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.

Fell Off The Edge Of The World

Well, that didn’t go so terribly well, did it?  I kind of stopped writing here as the real work of getting this LARP together started.  I have, over the intervening months, had Many Thoughts, of course, and I probably ought to catch this blog up on them, but it’ll take a while.

So the short version is that we’ve pretty much settled on a system, and a world, I’m currently writing the gazeteer of the fictional London that the game is set in, and we’re starting in a matter of 6 weeks, and no I’m not panicking at all, why do you ask?

The slightly longer version is that what we’ve evolved is an urban fantasy game, with a rules-light system that determines outcomes, rather than strictly simulating actions and events.  In terms of some of its basics, the setting owes a lot to White Wolf/Onyx Path (who are pretty much the kings of modern urban fantasy RPGs, at least for setting), in the sense that a character is made of their supernatural axis (the kind of creature they are) and their political affiliation (the kind of things they believe) and then powers are stacked on top.

Interestingly, I found that the narrative focused, rules-light system enabled me to produce a vast array of power-stunt type options much more easily that I’d been expecting, because the rules themselves took care of the game balance part – for example, in a contest between someone with mind control powers, and someone with mastery of, I dunno, mystic shadows, it doesn’t matter how the two powers stack against each other in some weird set of dice rolling designed to simulate a “real world” – instead the rules let us determine who is going to win (get what they want) in any given conflict, and then it’s up to us as players to explain how that victory came about, rather than debating tactics beforehand, and working out modifiers, or anything like that.  Buying the stunts can have some effect on what options are open to characters, certainly, and they can modify the likelihood of outcomes, but I don’t need to spend ages trying to “balance” powers against each other in the same way as I have in previous systems.  I’ve found it very freeing.

Anyway, if you’re at all curious, the early-stage website is here.  It’s a bit of a wall of text at the moment, until I have time to finish breaking it down into a better navigation structure, but it’s better than nothing for now.

In the meantime, here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m writing up for the Gazeteer of fictional London.  It’s actually proved a lot harder to do that I found writing the Gazeteer for my previous game, but I think I’ve finally cracked an approach.  I’d be focusing on places, to the exclusion of people.  (I’m not actually sure why), but having cottoned on to that error, I think I’ll do a bit better now.  As so we get things like the following, which is some of the content about the broad category of:


In much the same way that the police are not entirely unaware of the presence of the supernatural in the world, neither are the more organised parts of the criminal fraternity.  Members of The Fleet Company are known to have particularly extensive ties with various forms of organised crime in London, but there are number of independent operators who are known to have a certain amount of supernatural pull of one sort of another.

The Blackshaw Family

Earnest and Ryan Blackshaw are the current heads of a criminal gang that stretches back three generations – Earnest having inherited his mother and grandfather’s minor talents in the field of illusion, and put them to the traditional family use – hiding things that one might not wish others to see.  The Blackshaws have been involved with various illegal activities over the years, but are currently widely supposed to control a substantial portion of the illegal arms trade in London – if you’re looking for knocked off firearms of almost any sort, they’ve probably passed through Blackshaw hands at some point.

Mr Raum

Mr Raum is a people broker.  If you need to accomplish something, he can put together a crew to do it.  The price?  That varies.  Sometimes, it’s a cut of the proceeds.  Sometimes it’s a favour, later.  Sometimes – well, surely there’s no truth to the suggestion that Mr Raum deals in souls, is there?

It’s not wildly original stuff, but at this stage, it doesn’t need to be – the point of the gazeteer, and these characters, is to provide a toolset for us all to use as we tell a more original story against the backdrop they provide.  So instead of focusing on shoving in the most original ideas I can think of, what I mostly do is spend time thinking about the sorts of things that we’re likely to need as we tell that story – so a soul-brokering heist organiser might very well come in handy – either because we want to do something involving soul-brokering or a heist of some kind.  And at the point that happens, I’ll sketch in Mr Raum further, to make him more thematically relevant, based on the characters who are approaching him, and the context in which they’re doing it.

It’s an interesting way of writing, one I had forgotten how much I liked.  It’s as if everything might be Checkov’s gun, but I won’t know what is until the game is played…

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.

Technology As A Tool

Just a little bit of generalised thinking out loud.

I was reading an article on the excellent Gaming As Women about the use of mobile phones in LARP which got me thinking.  In the first place it got me thinking that there might be people reading this who don’t know about Gaming As Women, and they bloody ought to, as it’s one of the best gaming blogs out there, so consider this a general reminder of its existence.  In the second, more pertinent place, it got me thinking about how to consider technology as part of setting design.

My last game, Restitution, was set in a place where there was no mobile telephony or internet, and I have to say, I really liked the effect it produced.  It meant that the characters pretty much had to be in proximity to communicate.  There was a certain amount of IC letter writing and suchlike, but if two characters actually wanted to converse, they had to be in the same physical space.

