On Ending a LARP

This past weekend we ran the concluding event of Anarchy, a historical LARP set in the Stephen-Matilda civil war of the 12th Century. I learned a lot of lessons about running LARPs over the course of the campaign – as happens whenever I run a game – but I was particularly gratified with how one experiment we tried at the weekend panned out.

This related to how we handled the end of the event, which was also the end of the campaign itself. I think handling the finish of a LARP event is a very tricky thing; there is no widely-adopted one-size-fits-all solution, and whilst many games put a lot of thought into climactic, final encounters, I think there is a difference between “how do we do the climax?” and “how and when do we declare an end to the event?”

To be clear, I am not talking here exclusively about how you end a campaign – though obviously this will be relevant to this article – so much as how you end an individual LARP event – whether that be the last episode of a campaign, or a preceding one, or a one-shot event. There seem to be three models which are particularly widespread; what we did at Anarchy constitutes a fourth. I think this sort of thing genuinely merits significant thought, not least because of the “LARP drop” experienced my participants post-event; a little attention to getting an appropriate sense of closure can’t eliminate that, but I would be willing to hypothesise that it might alleviate in some cases. Here’s those three common methods, followed by the Anarchy experiment.

Type 1: A Climactic Event (or Group of Events) Happens, Then the Refs Call Time Out

What it says on the tin: the refs roll out some big climactic event, and then once it’s done they call “Time Out” to indicate that the game is over. This seems fairly common, especially in smaller-scale games.

It does necessarily imply railroading; sometimes, the nature of the climactic event can be adapted, altered, or totally redesigned in the process of the event by the referee team on the fly. The most recent Death Unto Darkness event ended up diverging so firmly from the game team’s plans that, thinking on their feet, they gave the PCs a choice of three climactic encounters – basically choosing which of the three horrors unleashed on the planet of Nivalis they were going to prioritise neutralising.

In many games, this will be a combat encounter – indeed, if the game includes even medium levels of combat, a climactic fight is usually the default – but other forms exist. At the first Blood & Fire event, my recollection is that the refs timed us out after the last major announcements from the Anarch war councils, and Meeting of Monarchs concluded with the signing ceremony of the great treaty (which historically, and I suspect in the timeline of our game, got totally ignored almost immediately afterwards). These concluding moments were political in nature, and not combat, but remained interactive moments in which the actions of PCs were centered.

Other such things can be much briefer and more NPC-driven. Some previous Anarchy events worked on this basis; we’d roll out some sort of setpiece event, like Matilda declaring to her supporters that she intended to fight to win back her throne, and that would not so much be a highly interactive encounter for PCs to interact with (though if they’d wanted to heckle Matilda – or stab her – they could have tried) as it was a moment to draw a line under the action of the event and be a nice “roll credits” moment.

That said, there are pitfalls to this approach. The more obvious one is that a lot is riding on that climactic event; it is the last memory people will have of the event, and if it hits the wrong tone, or misreads the mood of the player base and shits all over their fun, or it’s otherwise misjudged then that will colour people’s feelings about the entire event.

A more profound issue is that of PC involvement. It is likely that you will want as many PCs as possible, preferably all of them, to be involved in this climactic event (or set of parallel events, if you have enough refs and crew to do multiple climaxes concurrently). This can set some constraints on you, especially if some players have accessibility needs which preclude their involvement in some types of encounter. (It also means this method is only really viable for fairly small LARPs – once you start moving beyond dozens of participants into hundreds, it’s near-impossible to involve them all in any particular encounter.)

In general, if the climactic moment is an announcement by PC war councils or a little speech by a character or some other political thing like that, it is generally easier; even if not everyone feels like taking part (or has the IC standing to do so), they still at least have the option of witnessing it. Of course, the danger of such things is that they can become long, waffling snooze-fests, so it’s good to keep them short.

On the other hand, some events go for a big combat encounter as the climactic event. The more emphasis a game puts on combat, the more likely this is. So the model here is that you either have a big attack on the PCs’ base camp, or you have all the PCs head out on one last big combat mission of the event, and then call time out once the combat mission is over.

I personally dislike this; I usually find combat the least interesting aspect of any LARP I play, and that’s only partly because I don’t consider myself to be especially good at it. I’m was the sort of kid who found point-and-click adventures more interesting than CRPGs when they were growing up, because talking to things or solving problems through cunning felt more satisfying than bashing stuff, and my tastes have broadly stayed true to that. Other participants cannot participate in combat – as in they have accessibility needs which are totally incompatible with it – whereas I just don’t wanna, but I feel like in this respect our needs from a game align, because in both cases if we are being cajoled into being involved in a combat encounter this is going to be annoying and hurt our fun.

Now, I don’t mind being threatened with outbursts of violence at a LARP – but it bugs me if the ref team obligate me to go along on a combat encounter. The former is a risk that comes with existing in the game world; the latter is being press-ganged into actively seeking out an in-game situation which, if it were optional, I’d have passed on. This does not only happen in climactic encounters – I’ve attended at least one event where some sort of magical miasma or similar was deployed against the player base camp to cajole us all into going on a mandatory combat – but it’s most likely for those.

