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62. Counterstrike, World of Warcraft, and larp design

CS and WoW are my go-to examples when I talk about rules and game mechanics in larp design. Especially when talking about campaign games – of which there are MANY around.

If you have no idea what these games are, google is your friend. And now, on to the comparison itself.

The Counterstrike Way

If you play a lot of Counterstrike, you get very good at Counterstrike. So far, so good. But not only that. You also get pretty good at other games that resemble Counterstrike. Not in theme, but in type.

Playing 1000 hours of Counterstrike won’t make you any better at Act of War: Direct Action, an awesome computer game in it’s own right). Even though the two share a common theme, one is an FPS and the other a Real Time Strategy game.

However, playing massive amounts of CS will also make you good at First Person Shooters in general. You’ll become good at Battlefield, Call of Duty and anything like that. Not AS good as you are at CS – skills aren’t 100% transferable after all – but you’ll definitely be able to put your many hours of knife-jumping action to good use.

The World of Warcraft Way

WoW is completely different. When you start the game, your character is at Level 1. There’s a limited amount of things you can do, but luckily the world is designed to be interesting to explore even at your “newborn” state.

As you spend time and effort on the game, you gain experience points and levels, and with them come skills, abilities, better stats and better equipment. The quests become tougher, the complexity higher and the specialisation more marked.

All this is great. WoW is an amazing game, that has managed to capture the hearts and minds of millions. I’ve never played it, but I’ve seen it played, and I see the appeal. Wow, WoW. You, I went there. No way back now.

What WoW doesn’t do, however, is grant you skill at other games of its type. This isn’t entirely true, of course, but it’s true enough. Your analytical skills, communication skills and game play skills you can take with you, of course, but those sweet 100 levels and all they bring?

They’re stuck in WoW.

If you decide to play Eve Online (which I did, and loved it, until I had to quit due to lack of time), your 100 levels and soul-bound items count for nothing. You may be able to use the people skills you’ve gained playing WoW (no irony here, it’s a very real thing) and you can definitely use your understanding of the genre to your advantage.

But most of your ingame skill, you’ve have to leave behind, whether you like it or not. Five years of grinding WoW simply don’t translate across the board as five years of CS devotion.

Enter the larp angle

When designing a larp – particularly when designing an action-focused campaign larp in a fantastical setting – the default in many places is the WoW model. Levels. XP. Skills. To be gained by time, effort (in and offgame) and sometimes even through paying cash.

I’m not here to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of having skills systems and experiences points. Not right now, at least. But I will share a bit of thinking.

If you’re running a CS style larp (rules/mechanics wise, at least), it will appeal to certain players. If you run a WoW one, it’ll appeal to others. Some people like the simulation freedom that hefty rules provide, while others prefer the more You-Can-Do-What-You-Can-Do approach.

Now, when you’re doing larps for their own sake, neither model is inherently bettet than the other. Just different. When it comes to teaching through larp, or even outright educational larps, a value difference is obvious.

The learning angle

Learning through larps (or games in general) is all about skill transference. Learn to do public speaking as an Orc Shaman, and you can do it as a normal person as well. Practice your math skills as a British WW2 codebreaker, and they’ll be honed for your regular life as well.

This isn’t to say that you can’t learn stuff from WoW! You definitely can. Math is a good example. You’ll not learn nearly as much about math from Counterstrike as you will from WoW. In fact, that’s a pretty nice side effect of fighting all those pesky creatures – you constantly use math skills and think in min/max terms.

But any game – larp or otherwise – that lets you solve a problem with an ingame skill means that you don’t have to train that skill in real life. If I could win discussions by just saying “Logic, Level 3!” in an authoritative voice, I wouldn’t have to learn too much actual logic.

In some larps, I can do exactly that. A dangerous fighter here isn’t necessarily strong, fast and skilled, but has a lot of ingame skills that do exactly nothing outside the game. A character with many Hit Points in the game may be played by a player who is just as un-tough as I am, in the real world. And so on.

But what does it all mean?

Why do I care? Why is it interesting?

To me, it’s interesting because it’s relevant for what kinds of larps I want to do, and what kinds of advice I give people who organise larps.

It’s interesting because decisions on this should be made with eyes open. If your game has almost zero rules, the charismatic, fast and physically able will rise to the top. If you have many rules, a wheel-chair warrior can be just as powerful as a sprightly one.

What kind of players do you want to cater to? What kind of experience do you want to give?

And what should people take with them when they leave, and what should be left behind?

This is by no means the only choice to make on that score, but it’s a quite fundamental one. I hope you make it with deliberation.

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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