In the UK, there is a long tradition of ‘fest’ games. Larp games of this sort are designed for hundreds of players in a continuing campaign, with the majority of significant interactions expected to be between player character and player character, rather than between player character and non-player character.
Odyssey was a fest game set in a time of classical myth. Its finale was in August 2016, after a run of thirteen events, each for hundreds of players, over seven years.
(Image by Charlie Moss www.larpimages.com)
Odyssey started with a welcome:
“Alexander of Macedon, he whom you called Great, is dead.” … “He will be remembered as one who challenged the gods and failed. His armies, his leadership and his skill at war were not enough even when combined with stolen magic and alliances with hidden powers.”
Ian Andrews et al, Game background
The background to the game held that Alexander’s conquests had been the wars of a deicide, and at his last battle gods had been brought to combat. After their victory, the gods struck a deal with the Fates to restrict future mortal combat to an arena on Atlantis, brought back from the waves for the purpose.
“Each year, the heroes of the civilized lands would fight: territory and wealth the reward for heroic deeds. To each of these Annuals, the gods would call the best and the brightest: priests, warleaders, champions and philosophers. In arena combat, in quest, in deeper understanding of the magics of the world, and in the presence of the gods themselves would be born the legends of the Age of Heroes.”
Ian Andrews et al, Game background
The arena was to solve the central tension of the system in game design terms: we wished to encourage player vs player conflict and also deliver impactful story arcs for our player characters. We wished conflict to be meaningful; every fight in the arena had some concrete advantage on conquest, and many also had deep significance to the wider story. Character death, and specifically unexpected character death was, we felt, necessary to the drama of such stories, but would have most impact if it happened rarely. As it was, the genre of classical myth meant that some characters could return from the dead, and it took some time before we managed the balance of peril and survival to our satisfaction.
The arena was one of a triptych of obviously available levers player characters had to affect the world: the others being the magic the game named philosophy, and carefully managed meetings with the gods. Access to philosophy and the gods were restricted by player choice of “path”2; only priests could meet their gods, and only philosophers enter the place where the raw material of magic was most available, just as only champions and war leaders could enter the arena to fight. This restriction was intended to encourage interaction and therefore roleplay: no one character could do everything they might need to, so they had to negotiate to achieve their goals, and the rare opportunities for a character to do what others of their kind could not were prized.
These player-accessible levers were also part of the armoury of the story team, who additionally spun dozens of narrative strands per event though non-player characters and organiser-delivered quests. A key experience of Odyssey as a crew member was the ever-changing dance of roles which would start the game as a schedule, and end only recognisable as characters’ narratives of the event distilled from the bare ingredients of plot. This submission records that experience.
“I dreamt I was an Egyptian cultist, or a mad Roman cannibal. Perhaps it was a Carthaginian ghost, memories lost to time. I was an Ushabti, called to the arena to fight. I think I was a husk, called to guard a fleece, and I was the Persian wraith who abhorred the light. Was I the man the Souk killed? Did I guard a false god, or two or more? Did I die worshipping the Aten, as clouds rolled over the sky? Was I a maenad, drunk on gore, or a shepherd, helping the cyclops guard his flock? You should know: you killed me. And I loved every minute of it.”
Anonymised crew member’s submission
The game was about the battle between nations, gods and monsters. It was not a game of authentic history: player characters came from five and later seven nations: Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome at game-start, with Hellas Phoenicia and the Platonic Republic of Humanity emerging in play. As we said at the start of the game, “ History has been used just as much as Homer and Harryhausen to create the world of Odyssey, and we recommend that players take the same broad approach to find the most fun in the game.”
By the end of the campaign, nations were being subsumed by nations, gods were dying at the hands of player characters, and player characters were taking the mantle of monster themselves, some to the point of ascension to their own divinity, some choosing to lay their monstrousness down to return to a mortal existence. At the last event, nearly 400 plot threads helped 300 players to bring their individual narratives within the world of Odyssey to a conclusion.
This paper uses 48 short stories of characters from the game to draw assumptions as to the themes and design choices players found engaging. In addition, it attempts some conclusions about how we tell stories about our characters. Players and crew submitted these stories as 100-word “drabbles”.
The core of the questionnaire was six questions.
- What is your memory?
- What was your character’s name at the time?
- How would you describe them?
- What nation was your character part of at the time?
- Can you link your memory to a particular event?
- Why did you choose that memory?
