We Don’t Want Any Adventures Here, Thank You!

This past weekend I had an extremely good time at the second run of EyeLARP’s Second Breakfast. This was a charming little game set in Middle-Earth, in which the Wild West town and Viking village at EyeLARP’s site stood in for the little village of Frogmore, a hobbit community in the Shire. The basic concept of the game is that it’s the weekend of the Mayor’s birthday, there’s going to be a lovely party, the four extended families of the village (the Thornburrows, the Greengawkers, the Kettlebrights, and Puddlefoots – or is that Puddlefeet?) are engaged in some light-hearted rivalry when it comes to baking delicious pies and/or cakes for the big event, but are all united in one thing: they don’t want anything so exciting as an adventure so any meddling dwarves or wizards showing up trying to coax right-thinking hobbits off on one can move right on, thank you very much.

As you might expect, this was basically a fairly light-hearted, easy-going sort of event, but I think there’s still some interesting points of LARP design which arise from it. In particular, it’s a great example of a LARP which managed to deliver a great event on the strength of pure ambience, after dialling back on more or less every other factor LARPs usually go out of their way to provide.

There was basically no peril to characters, and no real combat, In theory, Second Breakfast worked on EyeLARP’s usual “FilmSim” principle, which includes as a feature a systemless combat system: rather than fighting being a genuinely competitive process, you basically die or get injured when you think that it would make sense or be dramatically appropriate for your character to be. In practice, we were briefed not to expect or initiate genuinely life-threatening combat, and indeed none happened. The biggest outbreak of violence that happened during the second run was a massive food fight, in which a party of annoying dwarves were pelted with LARP-safe “food” (basically sponge balls in different food shapes) to make them go away. EyeLARP’s approach to combat already sets aside their LARP from the vast majority of old-school games which try to make a satisfying tactical game out of the combat system, but still included combat in its function as a cheap and easy power fantasy; Second Breakfast didn’t even have that.

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Thoughts On Putting a Star Trek Campaign To Rest

So last week my fortnightly-on-Wednesdays group put our Star Trek Adventures campaign out to pasture. The adventures of the USS Audacity aren’t necessarily 100% over, but we’ve decided to declare the most recent episode the season finale and pick it up later if and when we feel like doing so. (One of the group has been cooking up a Ravenloft campaign we’ll be dipping into in the meantime.) Now that we’ve had just short of a year of play under our belts, here’s some thoughts on how it went.

Boldly Going Where No Troupe Play Has Gone Before

We decided to run the campaign troupe-style, like Ars Magica: we all had our own player characters, and anyone who wanted to run an “episode” (a full adventure which usually took some 2-4 sessions) could step up and do so. This is an approach which early editions of Ars Magica proposed; 5th edition still presents it as a viable option for play, but no longer assumes it as a default.

This actually ended up being a good fit. Because of the supporting character rules, you can quickly roll up an Ensign or other minor character to play when your bridge crew character isn’t present, and the bridge crew/supporting character dichotomy there ends up paralleling the magi-and-companions/grogs split in Ars Magica. It’s often the case in Star Trek that some characters will be more present in some episodes than others, so having the bridge crew PCs active vary a little from mission to mission was, if anything, appropriate to the genre.

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Serendipity and Scale

This past weekend I participated in the fifth event of Heathen, a LARP campaign based around a historical fantasy take on King Alfred’s war against the Danish invaders of Dark Ages England. I had a great time, in part because I came in with a different player character type which meant I could better target the parts of the game I found interesting than my previous character did.

Specifically, I was playing a character in the “cunning folk” archetype, a practitioner of pagan-tinged magic. (Some PCs in the system are outright pagans, some are Christians, I am specifically choosing to play a character who’s a bit of a syncretist.) One thing which impressed me with how the referees ran this part of the game is how they gave it sufficient rules and structure to feel like it wasn’t totally arbitrary, whilst at the same time being very open to what effects your ritual might bring about and adopting what in tabletop circles is called a “fail forward” approach a lot of the time: even when rituals went awry, it seemed like the referees made sure that something substantive which could prompt further action still came of them, even if it wasn’t as helpful as a successful ritual would have been.

The way you are encouraged to construct rituals in Heathen is that you are meant to find a suitable Focus for the ritual – an object or place appropriate to the ritual being attempted – a Connection to the target (an enemy NPC was cursed by the player characters using his hair, blood, and teeth acquired through various means), and a source of power like prayer, blood, or the sacrifice of a soul.

Within that framework, you can ask for a wide range of things, but there’s obviously limits. There’s several examples in the current version of the rules calling out things which won’t work – making the sun rise at midnight, driving the Danes into the sea and winning the war in one fell swoop, turning invisible, walking through walls, or killing people with a mere glance – all come down into two fairly simple categories: stuff which would spoil the game by “solving” the entire plot or otherwise making it trivially easy, and stuff which can’t really be adequately physrepped. (Apparently the refs have had to say “no” at least once to the “sunshine at night” thing on grounds of it being impossible to meaningfully implement.)