My instinct, up to now, has been to attempt the same thing in my next game – to continue to find ways to ensure that meaningful real-time interaction requires physical proximity.  But I read the article above, and it did rather set me to thinking about ways to use technology to enhance the IC experience – to actually use the very remoteness produced by technology as a storytelling device.

I’ve never been shy about using technology in an administrative manner – all my games have a custom-written on-line downtime system, they often have a forum and private messaging system, and I probably couldn’t run these games half as effectively without them, but I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about how to use these things as storytelling systems.

Part of the issue, a complicating factor, is that I don’t want to impose too much on my players lives outside of game time.  I don’t want to send them a creepy mysterious text message while they’re having dinner with their significant other – that’s intrusive on their time and others’.  But at the same time, I can’t deny that it would be kind of awesome to ring someone’s phone at a time in, and have an them hear an NPC (or another PC) having a very bad time, somewhere they can’t do anything about it.  Not often, because it’s an inherently disempowering stunt, but maybe once or twice.  And of course there are other tricks that could be pulled that are much less disempowering.

Ideas that have occurred to me while writing this:

  • All IC messaging could be assumed to be taking place in quasi-real time, no exceptions.  Previous games, I have worked on the assumption that it was OK for players to note something like “My character replies immediately, sorry it’s taken me a fortnight, I was busy”.  As much as I want to allow for player convenience, it means that all IC messaging lacks urgency.  You can’t send a messaging along the lines of “if you don’t get back to me within X amount of time, something bad will happen”.  But to allow for jobs/real life, etc, perhaps some kind of compact that there is a way to represent time passing with a less than 1:1 ratio?
  • The messaging is the only IC contact some characters can have outside of time in – ideally the ones who most want to talk in person?  Use it to enforce remoteness and isolation?
  • An agreed window when it is acceptable to message players via phone/email about IC matters with an urgent response window?  Perhaps some kind of “online and available for LARP-matters now” notifier?
  • Technology enabled meta-techniques to represent supernatural powers within the actual time-in are a superb idea, if I can get the toolset together to manage them effectively.
  • All this said: will new players be comfortable giving out their phone number to a ref who may be a more-or-less complete stranger?

What interesting effects/storytelling devices can you think of that we could use technology to produce?

Seeking Recommendations For A Mood Board

Just in case there’s anyone reading who doesn’t know what a mood board is: it’s basically a collage of images, words, and reference points, used by designers to work up a “feel” for a new project, before they start on actual designs.

I like to use something like them for LARP settings, and I’ve been making notes what I want to reach for with the next game.  I would call them “influences”, but with LARP, everyone brings their own influences in in all sorts of ways, so I find it helpful to think of them as a mood board for the game, rather than influences.  A given NPC might have very specific influences, but the setting has a wider board, if that makes sense?

My previous board had lots of British Children’s television of the 70s and early 80s, fused with paganism, a dash of The Archers, and all the usual supernatural nonsense, and a lot of creepy folk songs and hauntological electronica.  Funnily enough, about six months after I started I was running the game, Scarfolk Council launched, and I instantly recognised it as basically, a hit of the pure stuff.  Taking everything I was aiming at, and turning the creepy-and-weird dial up to the maximum setting.  That gives you the general idea.

So now I’m kind of feeling my way towards I want to do with the next one.  I’m thinking that lots of brutalism, chrome, concrete, a post-war aesthetic, the British modernism of the 50s, would suit – effectively, the stuff we’d think of as retro-futures these days.  Soundtrack to be ambient industrial, lots of heavy machine sounds, clanking and empty spaces.  At the moment, my stalling point is I can’t find the missing pop-culture/fiction link to fuse it with and make it accessible.  Although to be honest given the largely blank looks I got when I went on about the Cosmic Importance of Nigel Kneale, Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape and so on, it’s as much about making them accessible to me – defining an approach to the aesthetics – as it is about giving people an obvious touchstone.

I’m looking for a strain of supernatural fiction that I can fuse with all this concrete and brutalism.  Wondering about Lovecraft, wondering about splatterpunk, finding them both a bit extreme.  Anyone got any clever ideas?  I have just read the latest Dresden Files, but while I do very much enjoy them they’re kind of so generic Urban Fantasy as to be useless in marking out a tone.

Non-supernatural, I’m thinking of something like The Sandbaggers, and its descendant, Queen and Country, and similar, but honestly, they’ve got a similar 70s aesthetic to the one I mentally had last time, so I’m instinctively pulling back.

So, here’s your chance to recommend me fiction.  I’m looking for good supernatural/horror fiction set in 1940s (post-war)/1950s Britain.  Film, TV, radio, book, comic, it doesn’t matter, it just needs to be of the period.  Go!