Alleged Entertainment

Stepping Stones: Scene-Based Games at Alleged Entertainment

Alleged Entertainment (or, at any rate, a certain subset of it) debuted our new game Resonance back in March.  We've also recently started work on our next big project, A Garden of Forking Paths.  In order to tell their respective stories, both of these games use very unconventional, scene-based structures1.

For the purposes of this essay, I'll define a scene-based LARP as one in which gameplay is split up into a series of short scenes.  There are many different types of scene-based LARPs out there, and we have written in a few of those styles.

First off: why use an unusual structure in a LARP at all?  Why not stick with well-tested best practices that we know work?  Well, because it's fun to experiment!  Perhaps a better reason, however, is that unusual structures are helpful for telling types of stories that would be difficult to express in the LARP medium otherwise.  We've been on a track of experimentation involving scene-based games for a few years now.

At the beginning of my LARPing career, it would have been difficult for me to imagine playing in a game like Resonance, let alone writing one.  Thus, it's interesting to take a look back at how we got here, and where we're hoping to go now.  Along the way, I'll explain how the scene-based structures help serve the narrative ends of each game.

10 Bad LARPs

We didn't know it at the time, but it turned out that 10 Bad LARPs in 100 Bad Minutes was our gateway drug to full-blown experimental storytelling in LARPs.  It helped lay the groundwork for the mechanics we ended up using later on in our more serious games.

The premise of 10 Bad LARPs is simple: you come up with a bunch of horrific, offensive, terrible-on-their-face LARP ideas.  Ones that would obviously never work as full-length games.  Then you run them for 10 minutes each, back-to-back, as a sort of absurd comedic anthology.

Honestly, when Susan and I came up with the idea for this game (at 4 in the morning), we didn't know if it was going to work.  But it was 4 in the morning, and it was bid basically before Susan knew it.  On reflection, we figured it would be a Sunday morning game at a con, and at worst, we'd have a failed experiment from an interesting idea.  So we set out writing this monstrosity - we just split up the bad game ideas 50/50, and wrote them mostly independently.  We ended up bringing on another writer, Greer Hauptman, towards the end, in order to finish the home stretch of games.

Really, though, a lot of the credit for making 10 Bad LARPs work goes to Seth Christenfeld, who heroically volunteered as our table GM.  Seth is the one who figured out how to quickly and efficiently get people their character sheets: the pickup stations.

The way pickup stations work is that you have a long table (or two long tables together) on one side of the room.  Hanging off the side of the table are 12 pieces of paper (or however many players you have), each with a gigantic number printed on it.  Each player is assigned to one of the numbers.  During 10-minute games, Seth placed the character sheets for the next game above each piece of paper, so that the player could just go over to their spot on the table, grab the sheet, and get out of the way.

This may not seem all that significant - it didn't to us at the time - but we later came to realize how important it actually is.  Distributing sheets this way is much faster than any other way we've been able to come up with: it gets the GM work done during downtime, and when the players actually go to pick up their sheets, they can mostly do it simultaneously.  This speed is a major help with keeping the momentum of the game going.

10 Bad LARPs also taught us some important lessons about writing very short scenarios for LARPs.  First, it's very useful to pick settings that have some inherent structure, such as a press conference or a game show.  In a longer timeframe, players tend to find their footing with less structural guidance, but it can easily take longer than 10 minutes for them to do that, and in 10 Bad LARPs, that's all we have to do the entire scenario.

Another important lesson from 10 Bad LARPs is that it's the overarching structure that gives the game its pacing and flow.  Thus, we have to actually ramp up the action and the pace towards the end of the game in order to make the entire experience feel satisfying for players.  By the end of a 10 Bad LARPs run, we want every player to be screaming at each other, running around the room madly, and completely exhausted.

The Last Seder

The Last Seder is a serious, intense, depressing LARP about the effects of humans on the environment.  It takes place during the Jewish holiday of Passover, and it draws deliberate parallels between the player characters and Jesus and the apostles.

Man, it was hard to pitch The Last Seder to people.  The intrepid batch of players who tried the first run had to get past the fact that it is a serious game about religion from the people who wrote 10 Bad LARPs.    They had to trust us to treat sensitive topics with respect, right after we'd proven that we were all too willing to run roughshod over those exact topics.

