Posts Tagged ‘Eidolon’

[Lumberjack Academy] The lessons

This weekend, I completed my Lumberjack Academy – aka, workshop in simple larpwrighting. This is the account of the lessons I held Saturday – soon, I’ll have a report on the Sunday, in which I threw the participants in the deep end by inviting guest to come and play their game.

I had only very few participants – three – one of whom wasn’t coming on Saturday, but only on Sunday. So when one participant didn’t show up till an hour fifteen minutes after we were scheduled to start, I was not feeling particularly happy about it. When the same person suddenly had to leave an hour fifteen minutes early, and didn’t show up at all Sunday, I was thinking rather nasty things that I shan’t repeat in public.

But apart from that. I was happy with the outcome. We started out with a bit of warmup – telling a story, each of us saying one word at a time. Then I asked them what tabletop roleplaying was, then what Larp was. We got far about, and they even came up with a point or two I hadn’t expected (I’ll look at the list again, and if it still looks interesting, I’ll put it up).

Designing groups (but what is a group?)

Then, I asked them to make a list of groups. The idea was that making a larp based around a group of some kind is a good idea, as the characers will have a natural relation to each other. A pretty basic idea, but many people seem to make the characters first, the group second. That is ok in a tabletop rpg, where the characters can be moved into action by the GM, but less ideal in a larp where you want the action to arise amongst the players, maybe as a result of a little GM prodding. And having a list of groups would make the actual process of making the larp easier, as you could just pick from your list of groups.

Unfortunately, they misunderstood what I meant by groups. I meant things like “a high-school clique” or “a small plumbing firm.” What they wrote was types of characters, like “high-school students,” “plumbers,” “good/bad people,” and so on (many, many professions).

I think my mistake was in my choice of example. I knew one of them played in a fantasy larp campaign – so I try saying something along the lines of: “There were different races in that larp, right? (larpwright?) And they have each their own group, right?” “Ooohh!” she said, and wrote “Orcs” and “elves.” Note to self: give them a very specific example of what a group is next time, so they know exactly what you mean. In fact, next time, I think I should reverse the order of the groupmaking exercises.

Because next, we made groups – together, all three of us. I started out showing them how each of the the “groups”  they had made could be turned into a group of the kind I wanted – turning “plumber” into plumbing firm, for instance (I stayed well away from fungophile Italian a-plumbers).

Then, we chose a kind of group we wanted to make, and then we filled it with members.

First up was Santa’s Elves (Julemandens Nisser). Here, we had memorable personages such as “Santa,” “Santa’s wife,” “the Oldest Elf,” “the Cheeky Young Elf,” and, not to forget, “the IT Elf.”

Next was Christiansborg. This group included divers members of parlament (and no alarums), the Prime Minister and his wife, and assorted journalists.

Finally, we made the High School Clique. A vicious and nasty group of girls if ever there was one. This group included the “popular snob,” “the snob’s boyfriend, the quarterback,” “the nerd,” “the make-up doll” and “the copycat.” Apart from these, we included a number of important supporting characters: the good parents, the controlling parents, the teacher they hate, the hot teacher, and one or two more I’ve forgotten.

We used this group for the next exercise as well: writing character descriptions. First, we brainstormed elements of a description. They came up with (I may have helped – I’m not exactly sure how much) Background, Personality, Relations, Hopes for the future (I definitely provoked this), Appearance and Skills. I added Behaviour.

Then, they each chose one character and wrote them out, using the above as guidelines. Here, I discovered that their idea of what “appearance” ment was radically different from mine. They thought it meant body, hair etc. I thought it meant clothes and style (at least when doing a larp character that should be playeable by many different players. We had a rather long discussion about this, with one of them being adamant that what I was referring to was something completely different. (Danish readers: what does “udseende” cover?).

Another point we had to discuss was “Hopes for the Future.” They both included long term goals. But I wanted them to include short term desires as well. They quickly caught on to this idea, and had a good idea of their character’s immidiate goals.

