The Economy of Cool – from ST Secrets

This essay appeared originally in Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade Storyteller Secrets, a collection of original essays, guidance, design notes, advice, how-tos, recommendations and, yes, secrets to help Storytellers of Mind’s Eye Theatre. But it’s not specifically about VTM—the essay discusses a core philosophy, the Economy of Cool, that underpins all By Night Studios game development, including our newest effort, MET: Werewolf the Apocalypse. You can purchase your copy of the full book here.

 

The Economy of Cool

by Jason Andrew

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” — Lester Bangs, Almost Famous

A thriving economy revolves round the tension between the scarcity of goods and services versus the demand for them. Many LARPs share a common fallacy—assuming that game economy is based on the earning and spending of XP and the gaining of additional power.

This misconception is shaped by an unconscious acceptance of the Hero’s Journey trope. Coined by Joseph Campbell in his legendary book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the theory of the Monomyth opines that important myths from around the worldhave shared a common default structure for thousands of years. Traditional roleplaying games tend to strictly follow this narrative structure.

Imagine a thrilling gaming session about a callow youth who unexpectedly receives a strange call to adventure from a wise mentor who will show him the wonders of the universe. The hero endures increasingly dangerous tasks and trials to prove his worth, until he masters his destiny to achieve a decisive victory against evil. Should the hero survive, he is offered a choice to return to the mortal world with special insight or to improve the world with what he has learned.

This archetypical story could have been inspired by the tragic tale of King Arthur, the cunning legend of Odysseus, or perhaps the adventure of Sinbad the Sailor. Or from a modern perspective, this story can be seen reflected in many recent classics, such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or the Matrix.

The perspective of the Hero’s Journey presumes the fundamental story is about the adventure and evolution of the title character. This narrow focus unconsciously encourages selfish, and sometimes destructive, behavior from players as they begin to see their own character as the most important and all other characters as less important. This mentality results in hyper-aggressive behavior and an obsession with XP as the metric by which the game measures progress and success.

Players in a Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade game do not directly compete with each other to earn XP. Earning XP is not a zero-sum game; the XP gained by one player does not detract from other players’ earnings. All players who attend a game have the innate potential to earn the maximum XP. Characters in networked games may have a cap to balance out monthly XP earnings across multiple games. However, clever players can earn extra XP for games that they have missed via downtime scenes, background reports, or email roleplaying, with Storyteller approval.

A LARP is an organized social contract designed to provide enjoyment to every player involved. If the LARP is a stage, then the hidden economy of the game environment is time on center-stage. In this system, all of the LARP’s players are consumers and producers of that unknowable quality known as cool.

Some players with natural charisma and force of personality seem to always create interesting characters that become magnets for the spotlight. Other players discover that their characters fizzle stillborn despite an extensive history and powerful character sheet. The answer lies within the subtle dance of the Economy of Cool.

The basic principle of the Economy of Cool is that there is a finite level of cool in any given moment in a game. Players naturally accrue social cool points over time, and the investment of said cool points can determine how well they do in the game and, more importantly, how much fun they have.

The Metrics of Cool: The Merit System

Poets have argued and debated for centuries about two aspects of the human condition: love and the ephemeral nature of cool. For the purpose of this essay, cool is defined as the ability to partake and share in the story of the LARP in such a way that it is fun and interesting for the people involved.

Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade provides the Storyteller with an easy means of moderating the Economy of Cool via the merit system. Previous editions of Mind’s Eye Theatre used merits as simple advantages that a player could purchase to add flavor to a character. By limiting players to only 7 points total in merits, MET: VTM leverages the Economy of Cool, forcing players to make fundamental decisions about the nature of their characters.

Let’s imagine that a troupe decides to create a chronicle based on the Knights of the Round Table as Ventrue. Some of the characters might take the following merits:

  • Prince Arthur: Paragon (3 point merit) and Regal Bearing (4 point merit)
  • Lancelot: Path of Chivalry (3 point merit), Unyielding (4 point merit)
  • Percival: Golconda Seeker (5 point merit), Code of Honor (2 point merit)
  • Gawain: Ambidextrous (2 point merit), Calm Heart (1 point merit), Daredevil (2 point merit), Lucky (2 point merit)
  • Merlin: Loremaster (1 point merit), Oracular Ability (2 point merit), Thaumaturgic Training (4 point merit)

The limitation on merits forces the players to make essential choices about their characters that forge memorable experiences and force them into the Economy of Cool.

Prince Arthur is primed for leadership with his merits, but he will certainly need to lean on Merlin for advice and insight. This partnership will create opportunities for roleplaying and an economy of weaknesses and strengths. If Arthur’s player could simply buy those merits when he had the appropriate amount of XP, why would he need Merlin? By limiting the amount of cool in the game, the importance of both characters increases when the spotlight turns towards their individual strengths.

