Armistice: Lessons Learned

If I had to rank the order of the Badgers and Jam games in terms of success, Armistice would come in second, I think. A long way from being faultless, but also in a lot of respects, the most ambitious game to date.

Uptime System

The system was designed as a halfway house between negotiated play and rules-based, that was outcomes based rather than actions based.

The outcomes based design idea clearly worked, but in hindsight, going harder for negotiated play would have worked better – most times the rules based elements were invoked lead to confusion, and the clear sense that things didn’t hang together correctly. The negotiated elements were new to most players in the system, but seemed to work well, and I think provide a base to work from. I’m keen to try a negotiation-within-boundaries system as a next attempt to to combine a rules-based and a negotiation-based approach.

The wide breadth of powers available within the system worked, for all many of them were never taken – it added to the desired sense that this was a system in which someone could play anything.

Downtime System

The economy didn’t work as hoped. The occasions it was disrupted were super-effective, but the overall idea the economy was trying to communicate didn’t connect. Next time, I’ll be more willing to make larger adjustments, sooner.


This was something I found interesting – several players flagged that they never really knew “what the game was about”. I’ve always been able to describe it as “finding out what soldiers do when the war ends” or “soldiers in an uneasy peace at the end of a war”. But many players were looking for a more narrative answer than that, and the designed-in lack of one was less satisfying for that.

Another experiment was in having the PCs define the terms of the social contract by which the characters operated – the first sessions of the game were, effectively, them hammering out a peace treaty. The general consensus was that they did it too well, and hamstrung themselves when it came to generating conflict later. There’s a reason most systems impose a social code, and leave it full of holes for people to wrangle over.

NPC design was generally praised – they were found to be fun, dramatic, and engaging, without overpowering (except in the obviously designed ways), which was nice, although as with all things, it would not have hurt for me to be more explicit about what certain NPCs were “for” (in the sense that they were “for” anything). No-one had any strong objections to the fact that certain (clearly marked) NPCs operated on a different rules set (geared around the idea that they were group antagonists), as long as they felt those rules were clear.

I’m sure there was more, but this lot represents the macro-scale of my key takeaways of what went right and wrong, and if anyone who played has further feedback, I’d love to hear it.

Thoughts on Secret Cinema

This has been sat in my drafts for nearly two months now. I’m not sure why. So here it is.

I went to my first Secret Cinema show last weekend (or y’know, months ago, now) – “Tell No One”. The run is over, so I can say that it was based around Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Secret Cinema is obviously not a LARP, but like any interactive dramatic presentation, it shares a lot in common with it, and it’s certainly closer to being a LARP than say, a Punch Drunk production.

A lot of this is going to sound negative, I suspect, not because I didn’t have a good time (I really did), but because I naturally noticed the stuff that didn’t quite work more than I did the stuff that did.

I’m going to use the term NPC or actor interchangeably in this post, because they performers sat right on the line for me – they were clearly doling out a fixed narrative, with no scope for it to be changed, but at the same time, the performances were clearly very, very improvisational, and all the crew were superb.

The action was set on an military base, and the paying public were either military personnel, in a variety of different groups, intelligence staff, government officials, or press. The various actors/NPCs were people you’d see on an airforce base or figures from the movie in question.

It was incredibly loud, everywhere, at all times – regular sirens and background noise, lots of people shouting. That was far and away the most serious problem I had with it. When you’re standing less than three feet from an actor who is telling you something you need to know, and you literally can’t hear them, that’s a problem. I suspect it was a deliberate design choice, but if you’re two people back in a crowd, you can’t exactly lean in to hear better, and the actors were not in a position to repeat themselves – there was almost always a group waiting at every actor I came to. Lots of the space was open, with open frame space dividers, that denoted zones, but didn’t limit sight (good) or sound (bad).

I don’t know who does the narrative design work for the various things they get the audience doing, but I would bet money that they come from a theatre, rather than game-narrative background, because everything seemed linear to me. Meet person A, get quest 1, which will lead you to person B, who will give you quest 2, and so on, very little branching. And crucially: if the story line gets derailed, as happened to me, you find yourself standing about wondering what the hell to do next.