One final point of discussion was the difference between personality and behaviour. They thought the two was more or less the same. I thought a character should include references to both how the character thinks (personality) and tips as two how to play that character. But I guess this is a matter of oppinion: should you explicitly brief your players on how to act their characters, or should they be able to infer this from the description of the character?

Adventures from Primetime

Next up was conflict. I started this out with an exercise. I asked them to think back to a tv-series they’d seen recently. One had Moonlight, NCIS and Sex and the City, the other had Detective Monk and Desperate Housewives. I then told them to choose one episode of one of the shows, and write out, as briefly as possible, what that episode was about. The idea was to end up with descriptions of two conflicts to serve as examples of how to make conflicts for a group, the tv shows providing short and simple stories typically with only one major conflict per episode. I asked them not to choose NCIS or Detective Monk, as I knew detective shows have a tendency to have the conflict be the detectives’ struggle to find the bad guy, the real conflict (between the killer and the victim) having reached an important climax when the victim dies.

In the end, we ended up with a couple of nice conflicts: one was from an episode of Moonlight, in which the character (a vampire striving to become human again) must choose between giving up his loved one, or his hopes of humanity. The other was the finale of Sex and the City, in which Carrie must choose between two men and the cities they’re at home in.

Etch-a-larp

After introducing the concept of conflict in stories, we went on to making plots for a number of groups. Not all of them were entirely serious, but I found them surprisingly rich on potential for good stories.

The first was a pirate ship, dividing the loot. The Captain wanted the main share, because it was his ship, the First Mate wanted the main share, because he brought the map to the ship, and the navigator wanted it because he cracked the puzzle and led them to the treasure. Mixed into it was the decksboy, who was the captain’s son, the chef, who was being bribed by the captain, and the lookout, who needed to get home to get medicine for the parrot who was his only friend in life.

Next, we had a band of Dwarfs, chasing a group of Hobgoblins who had broken into their mine and stolen their gold and abducted one dwarf wife. In this group we had the husband who wanted his wife back, the husband’s brother who’d had an affair with the wife, the son who was probably the brother’s, the woman’s cousin, who knew of the indicression, the Guardian of the Gold who let in the Hobgoblins and, finally, the elf whom the Guardian was protecting from being discovered as the elf who brought chaos to his forest.

We then briefly went over the over the groups from the groupmaking session, discussing what conflicts could hit each of them. Then we had to end, and I gave them their homework: to look in their wardrobes and find seven characters they could make with costumes from their own clothes – an assignment they handled brilliantly.

Next up: the game they actually made on Sunday.

[Lumberjack Academy] On the eve of the workshop

So, I’m sitting here, at a quarter to twelve, the night before I’m doing my first workshop in Larpwrighting, and I’m not exactly feeling ready for it. Not that I’m unprepared – I have a bunch of excercises and good points for the budding lumberjacks I’ll be meeting tomorrow, and I have a good idea of the flow of the two weekends. I just don’t know if I’m setting the level right – I might be setting it too low, and they’ll be bored, or I might be setting it too high, and they won’t understand a thing. Ah, well – I’m good at improvising, and if I need a think, I have bundles of little excercises to throw at them while I go off to a corner to have a serious chat with my brain.

At the very least, I feel I have a set of points to go over that will enable them to make simple larps very easily. There may be other ways, there may be better ways, and this way of doing things certainly has a few weaknesses if you want to use it for groups of players over 10-20 people.