Name, nation and event
People who responded to the call for stories submitted 48 in total, on behalf of 33 player characters. The stories featured characters from all 7 of the cultures which appeared in the game – Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Hellas Phoenicia, Persia, Rome, and the Platonic Republic of Humanity. Only one event inspired not a single story, even though the stories were recorded between event 12 and the present. The stories in their raw form can be found at https://larpx.wordpress.com/2016/10/09/odyssey-stories-guest-post-by-many-hands/
What is your memory?
The form asked for the words a player would want their character to have in the epic of the age in “a paragraph, a drabble, 100 words or so.” It said that submissions might be a moment in the player’s character’s story, or perhaps a story about someone else. The stories we tell about our characters can illustrate the success of design choices, the resonance of themes, and the collaborative effort of larp.
It’s more difficult to read failure out of stories: we received feedback from players that illustrated when they felt our choices had been the wrong choices, or implemented poorly. Like – I would imagine – any larp organiser we have a store of decisions we should have made differently at the time, or would make differently now. It is more difficult to surface issues like those through the medium of stories submitted by players about their characters.
Stories from game design
Success in terms of our game design choices would be stories inspired by the levers of the game world: the arena, the magics of philosophy and meetings with the gods.
The stories players have submitted suggested foam sword combat did succeed in inspiring emotional investment in our events. This story of the arena indicates it helped tell the kinds of stories we intended it to inspire:
“We form up, those few heroes hurriedly gathered facing off against the legions of the accursed iksander. I stand there Lion have taken a city by myself the previous day, Romans and Persians stand by my side united by a common cause. King Minos announce out our names and deeds before the overflowing stands and we are loved by those of faith from all across the middle sea. It does not matter if we lose we were there when no one else would stand against the heretics!”
Kaveh, of Persia.
“King Minos” in that story is a non-player character, part of a team who ran the arena and aimed to help people use it to tell precisely those kinds of stories; short, sharp moments of meaningful battle. Our intent was that the arena should become a place of roleplaying as much as a place of combat, and indeed that the two would be as indistinguishable as possible. This pair of stories, from a Carthaginian and the one after from a Roman, indicates that we had moments of success.
“First Annual, facing off alone against the (10?) Romans of House Praxis in the Arena for a Territory battle. Convincing the Roman Commander to face me in 1-1 combat. When defeated he refused to let his men beat the crap out of me and took the defeat with good grace (`course as a Carthaginian I cheated and had an artifact weapon). Without which, as he was the far better swordsman and I would have lost.” Marathak Du`rane of Carthage.
“One warleader and four champions enter the arena, and see that there are A Lot of Carthaginians lining up. The warleader walks forwards and suggest we fight five, then five, etc… They are not willing to deal. We spread out, and as they charge, we strike our shields in defiance.”
Ridea, gobby priest of Mercury (champion at the time of this incident)
I find it difficult to conceive of two stories that might better indicate the difference between Rome and Carthage in the setting and the roleplay of the players. That honour, that trickery.
Often, such stories were played out on quest as much as in the main field. Our quests were designed to be ‘leaner’ moments to remember, rather than padded 10-encounter “linears”. Short-sharp-fun. It is a tribute to how well these worked that the most renowned warband of the Age chose to finish their time at Odyssey on quest, rather than in the arena.
I can’t imagine a story that better illustrates how arena, quest, and magic knitted together than this; a tragedy worthy of the setting emerging because mechanics used by various players for various reasons collided with one character’s’ story to tragic end.
“What’s this sword you need?”
“The wedding sword of Alexander, the sword he got before he got married.”
“If I get it, can I get married? To you?”
“Um… Yes. Get the sword. Retake Corinth. Defend Athens. Then we will marry.”
I go on the quest, my only quest since I swore never to kill. We get the sword.
I join the Lakodaemons, to fight to retake Corinth. We succeed.
I fight in the Battle for Athens, skirmishing behind the line. We win.
We are united, briefly, in joy as she rushes into the Arena and my arms after Athens stands. Then she needs to go back to Corinth. She will return, she promises.
But the World Forge breaks, Corinth vanishes, and so does she.”
Blood of Hellas Phoenicia, born Senef of Egypt. Desperately seeking a place in the world, something to fill the void of emptiness after his resurrection. Found it in the companionship of Hellas Phoenicia, and wanted to secure that with a marriage. But it all went wrong…
That last story is the one that comes closest to mentioning the specific activity of manipulating the “World Forge”, a mechanism and mechanic inherent to the practise of magic in the game. Although magic is mentioned, and the effects and choices made by those who practised it are mentioned, the mechanism is not. That’s an indication that it wasn’t entirely successful, a weak piece of design.
