“…In all the time I was walking I only saw one other person.”
“You saw someone else?” said Sir Walter.
“Oh, yes! At least I think it was a person. I saw a shadow moving along a white road that crossed the dark moor. You must understand that I was upon the bridge at the time and it was much higher than any bridge I have ever seen in this world. The ground appeared to be several thousand feet beneath me. I looked down and saw someone. If I had not been so set upon finding Drawlight, I would certainly have found a way down and followed him or her, for it seems to me that there could be no better way for a magician to spend his time than in conversation with such a person.”
When I first read Susanna Clarke’s book, I found it a little overwhelming. There is so much of it, and it is full of footnotes, and hints about stories that remain untold. What captured me, in the end, was that sense of depth. The quote above made the hairs on my arms stand up, and just thinking about it sends a shiver through me.
When I read it a second time, it all started to make sense. It isn’t padded out with extra words – everything is full of meaning, and the footnotes tell stories that the protagonists cannot. I intended to start taking notes (at the time, I was thinking about playing, not crewing), but I soon gave up, and just enjoyed reading it.
In the summer, I offered to work on the newspaper, but nothing else. At some point, Terry gave me wiki access, and my involvement started to grow. It might seem surprising now, but I was just some guy, offering to write stuff. I’m always full of opinions, and I voiced a few of them very gently, but most of the time, I focused on in-character (IC) documents, and didn’t really change anything that was already in progress.
It was intellectually stimulating. Freed from concerns about writing rules, or organising the plot, I was able to focus on making the world feel as real as possible. The source material is literature, the subject material is literature, and I was working on IC literature. Those copious footnotes were copied, and turned into IC documents, and a few passages of text were modified to make them IC. There was a lot of it, but I soon ran out.
Then I started to make lists, and credit goes to ‘The Library at Hurtfew’ wiki, from which I was able to harvest even more information. Lists of magicians, lists of spells, lists of books of magic. At this point, I was looking to actually write some documents of my own, but I wanted things to be coherent.
I don’t know if I used the phrase then, but I started to “weave back in”. If something was in the book, or already on our in-house wiki, then it was canon. I avoided adding anything else, and tried to connect things together – look for similarities, and assume no coincidences (William of Lanchester and Thomas Lanchester are obviously related, right?).
That’s not to say that I wasn’t being creative. As I worked up the list of named spells (and un-named magics), an idea started to form. A passage in the book made it suddenly clear (I won’t tell you which one). I had a cosmological model for the world, which corresponded to the source material. That’s not to say that my cosmology is the same as Susanna Clarke’s cosmology, but it was drawn from concepts that are described over and over again, in the book.
Those concepts are now written into the game. From that point onwards, everything I wrote reflected the cosmology, and I started to get involved in the plot – if only to ensure that everything was cosmologically consistent.
It wasn’t my first time creating a cosmological model – Carum had a solid model, which had infographics and everything, but the struggle was connecting an abstract model with the experiences of the players – making it possible to observe, experiment, and predict outcomes.
I think we’re most of the way there, with Strange LRP. It is possible to play a cosmological theorist, and not just be making it up. That has required a lot of control-freakery on my part – ensuring that the descriptions are consistent, and most importantly, that NPCs know what to say. I hope that it provides some of the depth that the book contains.
Anyway, plot. I had some concerns about plot. It works like this: Everyone is planning to run a player-led larp, but not everyone knows how to do it. As an organiser, the instinct is to think about what is going to happen – why else would you be planning, if you weren’t thinking about what is going to happen? Consequently, everything becomes linear, because things happen in linear time, and you want to tell a story. A, then B, then C.
People like narratives. I think they need narratives. So A, B, and C need to be connected. If there is a problem with B, then it has to be fixed to maintain the connection between A and C. There are points of potential failure, and usually, there are right and wrong ways to play the narrative.
If an organiser is in total control of what everyone is doing, then that can be made to work, but really, organisers have very little control of what the players do. It’s also very hard to schedule personal plot for 25 players over 40 hours. Therefore the plot tends to be planned to entertain several people, often several random people, and at the end of the weekend, some lucky people have done several things, while others have done no things.
In that kind of scenario, the players can’t be given agency, because they will undermine the plot. Agency is the destroyer of control. When I started larping, everything felt very controlled, and it drove me crazy. Maelstrom was an awakening for my ideas about larp design, but I already had some instinctive ideas about interaction. Some of them are long abandoned, but others have stayed with me for 20 years.
Characters are particles, and interaction is energy. If two characters interact, that interaction triggers more characters to interact, and create a chain reaction. Characters might have static powers (eg. I am a Wild Magician), and dynamic powers (eg. Someone stole all my spell scrolls!). I like dynamic powers, because it means that characters can go from rags to riches, and back again, in a short space of time. Dynamic powers are also unpredictable, and therefore, the enemy of control.
Imagine, if you will, a plot that requires certain important objects, but someone wanders off with the critical component. The plot must now be fixed, so that it works without the component. Therefore the objects can’t contain any dynamic power, because they are attached to the resolution of the plot, which will resolve without them. There isn’t much that a player can do with that – they now have a useless item, and the plot completes without them.
This is simplistic. In practice, very few larps are truly linear. Usually, they progress along branching pathways – ie. it doesn’t matter if the critical component goes missing, because we have worked out some alternative endings for the larp. That’s better in some ways, but there will often be more than one plot, and without considerable work, getting the branching plot strands to interact can be difficult.
Faced with this, my instinctive reaction has always been to abandon control. I thought, back in the day, that I hated plot and narrative, but I have learned to love them, with certain caveats:
- Plot is interesting stuff that could happen. Predicting the outcome makes it less interesting.
- Narrative is something that the player creates retroactively, and the organiser can’t do it for them.
- Given enough agency, players will provide their own plot, and draw other players into it.
- Agency rests on a foundation of consistency – the larp should not be predictable, but the players should be able to make reasonable predictions. The world can’t change at the whim of the organiser.
Despite the linearity of the Event 1 plot, the overall design of the game provided a solid platform for developing agency, which really kicked in at Event 2. We wanted to run some set pieces, but we made sure that they were interesting in their own right, and not interconnected with other set pieces. We had a high failure rate for set pieces at that event, but none of them adversely affected the game overall (except for the dancing, which in hindsight, was far more important).
For Event 3, we took that even further – we planned a handful of set pieces that we wanted to run, and then did the rest ad hoc, during the event. More on that next time.