[Lumberjack Academy] The Larp

Sunday, after warming up and going over the “homework” I set (finding seven costumes in your wardrobe), I told my two participants that I had three people coming to play a game the two of them had made. In the end, only two people showed up, and I had to jump in.

One of them was not happy that I’d just invited people. But it did provide an incentive to get started.

First, I asked them to make 10 one-line ideas that they would consider  making. Then we went through them one by one, asking what that larp would entail, then having them decide whether to keep it or not. In the end, they had three ideas, out of which they quickly chose one – “Murder in the intelligence agency.” Of the others, I quite liked “Journey to Jupiter” (the tale of a group of people stuck in a spaceship bound for jupiter). They had a “king of the spiders” thing going (I can’t remember the exact title) which would have been interesting as a tabletop game, but not as a larp.

Then, I had them come up with the basic plot, write up characters, and finally make clues for the characters to receive during play.

In the end they came up with a very good game about the bosses of a British intelligence agency during the Cold War. The Cold War thing was my suggestion, one I regretted – especially when I realised they didn’t even know what the cold war was (“That was 1920-something, right?”).

In the story, the top boss (who was a woman) of the agency is killed, and her three lieutenants know that one of them did it – noone else could have done it.

The three each have a motive to have done it, motives that are revealed during play by the introduction of clues.

  • The operations executive is an old, conservative chauvenist, who is stuck up on traditions. He thinks the female boss is incompetent, and is angry, because he feels he should have been promoted instead of her.
  • The young communications exec had an affair with his older boss – but they had a (public) break.
  • The economic exec, who is friendly with both of the other two, is really a Russian spy, and the actual killer – she found out that he was a spy, so he killed her.

The game starts when the three execs have just found her body, and none of them have any clues as to her killer. The only thing they know is that she is supposed to be at a meeting with the Prime Minister soon, and that they DON’T want anyone to find out who did it till they have found the perpetrator. Shortly after the start, one of them is called out of the room to talk to a journalist on the phone. Then, the next person is called out, leaving the other two to talk behind his back. This kind of dynamic worked very well – two people could plot against someone behind their back.

Lessons drawn

The game worked very well. Part of that was that we were three very equal players who knew each other, enabling us to shout at each other and be very rough on each other. The game was a bit weak in the movement department – instead of standing around, we tended to be circling the big conference table in the middle – and each other – a lot. This was ok, though, as it left us to play with eye contact and personal space. A few genuine props would have been good, though.

One of the other players suggested not deciding in advance who’d done it, but leaving that to the players. I think the idea is interesting, as it would mean the players will always have the satisfaction of being correct in their suspicions. On the other hand, if you know you are about to be discovered as a vicious killer, you may do things differently.

One big weakness with many games cropped up here as well: the “fallacy of doubt”: one of the players doubted the authenticity of one of the leads we had. This is something I think one should NEVER do. Why? Because it brings the entire game world down with the inconvenient piece of evidence. The players have no way to distinguish forgeries from authentic documents – they are all “forgeries,” fabricated by the GM. Thus, if you doubt one document, you should also doubt the other documents – cause what relevantly distinguishes them from the document that you claim is a forgery? This goes further: if you doubt one NPC’s testimony, or one other fact about the game world – what reason do you have to believe the other, similar pieces of evidence?

Originally, I wanted to get three people to come, so that I could be outside, helping the participants and acting as GM as required. In retrospect, I’m not too sorry I didn’t. I was still able to give them a few hints, and they got to feel like they ran the game themselves – which they really did. Besides, I got to play a larp with people my age, something I do far too seldom.

All in all, I think it was a success – and I’m convinced I did right in calling in people to play the game. It made the exercise more real, and they experience running a game in a “controlled environment.” If I’d had participants enough for two groups, I would have asked them to play each other’s games. But doing it like this, I had more experienced players that were better able to carry the characters, thus making the two you larpwrights feel better about the game they’d made.

I would have liked to have more people at the workshop – but this allowed me to try out some of the techniques, so maybe it was for the best.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Good point about the Doubt of Fallacy. I’ve encountered it too. It also reminds me of a guestpost at my blog, that addresss the problem from a different angle:


    Hmm, it seems like I’m commenting on everything you write. Don’t worry, I promise that I won’t keep doing this.


  2. Posted by Oliver Nøglebæk on May 14, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I found your blog hoping to discuss our game last night, but I am happy to see that you have posted about the Lumberjack Academy, I really like the idea and it’s good to read about the results.

    I was wondering how you set the participants to work on brainstorming during the course, which techniques (if any) did you use?


  3. Posted by eliashelfer on May 18, 2009 at 1:32 am

    @Morten: I called it Fallacy of Doubt :). But yes, I have seen it quite a few times in larps. Often when one of the players has something to gain from destroying belief in the document (in this case, he was the spy being busted).
    The article you link to is quite interesting, as well. The genre of mindfuck is an interesting genre, playing with the form of the game and the social contract of the game. I am reminded of the literary concept of the “double contract,” meaning that the author seemingly enters into one contract with his audience, which he suddenly replaces with another – e.g.claiming that the story is based on fact, when it is in fact entirely fictious. Mindfuck is the same: you ask the players to enter into one diegetic world with you, only to undermine that world yourself and replace them with another. This provides a great effect – the first time you do it. But it is a gamble that is not to be undertaken lightly – because by doing it too much, you make the players hesitant to enter into the diegetic contract with you, always being wary of mindfuck trickery

    @Oliver: Thank you! I hope to work more with the concept – I am convinced that it works, and that it can get some people out of passive consumer- or willing henchman- status to other’s games, and start making them themselves.

    I’ll get to our game yet, I hope. I’ve just been so busy, I haven’t had the time.


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