But The Last Seder really is a serious game.  It is also a storytelling game, in the tradition of games such as Tales of the Arabian Nights, Tales of Pendragon, and Across the Sea of Stars.  In a storytelling game, everyone plays a "main" character, which is who they're cast as beforehand, just as in a normal theatre-style game.  Every so often, the game breaks out into a mini-scenario, and the players are handed short character sheets to read on the spot.  The scenario runs for a short period of time (perhaps 5-20 minutes, depending on the game), after which, the players return to their main characters.  The mini-scenarios represent a story that the main characters are telling (or having told to them).

In the case of The Last Seder, the stories represent parables being told by our game's Christ figure, Chris Carpenter, around the seder table.  There are ten parables, and over the course of these parables, the story is revealed to the apostles and to Chris's husband, Barry Magdalene.

One central aspect of the design of The Last Seder is a radical departure from traditional freeform LARP.  Storytelling games already restrict player freedom to some degree by yanking players out of what they're doing and placing them into a story, but typically, main characters still have the ability to do whatever they want to, within reason.  In The Last Seder, you sit around the table and you discuss.  You can eat food when Chris says, and Chris is entirely in control of the pacing (or rather, the writers are in control, since Chris is following a rough script handed to her by the GMs).

By taking away this freedom - by "railroading" players - we were able to much more tightly construct the plot and pacing of the game.  We were able to script surprises to happen at the right times.  So in exchange for the freedom to pull the game in whatever direction they like, players receive plot twists, angst, and (hopefully) a highly emotional experience.

Amazingly enough, after having seen it work well in 10 Bad LARPs, we failed to apply an important lesson to The Last Seder the first time around, and attempted to hand out mini-character sheets at the door to the scenario room.  This took a long time and frustrated players to no end.  Lesson learned: we implemented pickup stations the next time, and it's worked very well since then.

Another lesson learned from The Last Seder is the importance of setting expectations properly.  Theatre-style LARPers in New England come to games with a certain set of preconceived expectations based on the norms of this community.  The Last Seder breaks with many of those norms.  Thus, the onus is on us, the GMs, to inform people of what they're signing up for ahead of time.  If we fail to do so, players may be unhappy that they didn't get to play the sort of game they thought they would, and rightly so.  Conversely, if we tell people what to expect and then deliver what we said, players will be much more willing to go along with unusual games.

Resonance: Our current state-of-the-art

The popularity (and, in our view, success) of The Last Seder proved to us that this sort of structure can work well even for extremely serious games.  But we are capricious people, and bore easily.  So, said Susan and Vito, let's see just how far we can push this thing!

Resonance marries the storytelling-on-rails format from The Last Seder with one of the most popular forms of LARP in New England: the amnesia game.  A few popular amnesia games include Etherlines: The Morning After, the Jamais Vu series, and Tabula Rasa I and II.  In a typical amnesia game, all or most players receive no character sheet at all, sometimes not even a character name.  They wake up remembering nothing, and receive short snippets of memory in time-released cards.  These cards tell them part, but not all, of their backstory.  One common feature of these games is that some memories are designed to deliberately mislead the player in order to surprise them later on with a further clarification.

Resonance is an amnesia LARP, but with three key differences:

  • Instead of memory cards, we use mini-scenes, similar to the ones in The Last Seder.  Rather than representing being told a story, these scenes represent recalling a memory.
  • The game, as written, has 45 characters, but any given run only has 15 players.  Thus, only a third of the characters will be played in one run.
  • In a typical amnesia LARP, the players may not start off the game knowing which character they are playing, but the GMs do know.  In Resonance, neither the players nor the GMs know.
To elaborate on the last point: Resonance uses a three-act structure, with explicit divisions between each act.  Each of the first two acts has three mini-scenes in it.  In all of the scenes in Act I, each of the characters has a dilemma they face, which is phrased as a choice between two qualities - for example, a character might have to make a choice between Compassion and Ambition.  At the end of each scene, the player writes down which choice they made, and hands the sheet back to the table GM.

After everyone fills out three such sheets, we have enough information to do a quick casting for the entire game. Players are assigned characters whose qualities are similar to the qualities they chose to favor in the scenes.  Then at the end of Act I, players are given partial character sheets based on this casting.  They remember their name and job, as well as some basic background information about the sort of person they are, and perhaps some past history.  The scenes in Act II elaborate further on the events that led them to the place they have found themselves in the main game.

