Odyssey “retrospective”

In my professional life, we try and have a meeting after every chunk of every project to work out what happened, so next time we can improve what we can improve, and revel in what went well. There’s been a flattering number of paeans of praise for Odyssey – not all of them written by me – and I wanted to put down some thoughts on what I think I’d try different “next time” as well.  

I suspect I won’t get a “next time” to be so deeply involved in a long-running fest larp from start to finish. It doesn’t come up very often: I’m one of maybe 50 people in the world who have had the privilege. However, some of the lessons are worth putting down for their relevance to other games I might even up working on.

Don’t get me wrong – this list won’t be exhaustive, and it definitely won’t rake over decisions I got wrong during an event.  One day, I’ll run a perfect event, until then the only thing to do is accept there’ll be mistakes, that time only goes one way and that’s just the way it is. For me, it’s this “organiser fatigue”, when every wrong decisions ever made moves the system further from what it could have been that’s one of the hardest bits of running larp – hey ho.

Oh, and it is my list, not the team’s or anyone else’s. Not even a suggested list for the game. My list. For me.  This does not follow usual retrospective practise; there might be a team retrospective one day, there might not.

So.

1. Give yourself space to change the game, and use it.

Your fest game will be wrong. Great swathes of it will need improving, and that will be difficult to manage; because those adversely affected by change will hate it. No silver bullets, but if you *can* pre-set conditions for change to be explicable, do so and try to explain ahead of time that the game will be changing.  Odyssey *could have* done better on this. There was an IC explanation for the IC setup that held pretty firm throughout the game, and it could have been used it more/better. I used to call this a “flange-stamp”, this big neon sign to explain where the edges of the sandbox are; and it’s no new idea. Omega had its Plague to explain why no bugger started with a map, Maelstrom had the Maelstrom to explain why the actual rulers of nations stayed at some etc, and Odyssey had the Fates to explain why everyone met at Atlantis, and fought in an arena. It’s not going to keep me up at nights, and by god it’s exhausting changing anything, but… No-one remember the majority of the rules tweaking that was done, which is an indicator more could have been done, I think.

2. Give yourself space to experiment, and use it.

Following from 1), if you accept that the game will need improving, then working out how and what to do will need some experimentation. We had – in our Gates – a pretty good way to manage this, which I only thought of real recently, and I wish I’d had us use it ages ago.  I wish I’d done more review of the game every year too – I know it did happen, but I got organiser-fatigue and didn’t really participate and should’t have let that happen.

3. Set expectations better

I don’t think we changed our intent dramatically during the game, but nonetheless people felt very strongly that we had. I seem to remember saying “But that’s not what we meant by that” during some heated exchanges with players who were very disappointed by some revelation or other of “how things were” or other on a fair few occasions. I wish I had a decent technique to use in response. It hit particularly hard on the first game. Odyssey lost something like 20% of the first game’s players ahead the second game. It’s not the only fest game I know of that this has happened to, and I think it’s twofold. Firstly, you’re doing this for the first time, you’ll bugger some of it up and some folk won’t come again because of that. Secondly, folk will not really know what to expect, they just might not like it, some folk won’t come again because of that. That’ll happen even if you do do a decent job of trying to let them know what the game is about, and lord know’s that’s difficult to do effectively.

4. Work harder on smoothing the design out under the setting

Fest larp is a totally different design exercise to smaller games. You need more design, because you cannot manage the experience as you can in a smaller game. There’s an argument that this is a good reason not to run fest larp, but I don’t buy that simply because – well, because I like to see events of fest scale, with battles of fest scale, and politics of fest scale. I don’t buy the “no game” fest model either, although I am looking forward to trying one out one day. What I do think is that I could have done more on the design of bits of Odyssey. Specifically, and most obviously the World Forge experience, but also how other bits of Philosophy worked as game. (As opposed to how they worked as roleplaying – which evolved really well during the campaign, I think.)  Some of the edges showed through the setting, and they shouldn’t have done. Some of the metaphysics we only understood after it had been roleplayed with – it got more coherent as the game went on. That said: qv 1) and 2).  You truly can’t play-test a fest experience, but you can make sure none of the spongecake of design pokes through the setting custard.

5. If there are any numbers at all on your game, get someone who understand numbers on the team

Failure of recruitment, this. Or possibly trust. The Dewhurst Number is about as canonical as it gets here. So, we wanted genuine risk of death in the Arena, but got the numbers wrong in the first couple of games. The Dewhurst number was the chances of a Greek on-kit Hopilite living through an event, and it was too low to begin with. Given I am in possession of a copy of Excel – I really could have seen that coming, but…  Quintessence – one of the resources in the game, the source of magical power, was intended to be a source of competition, between the unpredictable sacrifice to the gods and a possible blessing as part of the consequences of that roleplay, or the lower power but formulaic philosophy with its occasional world-changing greater mysteries. Another conflict, and one I am not sure I got right when I was writing greater mysteries in particular. Coulda also got someone who knows about numbers closer in to the rules design.

6. Give the creatives better aircover.

It’s astonishingly hard to do this in an age of social media, but in the feedback, amongst all the gems, there will be that which simply isn’t helpful. You can either manage that out, or let it all get through and watch morale and productivity drop for no good reason. It is always worth trying harder on that. Mea culpa.

7. Make the minimum ruleset.

Our rules did OK. I still love our Impale, even though we got screamed at for OP’ing Archers at the time, I think it held up pretty well. Armour-is-just-hits seemed to work given any larp combat system is just an abstraction. Attendants had a stack of flavour, and I think a lot of fun too. However; I think there were skills the game could have done without, in that they didn’t really add much: varying priest skills, the physician skill, maybe weapon skills for Champions…

8. Support the refs more

As well as thinking rules through so that stuff which is harder to ref. doesn’t hit the book, let alone the field – it’s worth trying harder to support the brave volunteers who have what I think it’s the hardest job in a larp game – policing the system. Yes, I’m thinking about Strikedown specifically, but even games with no rules – and arguably, especially games with no rules – have this. Coulda done more.

9. Get a mechanic in.

Now, I am not one for game balance in larp rulesets really, but I could have put more effort into thinking about the varying flavours of quint and their power when I wrote the first set of Greater Mysteries. Instead, I just defined some flavour for them and worked from there. Could have usefully got someone in who understood numbers (See above), or a rules lawyer into to just say which flavour they’d choose – or even worked from actual statistics as to how many philosophers picked which flavour, which is what I’d do now.

10. Names have power.

Warleaders. Shoulda called them “politicans”, and had fewer complaints that they weren’t as good in a fight as champions. So close: they were senators in Rome, and if they’d been called similarly political names elsewhere, all would have been fine, I think. Or ripped’em up and re-thought that bit of the game – but “One ruler, one city” held up pretty well as a game mechanic, I think.

I’m stopping at a conveniently round number. I’m sure pretty much everyone has their own list, but that’s mine. I’m not 100% sure actual implementation of all of this is even possible. Think of it as an “aspirational” list…

Post script:

11. That thing I wish we’d done, that we were right not to, I *think*…

I’ve wanted to run a game based on ageing – like the original Odyssey, as it happened – for a while. In retrospect, I think we *were* right not to make Annuals happen on the Olympic cycle, but by golly what an opportunity to run a game over 52 IC years, and let anyone who wished to opt-in to actually ageing, actually age, roleplay a dynasty, etc, and anyone who didn’t, hand-wave it to some godly blood somewhere in their veins or something. Ah, well.

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