The stories of magic come from the roleplay of those who used it, rather than from the mechanism itself. An example would be this, indicating that the use of magic also gave rise of stories inspired by memorable moments.
“Sikanderstops speaking, and before the minoans move on, I step forwards, almost as in a dream. Knife. Palm. A sudden blossoming of pain. The words come tumbling forth, in one great release of the boy I was, dreaming of wizardry, and a birth of the man I must become.
“”I AM LYSANDROS OF SIKANDERGUL, CHIEF PHILOSOPHER TO PLATO’S REPUBLIC OF HUMANITY, WHO SHEARED THE GOLDEN RAM. I CLAIM NOW MY ONE WISH. I WISH FOR THE PIVOT OF THE WORLD RESTORED, WHOLE AND NEW, AS IT WAS IN THE START OF ALL THINGS!””
…and like that it is done. Why am I not weeping?”
Lysandros the Student, an orphan of Sikandergul, become Philosopher to Sikander himself, of the Platonic Republic of Humanity
The design of Odyssey’s god audiences worked better than that of the World Forge. Audiences were strictly rationed and access gated – quite literally for the characters involved, as they had to travel to see a god at a particular time, to an off-field location. This increased their impact by making the experience easier to control. Lighting, sound effects, physical effects were all used in a tightly controlled environment. The reason for the choice of this story, “Exclusive god-audiences are always a bit special.”, indicates this was a successful design choice.
“I came before Athena; all the Hellas Phoenician priests had failed to attend, but reshaped by Jupiter I could stand before her and not perish. I tried to convince her to come to Rome. She suggested I was making a bid at courtship; I mentioned that I had just seen the Titan of Love. “There is no love in Hellas Phoenicia,” she told me, and more than ever I pitied the gods.”
Amafinius, Roman priest and patriot, with wisdom born of bitter experience and terrible error.
Meeting the gods was an opportunity to be awed which players bought into.
Stories from campaign themes
Success in terms of our themes would be stories submitted of the battle between nations, gods and monsters.
The stories of Carthaginian and Roman play in the arena cited above speak to the effectiveness of the theme of conflict of nations in generating narrative.
Gods were central to the theme of the game – their nature, their personalities, and roles as inspirers of action and seemingly unconquerable antagonists taken straight from classical myth. A favourite quote from the system came from a Greek; “Ares is a c***”. That story from Amafinius, shows that for all the frustration the gods gave rise to, they did their job in the campaign.
The following two stories illustrate the tension between monster and mortal, a tension we aimed to explore:
“Taking the difficult decision to give up my immortality and N’Hru abilities, because I wanted to pass onto the fields of Reeds with my friends when I died and because Egypt’s Gods didn’t approve of my transformation. But we still had need of the power of an N’Hru in the arena. Thankfully a certain fish containing Osiris’ phallus appeared on a quest with the ability to restore life among other things.”
Nassor, of Egypt.
“My touch brings pain to the flesh of others, their flinch from me a reminder of what I am now. Ifreet. Fire-borne. I am no longer mortal flesh and blood. Yet as I let my hand trail in the flames of the camp fire, I feel the echo of a touch that does not flinch from me. Passion ignites as the flames dance along my fingers. In a beautiful irony I shiver in anticipation of feeling Her touch again, my wife, Queen of the Ifreet. Adara”
“But I also remember why I have done this. I remember for whom. I remember every person who has reached for me regardless of the pain I cause. I remember my husband and love, Asim. “
Yes, I am lost to Fire, but they are worth it.”
Ziba Nasrin, of Persia.
Stories from collaborative narrative
Success as a larp, defined as a collaborative effort between organisers and players to produce compelling narratives, would be stories that emerged from neither theme nor mechanics, but from setting and story.
This, from Rome, shows how an arc inherent in the setting came to end at the final event of the campaign. That tension in Roman history; a republic rejecting monarchy, and then falling into rule by one, was played out in our game also.