The differentiation of merits allows characters to explore many different iterations of the same general concept. Many consider Lancelot to be the archetypical knight who eventually fails for daring to endulge in love. Percival seeks to use the framework of being a noble knight to pursue enlightenment, whereas Gawain seeks out adventure to test himself. Each of these knight concepts allow the players a unique means to roleplay together without overstepping onto each other’s concepts.

For more information about the mechanics behind the costs of merits, see the essay “Roleplaying by the Numbers” in Storyteller Secrets.

Jumping the Shark: When the Economy is Broken

The expression “jumping the shark” describes the moment in a story when the original concept has been so diluted that it effectively becomes a parody of itself. The trope’s name was inspired by the ultimate King of Cool from my childhood. Can you guess who? Did you guess the Fonz from Happy Days? Correctamundo!

In the early seasons of the television show “Happy Days,” the Fonz was part of the ensemble cast. This cat was cool. He defined cool. He could start a jukebox by punching it and summon forth hot girls by snapping his fingers. And yet, a good portion of his time was spent helping or being helped by the rest of the cast. Richie and his friends mingled with the cool guy. If this show was a LARP, you could argue that these characters went along on each other’s adventures.

But, alas, the Fonz undermined the show when he jumped the shark. Suddenly, he could do everything all of the other characters could do, but better. He became a mechanic, a businessman, a school teacher, and family man. The other characters shrank away, and the economy of cool died.

Why? The Fonz quit investing his cool. Richie was a nerd who owned his funky pre-hipster geekness. When the Fonz cared about his friend’s adventures, he invested cool points into his friend. This investiment was paid back, and the cool factor magnified both of them. The Fonz only became a joke later, when he forgot the first principle of the Economy of Cool: cool shared is cool magnified.

Imagine that Prince Arthur from the previous example was able to keep purchasing merits with XP. He would quickly surpass the need for knights or mystical advisors. The rest of the troupe would eventually sit around and wait for Arthur to resolve every problem without getting involved.

Investing in Cool: A Technique to Prime the Cool Economy

A Storyteller can leverage the existing rules to encourage her players to prime the well for the Economy of Cool. The accumulation of XP sometimes can be a problem when encouraging players to actively participate in the Economy of Cool. Aside from merits, a character can eventually acquire anything she wants via spending XP. Once she has attended a few games, she can spend her points on purchased like a pimped-out G-5, influences that control the police, or mastery of the Computer skill.

If allowed to proceed unchecked, players can buy whatever they need at that moment, killing the Economy of Cool. Encourage your players to trade with other players in ways that acknowledge and share the cool, allowing others to shine.

Imagine that a player wants her character to build and open a hot new nightclub during her downtime. She spends her saved XP on the Haven and Resources backgrounds, expends some influence and downtime actions, and then writes an interesting downtime report. Bam! The player created an instant nightclub, which failed to include anyone else and will likely be ignored by the rest of the troupe, because it isn’t real to them.

How much fun was that?

Now imagine that the Storyteller decided instead to make this alteration to the common sandbox of the city into a challenge for the player. Some of the possibilities include:

  • What if the property was owned by the Ventrue primogen?
  • What if the local Goodfellas needed to be properly motivated to ensure that there weren’t any “accidents?” What if the local underworld were controlled by the Giovanni?
  • You can build a nightclub, but you can’t presume that the mortals will automatically attend it. What if the local Toreador have a lockdown on the hipster crowd within the city, and their blessing is required to build buzz for the club and help book the hip acts?
  • Are there musician characters in the troupe? Imagine the synergetic relationship that could develop between the two characters as they form connections that share the spotlight.
  • Is there an architect character in the troupe? Imagine how strong of a tie that player would feel to that club if he designed the building.
  • What if the club owner hired some of the street- thug characters to make sure that criminals didn’t harass the patrons attending the club?

A simple background story can entertain the entire troupe by encouraging a single player to include her fellow players. These players invest their own cool points into the story of their fellow players, making all of their characters feel more real and connected to the chronicle’s story. These players are going to remember and have an interest in that nightclub, and it will eventually become a common set piece for the chronicle. Slowly, that nightclub becomes a little bit more real as characters have meetings there and start to include it in their history and their roleplaying.

(For more information about this sort of technique, see the essay “ ‘Yes, and…’: How to Improve Your Storytelling Through Application of the Rules of Improv in Storyteller Secrets.)

Cool is a Dangerous Game

Players often forget this important secret after they have experienced the thrill of Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade for a while. New players want to risk their sheets to experience the visceral danger of the game. They don’t want to be excluded from an adventure because their sheets may be more fragile than the veterans’.

The worst thing that a Storyteller or a player can do to halt the Economy of Cool is to exclude new players to protect their characters. A coterie of combat ninjas might want to protect a new player from being horribly murdered by a Sabbat raid, but that really only isolates and disappoints players seeking to participate. Encourage your veteran combat players to bring new players along and to teach them the rules. By helping the new players, Storytellers and players help create and share stories.

