Trees and tripods…

I really started learning how to run larp events at the knee of Earthworks Cardiff. I’d run linear days in what’s now called a “club” style before then, but they first taught me how to make a weekend ebb and flow, how to inspire heroism, how to make epics, how to power the story-generating machine. Subsequently, we made it ours as Earthworks: Manchester, as led by Lawson Pilling. Cardiff drew on Celtic myth in their work for the Dragons faction in the LT’s Gathering system. Manchester on Lawson’s own work and Gothic fairy tales for the Viper faction. Stab in the Back’s events for the same system when I was faction leader were in the same style. I’m sure it’s influenced and inspired loads of others as well.

The Earthworks: Cardiff style was first and foremost about the story, for me their triumph was successfully replicating the feel of Celtic epic myth. Avowedly player-versus-environment, it leaned heavily on heroic combats to punctuate and inflect the narrative. Events were managed to produce those epic combats, on sites managed to deepen immersion. It was about bringing an environment alive. About populating a world with characters that made stories happen. As were our Earthworks: Manchester events. One of the great truths of that style of larp is how hard it is to find enough crew. If you’re going to run a live environment, you need enough bodies to make it come alive. Specifically, epic combat in a pre-gunpowder period requires numbers. One of the ways we managed that was to try and make sure that crew had as much fun as the players, had the chance to build stories themselves. So, the small walk-on parts were given their time in the narrative focus, hopefully giving the less prominent player characters time there as well. Every event we’d try to prise small groups off the main body of the players so we could outnumber them, too. With greater or lesser success, we’d try and get local superiority of numbers so we could manage genuine fear. No matter how powerful and awesome your opponents, nothing beats being outnumbered for drama.

We talked a lot about onions at Manchester. Layers that could be revealed and explored, but we mostly stuck with the engineering. Sometimes, the live event would shadow a military campaign fought through stories and downtimes. Player characters of a military persuasion might send off orders to troops during a live event, which would feed us background and context for the next.

They’d hear what had happened later, maybe we’d set an event directly in the middle of a situation they’d caused to happen. It got us some magnificent moments, some real dark times for the characters and a brilliant ending to that story arc. I think they enjoyed our stories, but we were in control. We created epics for them. They’d be in a consistent, detailed, world, but we’d be looking to manage something marvellous out of the campaign every step of the way. Once it went wrong, I think, when we broke the player characters’ morale to such a degree that they left the event before the last big fight. I still blame the rain that weekend for that.

That really interests me, that tension between live environment sandbox-style play and guaranteeing that something epic happens.

I think it’s true to say we gave the players a bit more freedom around Stab in the Back events.  The theme of the first event in our arc was chosen by their characters. They got a choice between going further into Grimms’-tales style Teutonia, or an unexplored area of the campaign world. They chose to investigate the Gothic more, and some months later I entirely forgave them for not exploring the carefully prepared new lands…

The actual events themselves were still fairly controlled. There was going to be an epic combat at the climax of the event, but who they fought, why, and what happened at the next event was, I think, more clearly up to them. That was our tree style. We consciously followed a tree structure in the campaign, with decisions to be made at each event that led down one of other routes for the next. Ifs and thens. That meant we could foreshadow future possibilities without prescribing them – and maybe the witch would be wrong, and maybe the fortune she cast for you would come true.

My favourite of the techniques we used was tripods. That was what powered the decision trees, and meant we always had more layers for our onions, and gave us richer roles for our crew. The idea was that every group of characters we placed in the world to be played by our crew was a tripod. There’d be one third better disposed to the PCs, one third less well-disposed and one third disinterested, for example. Or one third who felt one way about a subject, one another and one another. So, whatever happened, the player characters would be irritating 2/3 of the folk they met to a greater or lesser extent. No decision was without negative consequences. And like an onion, these tripods would layer. It’s hyperbole to claim it was fractal, but certainly the more they explored, the more of that granularity they’d find. For example, there might be 3 nations represented in the characters they’d meet; one pro-, one -anti and one neutral towards them. Within each nation, there’d be groups who were more or less consistent with their country’s position. Some more, some less and some average in their attitudes compared to their country as a whole. Our events were powered by this. Driven, in fact. We’d set up a few tripods, the player characters would arrive in a complex situation, and probably make it worse. I think I remember getting our crew for the last fight at one event to change costume 3 or 4 times as the player characters irritated different groups during the course of the last morning of the event. We never quite recorded those positions numerically, on sliders, but it was close to that. Yes, we were railroading them into a climactic combat – but it was caused by them, and what the next event was about was too.

Tripods and trees, and onions and local superiority of numbers. I reckon that’s what I learned about building a story-generating machine from running PvE

If you’ve not already done so, go off and read It’s about narrative in a text-based browser game, but they’re marvellous people, the Failbetter Games folk, and there’s so much larp writers can learn other strands of game design.

2 thoughts on “Trees and tripods…

Add yours

  1. As a matter of interest, how far in advance did you plot out your branches? Mild experimentation suggests strongly that you should never to more than “sketch in” the details of the various branches, for fear of a) wasted effort frustration and b) preferring one branch over the other.

  2. One event, I think? I don’t think we were much more granular than “Where’s the next event and who’s the principal antagonist?”

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