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Let’s talk brainload.

What is Brainload?

Unlike in video games, where a computer remembers and enacts the rules, in analogue games, humans are the ones responsible for enforcing rules.

In LARP, this means that - you are responsible for remembering a bunch of stuff about your character, their passive abilities, their hits, what kind of weapons they can use, etc, as well as the general rules about the game (what calls do, how healing works, safety rules, social contract, etc.)

Because human beings are not machines, this leads to instances where the rules are not simulated correctly. Just getting familiar with the ins and outs of all of the rules that a system has can take a significant amount of time, and almost always requires practice.

However, there is particular type of rules-breaking that can happen where, even though you know what the rules are, and you are actively invested in enforcing them (i.e. you’re not cheating), you nonetheless do not enforce them correctly.

Maybe you’ll take a durational call for 14s, instead of 10s. Maybe you’ll take a DOUBLE and a QUAD at the same time and maths your new hit count incorrectly. Maybe you’ll make an offensive call against someone having just taken a REND, even though that status effect should have stopped you from doing so.

Overwhelmingly these kind of mistakes occur in combat. They get made because you don’t have the resources to perform the act of accurate simulation, and typically this is because your brain is trying to perform a number of other operations at the same time.

This is brainload.

Designing for Brainload

Because human brains are the hardware on which a LARP runs, brainload also represents a hard limit on how complicated a system can be and still function.

Now, most LARP systems employ the ‘one second rule’, where you can only take damage from a person once per second (this is, among other things, to stop degenerate behaviours like egg whisking your opponents for massive damage.) If, during any one second, you cannot brain whatever update you need to make to the game state (e.g. reducing your hits while dealing with ongoing calls, movement, fighting, etc.), then your brainload has exceeded what the system can take. If this happens repeatedly to players during combat, then the system is failing at some level.

However, just avoiding people's brains becoming completely overwhelmed is not enough. I think the ideal LARP combat should be one where you have enough spare bandwidth to, y’know, actually enjoy the act of fighting and be able to think proactively, so you can do cool stuff, like unleash an epic ability, tackle the combat strategically, or do some dramatic roleplay.

When Mat and I first started discussing simplifying Animus, after feedback pointing out that it was too complex, we tried to take a critical look at all of the things that we could strip out, with an eye to reducing brainload during combat as much as possible. We talked about the kind of things that we could and couldn’t remember in combat.

Things we habitually couldn’t remember:

  • Hits
  • Auras (a common complaint in MM)
  • Number of per-adventure consumables (e.g. potions)

Things we found we habitually could remember:

  • Per-encounter abilities (e.g. magic spell charges)
  • Per-encounter weapon calls (though others don’t always)
  • Per-adventure abilities (e.g. one-encounter-per-adventure attacks)

Since then, we’ve spoken to a lot of other people and found this to be the case. Indeed, it’s almost an open secret in MM that the majority of folks approximate their hits.

Here are some of the things I think we discovered from this process. (This is by no means an exhaustive list of brainload-contributors).

Involuntary updates increase brainload more than voluntary updates. With hit points, you’re constantly having to update a fixed number by reacting to someone else ‘interrupting’ you by hitting you with a weapon. One of the big differences between updating a number like ‘hits’ and with a number like ‘spell charges’, we realised, is that you choose when to use the spell charge.

Variable updates increase brainload more than fixed updates. Our opinion on damage calls. It’s way simpler to always be able to -1 from your hits vs. listening for a call and then doing maths.

Anything that forces you to do extra maths increases brainload. The classic example is: being hit by multiple people at once is harder to deal with than just being hit by one person, as it forces you to have to add damage together (DOUBLE+TRIPLE+TRIPLE = +8 damage).

Counting adds to brainload. Any time that a call forces you to count for a period of time (e.g. a durational call), this takes up brain resource. Calls with instant effect (e.g. STAGGER) are easier to brain than other ones (e.g. BREAK).

Remembering something adds to brainload. Whilst actual recall of rules / abilities isn’t covered under our definition of brainload, if you are actively trying to remember something, or how something works, this takes up brain resource.

Things that are physrepped are easier to remember than things which aren’t physrepped. One of the reasons that potions are such a pain in MM is that, habitually, they are not physrepped by actual potions. Similarly, remembering that you have a spare dagger is a lot easier if you are carrying that dagger physically on your person. One of the things I like about Ichorwerkers is that they don’t even have to remember their ‘spell charges’ - they just look down at the bag they have and can see how many flasks they have left.

Your stuff is easier to remember than other people’s stuff. The problem with Auras. It’s way easier to remember your own abilities than it is to remember abilities other people give you passively during an adventure (and therefore don’t necessarily remind you about). However, there are abilities that actively give you a thing during combat (like builder priest RESIST calls) that people usually do remember.

Brainload and Accessibility

Obviously, every human brain is different, and has a different tolerance for load. But reducing brainload as much as possible allows more people to participate, and, in my opinion, makes combat more enjoyable (instead of a miserable slog).

This is one of the things we had in mind when creating our new non-combat role, Herald of Echoes, who have no hits, no skills or abilities, don’t take effects, and have optional access to a handful of ranged calls. Playing Herald is the most brainload-light option in our game right now, much more so than monstering. I'm hopeful that this should let some people turn up and play who would otherwise not be able to, especially, say, if they're just visiting for a week and want to adventure with their PC friends.

Obviously, brainload isn’t everything. One of the intimidating things for new players is getting to grips with the body of rules in the first place, so rules should be simple and sensible enough that learning them isn’t too arduous a task (and, ideally, that there are some classes / playstyles that are very ‘rules light’ in terms of what they have to remember.) In one of the responses to last week’s blog, I spoke a little about how we’ve tried to design low-level characters with this kind of rules-light approach in mind, especially Paladins, Forest Touched, and Weavers. As characters level, complexity increases. I hope I can speak to this a bit more in a future post.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at with thinking about brainload right now - though I’m sure we’ll develop a more sophisticated understanding as time goes on.

Until next time.

design/brainload.txt · Last modified: 2017/12/12 18:47 by gm_seb