Within those restrictions, though, you could achieve a lot, and what impressed me was how the ref team were able to very effectively take players’ spontaneous rituals and roll with them, both tweaking pre-planned plot stuff to help it reflect what the PCs had done and going the extra mile with what was possible. There’s two examples I particularly want to talk about here.

In the first example, I’d managed to intercept a letter between two NPCs (having blagged it off a faery herald), and I decided to do a solo divination ritual with it to see if I could discern information written between the lines – in other words, pick up details which were not written in the letter (I could just find someone who could read Latin for that!) but which were germane to its subject, recipient, or sender. I’d already had indications that a particular Celtic cross erected in the game area was something to do with my elf-lord patron, Mabon ap Modron, so I used the cross as a Focus, the letter as a Connection, and my blood as a power source (represented by fake blood, obviously).

All this was fine, and the ritual went off successfully, and I got some very useful information which I hastened to tell to others. But less than five minutes or so after I was done, Mabon and his entire faery court showed up in the game area, kicking off a memorable sequence in which the player characters had to contest with Mabon to gain certain prizes, including invoking the magic of the Celtic cross to communicate across long distances. They specifically made a bee-line for me, and Mabon was quick to tell people that I had summoned him.

Now, OOC, it’s obvious that Mabon and his court showing up was a planned encounter, which the referees had put together before they knew I was going to do that ritual – it involved a significant number of crew with fairly extensive makeup jobs, getting it prepared would have taken a good chunk of the morning prior to them rolling out, I’d only mentioned I was doing the ritual some 5-10 minutes before they showed up. The referee who adjudicated the ritual was doing some fairly intensive talking into his walkie-talkie at the time out of my hearing, but it’s not hard to guess that he was telling them to hold off on rolling out the encounter until the outcome of my ritual could be built into it.

So on the one hand, Mabon and his court were always going to appear, whether or not I did the ritual and whether or not I succeeded – but at the same time, the referee grabbed onto the lucky coincidence of me doing that ritual right as the encounter was primed to go out in order to give extra flavour to the encounter. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me at least (and quite likely for any other player who was trying to suss out my character) it made the encounter land very differently, and making the effort to incorporate the ritual like that was something the referees 100% didn’t have to do but enriched the overall story of the event by doing. It’s the sort of thing where if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have noticed or felt short-changed, but because it did happen it was really cool.

The second example happened later. Many of the PCs were off on a combat encounter, but I was observing the Kabbalists at work. The Kabbalists are essentially the monotheistic-flavoured magicians in the game system, using magic along much the same lines as the cunning folk in terms of ritual framework, only with more use of prayer and saint’s relics (but not actually that much less in terms of blood). They had a bit more social clout, because in the setting Christianity is the default religion of the Saxons and pagans are either a) on the back foot or b) in the case of the Danish invaders, often our adversaries; this is balanced by, among other things, cunning folk having the ability to act as healers whilst Kabbalists don’t. That’s why I was sat to one side as they worked – rituals sometimes causing injury when they fail.

In this case, the Kabbalists were investigating a theft of an artifact from a sacred reliquary, and applied some lateral thinking. The artifact in question had exhibited a tendency to spontaneously appear back in the reliquary when given the opportunity to – so summoning it back felt like a waste of time. Merely divining the identity of the thief might be worth doing, but wouldn’t necessarily help get the relic back, and a previous attempt by me and some others to divine the identity had backfired. However, summoning the thief would not only identify them, but also get the relic back – either because it was on their person or because distracting the thief would allow the artifact to use its own capability to return.

Amazingly, this worked. Sure, they drew a black bead (which usually means a ritual backfires) in the resolution, but that just meant they took some horrible consequences; as the ritualists were coming to terms with the curse that had been placed upon them, another PC walked in, a blind monk, and after a moment we realised from something he said that he’d been summoned. (As it turned out, he’d been possessed for multiple events, and had been acting as a traitor in the player party all that time, in a magnificent bit of play from the player concerned.)

The thing which impressed me about this was that the PC in question had been out on the combat encounter – which meant that the ref adjudicating the ritual had used his radio to contact the refs running the combat and get them to tell the player in question to go back to the main camp and enter the longhouse, due to being summoned. In more or less any other LARP I’ve played, that wouldn’t have happened; at a fest-scale LARP it wouldn’t even be viable to have the result happen that quickly (because at something like Empire there’s thousands of people on the field and only a fraction are in sight of a ref at any particular time), and at many smaller-scale games the refs would most likely have just waited until the combat encounter wrapped just to make it logistically easier.

