Stop LARPing, this is serious

I mentioned here that I was thinking of writing a fifth steampunk story, called STUFF AND NONSENSE.

The gritty origin story:

I was part of the heyday of White Wolf role-playing here in Canberra, when around thirty people showed up to each game, and we regularly travelled to meet other groups and role-play together in nationally interlinked games. That community is still somewhat coherent, enough that although I faded out of role-playing (due to exerting all my creative energy in novel writing) many years ago, there were four members of that crowd at my launch, including the MC and his daughter.

 

A small group of us also travelled to Sydney sometimes to join a hard-core LARP that included boffer weapons (made of foam—which I assure you leaves significant bruises) and sleeping overnight in a nature reserve to continue the game the following day. I’ll never forget the feeling of being stalked through bushland as I clutched a half-orc baby in one arm and a sword in the other, or the sight of two men in kilts running to attack me with full-size axes.

I only really discovered interactive fiction in January last year, so I often find myself reinventing the wheel and/or being overly clever (a symptom of a new writer is saying, “Aha! Everyone in this genre does THIS, so I will be brilliant and do THAT!” …before mastering “THIS”).

I read a few IF blogs, including Emily Short, and she sometimes writes about unusual games played in museums or across London. I used to work at Canberra’s rather excellent science centre, Questacon, and I had an idea of running a game there that was linked to existing exhibits.

I really enjoyed the IF Comp last year (especially the secret entrant-only forum within the main forum), and have been racking my brain trying to think of a way to enter despite the fact I’m currently working full-time for Tin Man Games.

Then my HEART OF BRASS book launch was set to take place inside the National Library of Australia. It’s across the road from Questacon, and a large number of my friends would already be there….

So I decided to run a steampunk game inside Questacon (and then later adjust it for the IF Comp). Because Questacon entry is super expensive, I decided to have some minor props in the game and charge money for entry.

Unique challenges:

LARPING is always chaos. In this article over at Sibyl Moon’s blog, Sibyl Moon writes that “When the game begins, the GM loses control.” Sam Kobo Ashwell responds in the comments that, “Typically about half an hour before the game begins, when three of your key players text to say that they can’t make it after all.”

The simple fact is that people are unreliable, no matter how much you threaten to stab them if they don’t show up. (It’s possible my technique is counter-productive.)

I wasn’t sure if my players would be first-time LARPers or seasoned professionals… but I knew I didn’t want to be present (too hot, too much standing up, too much seeing people ruin my game). Which meant I needed to write a GM-free (GM = Game Master, the person or team that makes everything run smoothly) game that was 100% self-explanatory. As a result, I wrote scenes in the form of a script (writing it in such a way that one person could take two characters if necessary).

Questacon is a noisy and crowded environment which would make it difficult to negotiate for the players.

There would be VERY young children involved—my own are 2 and 4, so I wrote the game with them in mind. Then I encouraged other parents to bring their own kids. Apart from keeping the game G-rated and making it entertaining for the very young (I had a few short lines for the 4-year olds and assumed the 2-year olds would wander along in their usual curious enjoyment of all the silly things adults do) this had one crucial issue: food. Food isn’t allowed in the galleries, and my book launch only finished at 11am. The game had to finish by 12 or the kids would lose the plot.

I hate puzzles with a fiery passion, so instead of puzzles I had “challenges” that mostly involved interacting with exhibits inside Questacon. For example, there’s a game in which up to four people can catch a series of red balls by operating two types of enlarged spider fangs. All my challenges suited both adults and children.

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We visited Questacon as a family for me to gather ideas and plans, which is when the above photo was taken (it was later used as a clue inside the game).

I added drama to the game (and a measure of independence) by having two teams that could gain points through various activities. The game above (and one other game) could be played directly against each other.

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What went horribly wrong?

People, of course.

I was freakishly lucky in that I ended up with the correct number of adults (8) to play the game, plus five children aged 4 or less. The theory was that one character in each team belonged to the kid/s of that team. It didn’t really work, but it didn’t really need to work since their characters were minor.

I’d deliberately set up a “more efficient” and a “less efficient” team, so that the rowdiest kids were all lumped together. I assigned a leader to each team to get things moving and to keep an eye on the time (in order to coordinate the final scenes and make sure the game finished before the children were hungry), but my “less efficient” team didn’t have anyone bossy enough to make things happen. So not only did the first team begin the game about twenty minutes earlier, but the second time took an additional twenty minutes to cross the road.

This meant the more efficient team was sitting around waiting for forty minutes (ie more than half the game). A little bit of waiting worked fine—there is plenty to do in Questacon—but that was ridiculous and frustrating for me to watch (even from afar).

I’d expected some delays, and assumed the other attractions in Questacon would smooth things over to some extent. I also wrote 5 scenes, and advised the leaders to skip as many as three of the middle scenes in order to get to the climax in time. These were both good ideas, and they worked as well as they could under the circumstances.

I also had a sheet of Victorian insults for the players to sling at one another whenever their paths crossed, plus various things players could do semi-independently to gain more points. But although this might have worked well in a static location (like a large room) where players could lay out the many items in their packs, it was a huge hassle for them as they tried to sort out multiple envelopes (some of them sealed to avoid spoilers) while also wrangling children, and moving through a crowd (in a hurry!) from place to place.

Having two teams also meant separating children from some of their friends (although I put the BFFs together, so that kept things calm).

I was vividly reminded about why control freaks such as myself never run LARPs.

On the up side, my daughter wore a pirate bow tie.

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What went right?

I only saw small bits of the game because I was (as I expected) held up at the book launch. My daughter wasn’t really interested in the play scripts at all (too busy talking to the other 4-year old girl), but she enjoyed the challenges. Some people had fabulous costumes on, and one of my friends made an eerily perfect Charles Dickens (which he clearly enjoyed), plus his 2-year old made the cutest steam-powered dog you’ve ever seen. Others attempted German and Irish accents, with amusing results.

 

The more efficient team had my mobile number, and I was able to advise them to skip ahead and then come back to scene 1. I think they all fundamentally enjoyed themselves. The less efficient team had a few good moments in the chaos.

The climax for this game did, amazingly, work. In either version of the ending, a pack of mechanical spiders escapes and attacks Queen Victoria, prompting players to, “Catch them! Catch them now!!”

Here I am as Queen Victoria, who pops up at the end. It’s funny how ordinary LARPing looks from the outside, when huge drama is happening on the inside.

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I made spiders out of red lollipops and black pipe cleaners, which meant they were both unexpected and delicious. Casting them out onto the floor for the kids to catch at the end was terribly exciting.

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Most of the players were members of Questacon, meaning that we were able to “pay” entry before the game began, then go in and out of the building as needed. We were also able to access the “Members’ Lounge” – a room set aside in an obscure corner, that was mercifully quiet and peaceful. We ate our lunch and hung out there after the game, which was excellent. If anyone had had any energy left, they could have gone back into Questacon to explore “leftover” scenes or simply have a normal Questacon day.

What did I learn?

LARPing is really not my field.

Inefficient people are inefficient.

Children are children (but they do like games and lollies).

I don’t like noisy, crowded places. Not even when I’m wearing a tiara.

Debriefing and winding-down time is a must.

Imaginative people can be trusted to enjoy themselves.

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