The group I was with got given a simple fetch quest – go to the secret bar on the base, get a ring, and return to the NPC to get on to the next bit. Except, when we got back to where he’d told us he’d be, he wasn’t there, or anywhere nearby. No idea why not, and there was nothing around to give us a cue to go elsewhere. My group stood about for a few minutes, then broke up, and wandered in separate directions. And I had no other events to fall back on. I tried to go back to the start, but the actor parts had their own narrative going on, so the person I thought I needed to talk to wasn’t there, presumably having moved to somewhere else. I was literally left with nothing to do.

So I wandered about a bit to examine the sets and tagged along with another group, that had absolutely nothing to do with what I had been doing – I basically just joined an entirely different narrative line, that was clearly equally linear. I spent the next two NPC encounters a bit sidelined at the back of a group – they were fun, but I didn’t have the information from earlier in the narrative to participate – my new group had clearly learned “facts” about communists (can’t say the word “blue”, a few other absurd things) earlier on, so I was reduced to spectating, rather than participating. That was OK-ish, because the actors were entertaining, but I felt like I could have had more fun if I’d known the right facts – by the time I’d picked them up, the narrative was coming to an end. And I never found out how my original narrative ended.

Crowd control wasn’t flawless, either – where the groups met up often got very crowded, which exacerbated the noise problems, and made it hard to hear the actors, or bottlenecked people in corridors/doorways, so that by the time that was sorted out, there was a risk of having lost your group, or at least of having missed the first minute or two of a five minute encounter. Often that was a recap, but there were definitely a couple of points where I (and the other folk at the back) arrived pretty much as my group were wrapping up and leaving for the next thing.

That said: most activities were clearly designed to be group activities, very little solo play, which is good at that scale. And the NPCs were pretty good at involving players, pulling them in, rather than waiting for them to volunteer, although there was still priority given to proximity, which sucks if you were at the back of the group.

I’d also note that I arrived with someone, and we were instantly split up by the actors, and basically didn’t see one another again until the end. Which was kind of rubbish. A better integrated booking system, that allowed them to be smart about keeping duos and trios together, but splitting larger groups into pairs and trios would be good.

So, in summary:


  • Crew and actors, all great.
  • Set dressing, excellent.
  • Narrative easy to engage with, didn’t require any serious role-play stuff that might’ve made people feel awkward.
  • Narrative events were designed to be engaged with as a group, rather than one on one.
  • Game elements were simple, easy to follow, basic memory stuff, nothing that would tax someone who just came for an interesting evening out.
  • Worth noting as well: generally high standard of costuming on the part of the audience. You can get people to pay dress up, if they’re invested in the idea/given a clear brief in advance.


  • Way, way too loud.
  • No branching in narrative.
  • Limited recovery options when things went wrong.
  • Logistical/crowd movement issues.
  • Most “game” elements (all the ones I encountered, anyway) were the same – remember a thing you’d heard earlier.

Overall, though: A lot of fun. Very expensive fun, it has to be said, but the ticket price is definitely on show in what you get – I’m sure they make a profit, but I don’t think they’re waltzing off with a boat-load of cash, they clearly spend a lot on the show. I would absolutely go to one of their events again, and would probably get more out of it, now I know the scale and kind of idea.

Horror in LARP, part 3

Warning, this one gets a little incoherent.  I’m clearly trying to have an idea here, I’m just not sure what it is yet.

So, having basically said that I think horror is being alone and helpless in the dark, and therefore not terribly well suited to the agency-prizing communal space of LARP, it’s time to look at what I think can be made to work.

The short version is that it’s all about what’s in the character’s heads.  It’s no accident that White Wolf’s World of Darkness games are as popular as they are, being pretty much the only commonly-played LARP system where internalised horror is a mechanical part of the system.

The most effective horror in LARP is the stuff that the characters cannot get away from, because it is them.  As I said yesterday, I don’t think externalised horror works very well – at least not in a way it’s easy to design for.  But internalised horror can work very well.  The battle scene is not horrifying – even with the best prep and make-up in the world, it’s well, it’s not real. But the character who has killed a dozen people with their bare hands, and does not feel bad about it, that can be horrifying.  Not so much to other players (because in many respects they’re just another externalised monster), but to themselves, and to the player playing them.

