I was back in New York City this past weekend for three theater style LARPs.
The first was On Display, a simple hour and half long LARP for six players. It is set at a grand ball, where a noble lady must choose, with the help of her sister, a husband from among four suitors. Meanwhile, the hostesses and other guests are negotiating other political (and academic) matters.
In retrospect, I think I should have played my character much more ruthlessly — I had some blackmail material and could have thrown other characters under the bus to protect my own interests, but avoiding that meant utterly failing my House. But purely by luck, after letting my House down, I happened to ally myself with another character who used all the resources I handed over to him to great advantage, and I lucked into a happy ending for my House, if not quite as happy for my character.
On Display is an enjoyable theater LARP of classic elements that seems fairly simple to run and play, so if you’re looking for a small, short theater LARP, I recommend it. You can purchase it online here.
My second, and favorite, LARP of the weekend was Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come was even shorter and smaller than On Display — one hour for four players. It’s a fantasy LARP with deceptively simple premise and straightforward mechanics, but it has the potential for complex, intense negotiation among the characters.
In Kingdom Come, waves of demons are attacking four characters inside a tower, the Tithe (a classic princess), the Fairy Prince, the Grand Vizier (of the Fairy Court) and the Lady Knight. Both a human kingdom and the Fairy Court need an heir, who may need advisers, to prevent civil war; meanwhile, the fairies are under attack from Hell, for thus far failing to pay its tithe. The four players must decide who among them will end up in which land, who will rule each land, and who will act as advisers to said rulers, and what is to be done about the war with Hell.
Over the course of the LARP, a simple set of mechanics involving a 4-sided die and decks of cards is used to resolve the demon attacks; the demons always lose, but depending on the card draws and the characters’ abilities, whether or not the demons do damage, how much, and to whom, varies. The attacks occur frequently, with very quick resolution.
The really nice thing about this element of the LARP is that the damage organically shifts the negotiating positions of the characters, so even if the players come to an agreement early on, there’s always a chance the next round of demon attacks may cause them to renegotiate. (There are also three contingency envelopes to open at designated times during the LARP that may also change the characters’ opinions on what their desired outcomes are.)
In our particular run, for example, we came to an agreement half way through, but then a series of unlucky card draws meant we accumulated a lot of damage, and we started negotiations and plans in the event of various characters’ deaths.
I really enjoyed playing Kingdom Come, and after the game, we had an interesting discussion about the various elements that make it potentially a really good game for newbies, and also about the possibility of running it as a boffer LARP.
There are a number of elements that make me think Kingdom Come would be a good LARP to run for newbies. A lot of newbies come to LARP with a tabletop RPG background, where fantasy is very popular. Kingdom Come is classic, fairy-tale-esque fantasy, whose characters are well known, popular tropes (and they all seem special in their own way), so it is easy to get into and understand the characters with only a small amount of background reading. The fact that it plays well around a table, with all of the characters focused on a single conversation, makes it unlikely a single player will not know how to get started and end up feeling left out, or like they can’t break into the action. (I’ve seen newbies at LARPs hanging around the outskirts of the event space, feeling shy and unsure of what to do with themselves.) And it’s short, which makes it appealing for new players who are hesitant to commit to longer events to give it a try.
On top of all of that, Kingdom Come seems also fairly easy and simple on a GM to run — players can be pulled in on very short notice — even at the door — because there’s so little reading to get ready for the LARP, and it doesn’t take much in the way of printing or props (just decks of cards, a d4 or other way to randomize a one in four choice, and something to keep time.) We briefly discussed how this LARP could probably easily be boxed in such a way that players could run it without a GM. And in my experience, newbies have a high rate of dropping out last minute, so being able to recast at the door (or have a GM step in to play one of the roles) also makes it a good trait for newbie runs.
I think the only significant downside Kingdom Come has as a LARP for newbies is that it’s pretty much impossible for all four characters to get a happy ending — by design, the characters are given decisions about making very difficult compromises and it’s very likely they will end up unhappy about their own personal fate, the fate of their home, and/or being separated from loved ones. I have heard it argued that a good LARP for newbies will have them coming away from it satisfied with a happy ending (with exceptions made for players who find the idea of playing a mustache twirling villain who fails dramatically).
The notion of converting it into a boffer LARP intrigues me. It would require converting the mechanics, but also adjusting the timing and frequency of the attacks (can’t have a quick attack every two minutes.) I think the most difficult aspect of it would be to take into account how player skill will influence the outcome of the attacks and the subsequent effect on the characters’ bargaining positions, and adjusting accordingly.
