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.)
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
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.)
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.
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.