Theatre LARPS: The Prime Directive        

I recently ran a playtest of my new game, ‘The Prime Directive’, with help from Mo Holkar. Having rashly promised in an earlier post to ‘let you know how it goes’, I feel duty bound to do so – and fortunately, it went quite well.

Aim of the Game

The game description is as follows:

“Your presence is required for the Starfleet Court Martial of a Starship crew. Together, the witnesses will use holodeck reconstructions to reconstruct the events that led them here.

What happened on the planet? Who violated the prime directive? Was there a mutiny? Where are the missing scientists? Or did something else happen entirely? 

This is an improvised game which uses collaborative storytelling techniques to tell a story of the conflicts experienced by a Star Trek crew on a mission. The tone is not intended to be too ‘dark’; think of a typical Star Trek episode. The theme is that of conflicting ideals and cultures, and the dilemmas that can arise from the clash of different yet valid points of view. “

That last paragraph is the crux of what I was aiming to do. I’ve seen Nordic style improvisation used with the aim of exploring certain themes or invoking a particular type of emotion. I wanted to see if I could use some of the same tools to do something else: construct a Star Trek episode. My intention was to write a game with a Nordic structure, but which ‘felt’ more like a traditional freeform.

 

Structure

The game starts with an introduction and safety briefing, and the players are divided up into Crew and Questioners. This is followed by a number of workshops. The first workshop is intended to get the Crew to elaborate on their character’s personality and motivations, while getting the players used to the format of the Questioners asking the Crew to elaborate on their answers.

For the second set of workshops, the players were split into two groups. The Crew spent their time developing the interrelationships between their characters, some of their history together, and how they saw each other. In the meantime, the Questioners would be developing the scenario that the Crew were going to deal with over the course of the holodeck flashbacks.

After the workshops came the game proper, in the form of Testimonies. This would use a court hearing as a framework, interspersed with scenes as the players acted out what had happened. I had roughly planned this to be a ‘prologue’ scene, introduced by the Questioners are presenting the basic scenario the Crew were faced with, followed by a number of ‘action’ scenes, led by the Crew as they decided what they were going to do; and finally a ‘consequences’ scene, when some or all of the Crew should be responsible for doing whatever they were being charged with.

Finally, the Crew could offer up a defence and a plea, and the Questioners decide on a verdict. The players would then go out of character and discuss the game and what might have happened next.

Workshops: Introduction & Motivations

The first problem I ran into was that I’m not very confident about leading game instructions. So many eyes on me, arrggh… anyway, I got through it, including an explanation of cut/brake and the lines/veils we were using, and then workshops began.

The Crew picked one character train from each of three lists (one positive, one negative, and one background), and then introduced their characters. Originally I had intended them to then choose their ‘job’, but to get the Questioners more involved we had them pick. The Crew were not entirely happy with the results; I think I should stick with the original design!   Then we had the Motivations session, where the Questioners used my pre-written list of questions to ask the Crew about their background. My pre-written suggested traits and questions seemed to be a helpful way to get the players started, and the Questioners made up a few new ones once the discussion got going.

This bit of the workshops seemed to go pretty well, and we soon had a good feel for our intrepid Crew of the USS Vigilance: an honour bound but young Captain with a long line of Starfleet captains breathing metaphorically down her neck; a stubborn religious Bajoran medic; a sociable and hot headed engineer; an ambitious yet anxious commander with a hobby in AI development; and finally a xenobiologist who seemed to be some sort of experimental AI recreation of the Commander’s great great uncle, a relationship of much embarrassment to them both.

Workshops: Relationships & Scene Discussion

This was where we split the party. The Crewmembers were encouraged to describe past experiences together, and then had to line up in order of: Seniority; How they perceive their own competence; How others view the strength of their ideals; and popularity. My co-GM ran this bit, so I wasn’t there myself, but I’m told this sparked a lot of discussion and back story, and led to the Crew suggesting their own line-ups, including Age, Guilt-riddenness, popularity with Starfleet, and combat experience.

