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.

Violence in LARP 1: Context

Last year, in a post on part of the Dogma 99 manifesto, I wrote:

When two characters cannot agree to disagree, their methods for settling their squabble, nine times out of ten, are some form of violence, be it physical or supernatural. I can bang on for a bit about why this is, but it basically comes down to “blah blah, root of hobby, power fantasy, blah blah”.

Time to bang on about it a bit.

There’s an old joke about the dominance of the superhero comic in the comics medium – that it’s analogous to walking into a bookstore and finding the shelves full of nurse romance novels, with all other novels consigned to 10% of the space, under one label “alternative”. Comics has improved markedly in the last decade, but violence in games feels like about the same thing. Trying to find an RPG where violence isn’t assumed to be a component of the game is hard.

It’s one biggest issues I have with role-playing games in general, this trend toward violence-as-problem-solving-mechanism. It’s obviously born in the tabletop wargame roots of the hobby, but here we are 40+ years after D&D was first published, and we’re still largely at it. There are very, very few games published where physical violence is strictly off the table, and those that are tend to be indie games with a tiny audience compared to the already pretty small audiences of the mainstream games.

It’s understandable. Roleplaying games are about drama – about conflict. And of course the ultimate expression of conflict is violence. So naturally they include it. Same reason that action movies are popular films. But action movies aren’t the only films.

But finding a literally zero-violence LARP to play in that isn’t an experimental one off is next to bloody impossible. The “mainstream” of LARP can be considered what I think is known as “boffer” LARP in the US, or “fest” LARP in the UK, and it’s pretty much the classic image – people with rubber swords running around in a forest in funny costumes, hitting one another. There are all sorts of variations within that, in setting and theme, but strip it all away, and that’s what you’re left with. (The hitting one another may not be the point of the game, but it’s definitely a key component.)

There’s a secondary mainstream of Vampire LARP – people dressed in black lace in a backroom somewhere, pretending to be vampires scheming against one another, but as anyone who has played one of those can tell you, 90% of the problem-solving in that ultimately comes down to violence, even if there’s an exciting game to be played in getting other people to do your violence for you. Sure, a lot of setting has some kind of ostensible prohibition against violence, but really, everyone knows that’s there in order to create challenges, not to actually prevent the violence.

In both of these forms, conflict almost always comes down to either “can you avert this problem without violence?” or “can you do enough violence to solve this otherwise insoluble problem”?

I should perhaps say that I have played in, and run, many game sessions where no violence has actually taken place, but the fact remains that I’ve never played a LARP where there wasn’t a system to handle violence, if it occurred. It was never off the table by design.

I definitely have it on my ambitions list to run a serial LARP in a pulp vein – ie. the kind of game I like – where violence is simply not on the agenda.

Next time: so, the above notwithstanding, what is violence good for?

London Under

Yeah, this still exists, doesn’t it? A couple of people periodically nag me to write something on here again, and this time I’ve actually got something I want to write about so, yeah, back on this horse.

For the first time in a good few years, I went and played in a LARP, oh two months ago now. My usual line on why I run LARPs but don’t play them is because I can’t find any I want to play in, so all I can do is run the kind of game I want to play.

Criteria to get Alasdair to play a LARP: indoor venue in London, no hard physical skills (running/airsoft/rubber sword wielding are not for me) required, system-light, ideally a single-day event, and a setting that is not cod-medieval fantasy (I will make exceptions to the last one, but I will require Significant Reassuring about the nature of the game.). Oh, and the game has to be stand-alone. I like the World of Darkness as a setting, but the Isles of Darkness games are not for me.

But in fact, in about six years, I literally have not been able to find a game that ticks all those boxes. And then a friend tipped me off to London Under, a game based on Neverwhere, the works of Kate Griffin and Ben Aaronovitch, and basically directly using all the same kind of stuff I was reaching for in coming up with Armistice – which to be honest, makes the game much more accessible than my own efforts. In any event, it sounded absolutely perfect to me.

It pretty much was. When I wrote up my feedback, I had two minor niggles, and loads of things to praise. I’m really hoping there’s another event, although given the amount of work this clearly was to put on, I cannot blame anyone involved for saying that twice was enough (I missed the first event).

So, this post, in the short term, is going to serve as a aide memoire for me – thoughts sparked by playing in this game.

  • Playing games is plainly good for me. Feel enthused about the hobby in a way I haven’t in a while.
  • Starting players groups off geographically distant from the venue – doesn’t need to be more that 20-30 yards – gives a much more natural session open.
  • Longer sessions can be structured in chapters – and this doesn’t need to be subtle at all, in fact, having an obvious clock ticking and marking off intervals can really help.
  • Writing up very specific briefs for PCs and assigning them goals does not abrogate player agency, and is actively helpful to new players.

