The combat mechanics of All Quiet on the Potomac, a weekend long theater LARP about the American Civil War, were quite interesting. I don’t know how troop movement across the map worked, as that was worked out in secret by the Union generals in the White House and the Southern generals in the Arlington House. But the battles were played out across the floor of a large, mostly empty classroom, by the players themselves.
There were four types of “pieces” on the battlefield: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and generals. The generals were represented by the players themselves, and had stats to indicate how well they could boost their men. The artillery and cavalry were represented by stacks of cards, held by players who volunteered to control them. At the beginning of their turns, the cavalry could move seven steps in any direction they chose; the infantry could move three. Each time they took a hit, the top card would be removed and dropped on the floor. The new top card would be their new stats (and were somewhat lower than their previous stats). They were out of play when the cards ran out.
I thought the artillery mechanic was pretty cute. The player operating the cannon would indicate a direction and pick a number. Another player, temporarily representing a cannonball, would take a number of steps equal to the number given, and wherever they stopped, they would “explode”. All troops within arm’s reach would have to roll the dice to see if they took a hit. (The artillery were manned by expending a single card from the infantry or cavalry decks to man them.)
I think this system had a number of significant advantages. For one, anyone could participate, whether they were a general or not. All of the various infantry, cavalry, and artillery needed players to volunteer to control them and decide where they moved on the battlefield and who they attacked (under the instructions of the generals.) I got to play a variety of roles for both the Union and the Confederacy. This was a large improvement over other wargames I’ve seen in LARPs, where only high ranking officials in the military can participate while everyone else mills about, waiting for the battles to end.
I also liked how the battle was played out with actual players representing troops moving around a classroom, instead of having people hunched over a board, representing troop movement with small tokens. It was less convenient in many ways, but I think it gave a more visceral feel to how generals worked out their strategies as the battles went on. And visually, this system had a really nice effect. Both sides had flags to hold — one very large one and several smaller ones each — to indicate who was on each side and which ones were the generals. With many of the generals dressed in excellent costumes (the players made great use of costume rental shops and thrift stores; I was very impressed) and holding their flags, there was something very gallant about the way these battles looked. There was even an odd wind tunnel effect coming from down the hallway and through the classroom door, so whichever general was standing by the blackboard would have his flag billowing dramatically in the wind.
The downsides of this system were problems common to many wargames in LARPs. The inclusion of dice rolling and low hit rates, along with the complexity of the troops’ stats and large number of men in each deck of cards (essentially, hit points for the cavalry and infantry) could slow the battles to a crawl. A few ended very quickly when one side retreated as their opening move, but the battles on Sunday took literally three hours and pushed the game well past the designated closing time. (And we even skipped one of the battles that was meant to happen.) Some players who had volunteered to take on roles in combat began to express quiet preference for getting their troops killed so that they could leave the wargame without feeling like they were inconveniencing anyone.
There were also some minor issues with the variation in “quality” of the cannonballs — the rules accepted that some players would take larger steps than others and not always have consistently sized strides, which led to some expected hits turning into misses, and even some misses turning into hits. (I could see some players biting their tongues to keep from complaining out loud; they accepted that there was meant to be an element of unpredictability in the battles, but it was still frustrating.)
Initially, I thought arm length of the players was going to play a very minor role, if any, but I think it actually played a noticeable role. Whether or not one troop could shoot another was based on who was within arm’s reach. There was a tiny bit of stretching and reaching on occasion, but to the players’ credit, I don’t think anyone tried to game the system by trying to get taller players to play troops on their side. I also found it a bit odd when another player of the same height as me closed the distance between us in one turn, even though I was retreating directly away from them and we were both taking three steps each. Again, minor variations in stride length were meant to be an accepted element of unpredictability, but we were also all directed to take “normal sized steps” and having someone my height close the distance in one turn felt pretty blatantly “off” to me. I would have expected the player to realize they were taking strides more than double the length of the person they were chasing and adjusted a bit accordingly.
This may sound a bit silly, but after the battles, I actually found the troop cards scattered around the classroom, representing the fallen bodies, to be a rather striking visual element. At the end of the battles, the floor would be littered with white index cards, clumping up and spreading out in patterns that revealed where the worst of the battle had been.
To closed this post on an amusing little anecdote, I attended two Passover seders with the RPI Hillel over the weekend. At the first seder, I promised to bring President Lincoln by the next night, and at the second seder, I showed up in costume with him. (Cue the “he’s here to free the slaves” comments.) People were very curious about our event and asked a lot of questions and seemed to genuinely think that LARP sounded cool. (…Because it is, of course.)
And on his way back from the seder, some random RPI student spotted Lincoln and snapped a picture of him. It went up on an RPI Facebook group. He was nominated for a position in the student government.
The next and last post on Potomac will cover the challenging issues of the LARP: how it addressed (or didn’t address) slavery and sexism.