Posed as questions, the points are (only in very rough order):

  • Who are the players? This question is one of the two most important questions – obiously, as this is what determines the “roles” of the “role-play.” The first answer to this should most often be a group – “a clique of high school bullies” or “a squad of police(wo)men,” and then elaborated later into the individual members – the point being that a larp works better for the individual player if he feels like he has a strong belonging to a certain group, but if you determine individual members first and try to make them into a coherent whole afterwards, you run the risk of making a group that doesn’t have any real connection to each other. Of course, this way, you risk having someone there because “they have to be in the group” – something you have to watch out for. Note, that external people that are important to the group should be considered as well. Maybe the nerdy boy the clique’s picking on, or the police seargent’s wife. And how are we going to see that? In other words, what kind of props or costume will identify the players as belonging to the group, and comunicate who the individual members of the group are?
  • Where are we? In many cases, the excact location of the characters can be changed while retaining many of the dynamics of the play. But it must still be though of with care, as it gives colour and has great effect on the point below. Of course, sometimes, the location dictate the characters, instead of the other way around, as with the game “Boxen” (“the Box”), from this years Fastaval, the premise of which was (as far as I heard) sticking four people in a blocked elevator, and seeing what happened. And how are we going to see that? As with characters, one must give careful consideration to how to communicate what kind of a place the characters are in. A sofa and a coffee table makes a living room, while you need some sort of workdesk for an office.
  • What will make the players move? This may seem an odd point, but it is important nonetheless. One of my philosophy professors once told us that “every difference must make a diffference” – and if the characters are just sitting or standing around a table and talking, why is it different from a tabletop game? I made this mistake with my game, Karma Airlines from Hyggecon 2007, and it was clearly inhibiting the players that they were stuck just looking at each other over the table. Also, you can’t, as with one game I was in recently, just plant leads and expect the players to find them – they will only find it if they have a reason to go there. We did all right with the Bute Will, in which we had three different rooms and was serving dinner in one, tea in another, plus the characters would want to speak privately with one another. Also, there were plenty of props, inviting exploration. In other words, you must make sure there’s a reason to utilize the room as a room, and not just as a place to contain your discussion.
  • What is the conflict? Here, we get to the “play” part of “role-play.” Each player should have something that makes it important to him to go up against one or more of the other players. Sometimes, you can have one conflict that everyone has an interest in, but often it will make sense to have individual ones as well, to improve the odds that everyone has something to do. And why do the players care? Another pitfall is making conflicts that the players just ignore. Each conflict must feel pressing and important – preferably with both NPCs and other players pressing the conflict if the player himself doesn’t get around to it. And what will the pacing be like? If there is one thing that can kill an otherwise good story, it is slowing it down. The players should feel the need to press on with the conflict, rather than waiting around for the perfect way to strike. Of course, the prescence of the other players’ characters  can create some pacing – but only if they are making a grab for the Golden McGuffin. In the Bute Will, we had the solicitor announce that the police was on their way, thus demanding immediate action. In Karma Airlines, I hade a (in my oppinion) a stroke of genious: the players were placed outside the normal timestream and told they had “one minute” to come up with a solution – thus giving them a time frame they weren’t sure of, yet with a feeling of urgency – plus, it allowed me to yell out “30 seconds have passed” when I felt they needed a little prodding.
  • How are the game masters going to interact with play, including starting and (especially) ending it? This question is more of a practical meta-question than the kind of scripting question the others are. It is still important to consider, however. At least in Denmark, the concensus is, that when play is started, the GM shouldn’t interfere. That means that the GM’s primary way of both observing and interacting with the story is through npc’s (even if many Danes seem to be experimenting with webcams). These must be thought up in advance. The GM should also know in advance how to start the game, and preferably have an idea about how to end the game.

These are the words for now. I must to bed, having spent far too long writing this. But, ah well, it’ll be good. I’ll give a status update, maybe tomorrow, but definitely when the whole thing is over.

Lumberjack Academy: Bringing out the trusty, old chainsaw

I am preparing to run a workshop in writing roleplaying games, larp in particular. The workshop is based on the principles of the “Chainsaw Manifesto,” an idea that originated with Ole Sørensen, was named by me, and is fostered by both of us under the aegis of our association, Eidolon. I named the workshop “Skovhuggerskole,” or “Lumberjack Academy” (the English title is far better than the Danish), because the aim is to train the participants in the use of the Chainsaw.

“What on earth is the Chainsaw Manifesto?” I hear you cry. Well, I’m glad you asked!