Meanwhile, the Questioners job was to come up with the scenario for the Crew to follow. This took longer than anticipated, and in retrospect could do with more guidance around what a scenario should look like. I had made a list of scenario ‘types’ (e.g. “needs of the many”, “divided society”, “stagnant paradise”, etc.), and a list of NPC types; but I don’t think this was as helpful as I had hoped! I did step in when the discussion seemed to be getting too ‘scripted’, since I wanted players to be able to take the lead on their responses.

As well as deciding on what was basically going on down on the planet, the Questioners had to work out NPCs, what the first introduction scene would be, and finally, what the Crew were being accused of, which they would lead with when the Testimonies began. In addition I asked them to give out one Event card to each Crewmember; this was something that should happen to them at some point during the holodeck scenes. Again, I had made a suggested list, and the players wrote a few variations of their own. I think the Event cards worked out pretty well, and did lead to a couple of the Crew doing some things that pushed the plot forward; the Questioners twigged pretty quickly that this was a good way to tie the players into certain plot triggers in their scenario.

Main Game: Testimonies

Armed with characters and a plot, the players began the game proper! The prologue began a bit hesitant, as the Questioners introduced the charges and the first scene; I may need to provide a bit more guidance as to how the court martial should begin. Then the first holographic scene got started, and it began to roll along nicely.

The Questioners had decided to charge the Crew with starting a civil war on a pre-warp planet. They unveiled a mission of first contact with a post-warp civilisation, and the Crew beamed down onto a bustling market place. It didn’t take long for the Crew to conclude that despite their scans, these people knew nothing of space. Things really started to go wrong when an animal reacted badly to the hologram, and a number of priests began to gather around, asking the AI Crewmember if it was one of the Gods of the ‘Church of Dead Sentience’.

My intention was that Questioners could ask the Crew to explain their thoughts during a scene, and that Crew could ‘pause’ a scene to step into the witness box to relate something from their past to provide context. Neither of these mechanics were really made use of, however I don’t think this is necessarily a problem; the scenes had a strong pace and the Crew were reluctant to interrupt, instead defending and explaining themselves in between the recreations.

The Crew investigated things further, since the Captain (prompted by her Event card) decided she was bound by Starfleet rules to offer aid to a civilisation that they believed was once warp capable. The point where things really started to go wrong was when the Engineer blithely fixed some pieces of tech brought to him by some local, a ‘trap’ that the Questioners had laid especially for him. This led to the freeing of the AI that had been imprisoned in the temple, and it promptly set about trying to take control of the planet. That was when the holographic doctor fell victim to a command sent by the AI, and the spaceship opened fire….

Needless to say, it all went horribly wrong, and the Crew were obliged to take action to fix the situation, blowing their cover and interfering most definitely with the civilisation on the planet. Encouragingly, I didn’t need to formally call for any of the ‘action’ or ‘consequences’ phases, as these arose naturally out of the way the game was going.

Verdict

Ultimately, the Captain was found guilty (largely as a scapegoat), the medic was found Not Guilty, and the rest of the Crew were found Jusitified (a very lenient Jury).

As to the game itself, I think much more guidance is needed for the scenario building, with more structure and possibly leading by the GM if the players get stuck. It was also suggested that the Questioners would benefit from having more coherent personalities; for example, while they are finishing them scenario construction, the Crew could assign them a few background hooks and biases that could work for or against certain Crewmembers. This might add an interesting slant to how they chose to programme the reconstructed testimonies!

I also need to make a few things clearer in the introduction; I think next time I’ll practice and note down a speech rather than panic and stumble through it. It wasn’t clear that the Crew could also speak or ask each other questions in the ‘court’ space while inside a scene. I should also include more explicitly that the Crew should be willing to ‘lose’ by aiming to work in the stupid thing they did that led to the accusation, and clarify about working towards fulfilling the Event cards (silly me, did I not even read my last post).

