Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sometimes LARPs Do Need Pre-Planned Endings

Chess will always provide some distraction in a game.
As with all things, there are a multitude of recommendations of how various events should, and should not, be run.  One pearl of wisdom is that LARP designers should never, ever, ever design an ending for the game.  Now depending on how you define the word ending, this is *mostly* true. 

There are very few LARPs that can benefit from an utterly pre-generated "ending" where everything is set in stone.  It *can* work, so long as the ending is a final curtain on a one shot that resonates strongly with the players ... such as if the apocalypse LARP is guaranteed to end with the location falling to zombies or where the game ends with the prisoners assist those soldiers arriving to free the prison camp from the enemy.

So it *can* work, and work brilliantly, but generally you want a looser *ending* than that.  Such an ending has a real sense of resolution, has been pre-planned, but must allow a meaningful choice to be made and have room for variation.

For awhile I sputtered and worried over the ending.  How to cap it all off?  My initial plans had 30 players whose chaos might be enough to keep the game running smoothly and whose antics might finally form into a suitable resolution.  But 11 players?  In a dice-based LARP where you can't simply throw in a final combat and expect excitement?  (Unless your idea of excitement involves a dozen players standing around and waiting for their turn to roll a dice.)

So I went back to basics and tried to figure out what an ending was.  The law of rising tension meant the most tension should come at the end which is what made me think of playing an NPC briefly as I can be quite strident and pull tension along.  Of course, just having an NPC rock up wouldn't be enough.  It had to affect the entire gathering so that no one missed out.  It also needed to raise the stakes above previous situations so I looked at a city-wide effect.  It should be tied into the prior sub-plots and thus I made it touch on Dr. Jonathon Taylor's rituals, its results, and the subsequent loss of Nurse Cassandra to the city's infrastructure.  Finally it needed player involvement.

And that was the kicker.  Any puzzle would necessarily require only a few players input.  Even a complex one could theoretically be solved by a couple people and there'd doubtless be a few who wouldn't know what to do even if there were a dozen pieces.  Plus I couldn't think up a good puzzle.

Combat, as mentioned beforehand, can be a real drag in a game and while it adds necessary spice even in dice LARPs, it's generally not suitable for an ending unless masterfully handled with several miniature  battles and I didn't have time to brief enough Floor GMs for that.

So I went back to the even more fundamental basics and realised that in the end games are all about the choices we make.  That's why combat needs so many rules to be exciting and why in a game with quick resolutions (or fewer players like in tabletop) it can be exciting - high stakes, multiple decisions to make.  So if games are all about choice, maybe that's all I needed, one big choice with huge stakes that would affect everyone and where everyone could be involved by getting their own choice.

And so my Dark Before Dawn one shot, the LARP ended with an angel arriving at the game with a box of rune-inscribed stones.  She gave a little speech regarding the merits of her god, contradicted by the pleading requests of a ghost who spoke via written text on a data projector, and bid each person take a stone and choose to set their will to either banishing the ghost from the machine (and potentially destroying her) and giving control to an alien God OR supporting the usurper and keeping the machine away from God.  She finally described it as a choice between Order and Chaos, which is bound to resolve in people even if they don't care much for either NPC.

(On an aside, they would choose by putting the stone in either an antique soap box that had previously contained an abjuration amulet or a velvet lined carved box that had previously contained phosphorous shotgun shells, so that involved some added metaphor.)

The third option, where the characters chose neither side, was valid though wouldn't weigh as strongly as those who voted in one direction or the other.  No matter what the players did, the angel wouldn't commit violence.  It wouldn't supernaturally compel them.  And once it had spoken, it retained the same position (a half bow) until the assigned ten minutes were up and stayed silent unless explicitly questioned.

So this was a pre-planned event.  No matter what the players did during the game, the angel would arrive and offer the choice.  The players had flexibility within how they engaged in that time but they couldn't gain more time and they couldn't vote for, say, power over the device to be transferred to one of their own.

The one piece of last-minute flex involved the elder occultist banishing the angel after a few votes had been cast and once everyone had a chance to discuss the matters among themselves.  The player kindly floated the idea past me first, got my ideas on what might work and how, then brilliantly roleplayed it after those who had an opinion had voted and those who were torn had either chosen to abstain or were moving toward that choice.  Therefore that *change* was more of a capstone piece to the event than a literal change to the ending.

Not only did this final choice work, it worked well, and if I had simply allowed the players to interact for those several hours with nothing to mark an ending, the LARP would have fared quite poorly indeed.  About ten to fifteen minutes prior to the ending events, the players ran out of plot, finished their individual goals and were left to discuss the metaphysics of the game world - something that excluded and confused the new players who were unfamiliar with the World of Darkness or who didn't control occultist characters. 

An additional thirty minutes of such conversation would have been a big let down and left a bad taste of confusion, helplessness and a sense of failure as the players contemplated whether there was something they *should* be doing.

The ending plot directed some of that conversation when it was realised, though until the angel walked through there was still some confusion.  Once it was all outlined and placed in front of them, people could finally have a final decision to sink their teeth into and once that decision was done they could face the final transition (leaving the hall via the back exit) with a sense of purpose and trepidation.

After all, the campaign LARP will deal with the fall out of their decision to largely abstain from the Choice and chart their own destinies -- with a slight weighting toward leaving Nurse Cassandra in the machine.

NOTE: I am *not* saying that all LARPs need ending events.  There are no absolute rules in LARPs so long as everyone has fun.  I had an 11-person investigative LARP in the adventure style so I needed it more than most.  My initial plans had a 30-person LARP which would have needed either more time for a "Choice" ending *or* could have resolved well simply by throwing another football for them to fight over in the ring whose resolution would have counted.  Heck, some political LARPs work just fine with people struggling over positions until the timer runs out.

No comments:

Post a Comment