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.