I was expecting to GM it on Saturday, either late in the morning or early in the afternoon (there were two available slots, though I didn’t expect to fill two runs.) But luckily, another NELCO attendee said she was happy to GM it, which freed me up to attend the “Eliminating Downtime” and “Stuffing” panels. She was given all of the materials to read over Friday evening, as well as all of the necessary props. Betrothals and Betrayals is a simple LARP, only about 25 pages total, so it’s easy and quick to go from knowing nothing about it to being ready to GM. Which is of course why we chose it for deconstruction at NELCO — we also wanted players to be able to glean any additional information they wanted after having played in order to be fully informed when discussing it.
Not having GMed the NELCO run myself made it a bit harder to contribute to the deconstruction, but it was helpful to have first hand knowledge of a different run. Particularly, it helped identify what was likely innate to the LARP, and what was likely specific to an individual run.
It’s easy for a post-game discussion of a LARP to turn into a critique, which certainly has its value, but the intention of this program was specifically to facilitate a deconstruction. I actually poked around online prior to NELCO, looking for a very simple definition of deconstruction to serve as a guideline for the conversation. But all of the definitions were either uselessly obtuse (“a technique of literary analysis that regards meaning as resulting from the differences between words rather than their reference to the things they stand for. Different meanings are discovered by taking apart the structure of the language used and exposing the assumption that words have a fixed reference point beyond themselves”) or didn’t quite apply to LARP. (For example, tvtropes describes one of the most common methods of deconstruction is see how a trope would play out if real life consequences were applied to it.)
Specifically, the intention of the deconstruction at NELCO was to pick apart the experiences the players had during the LARP and try to determine their sources, and how various factors influenced them. Or to put it more concretely, experiences in LARPs can be prompted by different sources — the writing materials read prior to the LARP, GM decisions and actions taken during the LARP, the mechanics, other players, or even physical factors, like props, set dressing, and the attributes of the physical space provided. (Most experiences probably come from some combination of the items on that list.)
It’s a difficult, somewhat obscure concept. We came up with a few answers for those questions, but we also largely devolved into critique and suggestions for potential ways to alter the LARP.
Normally, I try to avoid spoilers altogether on this blog, but it’s pretty much impossible to report on the conversation we had without some spoilers. So I’m putting the rest of the post behind a cut.
The content behind the cut contains spoilers for Betrothals and Betrayals (which you can find in its entirety online here).
I think one of the biggest factors we were able to identify as influencing specific experiences the players had was the space it was played in — the size, shape, and lighting. As I mentioned in the post describing the Time Bubble run, we were given an extra room, in which we GMs left the lights out and labeled the garden. This extra room, apart from the main action, with the darkness affording people in the corners privacy.
Unless I’m mistaken, I believe Delaney turned Mrs. Baxter into a vampire in the Time Bubble run (or at least was strongly considering it), which was a possibility because they had a place to go privately to discuss it and enact the change. In the NELCO run, Delaney wound up with Emily Baxter (as a couple, though they did not get engaged). The player said he was planning to turn her sometime in the future, but didn’t want to do it in the context of the game because there was no where private to mime biting Emily’s neck.
Which actually reveals another source of experiences that wasn’t on my original list of sources — the cultures that the players (and GMs) come from. No where in the game materials does it describe Delaney needing to bite a person’s neck in order to turn them into a vampire — on Delaney’s sheet it merely says “Obviously this is something best done in private” without specifying the level of privacy required. (Do you need to be completely alone, or is whispering in a quite corner sufficient?) It also suggests that the new vampire either needs to be willing or overpowered. (At Time Bubble, Mrs. Baxter seemed willing; at NELCO, I think Margaret would have been willing but I am unsure.)
But it’s a common trope of vampires in our culture is that they need to bite their victims as part of the process of turning them, and Delaney seems like he is intended to be a classic vampire, so the player made the assumption that more privacy than the NELCO game space allowed would be prudent, and therefore held off in turning Margaret.
This reminds me of a discussion held at a set design panel at a PreCon or NELCO past in which a panelist said the ideal set gives the illusion of privacy. Enough to embolden players to engage in risky, secretive behavior, but not enough actual privacy to keep players from finding one another, and not enough to completely preclude any and all eavesdropping.
I wonder if this assumed need for privacy was a factor in Anne being turned into a fairy in both runs, when there is a contest between the vampire (Delaney) and the fairy (Foxglove) in-game to be the first to make her one of them. There are no cultural assumptions (that I know of) of what it takes to awaken someone’s fairy nature, so players who play Foxglove may be bolder and quicker to act than players who play Delaney. Similarly, vampires are traditionally bad guys, while fairies are quite often depicted as good or neutral. which might make Anne more inclined to along with Foxglove than Delaney, if given a choice, further weighing the contest for Anne in favor of Foxglove.
In both the Time Bubble and the NELCO runs, we ran without a full cast. The GM notes suggest that the two characters that could be cut if there aren’t 13 players are Mrs. Baxter, the mother of three other characters hoping at least one will get married to save her estate, and Mortimer Grey, the vicar, and Louise Baxter can be removed if her monkey (which contains a gem that Captain Lambert is looking for) is given to Emily Baxter. In the Time Bubble run, we cut Louise and Mortimer Grey, though a last minute player signed up and took the role of Mortimer Grey. In the NELCO run, all three (Mrs. Baxter, Louise Baxter, and Mortimer Grey) were all cut, as we only had ten players signed up.
