On Sunday April 5th, a large force of Union soldiers gathered outside of Richmond, Virginia. Meanwhile, outside of Washington D.C., Confederate forces prepared to attack. In both battles, the invading armies were repelled, but at considerable cost to the troops defending their respective capital.
The battles on the two capitals served to cap off All Quiet on the Potomac, a weekend long theater LARP run by Lime Shirts at RPI in Troy, NY. The LARP is set in Washington, D.C., in 1862, at a point of significant Confederate military success during the American Civil War.The British are hosting a peace conference in the hopes of bringing an end to the bloodshed.
Much of the content of Potomac is taken directly from history. The characters are all real figures who played significant roles in the Civil War, and large portions of the character sheets very closely resemble their real lives up until 1862.
Much of the action of the LARP revolves around two things: politics (in the form of passing and blocking bills and hammering out a peace treaty) and war (in the form of battles that were set up on maps then played out across a large, mostly empty classroom.)
I was in a somewhat unusual position, as I played one of the few characters who was neither a politician nor a general. My character, Clara Barton, was a nurse who was known for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of the soldiers of the Civil War. She organized the collection and distribution of relief supplies — blankets, medicine, food, etc. She was called the Angel of the Battlefield for treating soldiers on the front lines. (In one famous incident, a bullet went right through her sleeve and killed the soldier she was treating.) Clara Barton was also an abolitionist, a supporter of the Union, and a women’s suffrage activist. She famously founded the American Red Cross in the 1880s.
For costuming, I was able to borrow a dress my mother made for an event run by the Historical Society, in which she greeted people visiting a house that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
As Clara Barton, I had considerably less influence over the politics and war than most characters, but I was still able to get involved, and I had enough smaller plots to keep me busy until Sunday, when the peace treaty efforts were about to fail and various duels and fistfights were breaking out all over the capital. Much of those plots stem from Clara Barton’s time working in the patent office in Washington, D.C. and her humanitarian efforts involving the Sanitation Commission and the British Commission to inspect POW camps.
I was impressed by how much focus there was on politics in Potomac — a lot of weekend long games I’ve played have politics as a primary theme, but there’s often a lot of distracting magic rituals and MacGuffin hunting and widget collecting and interpersonal pots (especially romance) and succession confusion… and maybe a world-ending threat or two… to push the nittier-grittier form of politics into the backseat. In Potomac, players were genuinely focused on getting bills to pass, or blocking them, and appointing or removing characters from various political positions.
The bill passing mechanics in Potomac are definitely engaging enough to keep people busy. The main currency was Political Capital. Connections and favors owed and influence among voting blocs are represented with poker chips. PC is used to sponsor bills and for voting for or against them, as well as a number of other political movements. It can be spent publically or privately; PC spent publically is written up on a blackboard and worth double PC spent privately, but players can only spend up to a maximum of 5 PC publically on any issue. Public PC can be withdrawn, with half of it returning to the character. (Private PC, since it was put into a sealed box anonymously, cannot be withdrawn.) There is also a process for filibustering or vetoing bills.
I found that this system supported wheeling and dealing in a way others haven’t. (Secretary of State William Seward seemed particularly politically clever and ruthless.) Voting in LARPs (as in real life) is generally done privately (with all votes worth equal amount), which prevents people from trusting that political bargains are being honored. When backstabbing and renegging on deals is too easy, people often feel as though there’s no point in trying to make any deals. Some LARPs employ some kind of mechanical methods to make deals enforceable, either with some sort of rule that states that under given circumstances, deals must be kept, but this reduces player agency to betray one another with OOC restrictions. The Potomac rules made backstabbing still possible, but costly in a way that making bargains with someone who was likely to reneg were still work making, as they would still be costly to the dishonest character.
At times, I wished I had a more ruthless or self-interested character. Clara Barton was inclined to do anything to support her various causes, which were largely in line with the rest of the North. When other characters (especially Union politicians) asked her to support their various bills, she did so without ever asking for anything personally beneficial in return. For example, players often gave their PC to others with the request that they spend five to publically support their bills. Some characters asked for a few extra PC in exchange for putting forth the public support… but it never felt like Clara would ask others to give up additional PC if she supported their cause anyway. She also seemed honorable enough to honestly decline if someone asked her to do something she didn’t want to do, instead of agreeing to help someone and then double crossing them.
By Sunday, I’d decided that while Clara Barton was a good person, she was still politically astute and not a pushover, and the situation was becoming more pressing, so my political actions became, shall we say, less friendly. For example, when General Robert E. Lee asked Clara to support the terms for the peace treaty that the Peace Commission had produced (which the Union by and large did not actually want) I accepted his political capital and spent it publically… then later rescinded it when I thought people were unlikely to notice Clara’s name get erased from the board. (I also knew the treaty was going to fail by a wide margin once it was filibustered anyway, and the North had just gained control of the Mississippi, making compromise less desirable for us.) The only other PC I received from other characters were offered freely from President Lincoln and the Russian ambassador for favors I was able to do for them.
Because my thoughts on this LARP ended up forming a post of well over five pages (not including photos), I decided to break it up into multiple posts. Next, I will be sharing my thoughts on the battle mechanics in All Quiet on the Potomac.