For readers who don't know me, I like to consider myself a fairly big LARPer. While I've tried a little bit of everything, one of my absolute favorite games is Changeling: The Lost. It's varied enough to allow you to play nearly any concept you can think of, and the tone can run the gamut from dark and terrifying, to whimsical and haunting.
So when a few folks I'd met at a previous venue announced they were going to run their own game, I was ecstatic. However, for all the promise the game showed, it strangled itself to death before it really got a chance to live. And now, all these years later, I think it's time to perform the autopsy so that future players and storytellers know what mistakes to avoid if they want to try their hand at a game like this themselves.
For more gaming stories like this one, don't forget to check out the full Table Talk list over on my gaming blog Improved Initiative! And if you just want more fun gaming content in general, make sure you look through my full Vocal archive as well.
Lastly, if you're looking for some general (but still useful) advice on this topic, make sure you check out 5 Tips To Get The Most Out of Your Next LARP!
Such a Solid Setup
No one goes to a bad game thinking it's going to be a bad game, and this setup was no different. I'd played with the people running the game before, and I knew they were well-versed in the lore and rules alike. They were good about answering player questions (at least leading up to the first game), and they provided all the resources you needed to look up rules, build your character, etc. They'd managed to land a pretty nice venue with lots of rooms that could hold a big crowd (and which had some serious ambience), and it charged a reasonable fee per player for the night.
What really sealed the deal for me was that the folks putting the game together didn't have a massive house-rules bible. Unlike some venues who felt the need to re-write practically every rulebook to their own specifications, there were maybe one or two minor corrections, but everything else was run as it was written on the page.
It seemed like everything was going along swimmingly... especially considering the sheer number of interested players. Unfortunately the honeymoon period didn't even last through the first game.
Step #1: Show Favoritism
When you're a storyteller you're supposed to set things up in as neutral a way as possible so that no one player has clear favor over the others. However, it became pretty clear from the outset that the STs weren't exactly on the up-and-up when it turned out that the players who'd been given the positions as seasonal monarchs (individuals who have actual roles and sway within the game, and can use their authority over other player characters) just happened to be the same individuals who played in the storytellers' home game where the idea for the LARP had gotten started. And while I wasn't allowed to look at their sheets, I still have a sneaking suspicion they'd been given other boons and benefits the rest of us hadn't received.
This wasn't a dealbreaker in and of itself, but it was a serious red flag. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it's possible that these individuals were given the positions of monarchs because they were experienced players that the STs trusted to help provide a good experience for the rest of the venue. However, as far as I'd seen the STs hadn't asked the venue as a whole if they were okay with them just assigning their friends these important roles straight out of the gate.
A much smarter, fairer way to do this would have been to make the monarchs NPCs for the first little while, gradually phasing them out as player characters vied for the positions and formed their own, organic power structures. But had this been the only stumbling block, I think the game could have course corrected fairly easily.
Step #2: Ignore Your Players
There was a surprising amount of interest in this game when it started. The first game had something like 30+ players present... which for a changeling LARP is huge. Folks had really gone in on costuming and makeup, and with the venue in question it almost looked as if you'd really stepped through into a fairy realm.
But when the "plot" got started my enthusiasm plummeted.
The first half hour or so of game was just people mixing, meeting, and mingling. Establishing character ties, introducing ourselves, and all the usual stuff you go through when a game is fresh. Then a visiting group of NPC monarchs from another freehold arrived. These monarchs were played by basically the entire ST staff, and they met with the PC seasonal monarchs in chambers to discuss alliances, and matters of mutual import.
When I first saw this scene shaping up, I figured that it was going to be a 10-minute spectacle for the venue to watch. We introduce important NPCs, have them walk into a room with the monarchs, and then once they're out of sight three of the four storytellers could peel off and run scenes and plot for the rest of the game. Because had I been placed in charge that's what I would have done. After all, why would you put your entire ST staff into a single scene that only involved a tiny fraction of the venue on its first night?