It’s also important to keep in mind the issue of PvP combat. In the theater version, there simply isn’t a mechanic for players to attack one another, although I can imagine players improvising, on the spot, drawing cards against one another, especially in a GM-less run. There’s a lot of character incentive not to attack one another (the characters all have things that the others need) and also combat is random and even (every character has the same deck of cards to draw from… although I suppose towards the end of the LARP, a player who has been counting cards might be able to calculate the odds of drawing a high card against another player.)
In boffer, by default, you hand players the tools to engage in PvP fights (the same tools for engage in PvE, or, in this case, PvDemons — boffer weapons) and preventing it would probably involve some kind of clunky manipulation of the mechanics. (For example, if one were to use Accelerant, you might tell the players that all of their attacks are “to Demon”, even uncalled attacks, which is a bit awkward for several reasons). Or you could try heavy handed in-game justifications. (Something like “your weapons are holy and only harm demons” would contradict elements of the backstory.)
The same strong in-game incentives to refrain from attacking one another would exist in boffer, but players might decide it would benefit them to cause damage to one another in order to strengthen one’s own bargaining position, especially towards the end of the LARP. A GM (or the instructions in a hypothetical boxed version) might issue a fiat against violence, but that’s a bit more intrusive in boffer when the tools for PvP combat are immediately present and obvious, and less so in a theater LARP where players would have to improvise a bit with the combat mechanics in order to turn them on one another.
The theater combat system also disincentives combat in that the system is random and, aside from character special abilities, even for all four characters — everyone has an identical deck of cards to randomly draw from. (Though I suppose someone counting cards could estimate their odds towards the end of the LARP.) In boffer, if there’s a high discrepancy in player skill, a talented boffer fighter could reasonably predict the outcome of a PvP encounter… or, if the system allows it, a player might decide to surprise another player with a sneak attack from behind.
This all could be mitigated by a GM fiat not to engage in PvP violence, but I think it might be interesting to see what players (especially long time boffer LARPers) might do in the absence of a fiat… maybe the in-game motivations are enough to prevent it?
I think it would be really interesting to see how abstract mechanics vs live action combat might affect the flow of game play. Kingdom Come isn’t available to purchase online (yet?), but I wonder if I can get permission to run it (either in its original form or as a boffer) at an event, maybe SLAW or one of the Bubbles.
On Sunday, I played in Jamais Vu. I’ve always liked amnesia games, and I heard that this sci-fi amnesia game started with all of the players being put into particular positions by the GMs, as the amnesia has come on suddenly, while the characters are awake and going about their day. This idea intrigued me — most (if not all) of the amnesia LARPs I’ve played and GMed open with the players waking up out of unconsciousness. I thought the idea had a lot of potential — our initial poses and interactions could provide some RP fodder to kick off the game, and provide both clues and extra mysteries to solve.
As my character’s memories came back to her, I discovered that I was the person in charge, and I spent most of the LARP running around, trying (and failing) to keep order and prevent the situation from descending into complete chaos. It was a struggle for me, not just because everyone (both good guys and bad guys) had their own chaos-inducing agendas, but also because the role involved a lot of steering. “Steering” is a term that describes a positive form of meta-gaming — taking into account non-diagetic, or out-of-game, factors when making in-game decisions. I was trying very hard to balance reacting as genuinely as possible as someone in charge of a dangerous situation with many unknowns (which to me mostly meant trying to control the situation, to put life-saving efforts at top priority, not let people create more unknowns, not let people get their hands on dangerous weapons, not let people tamper with evidence, etc.) and not getting in the way of people’s fun, not controlling the situation so tightly that players felt they were incapable of making any advancements on plot.
I don’t think I successfully maintained that balance — for example, I confiscated a weapon someone created in the lab, but then afterwards, felt badly out-of-character for having negated someone’s in-game accomplishment. I tried to keep people from playing with the larger weapons, but it was an interesting, fun mechanic system to play with, and I knew it was something people who were stalling on other plots and likely had no evil ulterior motives, might want to explore. I think part of this difficulty was compounded by the amnesia element, which meant that my character really couldn’t justifiably trust anyone for awhile. Part way through the game, I think I overcompensated by playing the character as overly lax, not trying to stop anyone from playing with the weapons or engineering strange devices. In some games, when the authority figure character becomes very permissive or blatantly turns a blind eye to shenanigans, that can also reduce the fun of a LARP, as goals that should have been challenging become too easy. But I think this overcompensation wasn’t too damaging in this run of Jamais Vu, as my subordinates were quite active and competent.
I came away from playing Jamais Vu with an idea for a discussion topic at NELCO 2017 — writing and playing leaders/characters with authority.
So those were my three theater LARPs this past weekend. I’m really glad I got the chance to play them all, and I’m already looking forward to more theater LARPs in NYC in the near future. Hopefully, there will be a run of Blood of the Unicorn in June, and maybe I can get a few other LARPs I’ve been hoping to play to run that weekend as well…