Of course, there’s some systems where declining to take part in combat would totally miss the point; linear combat-focused LARP where the entire concept is “you are adventurers on some sort of quest which involves a lot of violence”, for instance. But in general, my feeling is that if a system allows you to create a character whose skills and capabilities are not directed towards combat, and is willing to accept bookings from participants whose accessibility needs preclude them from being involved in combat, then that system has implicitly said that it is fine to play a character who does not seek to be involved in combat. I also think that if a LARP system permits you to play a character type, that LARP system better find ways of including that character type in major game moments, because otherwise you’re not really an equal participant in the game, you’re a second banana, and being a second banana is only fun if you have specifically opted into that.

Some games find ways to incorporate combat-declining players into big combat encounters, but in practice I think it’s quite difficult to do this in a way where said players actually feel like they made a contribution to the main encounter; it’s too easy to reduce PCs to being facilitators other people’s fun (namely, the people who enjoy combat more), and often in a way which is pretty goddamn thankless. (I disliked healing at Heathen – and would have probably been seriously annoyed by playing a Fryd with armour repair skills – because it felt like both roles ended up spending a lot of time providing heals/armour boosts on demand so that the combat characters who were getting the lion’s share of the spotlight could go out and eat up more spotlight.)

Now, to be fair, not everyone has to like every bit of a LARP. However, like I said – by definition, the ending of your event is likely to be one of the most vivid memories people take away. If your event concludes with someone having just sort of slogged through a bit of game they actively dislike – or, at best, merely tolerate as a hurdle to get over before they get to the stuff they do like – that can be a problem, because it means that they finish the game with a bad taste in their mouth which will colour the rest.

The best recent examples I saw of this were the end of the final Land Without a King event – which was largely a combat sequence, but also included moments like witnessing the knighting of the heir to Albion and the pulling of the sword from the stone, which less combat-oriented types scope to do their thing – and the end of the first Second Breakfast event, in which the hobbits whose property was being auctioned off due to them being declared dead came back from their silly adventure and demanded their stuff back (because the auction was a fun event we could all take part in, and perhaps because we were all semi-expecting that outcome, so we could play up to it when it happened).

Type 2: A Climactic Event (or Group of Events) Happens, Some Time Passes, Then the Refs Call Time Out

The Type 1 approach tends to conflate “climax of the event” with “end of the event”, but of course it does not have to be that way. Borrowing ideas from other mediums (especially those designed for the non-interactive consumption of a passive audience) and applying them to RPGs is dangerous, but there is something to be said for having a little denouement – a bit of time passing after a climactic incident has come and gone.

The nice thing about this approach is that it gives a little space for the PCs to release their tension, talk to each other a bit, and emotionally react to what just happened. You see, there’s another pitfall to Type 1 I didn’t mention above – it risks being very abrupt, especially if it entails dropping something major on the PCs which they then don’t get a chance to react to. The Type 2 approach not only lets players experience that climactic moment, but also to do some roleplay around it – which can be a big help in terms of processing it.

Another nice thing about this approach is that it’s a little friendlier to players who either missed the climactic event due to some sort of logistical snag or access issue, or opted to sit it out (if they had that choice) because it was a type of encounter which simply isn’t to their taste, or went along on it but didn’t enjoy it. If they missed the event, they can at least find out what happened and react to it IC; if they went along and had a rough time, they can at least parse that into being grumpy about it IC and express that.

It’s also an approach which can work on a somewhat larger scale of game, or which works well if rather than having one single climactic sequence you had two or more running in parallel – in the latter case, in particular, it gives people an opportunity to compare notes and get some sense on how the overall situation stands.

Generally, this process allows for a bit of emotional cooldown at the end of an event, and I genuinely prefer it most of the time. I’ve seen it used at Waking Nightmare particularly well.

Type 3: Gameplay Just Sort of Peters Out Around the Scheduled Time

This is what I have experienced at Empire and other large-scale fest LARPs. Fundamentally, once a game hits a certain size, some things become outright impossible.

Firstly, you cannot craft a climactic climax which everyone can meaningfully and enjoyably participate in – firstly, because once your game hits a certain size then whatever concept you have for a climax is going to be incompatible with someone’s access needs, and secondly because once your game hits a certain size then it’s impossible to physically involve anyone in a single climactic moment.

In terms of the number of players simultaneously participating in a gameplay element at once, Empire maxes out at the scale of its battles. Numerous players do not participate in battles at all – either because they have access issues which mean it is not possible for them to participate, or because (and this is the camp I fall in) they are simply disinterested in combat and don’t want to sacrifice a large chunk of the game day in a long, grinding combat encounter.

The battles I have participated in at Empire have convinced me that they would actually make kind of lousy climactic encounters for the event – because the nature of the battle is such that participants will only ever see a fraction of what’s going on, so you can’t really have a moment in battle where everything comes to a head in a way everyone feels like they had a direct hand in. Sometimes it happens organically – sometimes you feel you went out there and just sort of just tried to keep yourself alive, whilst the Empire failed at its battle goals because of mistakes made way on the other side of the Imperial lines which was entirely out of your ability to affect.

