experienced players may choose to play a cub and be taught by the Den Parent– the Den Parent can even be a new player. You could theoretically end up with experienced players as cubs performing onboarding for their Den Parent who just joined recently. When trying to design a game’s social structures to encourage in-character onboarding, remember the narrative role of mentor has its own particular appeal. The actual ability to reinforce and communicate the setting doesn’t mean someone wants to play an authority, and the desire to play an authority doesn’t necessarily line up with the actual ability to onboard people. It’s still valuable to have explicit in-character onboarding positions like the Den Parent, but one of the reasons I prefer to think in structures and not specific positions is to keep any single player’s choice from being a bottleneck for in-character onboarding.

The game exists as a function of every player and every staff member’s idea of the game. Nobody will ever know everything that’s happened in a night, let alone be able to recite the combined narrative of years. The ideal in-character onboarding should reflect that truth, coming at a new player from many directions and supplying them with all the connections and opportunities they need to construct their own concept of the game. I also want to emphasize again that in-character onboarding needs to be intentional. New players can be all sorts of people with all sorts of social skills. Left to itself, a game’s playerbase will have all the usual human biases when it comes to informal onboarding. Attractive and outgoing new players will have an easier time finding mentors and shy players will be left in the dust. Big public instructive groups and events work against those impulses and plot hooks can be handed to anyone. Make sure they’re handed to everyone, and you’ll find yourself on the right track. Everyone deserves to see the game at its best.

Tags: chronicle larps onboarding new players werewolf: the apocalypse vampire: the masquerade by night studios mind's eye theater larp