Designing for competence (Designers’ hour, Knutepunkt 2021)

Kat Quatermass spotted that Søren Lyng Ebbehøj was looking for speakers who’d thought about designing for competence at Knutepunkt this year. The Wing and a Prayer team certainly had. I couldn’t be there in person, but wrote a script and made a quick recording of it. Søren was kind enough to accept it…

This was the session pitch “In many larps, players carry out tasks on behalf of their characters: steer spaceships, perform on stage, build stuff. And most characters are supposed to be competent. However, precious few of us – players – are seasoned space pilots, burlesque performers or brick layers. So how do we design for the players to feel competent at alien tasks – and how do we level the playing field for players with and without real life skills in the area? In the Designers’ Hour, a group of 6-8 designers will discuss their approaches to designing for incompetent players simulating competent characters.”

This is the recording I sent over. I managed to get the name of the larp wrong, but there it is.

Follows the script…

Wing and a Prayer

Allied Games, 2018, 2019

What was the larp about?

Wing and a Prayer was a larp about the lives of Women’s Auxiliary Air Force personnel during the Battle of Britain in World War Two. The concept was Lauren Owen’s:  We ran twice, in 2018 and 2019, at Stow Maries, an WW1 RAF aerodrome. We did have male RAF characters, from a variety of countries, but fundamentally we were about the female experience. 

What type of skill was to be simulated?

Our WAAF characters ran a sector control room; operating simulated  radar equipment and receiving other reports of enemy activity, filtering all that information into an accurate impression of the movements of enemy aircraft, and from that model, decide how allied squadrons should respond. Our RAF characters played their parts over comms channels: they needed no simulated skills, simply to roleplay responses to the situations they found themselves in, the results of the WAAF characters’ actions.

How did you think about the design?

Our design took what was essentially a dry set of operating rules and explored how real human beings reacted when they were the cogs in that process. We followed three precepts:

  • Test ahead of time. Our game designer Nick Bradbeer used a prototype system in another, smaller game to explore the design, and in rehearsal with some of the game team to check we understood the concepts involved. Between the two runs of the larp, we tweaked our training to make it less complex for individuals who only had to understand part of the whole system.
  • Use historical truth. The system we were simulating was historically designed to be fault-tolerant, with multiple checks and controls, and to be operated by normal people. We didn’t entirely stick to historical fact, but when we were unfaithful to it, we were so consciously. 
  • Make competence opt-in. The plot set a scene of women thrown together to replace a bombed sector control room staff. Characters could come as experts, or as new recruits

What did you end up with?

  • An out-of-game design document which explained how the system worked, and an out-of-game training session for the players before the event started. 
  • In-game training for the WAAF characters, where their commander handed each of them an in-game booklet which explained the system in a format characters could always have to hand. 
  • A rising and falling curve of intensity for enemy action, allowing players and characters to learn, and then apply their learning as the story progressed.

How did it work?

Our developer Thorsten Schillo wrote the code which simulated the entire Luftwaffe, their plans and locations, the RAF, and ships at sea. This simulation was our truth. 

Yes, we had story elements: the un-wed mother arriving to confront the father of the baby she had in her arms, deliveries from home underlining class differences: a humble apple cake, vs a packed Fortnum’s hamper, but the core was the simulation. Simulated skills delivering emotional impact.

The event climax was explained out-of-game in the de-brief as intentionally overwhelming. Our last scene ended with our event manager Liss Macklin singing a minor-key version of the song “Wing and a Prayer” recorded by writer Ian Thomas, and writer Harry Harrold reading the casualties of the day. The event wrapped with a video putting the Blitz in the context of the wider war, interleaving stories of casualties from all nations.

We saw how people reacted to the strains and stresses of being caught up in a system, and how the system responded to their emotions and feelings. RAF characters played out the consequences of the WAAF’s decisions. WAAF characters heard pilots’ triumphs, frustrations and, in some cases, their last words over a live communications link. Those voices belonged to people they’d shared dinner and danced with. This emotional impact made Wing and a Prayer more than a dry simulation, something that couldn’t be achieved in another medium.

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