Act III - perhaps the biggest departure from the Last Seder formula - is where the railroad stops and the train keeps going.  There are no more memories at this point.  All the characters should be reasonably well-informed about what brought them here, and the state of things at present.  Now they must decide what to do about it.

It is perhaps too early to draw conclusions about lessons learned from Resonance.  We've run it twice so far, and will be running it again in the near future.  Nonetheless, the new structure has proved viable in both runs.  As with The Last Seder, it seems that things work better the more players know what to expect going in.

One important unifying factor in Resonance is guilt.  While there are 45 characters in the game, every single one of them is in no small part responsible for the tragedy they have jointly caused - the apocalypse that got them into this very situation at the start of the game.  Similar to The Last Seder, much of the game consists of a process of slow realization and understanding.

The storytelling-amnesia structure helps create this process.  Just as in The Last Seder, it allows information to be revealed to players at a controlled pace.  But the underlying message is quite the opposite: while The Last Seder works, at some level, by creating a feeling of helplessness in players, Resonance gives the players freedom.  But with freedom comes responsibility: it was that very freedom that allowed these characters to destroy the world they knew.  Now, in Act III, it is their responsibility to fix it.

This freedom is, however, incomplete.  The overall state of affairs cannot be substantially altered by the choices made in the memory scenes.  This is part of the very nature of the scenario: somehow, all the characters ended up together in a particular situation at the start of the game, so no choices they make in memories can affect that.  The freedom of Act III is far greater than the previous two acts, but the characters' actions are still constrained by their situation.

A Garden of Forking Paths: the future

Of course, we can't stop there.  Alleged Entertainment's next foray into experimental storytelling is perhaps the strangest so far.

In the classic short story The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges posits an unusual theory of causality and temporal mechanics.  Imagine that whenever you make a choice, an alternate version of yourself in some other reality simultaneously makes a different choice.  In fact, every possible choice is made in some version of reality.

Our upcoming LARP, A Garden of Forking Paths, takes a fairly simple story about the history of a small family between the 1960s and the present day, and runs it through the Borges filter.  The game consists of two acts with four scenes each, and each scene ends with a dilemma, similar to the first act of Resonance.

But unlike Resonance, with its limited freedom caused by a preset scenario, A Garden of Forking Paths allows subsequent scenes to be dramatically changed by choices made earlier.  (This, obviously, has the potential to become exponentially complex, and we have some ideas for how to cut down on that complexity a bit.  One important factor is that while every choice has repercussions later on, it doesn't necessarily become relevant in every subsequent scene.)

A Garden of Forking Paths has an additional twist.  Resonance is a 45-character game for 15 players.  A Garden of Forking Paths is a 4-character game for 12 players.  There are actually three separate instances of the game going on at the same time.  And between each scene, some players will rotate into a different timeline than the one they were previously in.

There aren't any prescribed "right" choices in Garden.  Each choice is intended to be both difficult and gut-wrenching2.  And players will get to experience both the effects of their choice and the possible effects of an alternate choice, once they switch timelines.

Was their choice the best choice for them?  Will they regret it?  Will it have unintended consequences they won't like?  We are hoping to get players to grapple with all of these questions by the end of the game.

An anti-conclusion

At Alleged Entertainment, we're still experimenting with ways to structure a LARP story.  Those experiments are unlikely to end with A Garden of Forking Paths.  There's still an awful lot to explore in this, a fairly young medium.

Interactive storytelling, of course, is a much wider world than just LARP.  Failbetter Games is doing some really interesting work in their online game Echo Bazaar.  The interactive fiction community has been experimenting for decades.

And experimentation goes on, too, in many corners of the LARP world.  I'm a fan in particular of the work being done in the Jeep community, and also the art games by Brody Condon and Bjarke Pedersen, and the community world-building experiment that is Threads of Damocles, just to name a few.

But one can find experimenters in every LARP community I've run into.  At the end of the day, everyone has something unusual they're attempting to do with their games, and it need not be the same from game to game.  What are your favorite LARP experiments?

1 Unusual for the Intercon New England community, anyway.  In some ways, these games resemble Jeepform structures quite a bit.

2 In a lot of ways, these are intended to be similar to the choices in Mike Young's "serious 10 Bad LARPs game," The Road Not Taken.


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