The Siege of Troy, Part I: Mechanics

I recently played a weekend long theater LARP written by Nathan Richards, Richard Salmon, Richard Perry and Nickey Barnard, and run by Lime Shirts, called Siege of Troy, in (adorably) Troy, NY. (That coincidence has not yet ceased to amuse me.)

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Cheiron, King of the Centaurs

The LARP is set during a temporary truce in the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. Achilles has just been slain, and heroes from both sides are meeting in the plains between the walls of Troy and the Greek stockade to compete in a series of athletic games in honor of the great warrior. The characters include a wide variety of famous names from Greek mythology; heroes, royalty, priests, immortals, and the gods are all present.

My post about the LARP started getting pretty long, so I’m going to divide it up, and start with mechanics.

Siege of Troy is heavy on mechanics and goal-oriented plot, which creates an extremely robust economy of goods, services, and information trading. While this LARP might not appeal to people who aren’t into a lot of technical mechanics in their games, I personally enjoy LARPs on all points of the spectrum, from no mechanics to heavy mechanics, and I really liked how the systems in this LARP played out.

There is individual combat (an RPS and hit point system), mass combat (armies totalling up their combined military ratings, along with a series of other bonuses), battles of wits, and adventuring in the wilderness. There are also mechanics for being blessed or cursed by the gods and removing said curses, prophecies and secrets and ways to revealing them, romance marriage procreation inheritance and divorce, and increasing and displaying one’s heroism.

Principles of Design

There are various interesting design principles at play — for example, the mechanics seem designed to discourage neutrality in a variety of ways. For one thing, even though various leaders wanted to call a permanent truce between Troy and Greece in our run, the schedule calls for “musters” (comparison of military strength of both sides), which dictate the results of battles, whether the leaders of the sides actually want the battle to happen or not. (Which I think reduces player control somewhat over the game, but the trade-off is that ensures a level of tension and dynamic action over the weekend.)

There are also vows written into various characters’ backgrounds (I am unsure if there are mechanical means to reinforce them) that prevent a number of the Greeks from refraining from attacking Troy. And there is a penalty for rulers declaring neutrality during the musters — losing items. (Losing items is also the penalty for being on the losing side of the battles, but who gave up the items and the amount were determined differently.)

Similarly, there are penalties for declining to accept combat challenges (again, losing items) and penalties for declining to accept a battle of wits challenge (losing a point of mental strength.)

Neutrality is difficult among the Council of Gods as well; they have a variety of issues on which they had to vote, but abstaining is not an option — they must vote yea or nay. (Though in our run, some of the gods worked out their disagreements and preempted the votes.)

Another design theme is the wide spread of information. Characters are given lists of secrets at the end of their character sheets, and there are numerous ways to compel one another to reveal them. Engaging in romance with another character involves trading secrets, and various items in game have magical properties of compelling people to reveal secrets. Defeating someone in a battle of wits compels the loser to reveal a secret to all those present (not just the person who defeats them.) Various characters also have abilities that can be used to discover secrets.

The system of prophecy involved various characters with the gift of sight having contingency envelopes, triggered by various things (such as other characters speaking a specific keyword). When a prophecy is triggered, the oracle reads it out loud for all present to hear. I particularly liked this system and would love to see it used in other LARPs.

NPCs are represented in Siege of Troy with item cards (and are essentially treated like items) and a number of them possess important information or secrets. Anyone with an appropriate ability who has the NPC (or has permission from the person who possesses the NPC, I suppose) could learn their secrets from them, which I thought was another nice little way to spread information in game.

Of Gods and Men

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Mighty Aphrodite

One thing I was very curious about going into this LARP was how it would handle the various levels of conceptual power by the characters. It’s always a challenge to create a LARP with gods, immortals, and mortals running about and make sure the characters’ relative amounts of power come through without actually allowing the more powerful to run roughshod over the less powerful. Not just in the sense that you don’t want gods smiting mortals on a whim or immortals bullying mortals, but you also don’t want the more powerful capable of exacting their will on the setting and outcomes of plotlines in a way that renders the less powerful characters’ actions moot. (This kind of problem is pretty common in LARPs with royalty and peasants, but on a somewhat smaller scale. With gods and mortals, the challenge is a bit more extreme.)