Find out what the new players want to do with their characters, and search for a way to include them in the current scenario or partner with existing character concepts. Here are some examples:

  • If a new player wants to be a poet or socialite, encourage a veteran to hire him to be a herald.
  • If a new player wants to be a bodyguard, encourage a veteran to hire her, even if she doesn’t really need protection.
  • If a veteran is planning an important meeting, encourage her to take along a new player. Imagine a hoary elder teaching a neonate the art of politics and war. Allow the new player to witness and understand the dynamics of the moment. Explain your complex political and social games to the new player, so that he might understand that level of the game. Occasionally, this method will backfire, and said new player will betray the veteran, but that’s good for the drama of the game.

Storytellers set the vision for the chronicle, and if they believe in the Economy of Cool then the players will strive to achieve these goals. Here are a couple of methods to help you spread the cool around your chronicle:

  • Help place new players into the thick of the story by encouraging them to create neonate pawns for one of the local elders. Ask the elder players to pit their neonate pawns against their rival’s neonates. This scenario allows new players to test themselves against other players of similar experience. Encouraging the veteran players to recruit new players into their lineages invests in new players and injects more cool points in the future of the chronicle.
  • Elder and veteran players have a responsibility to watch out for the health of the game. Storytellers should monitor the flow of the Economy of Cool, and if a single player is hoarding the cool and abusing new players, you have a responsibility to get involved and stop it. Every situation is going to be unique. Don’t be afraid to talk to players and see how they feel.

Selling the Cool

Viewed from a certain perspective, professional wrestling may be considered a type of LARP. Wrestlers take on personas and maintain the story by strictly staying in character. This method-acting is known as kayfabe, and a big component of it is selling the cool of the other wrestlers.

Players and Storytellers must sell the cool of the other characters. Here are a couple of examples of selling the cool from a character sheet:

  • If a wrestler’s story is that he was burned horribly and has returned from Hell to defeat his enemies, his opponents will flinch with fear when faux-hellfire fireworks light the arena. In MET: VTM, if a vampire has the flaw Eerie Presence, other characters should react to that flaw with fear and trepidation. Failing to sell this flaw will disappoint the flawed character’s player and discourage him from selling the interesting things about other characters.
  • When a wrestler strikes another wrestler, it is expected that the faux-injured party will sell the strike to the audience, especially if it is a signature or finishing maneuver. In MET: VTM, if a vampire possesses Puissance (Potence 5), her targets should sell suffering through her attacks. This helps both players feel the intensity of the scene and makes the both of them experience the cool.
  • Wrestlers generate interest, known as heat, via their feuds against their rivals. When a storyline has enthralled the audience, the wrestler strives to keep the heat alive for as long as possible to benefit both sides of the conflict. In MET: VTM, the trick is to capture the mindset of an immortal monster while fulfilling the needs of an excited gamer. Killing your enemies is a waste of an interesting story. This balance requires that both players agree to certain ground rules and maintain good conversation outside of play. It is hardly fair if one player is out for blood and the other player is seeking to extend the story.
  • Wrestlers are expected to sell their feuds while avoiding the disruption of kayfabe. This involves attacking each other with violence, clever insults, and political dirty deeds while battling over a championship belt. Off stage, they are coworkers and collaborators trying to tell the best story they can for the audience. In MET: VTM, players should actively sell the pains of maneuvers in the jyhad. When the harpy tags a rival with the negative status Warned, both characters should play the scene to the hilt. Ignoring the power of status kills the scene’s energy and downplays the players’ contributions. Once the scene is over, the players should meet together and break kayfabe to congratulate each other. Occasionally, players might suffer through bleed, where the emotions of the scene and their characters linger in the consciousness. It is important to have a clean break, celebrate the story, and remind everyone that a game is a team effort and that in the end the health of the chronicle greatly depends upon a mosaic of characters.

Conclusion

The Economy of Cool depends upon a spirit of cooperativeness and the players’ willingness to leverage their own self-enlightened interest to put the health of the game ahead of their own short term gains.

When players freely share their personal cool with their fellows, they lift the spirits of everyone involved and increase the total fun of the entire chronicle. The return on the initial investment of effort and cooperation is infinite in terms of goodwill, chronicle growth, and the potential of future stories.

The urge to win is strong in the gamer perspective. Our culture encourages us to master the game and achieve victory over our rivals. Society has trained us to think of excluding others as a form of control and power.

The truth is that winning pales in comparison to sharing experiences. A short-term victory is a gilded cage that offers no real satisfaction.

The real immortality is becoming part of a story that is told with bated breath by a player sharing her first experiences with Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade. Imagine your name spoken in whispers and your tale told at local greasy spoons for decades as an example of fun. In the end, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

 

Storyteller Secrets is available as a downloadable PDF here.