But that's what they did... and it went on for over an hour. Nothing happened during this meeting for the rest of the venue, either. There were no assassination attempts to be prevented, no mysterious messages delivered, and not even something as trivial as a wandering hobgoblin merchant trying to make a profit off the gathering. Absolute crickets.
And when that meeting was over, things didn't get much better. It became clear that the STs, for all their big talk and fun ideas, were still planning things out like it was a home game with a handful of players. They seemed to just expect the rest of the venue to entertain themselves, or to come up with plot while the meeting was going on. When they realized how bad the mood of the room was turning they tried to spice things up (and the monarchs backed them up by leading their courtiers off to other areas), but it was too little, too late.
It was also a lesson the staff didn't seem to learn. Downtime scenes between games went unanswered, questions were waved off, and very little effort was put into trying to actually engage anyone who wasn't already on the STs' collective radar.
Step #3: Infrastructure Break Downs
Running any RPG takes a certain amount of communication and finesse. You have to coordinate schedules, put out reminders, take notes, make sure hosts are ready, get dietary restrictions if you're doing collective meals, and a hundred and one other things.
Running a LARP is all of that to the next level... and the folks in charge of this game kept slipping. Hard.
For instance, when the game first started there was a set schedule and a good venue. When folks showed up to play the third session (a large number of the players driving several hours to get there), it turned out the venue was locked up, and we weren't going to be able to get in. The staff tried to improvise, eventually holding game in their apartment (an extraordinarily cramped affair that was a claustrophobic's nightmare), but this wasn't a one-off problem. Announcements kept getting made late, or not made at all. The venue location kept changing because one thing after another either fell through, or couldn't get done. It was unclear whether or not there was going to be a site fee, and if there was then how much it was.
Even if absolutely everything else had been tip top shape with amazing plot, personal attention, and the STs staying on top of everything else, this would have doomed the venue sooner or later... though probably sooner. And even if it had been frustrating trying to get the staff to respond to prompts and scenes, the game probably could have gone on for years (or longer) if they'd just gotten the underpinnings nailed down.
But because this aspect was unreliable, the game crashed and burned rather spectacularly. It managed to struggle on a bit longer, but in short order all of the excitement and potential it had when it was fresh bled out, and it died of mostly self-inflicted wounds.
Tune In Next Time on Table Talk!
As I said a while back in my previous Table Talk installments, I'm trying something a little different with my recent updates on my group's run through the Hell's Rebels adventure path. Rather than going through a roll-by-roll break down of each session, I'll be putting together snacky, pulpy stories that bring readers on the adventure with me. This week's post is something of a break from that campaign, but you should take a moment to check it out:
If you want to see more, make sure you share these stories on your social media feeds so I can keep the campaign going! And if you're looking for some additional reading in the mean time don't forget to check out my full Vocal archive, as well as some of my other stories linked below!
- The Irregulars: My official contribution to the Pathfinder Tales, The Irregulars follows an Andoran unit as they throw a wrench into the gears of Molthune's war machine.
- Waking Dogs- A World Eaters Tale: For my fans of Warhammer 40K, this is a story I felt compelled to tell about one of the infamous World Eaters remembering who he once was. It was also dramatized by the channel A Vox in The Void, for those who enjoy audio renditions.
- Field Test (A Warhammer 40K Short): When Inquisitor Hargrave promised the people of New Canaan a weapon that would wipe the orks from their planet, they rejoiced. Now that the waaaugh is on their doorstep, though, they're wondering where this devastating weapon is. Rather than looking to the skies, though, they should be looking at what's right in front of them.
- Crier's Knife: My sword and sorcery novel, we follow Dirk Crier as he sets out to collect his wayward cousin from parts unknown. Dark tidings lie ahead, but those who stand in his way will learn why the mountain folk say only a dead man crosses a Crier.
- Marked Territory and Painted Cats: Join Leo as he gets roped into other people's problems on the mean streets of NYC. A Maine coon with a bad habit of getting curious, explore the world of street beasts in these nasty little noir mysteries!
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