One could simply make the gods mechanically similar to the mortals, but that can dampen the flavor of the LARP and cause issues with suspension of disbelief.

I was cast as Aphrodite in this LARP, so I can only speak to how Siege of Troy‘s mechanics appeared on the gods’ side of things, but overall, I thought it was handled quite creatively and effectively.

First of all, to have a constant reinforcement of the roles of the various characters, gods are invisible to mortals by default. Mortals are encouraged to pray for a god’s attention and intercession when they want it, and gods can decide whether or not they want to make their presence known. Instead of speaking directly to me, mortals would stand in my general vicinity and call out “Oh, beautiful and wonderful Aphrodite, goddess of love! Please hear my prayers!” and I would respond, if I felt like it, “behold a goddess appears before you!” with a dramatic hand gesture for flourish. (I think I always chose to respond.) As gods are instructed not to abuse this system by eavesdropping (gods are simply not that subtle in this setting), it didn’t actually represent any mechanical advantage while still being quite flavorful.

For another, while gods (and immortals) cannot be killed, neither can they kill mortals. (Gods prefer to curse mortals and watch them squirm over simply offing them.) So while the reasons gods and mortals almost never attack one another differs for each side, the result is, again, relative equality. And certainly, mortals can (and did) challenge gods in battles of wits.

Gods also have blessings and curses to bestow, but they have to work closely with their mortal priests and priestesses in order to exact them, and they aren’t particularly far from from the other various more generic abilities that all characters have. Gods also cannot curse any mortal who has offered them a sacrifice of bullocks recently, and gods really want bullocks. They have no intrinsic value to mortals, who begin the LARP with them and have avenues of obtaining more during the game. Again, the flavor reinforces their roles (mortals make sacrifices to gods) but from a mechanical point of view, both have leverage over the other.

Gods do have the advantage of being able to go anywhere in-game, including Troy itself (among mortals, open only to Trojans) and the Greek stockade (open only to Grecians) along with Mount Olympus and the Wilderness, though only the mortals can go on adventures, and gods can indirectly help them but not directly interact with the adventuring mechanics. Again, this is nicely flavorful, but if the gods are indeed not abusing their invisibility to eavesdrop, it doesn’t offer any mechanical advantage.

Similarly flavorful but not inherently mechanically advantageous, mortal marriage and divorce was arbitrated by the mortal priestess of Hera, while gods’ marriage and divorce was arbitrated by Hera herself. In theory, the priestess of Hera answers to Hera, but in practice, the priests and priestesses often acted independently while us gods dealt with our own issues.

Even the concept of mortals being cursed for crimes against the gods (distinct from offending an individual deity) doesn’t offer the gods a mechanical advantage. It is arbitrated by the mortal priestess of Athene (though she does ostensibly answer to Athene) and the list of crimes against the gods mostly consists of attacking various groups of fellow mortals (priests, family members, etc.)

Questing Heroes

The last mechanic I wanted to mention was adventuring in The Wilderness. Mortals who want to go on adventures, accomplish great deeds, find great artifacts, and increase their heroism can enter the Wilderness. In a room with enough wide open floor space, the GMs arrange stacks of envelopes on areas labeled with different location names, with different colored duct tape arrows guiding characters from one place to the next. In each place, adventuring characters pick up the top envelope and follow the instructions to face various encounters.

Players could explore the Wilderness in groups of one to four, once per hour, for up to fifteen minutes.

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The vast, unconquered Wilderness

Apparently, this kind of exploration mechanic used to be fairly popular, but declined in use over time. I recall doing a little bit of this in King’s Musketeers, another weekend long theater LARP.

As one of the gods, I couldn’t interact with the Wilderness, but I could come and go as I pleased from location to location, watching the mortals, and aiding them (or hindering them, I suppose) as I saw fit. So I can’t say anything for certain about this mechanic, though it looked like a lot of fun to me. Large parts of it were usable without a GM, though the fights required a GM to play the role of the monster. (I wonder if it couldn’t easily be modified to let a fellow player temporarily take the role of the monster to free up the GM?) It also seemed like it would be easy for the envelopes to get mixed up … unfortunately, this was the largest open space available in the building, and I suspect this setup was designed for a location with more free floor space.