For a LARP set up around the premise of having young eligible gentlemen and ladies mingle and find prospective spouses, there was very little courting and betrothals going on.The player who played George Windham, a young man looking for a spouse though is secretly already married, in the NELCO run pointed out that this may have resulted from cutting both Louise and Mrs. Baxter. Both characters seem secondary in a certain way — Loiuse’s purpose in the LARP seems primarily to own the stuffed monkey that Captain Lambert is looking for, and to flirt, and thus keep the social aspect of the LARP moving. Mrs. Baxter’s purpose seems primarily about putting pressure on her three daughters (Emily, Loiuse, and Anne) to find husbands, which also would keep the social aspect of the LARP moving.
With both of them cut, there’s a risk of the courting/coupling aspect of the LARP falls out. Caroline Bathurst’s romance with Captain Ambergris (really her true love, Captain Robert Wesley, in disguise.) resolved quickly, taking her (and Ambergris) out of the “dating pool”. This leaves Charlotte Windham, George Windham’s sister, Anne Baxter, who is more preoccupied with the vampire and fairy plot lines to worry about finding a husband, and Emily Baxter, who is explicitly written to be uninterested in finding a husband. This leaves no eligible bachelorettes as far as George is concerned.
That Caroline resolved her own romance quickly is a fluke of the NELCO run, so it’s possible that some runs of Betrothals and Betrayals will include active courting for the George character, even if the run isn’t full and Louise is not present. But the NELCO run does still highlight the fact that removing two characters who serve to keep the courting aspect of the game moving may well grind it to a halt. (Potential ideas for accounting for this possibility in runs with less than 13 players included altering Emily Baxter’s sheet to motivate her to find a husband for herself and/or her sisters.) Half of the characters have no direct connection to the supernatural elements of the LARP, so ensuring that the non-supernatural aspects of the game remain engaging is an important goal for GMs.
I think the mechanics for magic effects in Betrothals and Betrayals were largely unused in both runs, with a few notable exceptions. When asked what experiences of the LARP were considered the highlights, the NELCO players described the a humorous moment in which Emily Baxter became suspicious, and Foxglove used his fairy magic to knock her out in front of her sister Anne; Anne was nonplussed but felt compelled to keep Foxglove’s secret, and told other characters that her sister had simply swooned.
The other notable exception was that the fairy, Foxglove, and the vampire Delaney, both had invisibility powers. I generally expect invisibility spells in LARPs to be used to eavesdrop (which can be thwarted by metagaming, a common complaint against invisibility in LARPs.) But the players in the NELCO LARP were clever — instead of using it to eavesdrop, they used it to successfully suss out who could see through invisibility spells by casting the invisibility spell (signaled by crossing one’s arms over one’s chest) and observing who ignored them and who tracked them with their eyes. (To answer the original questions posed to the deconstruction group, I think people largely agreed that both experiences, of course, stemmed from the mechanics of the LARP.)
My impression of the Time Bubble run was that the social atmosphere was largely successful at capturing the Pride and Prejudice-esque atmosphere, and that the LARP’s clever design for name tags contributed a great deal. Many LARPs contain descriptions of the culture of the setting, but how well players stick to it when it conflicts with the players’ real world cultures varies a lot. Remembering how to address people properly can be really hard — when are first names appropriate? Which title belongs to whom? — and the task is more difficult when a name tag simply contains a character’s name. The name tags in Betrothals and Betrayals contain the appropriate way to formally address the characters, printed in larger letters in the center — generally titles and last names. Their first names were printed smaller, in the corner of the badges. This had the effect of having players default to using the formal, appropriate titles, unless circumstances specifically changed such that using first names, often a more intimate form of addressing adults, became acceptable.
I suspect the combat mechanics had the interesting effect of discouraging combat. The NELCO run lacked combat, which can probably be attributed to the lack of privacy, but if I recall correctly, the Time Bubble run also mostly lacked combat — I believe there was one instance in which Charlotte and Lambert took the stuffed monkey by force. Physical conflict is resolved with rock, paper, scissors (or, rather, paper, scissors, rock — probably the kiwi name for the game?) But no character has any advantage over another with that system. Some LARPs that use rock, paper, scissors will give some characters the ability to win on ties to represent superior physical power, but in Betrothals and Betrayals, the naval officers are equally likely to win a physical contest as the teenage girl. Normally, fear of getting caught or reprisal are deterrents for combat in a theater LARP, but in this case, without any character with any advantage in combat, all characters looked elsewhere for solutions to their problems.
One of the most common suggestions for the LARP discussed by NELCO’s deconstruction group was greater ties between characters and plots. Most of the players agreed they would have appreciated more ways for information to be spread. For example, Captain Lambert and Captain Ambergris/Wesley are both military men (one from the army, one from the navy) but they could easily have heard of one another and have some hints to offer other characters about one another’s secrets. Another popular idea was to include obscure references to other supernatural creatures in Emily Baxter’s demon hunting book — there are no demons in game, but it could potentially suggest at the existence of fairies, vampires, and mermaids, and maybe even hint at their capabilities. I think adding some sketches and diagrams to the book prop sounds like a fun project for me before the next run. (Potentially at this fall’s Dice Bubble at RPI, depending on whether or not their schedule could use another small game.)
Those are the highlights of the conversation that I remember, but if any of the other players want to add, please share!