Indeed, it’s entirely possible the Heathen refs would have had second thoughts about doing the summoning had the combat encounter been way over on the other side of the site – but things happened to line up in such a way to make it possible. As it happened, all this led to a really intense scene as the exposed traitor cackled and the blighted Kabbalists resorted to dire measures to resolve the situation, and it wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic if we’d all had to wait half an hour or so for the combat encounter to resolve.

What I think is interesting about both of these incidents is that they’re the sort of thing which is only possible in a game of roughly the sort of size of Heathen. Make the game much larger and your ref team is probably spread thin enough that they’re not going to be able to keep the same track of where everyone is and what everyone is doing (in terms of ritual use, at least) that the Heathen team were, and the less scope they’re going to have to delay things, change things, or work out a plan on the fly to take the effects of a ritual into account. But if the game were significantly smaller, these little techniques wouldn’t have seemed so impressive – if a game is of a scale where most participants are able to see where everyone is at all times, then it’s that much less of a surprise when these happy accidents line up.

One could argue, in fact, that part of the point of involving randomisers in tabletop RPGs is to allow for these serendipitous moments – because otherwise, in a tabletop session an attentive player can keep track of more or less everything that is happening in the game, because the action is entirely contained in the conversation at the table. At the other end of the scale, in very large fest LARPs and the like, such coincidences might be much harder to design for – but arguably they don’t need to be, because there’s so many people doing so much stuff in the field that plenty of interesting quirks of fate happen entirely organically. This is just one of a great many respects in which the scale of your game has such a big influence on your design considerations that it’s often misleading to treat the design of fest-scale LARPs and smaller-scale LARPs as though they were just larger or smaller versions of the same task; like relativity, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics, different tools are called for at different scales.

On Pausing the Game At a LARP

I encountered a situation I don’t remember running into at a LARP this past weekend (Land Without a King, run under the auspices of EyeLARP, as it happens). This was when the entire game was paused in order to deal with a breach of the conduct policy.

Pausing the entire game for this sort of thing is generally more common in tabletop, because it’s vastly easier to pause the game when every single participant is sat around the same table (whether in person or over voice chat). Various safety mechanics like the X-card have been developed for the tabletop context; whilst the X-card can be used in a way which maintains the flow of play (if everyone at the table is happy for that, and if the thing which triggered the X-card is unambiguous enough that it’s clear what content needs to be steered away from), the X-card writeup makes it clear that in some contexts taking a break from play would be necessary.

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LARPing Internationally At Short Notice

Recently I took my first foray into the world of international LARP, attending the first run of A Meeting of Monarchs. This was a historical game based around the meeting of King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold; it took place in a scenic French chateau, with a player base from a range of European countries, and boasted an exceptionally good quality of both costuming and performance from the players in question, the majority of whom had booked for the event months in advance and had the advantage of spending a long time preparing for the game.

I, on the other hand, had picked up a ticket late – having acquired it following a player dropping out in early March – and, with other LARP commitments intervening, essentially had less than a month or so to prepare for the game. Here’s how I prepared, and how well that preparation served me.

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Sorties Into the Dark Ages

So, despite having been involved in LARP in some capacity for twenty years or so, for a good long while I’d never been to what you might call a “traditional” Vampire: the Masquerade LARP, despite the prominent role those have played in the field over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Vampire LARPs – of both Masquerade and Requiem flavours – but never one which used the venerable Mind’s Eye Theatre system as maintained by By Night Studios.

There’s various factors why that has been the case. I started LARPing in university; at the time, there was a local branch of Camarilla UK (the major Mind’s Eye Theatre-based World of Darkness LARP network), but there was also other options. If you were into a more physically active LARP, with combat actually implemented using pulled blows with latex weapons, Mind’s Eye Theatre wouldn’t be your thing anyway – that system has never used “hard skill” combat but instead uses game mechanics to resolve violence in an abstract fashion. There was a local system which ran frequent afternoon sessions of a Saturday, so if you preferred that, that was what you did.

Mind’s Eye Theatre-esque games are somewhat suited to games which put a strong emphasis on political networking and social skills – but for that there was also alternatives, with at least one (and often several) freeform games which delivered a similar style of play. These would run campaigns in short runs (since they were associated with the local university’s RPG society and so needed to complete their arcs within the academic year due to student turnover), and as the “freeform” title implies tended to be extremely system-light.

This meant there were not much in the way of rules you needed to keep in mind to play, and not much in the way of the sort of long-term baggage that any RPG campaign accumulates over the passage of time. By contrast, the local Camarilla UK game seemed rather unapproachable. The Mind’s Eye Theatre system provided a significant barrier to entry and seemed daunting to handle in play – whilst in a tabletop context it’s much easier to pause and look up a rule when playing a crunchy system, LARPs really thrive on pausing the action as little as possible, so a rules logjam in a LARP can be significantly more disruptive to the play experience than a difficult rules problem in a tabletop context, and needing to keep a large amount of rules information straight in your head to ensure smooth play is a perennial LARP system design issue.

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