Adventuring in the Wilderness seemed to me like a fun and interesting way to  spend time for players who might have temporarily run out of things to do, but I did hear third hand that some players in our run found it a bit frustrating. A number of NPCs (and probably some other items) that people are looking for are scattered around the Wilderness, with no apparent way to figure out in advance where they are, so finding them can be a crapshoot, and while trying to find them, characters were liable to lose items and take damage and possible face other negative consequences. Some of the encounters moved around from place to place, so players looking for them had very slim chances of encountering them, and no way to increase their odds of success. And with a little bad luck, trying and failing in the Wilderness can have consequences that might make future attempts more difficult; some players might have felt that after a few tries, it wasn’t worth trying again, especially if they saw others succeeding and/or getting way ahead of them on the public Hero Point scores.)

I imagine the earliest forays into the Wilderness are among the more frustrating ones because there is little information among the players about what they might face when the game begins. But the more people adventure in the Wilderness, the more the players are able to prepare to try again. When I accompanied a group of adventurers, I noticed the Greek hero Ajax was familiar with the envelopes that offered a choice, and knew which choices to make, which made reaching the Isle of Hesperides much easier and faster than it otherwise would have been. It seemed like information was a very valuable commodity for adventurers, and I liked that aspect of the mechanic. I also liked how it encouraged cooperation (adventuring with four was far better than adventuring with one). Another cool aspect — it pulled in lots of the smaller, more obscure Greek myths and made relevant a number of skills and advantages the various characters had (such as knowing Wilderness Lore or owning a boat, which might otherwise be difficult to make relevant in a theater LARP.)

I think this is another mechanic I would like to see more of. Maybe LARP writers will experiment with it and it will make a comeback in the local community?

In my next post, I’ll write about my personal experiences playing Aphrodite, and some of my highlights from the weekend, including stealing Zeus’ thunderbolt, and an amusing, clever little prank some players pulled on the GMs.

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About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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15 Responses to The Siege of Troy, Part I: Mechanics

  1. Nathan Richards says:

    As one of the main authors for the Siege of Troy, can I thank you for publishing your analysis of the game. I have been intensely curious to hear how it went! Strangely enough, I am not sure that I ever thought of the game as being particularly mechanics heavy, although by comparison with shorter games I suppose it most certainly is. The first run of the game had two main problems – (1) the Wilderness was far too popular and thus we recommended that your GMs introduce constraints on entry; and (2) there were far too many characters trying to remain neutral in the war between the Trojans and the Greeks and so we recommended the introduction of penalties to those doing so to persuade people to join one side of the other. Both sound like they worked although fundamentally there seems to still be a problem about finding things in the Wilderness. I look forward to hearing your net instalment detailing what happened to your character!

    • Fair Escape says:

      Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts!

      It’s very interesting to hear about how different communities and different LARPers view mechanics and what is considered “mechanics light” vs. “mechanics heavy”. I think it seemed mechanics heavy to me (which sounds like it might be a criticism, but it’s not intended as one — as I mentioned, I often really enjoy a LARP with a lot of mechanics) because of the percentage of time I spent interacting with mechanics. Although I think compared to most weekend theater LARPs I’ve played, it’s not particularly unusual in its mechanics.

      I read a few reviews online about previous runs — I think the adjustment was successful in that the Wilderness didn’t feel overcrowded. And I think introducing the penalty for remaining neutral was very smart — lots of people wanted to enact a permanent peace, but very few actually remained neutral during the musters. I was thinking about it, and I think the only way to prevent actual battle might have been if literally every person who could influence the muster declared neutrality, but that would require a very high level of trust. Would have thrown the GMs for loop, I suspect!

      I think reducing the randomness of the Wilderness, or introducing more ways to get information on what can be found where (or at least narrow down the possible locations things can be) might help, but overall, I do think the Wilderness was a very cool, fun mechanic and if the LARP ever runs again, I would sign up to play an adventuring hero.

      • I have never seen this mechanic before! It sounds like a lot of fun though I can see by your picture (thanks for the picture, it explains a lot) how it needs a lot of space. All you need is one person in a cloak and whooosh so many envelopes everywhere. Still I’d love to do something myself like that. I wonder if it would still work if you did it on a wall with blue tac? Though how you would attack multiple letters, I don’t know. And it would remove the visceral element of actually walking around.

