The Learning Curve: The Devil Box.December 14, 2010
“The Devil Box” was only the second LARP I had written. While I had a few years of experience writing once offs for conventions, LARPs were new to me. And LARPs are quite a different animal to write than a pen-and-paper adventure.
I had a lot to learn. (Tangent: “I had a lot to learn” strikes me as a phrase I’m going to use in reference to my younger self on a pretty consistent basis for the rest of my life. I would be quite surprised if I ever have cause to write “I totally had it all figured out back then.” There’s always a lot to learn. ) Looking back, writing and running the Devil Box taught me a few really useful things about LARP writing, some of which are reflected in the revised writeup.
At the time of writing, I conceived a LARP as a simple social situation, with events being driven entirely by the characters reacting to that basic situation. I still largely work from that basis, but there was something vital I was missing, or at least not consciously addressing.
LARPs are three hours long, on average. That’s quite a long time for a social situation to continue to be interesting, given that the players are not good friends meeting in the pub for a chat. And because players are um… playing characters… conversation doesn’t flow casually and naturally, rife with small talk and useless detail to pad the conversation. They don’t have that personal store of anecdotes and such that real people use to expand conversations to many hours. (Though good players can fabricate those and give a character a real sense of depth… maybe more on that another time.)
This requires you to do one of two things – run short or shake things up. (Tangent: Ending a LARP before the slot is over is not a terrible thing. But there actually will be more on that in another post, because that was a lesson from another time) The Devil Box had its voting rounds every 30 minutes, but they were (planned to be) all the same. If I’d run the game as written, it would have stagnated.
LARPs respond particularly well to improvisation and making stuff up on the fly. It’s relatively hard to do that in pen and paper games (particularly those with systems that require some forethought for encounters) but in LARPs it’s as easy as speaking to the room. You can monitor the mood and add some spice to the mix when it looks like character interactions or player enthusiasm is on the wane. It was as these points that I came up with the “Shocking Twists” part of the writeup that is linked to in the sidebar. I saw that the basic voting was getting stale. My plan was failing. I had written a bland game… Unless I acted on the fly. I suddenly re-inserted a voted off character back into the game, and it certainly threw some players’ plans for a loop.
The second thing I learned: Trust your players. They will often have better ideas than you do. Always give their ideas some thought, even it they were ideas you didn’t plan on or even planned to disallow. In a LARP, your job as a writer is to create a situation in which your players’ creativity can flourish. More than any other type of RPG, I try to push the notion of the GM power of “no” to the back of my head. “Yes” is more effective. (I’m starting to sound a bit Motivational Speaker here) Take their ideas, give them a quick polish or modification, and run with it!
In this case, the system of essence bribery stemmed from the players themselves, and it fueled the best run in the LARP, with intrigue, rising stakes and counter-bribery galore. It was one of those “I wish I’d thought of that” moments because it fit so perfectly with the premise.
These lessons were important ones for me. The take home points:
1) Make sure you plan a couple of “shake things up” bits – format changes, unexpected events, or leaking secrets to other players.
2) No plan survives contact with the players, so expect to improvise. Nay, look forward to improvising.
3) Trust your players to come up with great stuff you hadn’t thought of and build on it.