“Romans pack out the Minoan senate room, some bent over the huge table, faces expectant in the low candle light. Alexa’s skin is charged. One way or another, this is the moment. The climax of everything she has worked towards for years. She seeks out the faces of her allies, her family, her friends. Senator Priscus reads the senate proclamation. The results of the motion that she and Ticus put to the senate hours earlier. The gamble. “Let it be known that the people and the Senate of Rome support the appointment of Craigus Tempus Bavarious to the position of Dictator.” Finally, it is done.”
Marcella Alexa Praxis, High Priest of Mars, Triumvir of Rome
A fittingly final example of such is this, from the player who towards the end of the campaign took on the challenge of portraying as a player character the central personality of the background: Alexander of Macedon. For me, this story resonates because it clearly defines a motivation, and that motivation could have been taken straight from classical myth.
“Once there was a man named Hephaestion. He was brave, and clever, and bright as the sun.
I loved him. He was too good for me. I was a thug with a spear. He was a scholar and a poet who dreamed of a better world.
I was betrayed. I ran mad. I did terrible things. I died.
He sacrificed everything to restore me.
He believed that humanity could be better. That we could rise above our fate and forge a new destiny.
He believed in freedom. He died for it.
Now he is gone. I must finish his work.”
Alexander of Macedon
How would you describe your character?
Respondents described their characters in terms of how they looked, thought; in terms of their profession, their nation, and how they thought. Two thirds of all submissions included the one of the specific terms used in the rules for professions. This usage formed the core of a short character description, rather than its totality, but it seems to indicate the rules shaped people’s perception of their characters. Three examples of Romans illustrate this: “Gobby priest of Mercury (champion at the time of this incident)”, “Utterly devoted priest of Rome”, or a “Roman priest and patriot, with wisdom born of bitter experience and terrible error.”.
Rules affect how people tell their characters’ stories.
Why did you choose that memory?
In the interests of keeping the questionnaire short, only one question was posed regarding motivation for selection, and that only asked for a free-text answer: “Why did you choose that memory?” I think, however, that it is possible to draw some themes out of the submissions.
Seventeen of the stories are described as “character-defining” in some way – either explicitly using some variant of the word “defining”, or using some other form of words. This example gives “It was the night that changed the character utterly and led to his death” as the reason for choosing the story:
“Everything felt more real since I drank from the cup, I felt flooded with wonder and longing for everything new and forbidden, the thrill of Dionysus’s stroke on my face, the sweet taste of the champion’s flesh as it slaked a hunger like I’d never known, the sweet smell of his blood flooding my nostrils, the music of his screams as we ate feasted on his still living flesh…”
Theokratos, of Greece, an up to this point reserved and aloof priest of Poseidon
The stories we tell are often those when a character changes, or is defined in some other way.
Eight are concerned with groups – either bands of characters, or nations. This from Rome:
“We enter the arena, and I deliberately step forward, distancing myself from what will come. It is only afterwards that I hear the clamour, “What have you done?” and “The Ducks have murdered Gaius”. I take a deep breath, arrange my features into shock, “What has happened Septimus? Of what am I accused?”.
Q. Servilia Poppaea, a Roman senator, champion, tribune, politician at Event 9 – Dweller of the Deeps
This from Egypt, at “a point where Egypt were at our lowest ebb and marks when we started to turn it around.” exemplifies the crossover between the personal and the national story.
“Sutekh demanded that Egypt should obtain The Black Sarcophagus. It was held by a nation three times our size and many felt the request was impossible. Morale was low and we were on the verge of giving up, or pleading with Sutekh for a reprieve. Then we suddenly snapped and decided to make the effort, no matter how impossible it seemed. It was a defining moment for our small nation that we would always fight to win and to obey our gods, never mind the odds.”
Ramses, Keeper of the Goats, of Egypt, at Event 3 – Claws of the Tide King
The stories we tell are are often about how our character is part of a wider narrative, built around groups of characters.
Many of the stories people have chosen to tell speak of emotion, but four identifiably and specifically centre on this aspect. This one notes the physical aspect of the experience:
“… I felt genuine fear and heartbreak, a sign of the level of immersion that this campaign has given me and oh my god has it been emotional.”
“The cold and damp wooden slats of the arena pressed hard against my back as a God who I didn’t believe in or care about – other than the fact they had decided to eat one of my Gods – stared me down and laughed as I begged for my life. The guilt that came from being the only Persians to come back from that without a curse or time limit.”
Laleh, Daughter Of Artaxes, of Persia.
