A thought on fest LRP design…

I’ve been a huge fan of the idea of fest larp since I first knew they existed. Hundreds or thousands of characters in a field. The spectacle of all those costumed characters. The crunchy tactical delight of playing general to an unscripted army of hundreds. The social gamishness of politics played out with blocks of hundreds of the frustratingly free-willed. The characters you can really only play against a backdrop of that many people, and the groups that take so much that really; you want that many to see them.

So I’ve played in the majority of the UK fest systems; the LT’s Gathering, CP’s Renewal, Omega’s, well, Omega. I’ve staffed the Gathering, and was involved in running Profound Decisions’ first game  Maelstrom.

Most recently, though, I’ve been lucky enough to be heavily involved in designing a fest system. Now, I’ll grant you I didn’t come up with the original concept – that was Boogieman Games’ whose sadly-departed Odyssey game I was lucky enough to play. Nor did I persuade Matt Pennington that classical myth was worth a look for PD’s next game – that was Si White, who I reckon you’d call the producer and also structured the first design questions. Nor have I done a scrap of creative writing for the game – that’s Ian Andrew and his writers. But I did do a reasonable chunk of what you might call game experience design.

One thing we did do which I’m not sure has been done in this way before, was consider the different sorts of people who LARP, and what they might want from a game. That coloured how we structured the game, and how it worked. Yes, we had a one-line description of our genre in place, and we knew there was a whole load of story to tell there. But we were thinking about our players and what they’d want from pretty near the start. And we tried to make it pretty clear what we had to offer them, too. “What will I do at the event?” is implicit in some forms of LARP – but it’s not always clear at a fest, and we’ve tried to make it so at Odyssey.

I’m very happy with the results. Most of the paths we nailed. Those players who look to characterise warriors, politicians, and those who simply want to bury themselves in story seemed pretty delighted with our first event.

It wasn’t universally successful. I was surprised by how many players signed up as Philosophers, and that’s where we fell down. The core experience of the Philosopher path wasn’t scalable enough to delight the numbers who chose it nor was it appealing to all of those who signed up for it. That’s not to say that people didn’t enjoy the game playing Philosopher characters. However, those that did were either very much the sort of players we’d designed the path for, or those who ignored the path experience and got on with enjoying fest larp in the way I had for years. Ignoring the offer of the game and making my own fun. Not what I was hoping for. So, we’re putting more work into the Philosopher path at the moment. Specifically, understanding more about what makes a player choose the Philosopher path, and putting more of the right sort of game in place for them.

So, I’m not sure we had the taxonomy of larpers right; I reckon if we’d bought into persona, and done it earlier we’d have been in a better place. But I reckon the core of what we were doing; of thinking about players and what they like was pretty spot on.  And the supplementary questions are the ones that define a game. Now you could argue all day about what larpers tend to want from a game. Everyone is a mix. (Which is why I think personas would be better for this sort of exercise…)

But with some big broad brushes, I reckon the following categories and supplementary questions are a decent place to start. This is the kind of thing I’d want to know in an early game design.

What will the bean counters do? What do the beans do?
What will the narrativists do? How will our story threads get to them and move them?
What will the politicians do? Why are all these characters in a field? Why are all these characters in this particular field? What levers of power are there to affect the world?
What will the puzzlers do? How will their puzzling affect everything else?
What will the warriors do? How is fighting made meaningful?

World background, system mechanics: all that can come later, let alone skill lists, spell lists and the like. Players first.

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