And of course, it’s a strength entirely unique to LARP.  In every other medium, the monster is other – even in a movie or novel told from the monster’s perspective, the person consuming the medium is not the monster.  In LARP (and roleplaying in general) we have the opportunity to try and see what it’s like inside their head.  And then we can get horror that operates on a couple of levels: firstly the purely IC level as we play the character who is horrified at themselves.  The character who knows they should feel bad about their actions, but finds that there is something inside them that is happy at what they’ve done.  Secondly, we can get the extra level of horror – that we as players can conceive of these things, and, because we’re inside their heads, we can understand, and even empathise with them.

The World of Darkness games do this very well.  They trap the characters between voluntarily doing monstrous things, and having to confront and come to terms with the fact that they are not good people (and of course that realisation can make them capable of worse things), or involuntarily doing much worse things.  It’s actually easier to do the worse things, because there’s a way in which they’re not 100% culpable for them – their curse, their affliction, the thing that makes them other than human, that’s what’s at fault.  All they have to do is externalise it, and they can let themselves off the hook.

And it’s so easy to agree with that point of view.  Of course we, as normal humans, can understand it.  We can find ways to consider their struggle noble, and excuse the crimes they commit in its name.  The horror is all about what goes on in the characters’ heads, and on a meta-level, the horror is that we can understand it.

But for all they do this kind horror better than most LARP systems, in that they leave each character effectively alone in the dark, with the monster.  What the WoD games I have played (and run) have done less well at is fusing that sort of horror with something actually scary.  For any number of practical reasons, we don’t often play what it’s like to wake up in a room full of corpses, covered in someone else’s blood, and to know that you killed them.  We don’t play out the moment of terror itself – it’s almost like we’re always playing the last five minutes of the horror movie, where all that is left is the ruin.

Like I say, LARP is not a form suited to horror.

I’m just going to close this one off with a talk that is not specifically about horror – it’s about a principle of lightweight LARP design, but the LARP used as an example is a horror LARP called Pan, which, from what the designer is saying, kind of proves my point.  The horror they reached for is all born from something psychological and personal, and even then, what they got was creepy and intense but not the full-on horror movie experience.

But of course, that’s OK.  While they couldn’t do a straight horror movie, a horror movie couldn’t do what they did, either.

Horror in LARP, part 2

So here’s my start point with horror in LARP: it is incredibly bloody hard.  It may even be unworkable.  (I should say at the outset that I am aware that one could run special events that get around any of the individual limits that I’m laying out here, but for the sake of the argument I’m defining here, I want to take what I think can reasonably described as a “regular form” LARP – a minimum of a dozen PCs, in a place where we worry about people’s physical and mental safety, and the goal is to have fun in some form.)

I’m not saying you can’t scare people.  I’m not saying you can’t given them a terrific, adrenaline packed hour, two hours, weekend, whatever.  But scaring people is scaring people.  It’s not horror.  I could pack a LARP time in with jump scares and special effects to frighten people, but that won’t make it horror.

The absolute essence of horror, when you boil it right down, is lack of agency.  It is hopelessness, it is the evil you cannot defeat.  It’s the zombie horde, representing the inevitability of death.  It’s the vampire who is simply more powerful than any of her mortal prey.  It’s Lovecraft’s vast and unbearably hostile cosmos.  It’s the unstoppable serial killer.  It’s the deluded protagonist suddenly coming face to face with their own madness and learning they they’ve been the monster all along.

Horror is the thing that cannot be defeated.

Any horror movie that has a happy ending with the heroes triumphant, while it may be a scary movie, is not a horror movie.  The most one can really hope for, in a proper horror movie, is that the protagonist survives their encounter, at the cost of their loved ones, their normal life, their sanity, and that it is obvious that this is the cost.  If they walk off into the sunrise, bloodier, sadder, but unbowed and able to return the real world, then they’ve had a terribly scary experience, but that “horror” movie is copping out badly at the end, in my view.