This makes Empire battles extremely bad for the sort of climactic encounters you use for Type 1 or Type 2. (The Sunday might feel like very climactic moments for people especially invested in it – but that’s only ever going to be a fraction of the player base, and enough time elapses after it – for good logistical reasons – that odds are something else major will happen between the end of battle and Time Out.)

The other impossible thing to do at Empire is to have refs calling “Time Out!” to announce the end of the game to everyone. The IC field does not have a PA system which would allow for such universal announcements – and putting one in would not necessarily the best use of resources.

Thus, Empire and other large-scale fest games tend to default to the approach of making it clear what time the game ends in the pre-game logistics details, and then players sort of just naturally time themselves out, either because they have decided to stop playing or because a sufficient critical mass of people in their vicinity have timed out that it prompts them to time out too.

The only fest-style game I have seen do something like the Type 1 or Type 2 options above was Odyssey, which had its arena bouts as major tentpole events which everyone could witness. At the same time, this also limited the size of Odyssey; I think the game was effectively limited by the size of the arena seating, and if the player base had swelled to the point where a large chunk of players would be left out of the arena battles because there was no room for them either in the seating or in the bouts themselves the organisers would have needed to think about a major redesign (or capping numbers). It was a game of some hundreds, not thousands, and the difference in order of magnitude had a big effect.

Type 4: What We Did At Anarchy E4

I’m not going to call this the Anarchy method, because I can’t put hand on heart and say I know we’re the first to do it. (Odds are we are not.) Nonetheless, it worked particularly well for us. What we did instead of having one ending was having several endings – some running in parallel – which provided a clutch of little epilogues to give closure to as many PCs as we could. Here’s how it worked.

  • We had our climactic event – King Stephen agreeing to make Henry Curtmantle his heir, ending the civil war and putting Curtmantle on the path to becoming Henry II. At this point we called a “Time-ish Out” – the main body of the event was over, and players were asked to head to the main lounge to await the beginning of the vignettes.
  • We then offered a series of vignettes – three groups of two (well, two groups of two and one unpaired vignette), so nobody could go on them all, players had to choose which (if any) of the vignettes they participated in. These did not necessarily happen in chronological order – some of the earlier ones happened a little way into Henry II’s reign, one of the later ones was the death of King Stephen – and the scope of them was deliberately kept quite tight, because we were trying to fit all of them into the space of about two hours. These did not necessarily depict major events – at least one was just some characters catching up in Sicily – because the emphasis was on individual closure, not on major game-changing events.
  • We then did a final pair of vignettes for everyone, depicting the coronation of Henry II followed immediately by a “flash-forward” to 2022 (without costume changes, because it’d be a bit much to expect everyone to swap from period kit into modern clothes) in which some concluding words were given at the end of a lecture on “overlooked and unknown figures of the Anarchy”, so as to give everyone a common epilogue.

We didn’t go in having specifically decided on any of the vignettes, mind: because they needed to provide closure to the PCs, we needed to make calls on which to include shortly before we did the climactic event, taking into account feedback and suggestions received over the course of the event and our own intuitive sense of what would provide a nice moment for a good cross-section of the player base. This was easier than expected because we did not have to make them too involved, because they were short, tight scenes without room for much complexity – the analogy used in the crew room was that these were YouTube videos, not full movies.

The resulting effect seemed well-received – I certainly found it fulfilling and I heard a lot of pleased feedback from players – and was possible for three reasons. The first was that we had a fairly small, tight event – about three dozen participants, including crew – so it was possible to plan a tight set of vignettes which would still provide a flavour of something for everyone, or close to everyone. The second was that this was a finale, not a “to be continued” moment – obviously, this technique of ending a LARP is less workable for events which are the beginning or middle episodes in a series, and isn’t necessary for them either, because there’s way less need for a final closure there.

The third reason is that not only was this a finale, but it was also the finale of a campaign. We were able to come up with these vignettes in part because we had got very, very used to these characters over the length of the campaign, and so had the capacity to make informed guesses as to what would be meaningful to them. In addition, I don’t think this technique would work so well in a one-shot game because it did eat up a bunch of time at the end, and in a one-shot game time is often at an acute premium. (That said, a tightly structured one-shot game could perhaps make use of this technique.)

In addition to the vignettes, we also had an afterparty to celebrate the end of the campaign. We timed out at 8pm on Saturday, in keeping with our usual “no time in on Sunday” approach; in general, I think trying to include any “time in” on the last half-day you have a LARP site for is often misguided, since in practice it often eats into tidying-up time and ends up a bit rushed as a result of the need to finish the action in good time for people to get away; better to end it at the end of the last full day you have the site, I feel. Again, such an after-party is the sort of thing which makes more sense in a campaign finale than a one-shot, since it’s another thing which eats up time.

If you’ve encountered any other methods of bringing a LARP event to a close, I’d be interested to know about them – like I said, it may be a potentially under-examined aspect of LARP design which could do with further thought.

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