The basis for the Chainsaw is, that the expectations that we have to larps (and to tabletop games, for that matter) in the Danish community have grown into the sky. Now, some of the established gamemakers spend countless hours of their life living up to these expectations and pushing the bar ever further. They create games with better settings, better characters, more players, more well thought-out mechanics. Others give up, give in, turn to administration, or to living a life outside of rpg. This would not be a problem – if new forces were ready to take their places.

Problem is, they’re not. There is a drought of new game writers and organisers. And no wonder – the big expectations that the consumers (because a group of rpg-consumers has certainly appeared) and the other game creators have, shade the fresh, young saplings that should be the big boys of tomorrows scene.

And what do you do with old, rotten trees shading the young plants you want to see grow into big and healthy trees? That’s right, you bring out the trusty old chainsaw and cut them down to size.

And so, the Chainsaw is about allowing young, inexperienced gamemakers to make small, simple games that may not revolutionize the genre, but are fun and easy to both make and play.

For this reason, we set a number of conditions for a Chainsaw larp (some of them would be applicable to tabletop games – but we are focusing on Convention larps, since this is the home field for Eidolon). All of these can of course be broken, if the game requires it.

The requirements are:

  • A game must be playable in one (1) standard classroom of a Danish municipal school. Societies in Denmark can borrow schools for free, which is why the term is worded like this. Besides, classrooms are fairly generic rooms, usually a wide rectangle without carpets, and loads of chairs and tables that can be used or pushed against the wall.
  • All the props of a game must fit in a bag that can be brought on the bus on the way to the location. This requirement has a number of reasons. First of all, the typical Chainsaw-game will be run at a convention by a gamemaster without a car – and therefore will be taking the bus to the convention. Secondly, this is a good way of preventing prop fetischism. One of the trends we wanted to combat was the tendency to spend lots and lots of time on preparing and setting up props, thus taking time away from preparing the actual play. We realize that props can enhance a game – but props also complicate matters for the gamemaster, which we explicitly wanted to avoid. Besides, rather a good game with bad props than the other way around. The third reason for this is, that we want this game to be cheap to run and cheap to participate in – the expectation go up with the price.
  • Any part of the players’ costume that you cannot expect them to find in their own wardrobe must be part of your props. Again: simplicity and cost. Many gamemakers become entranced with fancy costumes – but we’re roleplayers, our trade is fantasy. Sure, putting the soldier in a full military uniform is way cooler – but just put him in green trousers and a neutral t-shirt, maybe with a cap or some boots and, hey presto, Bob’s your uncle! We need to be reminded that we are actually sitting on hoards of hidden treasure, just waiting to be used. Take a look in your wardrobe – think how many costumes you could make with what you have there!
  • There should be a minimal amount of text involved. If there are written characters, they should be no more than a paragraph or two. Verbal characters are fine. One of the big stumbling blocks to making games is writing it down. I know this myself: you know your game is good – but once you see it on paper, it seems insignificant, frail, like it will never run. Besides, writing takes time, and can remove the momentum from the process. Besides, lacking writing skills should not prevent you from using you talent for gamemaking.
  • There shall be no critique of the game. This one, Ole and I disagree a bit on. Ole is (or at least used to be) very categorical: No critique, no evaluation! I tend to think that there should always be constructive critiscism. We do agree on the basic idea, however: that one of the important things about the Chainsaw is that it should be legal to make bad games, full of beginners mistakes, and that there is nothing more hindering for you desire to continue improving your creative skills than being told that the thing you toiled to make is rubbish. And, let’s face it, some people, often people who do not themselves create, seem to think it is their God given duty to point out every flaw and every imperfection. This requirement means they can’t. That’s the idea, at least.

These are, as far as I remember, the basic requirement of the Chainsaw Manifesto. There may be a limit on the number of players, as well, but I can’t remember what it was. Besides, it most likely comes naturally with the restrictions on space and props.

So, what do you think? Are we dead wrong? Have we missed the point? Or would you like to take the Chainsaw out for a spin…?