 

Overall

I seem to have created a game with two different experiences: one group of players feel like they’re writing and GMing a game, and the other group feels like they are playing a more standard LARP, where they develop their own characters and react to events. The Crew are probably more suitable for less experienced players. As it happened this group of players developed an episode that felt more like a light-hearted original ‘Trek story; however the framework and some of the tools they didn’t make much use of should also enable a more serious story if the players wanted to go that way.

Total playing time was 2 and a half hours, for nine players; it should run with 9 – 14 players. I’m planning on adding some more meat to the Questioners and Scenario guidance before running it at Consequences in November. I am also adapting it for Nine Worlds in August: the challenge of Nine Worlds is that I will only half one and a half hours, I can’t send out information beforehand, and the players may well be newcomers. For Nine Worlds I want to tighten up some of the workshops and allow the GMs to take the parts of the Defence / Prosecution to guide the Testimonies. I’m also planning on speeding things up considerably by presenting the Questioners with a list of pre-set scenarios, giving a quick explanation for: Set Up; Opening Scene; Notable NPCs; When To Use This Scenario…; Suggested Event Cards; and Possible Variations. The players can then choose one, and then modify it to suit the Crew.

Finally, most writers of any kind crave feedback. If anyone is curious and wold like to try out Prime Directive themselves, please drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy.

Rei

Xx

Theatre LARPs: Play Like A GM   

I was reading through some old Nightflyer posts, and came across an article entitled “Play Like A Protagonist”, by Alasdair Sinclair.

This got me thinking about some of the different expectations on a player between Tabletop games and Theatre LARP/freeform. In a freeform, most of the plot is driven entirely by how the players are interacting with each other, and that’s something the GM has little control over. Possibly the most disconcerting thing about GMing a freeform is that once a game starts, you have no idea what’s actually happening. Where are the magic items? Have the good friends betrayed each other yet? How close is the villain to achieving their dastardly plan? Someone knows the answer, but it’s not the GM.

Unwritten Rules of Play

This places an enormous amount of trust in the players. You need them to think a bit like mini GMs; to act in ways that help everyone’s game, and not act in ways that would screw things up.  There’s a whole host of things that players learn to do, and it’s not often explicitly mentioned to new players; you watch, copy others, until you just ‘know’ how to play the game.

Probably the number one thing to remember is: Information is there to be shared. If you know something, then let other people know. If you have a secret, expect it to come out – better yet, confide in someone you trust, just to make sure. The same is true of items: don’t hoard things, especially when you have no particular need for the item yourself.

The reason why this is less obvious than it should be is that character sheets often include goals like: “Keep your involvement in the death of your cousin a secret”, or comments like “you’ve brought your grandmother’s necklace”. Both of these examples fail to inform the player that the writer’s likely intention is that this secret will definitely not be kept, and that someone else may be holding your grandmother’s necklace by the end of the game; worse, they sound like they are encouraging the opposite.

It is also assumed that a player will endeavour to follow the brief given on their character sheet. If you read that you’re an orphan who cares about your friends, likes the circus, and is trying to track down your birth mother, and you decide to murder your friends and become a jam making expert, then there is a good chance you will screw up the game for whoever is playing your friends and your birth mother by removing a large chunk of plot.

Narrative Structure

A typical plot structure for a lot of stories goes something like this: Setup; Conflict; Resolution. Something similar happens in a theatre LARP, often seemingly by magic. The game begins, and the players spend a while wandering around the room, introducing themselves, talking about their most important goals, and generally establishing who everyone is, what they want, and how this might fit with what you want. After a while, the pace begins to ramp up. People start to do things. Information and items change hands. The villains achieve things, while the heroes suffer some setbacks. Their clashes build.

Finally, in the last ten minutes of the game, everything comes to a head! The villains’ hour of triumph is at hand. They get a moment to do something cool. Then the enormous band of heroes appear to oppose them in a dramatic final showdown. People die dramatically. Suddenly everyone wants to get married. Things end in a satisfying denouement.