        • The ‘person with a cloak scattering envelopes’ scenario was a constant issue, as a player. (Adventuring groups walking around, and gods spectating.) We made it work, but I think the mechanic would have worked much better with more space. Such is life!

        • Fair Escape says:

          I think it could still work, but it would reduce the amount of space where people can stand without getting in one another’s way — people would want to be in the same spot along the wall for multiple locations if they were north or south of one another. You could put them along all four walls, and that would reduce the need for open space on the floor, but it would also reduce the ability to enable players to move in many directions from a single spot. Lots of trade offs, depending on how you want to arrange it!

  2. Richard Salmon says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the review. I’m one of the original UK writing team. Troy’s not been run again since it’s first run in 2004, so we’ve been waiting with a certain amount of breathless anticipation to see what you made of our game on the other side of the pond.

    One of the primary design goals for the end of the game was to force a stand-off between Greece and Troy, with everyone being forced to pick a side. In the original run, the players went down a more neutral route (the (in)famous Independant Kingdoms Economic Alliance (IKEA)), so (following our feedback) the Lime Shirts team made some tweaks to discourage neutrality even more – it sounds like that worked out really well.

    The ‘original’ Wilderness that inspired us was actually from the US game ‘Arabian Nights’ – but players finding where items/encounters start, and then where they move around to as the game progresses was a bit of a frustration in the original run as well; that’s definitely something that needs further development, maybe a technological solution (that wouldn’t have been possible when we originally wrote the game) might be the answer. It’s something we need to explore in the future.

    Looking forward to Part II of your review.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts! It’s kind of an honor to know the original authors have read my post. And thanks to all of you for making this LARP available for Lime Shirts to run!

      I think penalties for neutrality is an underused method for encouraging conflict and discouraging peaceful resolutions when that is a LARP writers’ goal… People talk about the strong tendencies in theater LARPs for mortal enemies to put aside their differences and cooperate being a drain on the drama and excitement. Maybe it’s because penalizing neutrality seems contradictory (I don’t know if there was an in-game explanation for why neutral armies lost items?) but it was a clever idea that worked well.

      I was talking with a fellow player about the envelopes… maybe putting codes on them that some characters can use to identify something about the encounter (for example, if you put a string of letters on each envelope, every envelope whose third letter is “Z” is a monster) might enable some players to get around the randomness while still leaving it intact for others? I hope I’ll get a chance to play more games with this and see how various tweaks affect it!

  3. Pingback: The Siege of Troy, Part II: Mighty Aphrodite | Fair Escape

  4. Richard Perry says:

    Third original GM here! We were all in eager anticipation to see what the Lime shirts would do with our ‘baby’, especially for me as I was the one who did the Wilderness and was hoping they could correct my mistakes. Seems like they did a great job. I was also strong in advocating more ‘anti-Troyness’, as modern sensibilities have us rooting for the underdog and I wanted to see the city fall – the neutrals dominated the 1st run. Seems again the Lime Shirts did an excellent job but I still want to see ‘history’ repeat itself and see the mighty towers of IIium burn. Thanks for your review and I hope you would consider travelling to the UK and playing it again (as a hero?) if, as we hope, we run it again sometime in the next few years

  5. Richard Perry says:

    Hi, third original writer here. All three of us have been apprehensive about the success of this run, me especially as I had written the Wilderness which had fallen down on the 1st run, and wanted to see how the Lime Shirts had improved it. In addition I had also been advocating a stronger and more united Greek faction as I wanted to see the mighty towers of Ilium, as the Greeks had failed so poorly in the 1st run. Reading your review it seems the Lime Shirts to have done a great on both these aspects. thank you so much for writing the two parts of your review, and like Nathan loved your proposal to the princes of Troy! I hope when we rerun this game in, hopefully, the next few years you might consider coming to the UK to play it, perhaps as a hero this time?

    • Fair Escape says:

      I would just love to play another run of Siege of Troy in the UK… or several other games. Across the Universe sounds really cool, though I see it’s full… maybe that will also get a second run?

  6. Adria Kyne says:

    Wow, this sounds like a GREAT game! I’ll keep my eyes open for future runs!

  7. Pingback: For Auld LARP Syne | Fair Escape

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