Yes, I could run a LARP where everything the players tried was doomed to fail.  Where the universe was cold and uncaring and there could never be a happy ending.  (Indeed, a number of my players might argue that I already do, although I’d contest that.)  But having said that scary is not the same as horror, I’ve got to recognise that without it, horror is pretty much indistinguishable from plain old misery.

So how do we make scary work?

Scary is the cold hand on the back of your neck.  The monstrous whisper out of nowhere.  The door that won’t open as the water rises.  Scary is sudden, scary is surprising, and scary is personal.  And honestly in it’s simplest form: scary is alone.

How do you make scary work for 20 people, other than an unexpected loud bang?  Well, you could always face them off against superior numbers.  Scary is being outnumbered two to one by zombies, and running low on ammunition.  (Or is that just a valiant last stand?)  You could put them against an something implacable and unstoppable – just something like being trapped in a room with no food.  (Or is that just a study in how people deal with the inevitability of death?)

I hope you can see what I’m driving at.  LARP is communal – there are other people there, sharing the experience, and in any context, and experience shared is made easier and less frightening.  It may be hopeless, but you’re not alone.  LARP is about agency – it’s about what the players/characters decide to do.  And ultimately: LARP can always stopped, simply by opting out of it’s frame of reality.  Then the zombie is just someone in makeup, the vampire is your mate with some fangs in, and the universe while still cold and uncaring, is no longer actively hostile.  (Well, probably not.)

It’s not a good medium for horror – many of the basic facts of how LARP generally operates as a form work against some of the basic building blocks of horror.

And yet I describe the games I like to run as falling somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.  Come back tomorrow and I’ll spout on about the kinds of horror I think can be made to work.

Dogma 99, Part 2

There are two items in the manifesto that I think are driving at the same thing from slightly different angles, so I’m going to cover them off together.

2. There shall be no “main plot”.

As anyone who has played in my games will attest, this is one I’m disposed to pretty much reject outright – not because it’s always a bad idea, but because it does not suit the style of games I like to run at all.  The games I like to run can be summed up as “serial, about two years long, ending when the plot resolves”.

I cut my LARPing teeth on various large scale Vampire LARPs where there was no main plot, merely a series of events stretching on and on forever. (The ref team might well have been writing “main plot” on a “right this one is done what shall we do now?” basis, but it’s not the same as one single coherent narrative – the games kept going after each plot resolved)  Nothing ended.  No complete stories were told.  Well, no, that’s not true.  Individual characters’ more-or-less-complete stories were told, ending when they died or stepped off the stage.  But they weren’t unified by anything, and the games were (much) weaker for it.

I think I may have swallowed Alan Moore’s introduction to The Dark Knight Returns whole, at an impressionable age, because I very passionately believe that what gives stories power is their ending.  If you don’t bring the curtain down, in a clear and tidy manner that wraps everything up that needs to be wrapped up (although bear in mind that not everything does) and then stops, then you are Doing It Wrong.

This doesn’t mean I’m blind to the flaws of Big Plot. I have been toying with trying a different structure for the Next Thing, one that unifies the game around a series of smaller plots across an express theme, rather than having one big plot, but honestly, I don’t think it will solve the problem that this is designed to prevent – which is the idea that some events in the game are more “important” than others, and that some characters get more to do that others because they are more influential within those events (and then they get more to do because they were influential in those events, creating a vicious cycle).

But I think I’m willing to live with that.  “Main plot” unifies the game, gives a sense of forward motion and a sense of completeness when it ends, in a way that simply running half a dozen thematically connected (but narratively disconnected) stories just won’t do as well.  Doing that does mean, though, that I need to find ways to make sure no characters feel more important than others.

3. No character shall only be a supporting part.

This is pretty connected to the number 2, above, and one I don’t disagree with at all.  Every character should be the star of their own story, which should feed the greater story.  I don’t like PCs that are created as double acts, unless it’s very clearly a double act of equals.  I try and make sure that everyone that wants to get something to do, gets something to do, and that it’s all equally important.  I’m not always successful, I know that, but that’s certainly the aim.

Key ideas to consider for the next game:

  1. How to avoid the idea/appearance that some characters are more important by virtue of their interaction with External Plot (or any other reason).
  2. A multi plot-arc structure?