It is, of course, particularly pleasing to terrify your players and their characters if you’re aiming at fear, and the player who submitted this story did so with the comment “Waking to hear the Sirens drag an unfortunate to his doom was one of the most terrifying moments I never saw at an event. I hid under my blanket”. While there was an out of character sleeping area, one of the design choices of Odyssey was to impose a 24-hr live experience on players who chose to sleep in the game field. It is fair to say that this imposed a duty of sleeplessness on some of the organising crew that we’d not necessarily choose again, when sleep deprivation worked as a means of immersing the players in the world, it worked extraordinarily well.
“I lay sleepless on my bed that evening, the booming voice of Melqart still echoing in my thoughts.
I must have dosed for I awoke to darkness outside and a despairing wail in the middle distance.
“Don’t go with them Tribune!” a wavering Roman voice called from a small distance off. A faint snatch of music, high voices singing a haunting, alluring, receding harmony. “Don’t listen Tribune! Block your ears!” The eerie singing slowly faded to nothing. “Tribune!” Sobbing. Silence.”
Adonibaal of Tyre of Carthage
The strongest stories we tell are about emotions experienced, as much as they are about the character or player.
Four give a reason related to the impact a moment had on the player. Two of these reasons are worth quoting directly. The first of these I think marks a moment in a player’s experience of larp as a past-time through a design choice to maximise immersion wherever possible:
“The memory of that event still effects me to this day and it was the first time I had been properly immersed so much so that I cried and couldn’t stop myself from feeling that way.”
“She looked down at the body, the goddess laying beside her, blood mixed with quint. She hadn’t expected her to die, the huntress who had struck the killing blow to her Father, Anu, now she was as weak and scared as any human. Adrinna had took her dagger as she told her priests she didn’t want to be wasted and they devoured her body, the heart ripped out and the blood bottled. Every piece of her in use, as she wished. She felt numb as she walked out of the map room and in a daze walked to the Blades tent, dripping in her goddess’ blood and then she sank to her knees and yelled a cry so primal and guttural and held onto the the quint that was her goddess.”
Adrinna of The Blades, of Persia.
The second, speaks to a design choice implemented and recognised; that our players should have the opportunity to feel like heroes:
“It was the time Odyssey made me feel most like a big kick ass hero. I’d done a lot of non-physical being awesome stuff (because odc made everyone feel awesome) but this was a chance where I was allowed to feel awesome for my physical skills (as limited as they were).”
“It is midnight and I have been challenged to pass a test to rise up the ranks within the cult of Mithras. I’m wearing armour and carrying a shield that i can only lift due to philosophy. My friends are not allowed to watch me, they are not high enough within the cult. I’m armed only with a dagger. It is a Minotaur of course, it strikes me down again and again but, eventually, I beat it. Only a handful of minoans and the high ranking Mater saw it. I can’t think of another game where I’d have the chance to feel like such a big damn hero.”
Hester Vidius, Utterly devoted priest of Rome
The stories we tell can be about ourselves as much as they are about our characters.
As I had expected, some of the stories that players submitted were of events I observed and remember, and some had become part of the fabric of the campaign as it ran. Many were new, and of more private or internal moments.
What I had not expected was themes and design choices to shine quite so clearly through the stories that were submitted. That led me to categorise the stories and use that categorisation to consider where we’d been successful and where we’d not. My measure of success was simple. If a theme turned up in a story – then it’s resonated in a player’s experience and that’s a success. If a design choice, a mechanic perhaps, showed up – then it had worked. This is hardly academic rigour, but I think there’s something to using a more sophisticated implementation of the approach in genuinely evaluating the success and failures of writers’ and organisers’ choices. One refinement would be for an organiser to come up with the list of categories, but for a third party to do the categorisation. It is a little circular: you might expect the majority of the event plot to concern the campaign themes, and for most stories to be about what was most often featured in plot. In the case of Odyssey, the arena was a wooden structure 25 metres by 14 metres and 5 meters tall in the middle of the game field, where player characters fought every half hour during the hours of daylight, every event. You’d expect some stories about it. However, as an organiser, it’s gratifying to read stories of those themes and choices emerge alongside those generated more from interactions based on players’ characterisation.
My reason for playing and running larp events is to generate stories to share afterwards: to “froth”, to use the UK term. Summing the reasons given for submissions up in a word cloud, there’s a sentence fragment that stands out: “one character defining moment”. I think any of the Odyssey team would be happy with that as the output of the campaign: stories with character defining moments.