Some of these are probably obvious techniques to others, but the fourth one particularly goes against my own instincts, hence the notation.

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.


I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about rule systems at the moment – I want to get the basis of system that we’re going to use for the upcoming LARP sorted out over the next month, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what systems are for in these games we play.  There are plenty of very successful games out there run in a loose freeform way, where there are no real rules other than a sort of shared understanding of the style of play, within which the outcome of every contentious interaction is negotiated between players on an ad-hoc basis.  And rules often slow the game down, breaking immersion and draining dramatic tension.  So why have them at all?

(Digression: I really ought to give “the upcoming LARP” a working title just to I’ve got a definite article for it – NextLARP?  FutureLARP? I dunno, anyone got any preferences?  Anyone care?  I had a title for it, six months ago, but I’ve rather consciously put that on one side until I see what shape it’s taking in a few months time – I want the LARP to shape the title, not the other way around.)

So, I’ve come to the following conclusions about what I think they’re for.  I’m aware that they’d have other uses for other people, and I’m not seeking to provide an abstract answer to “what is the purpose of having rules in a LARP?” so much as I am trying to define “what is the purpose of the rules in a LARP I am running?”

1. Consensus.

The rules form an agreed basis for the world.  Kind of like the laws of physics, I guess.  They provide both IC and OOC context for the actions characters take.  Effectively, they’re the grown up, formalised version of the Cowboys-and-Indians “Bang!  I shot you, you’re dead!” (“No I’m not!”, “Yes, you are, I shot you!” etc.)  They’re the agreed basis for “fair” dispute resolution.

I’ve put “fair” there in quotes, because there’s actually no requirement that the rules be fair in the traditional sense.  Depending on the kind of game being run, it might even be desirable to have the rules favour particular outcomes, or even particular players.  Nonetheless, the rules form the agreed basis for cooperation between everyone involved in building the LARP – they ensure that everyone is on the same page about what’s possible.

This is particularly important because I like to run games that have a fairly strong fantastical element, and I want us to have an agreed basis for what that element is, can do, and what an appropriate reaction to that might be (in or out of character – it’s possible to have a lot of fun when the player know something the character doesn’t – indeed, it’s often a key ingredient in some of the best moments in games).

2. Drama

The rules exist to facilitate dramatic play – they exist to facilitate both external dramatic conflict between two (or more) characters, and in the sorts of games I like to run, some level of internal conflict within each individual character.  I’m not saying one can’t do internal conflict without rules, that’s obviously a rubbish idea, and I would expect most characters to have (many) additional internal conflicts that were not rules-defined, but on some level, I want a rules set that takes some of that internal conflict, and in some way externalises it so that each character’s internal dilemmas have to affect other characters.

3. To Get Out Of The Way

It’s not strictly a “why have rules” in abstract, so much as a “why have a particular set of rules”, but it’s important enough to me that I want to include it as a fundamental: one of the purposes of a system has to be to do it’s job as swiftly as possible in order to allow everyone to get back to the less systematised part of the roleplaying.  A freefrom negotiation style f play contains the possibility of getting bogged down from time to time if two players can’t come to a consensus, so one of the reasons we have rules is to prevent that, but we have to do it in a way that is more efficient than the problem being solved, or we might as well just get bogged down in a freeform way.

4. To Simulate Randomness And Risk

I think this is surprisingly important.  Good drama contains surprises.  The real world is not predicable.  And, for the kind of games I run: magic should be, well, magic.  A little bit scary and strange.  I think a good system should contain the possibility for a shock upset now and again, and unexpected outcome that no party in a conflict could reasonably expect.  Not often, but sometimes.  We’ve all played tabletop games where one freakish dice roll changed an important dynamic in the game, haven’t we?  I think a good LARP system should contain just a little touch of that.  A good set of rules exist to very occasionally throw an unexpected spanner in the works.  Tabletop games generally factor this in with dice, but a lot of LARP systems are diceless, so how can we bring that randomness in?

5. As An Indicator Of Key Moments

This is a minor thing, but I also like them to be used in a way such that they indicate on a meta level that something is happening that is dramatically relevant, that, if you like, a turning point has been reached.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s fighting, persuasion, powers of observation and deduction, or even something like seduction. (Having written that, I’d just like it to be clear: no game I run will ever contain a mechanical option to accomplish the seduction of a PC – the idea raises far too many consent issues, I just mention it as theoretical example.)  The point is that some times it’s actually good to invoke a system to indicate that something is either not a simple task, or when between PCs, to indicate that that is a point of conflict between the individuals concerned, that what is happening here is in some way important.

I think those are the key reasons to have a ruleset, rather than a more freeform approach.