This is not an accident. This is the players, acting as mini GMs to ensure the game works out in a satisfying way. Sure, the writers will (usually) have this sort of structure in mind when they wrote their plots; and sure, the GMs will have been rushing around, trying to speed things up or slow them down as needed. But as mentioned above, once your freeform kicks off, what happens is mostly in the hands of the players. Players who do what they can to go along with the structure, who will themselves push things or start new things or delay things, are adored treasures.

I think the group with the hardest role to play here are the villains. Oxford players are often familiar with the idea of playing to lose; this is a vital skill for a good villain. A villain player needs to build their rise and fall in a directly opposite pattern to the hero. They need to know how far to go: far enough to provide a credible threat, and far enough that they have a good game themselves –  but not so far that their victory is overwhelmingly inevitable, and not so far that they cause distress to the other players.

Player Goals

It’s usual in theatre LARPs to have explicit character goals; very rarely do I see player goals. I have however played in games with goals like “go down in a blaze of glory”; “have fun”; or “Find a way to save your finance [GM Note: this is your character’s goal, and pursuing it should help your plot; but you should expect to fail and have a nice angsty scene].” Thinking about and describing player goals in this way can be useful, and a nicely direct way of getting players to think like GMs.

A particularly good example of a rule designed to address player goals is the Paperclip Rule. This is a fantastic and very simple idea. It goes like this: if you find yourself at a bit of a lose end, unsure of what to do, then put a paperclip on your name badge. If you see another player wearing a paperclip on their name badge, then you should go out of your way to involve them in some of your plot.

I have been considering whether this rule could be extended, to further co-opt players into fulfilling player goals. Perhaps some marker meaning “Please foil my dastardly plans”? Or “Please cause me terrible angst”? What about “Kidnap fodder”?

Improvisation

Like Indie games in tabletops, there is a rise in theatre LARPs making use of improvised storytelling techniques. In such games, the ‘GM’ is usually there to mediate and provide a framework; the events and characters are developed directly by the players, with pre-game workshops are often used to create the initial background and set-up.

Allowing the players responsibility for the game like this can be a great thing. There are more ideas to throw into the mix. The players can be more invested in the development of a story they had a hand in creating. You end up with characters that are a better match for what the player wanted to try out. On the other hand, not only does the GM not know what’s happening, they now don’t even know what might be happening. This can lead to its own problems; for example, you can’t give out trigger warnings for a game if you’ve got no idea what might come up. I have also found that plots tend to be less intricate, since other players need to be able to know about and remember things. So far I have not seen an improvised game where a player has misused the trust in them to mess up the game for other players, but this is a risk – though whether this is more or less than in more ‘traditional’ freeforms I don’t know.

A simple technique for player improvisation is “Yes, And…”. Any statement given by a player should be followed by agreeing and furthering the idea, usually by beginning a follow up statement with the words “Yes, and”.  The key concept is not to deny what other people have made up, but to build on their ideas.

3rd Party GMing

Some games take a much more direct approach, and just ask the players outright to be GMs. The third party GM approach is this: if two or more players want a GM ruling on a conflict, they should consult a neutral third player. Simple, but frees up the GMs from making a lot of judgement calls when they need to be doing other things.

A variation on this is to have pre-written mini adventures, and ask players who go n expeditions to find a willing player to run it for them. Slightly more subtly, I’ve also seen some players being given the ability to assign some sort of award to other players for doing something; for example, I ran a game set in Never Never Land where some players could give out Adventure points for good storytelling.

Finally….

Because the GMs are not managing the game closely like in a tabletop game, the players of a theatre LARP become a much more valuable game resource (particularly since I feel the GMs are also an often underutilised resource, but that’s a ramble for later). Playing with half an eye on creating a fun and dramatic game will enhance the game, not only for the other players, but also for you as they bounce off and react to you. So: try playing like a GM – because this is your game.

Rei

xx

Guest Post: Play Like A Protagonist

Written by Alasdair Sinclair

Like most people engaged in our hobby, I move from playing games to running games and back again, a distinction increasingly blurred by the so-called “Indie” games that largely emerged from the Forge discussion forums beginning around 10 years ago. The general assumption that most people make is that the GM is the player at the table putting in the most effort both before the game in the form of preparation and during the game – any given player may be sitting idle for a while as the spotlight moves away from them, but the GM must be constantly alert.

This assumed work rate is reflected in the very structure of most RPG game books, where there is a lengthy shared discussion of the game world and rules before a special GM-only section that lays out all the additional information required for running as opposed to playing. Where “player handbooks” are available, they’re almost always a subset of what the GM is expected to know. In fact, most of my really great experiences both as player and as GM have been player driven, while the worst experiences have usually come from games where players are distracted, bored, or otherwise not contributing energy.

The best players that I know all have a few key habits in common, little tactics that make them a joy to share a table with. These include making quips and laughing at jokes, adopting the speech patterns and body language of their characters, knowing when to share spotlight time and when to revel in it, as well as being generally interested in and friendly towards the others at the table. Probably the most important trait that they all share, however, is regarding themselves as protagonists.

A protagonist is a character who drives the action in the story. There are a few great stories with reactive or passive characters at their centre, but they are extremely difficult to pull off at the gaming table. Most great stories are about characters striving for something, whether that is righting an injustice, or stealing a gem. These characters rarely sit still and wait for the story to come to them – fortune favours the bold.

A lot of players are fearful of somehow breaking a GM’s story, or going off plot, but any GM worth their salt will be delighted with players taking the initiative. The best thing you can do is take the story and run with it, and if that’s not in the direction the GM originally planned, they’ll soon figure out a new destination. The worst thing you can do is wait for the story to happen to your character, because even if that leaves the GM’s perfect plot intact, if a tidy pre-written story is what you want then why not just watch a movie?

Different game systems encourage players to be proactive in different ways, and it must be admitted that not all games do this particularly well. In EPOCH, the players are put squarely in charge of their own destiny because they choose how each encounter affects them. The system encourages players to flesh out their characters’ back-stories through flashbacks, and ultimately each character has the chance to become either a Hero or a Zero, and define who they are as people. The horror may not always be defeated, but EPOCH creates space for victory or defeat to be on the characters’ terms. While EPOCH has a specific mechanic for flashbacks, there’s nothing preventing you from using that technique in any game to explain where your character comes from and why they’re about to do the crazy thing that they’re about to do.

In the Dresden Files RPG, and in FATE generally, characters are defined by a High Concept Aspect and a Trouble Aspect. In practical terms, these are the character’s good intentions, the motivation for them getting engaged and involved in the action. A good Trouble Aspect is worth its weight in dramatic gold, and good players are always looking for opportunities to get themselves into the best kinds of trouble. If you’re not playing FATE, you may not get the FATE points from them, but you can still make a note for yourself – what drives my character forward and why are they always getting into scrapes?

Many generic systems, such as Unisystem (e.g. Eden Studios’ Buffy system) and D6 (West End Games’ iteration of the Star Wars RPG) have some kind of point-spend ability that allows player characters to add dice to difficult rolls. Players who seize the story rarely end a session with all their bonus dice intact. Don’t hoard and conserve your daily powers in D&D 4e or Willpower in World of Darkness, use them to get the story you want about a character trying to achieve something with their life.

No matter what system you’re using, you can give yourself a head start by thinking about who your character is when not adventuring, and by writing a big Old Adventure hook, known as a “Kicker” in Forge parlance, for your character. Robin Laws has my favourite expression of an interesting character in the player section of Fear Itself, where he asks players to imagine their character at a loose end. If that character is doing something interesting, that you would want to watch a film about, then it’s an interesting and dynamic character. If not, you may want to think again. A kicker is just what it sounds like – your character being kicked into action. It may seem a bit hokey now but the basic revenge story of Orcs just having eaten your parents is a perfect basic template that spurs your character into action, and makes sure they won’t be sitting around whittling until the Orc menace is finished for once and all.

However you do it, remember, you only roleplay each game once. Make it memorable.