From Paper to Practical

Written 22nd March 2015

So, this is the first blog entry I’ve actually got around to doing in my ‘Our Lady of Absolution’ series. The idea is to keep a journal of the process of writing and creating a LARP, from concept to manifestation, including talking about the kind of stuff that I really can’t publish until after the event is done (spoiler warnings, guys), then sticking it all together and putting it online once everything is over.

That was the idea, anyway. We started working on this LARP last summer and I came up with the initial idea at the start of this year. The fact that this is my first entry probably tells you enough about how much I have going on at the moment!

(This is actually a common problem for me. When it comes to LARP, I have a tendency to say yes to a bit too much, and as such I have to have a blanket -NO- across the board until some of these major events are done. I have Empire in two weeks as a player, ongoing VIP reffing and planning, Our Lady as a ref, Lords and Ladies as a character writer (there’s another meeting for that tomorrow) and that’s not even taking into account the regular Saturday playing. Oh, I’m also running a World of Warcraft roleplay campaign, with the last event tomorrow evening. Like I say, I take on a bit too much.)

Today’s ref session was about props and timelines. Obviously we’ve had the bare bones of what will happen at the event for some time: the Scapegoat manifests, starting out distant and disoriented and gradually growing more aggressive and close while the players discover their lost memories and then decide if they’re going to carry on the cycle or let themselves die and answer for their sins. Throw in a bit of side-questing to go out and get food for dinner on the Friday night, and that’s a pretty good umbrella summary of what’ll happen.

However, actually turning the paper plan into something that the players can interact with is quite the task (and took us about 4 hours). There are several things you have to take into consideration:
– How quick do we want to throw the threat out there? Is she going to be seen on the first night? (We decided yes.) At what point does she start doing actual statistical damage? How do we ramp it up over the course of the weekend so that the players have the sense of danger without becoming immune to the effects? Overexposure can leave them blase, but underexposure and there’s no tension.
– How can we help control when the players receive the information we need them to get? In this event, we’re using a very traditional find-the-NPC’s-diary approach. The NPC in question is someone they are close to, and expecting to return soon, and the diaries are in his locked room. We have absolutely no way of telling how long it’ll be before players break that door down – on the one hand, he’s their friend, and they trust him, but on the other strange things will be happening and they’ll need answers. It’ll be impossible to keep them from getting in sooner, but we need to make sure that they get the information in time for the plot to make sense.
– How are we going to make sure that all the players are engaging with the plot and kept busy when it’s a single written prop with the information?
– How will we physically manage the manifestations? We spent a good fifteen minutes debating whether or not putting food colouring in water jugs while the players say grace was viable. On the one hand, they’ll all have their eyes closed and heads down! On the other, it might be a very short grace, and where possible we like to avoid Time Freeze moments.

Our solution for the threat is mostly ‘as logical’, but writing out the specifics was nonetheless important and took up quite a bit of time. We take advantage of times of low light, and varying locations. We talked through some of the things that could happen at the house while I was outside, such as writing on the walls and bloody handprints, and came up with some props that this will require us to make too. Recordings are another way we want to get the sense of eeriness across steadily and over the course of Saturday morning.

This discussion was also the first time we came up with what will actually be quite a large prop and a key visual moment (assuming everything goes well, fingers crossed): As the players exit the Chapel after a religious ceremony, outside Constance will be tied to a stake, with a flaming rope surrounding her, screaming in agony as being burned to death is recreated in front of them. It’s after this point that she starts to get far, far more aggressive, including actively going after players and draining their willpower at range, as well as touch. It’s dramatic and impactful and if it works will definitely be a Big Moment, and it’s sort of weird to think we only added it this late in the planning.

A lot of ideas come up like that, though. It’s a bit easier with a regular-running LARP with a small ref team like VIP – my fellow ref and I quite often have ideas of stuff to do in court to do with big plot during the courts themselves, then pull one another aside, have a quick discussion, and then go for it. Sometimes key elements aren’t decided until the linears, too – last year’s finale, the players got to kill an evil Magician Vampire doing a huge ritual to empower himself. For this, we used two beings that had been introduced the year before, but we only decided it would involve those specific powers when we wrote it out a few days before it happened. On the one hand, this does mean that players don’t get the chance to work it out beforehand, but then in many ways that’s not really important for them to do with small details like that. Even if they had known beforehand, it wouldn’t have given them any advantages on the day, and the surprise is still powerful.

Getting back to Our Lady!

This meeting we also figured out the idea of Constance giving them a period of time to make decisions overnight on Saturday, so that the players get a window where they know they can definitely sleep. The idea is that as she gets more of her sense of self back, she can explicitly outline the choice they have (in her mind) – surrender, and accept punishment for their sins, or keep fighting and die an undignified death as she takes back what is hers.

Figuring out when players will get to sleep and how to make them aware that this is designated sleep time is always an important consideration – players without sleep generally don’t have much fun, and despite our sadism that is kind of the point of these things. We’re not going to let it be easy – they’ll only have from about midnight until first light at just gone 5am, and I will be slightly disrupting that with some non-harmful manifestations of Constance in the form of reminders of what they each did to me. Hopefully this will add to the horror without leaving them totally exhausted (and also give me some important sleep-time too).

On the second point, of how to make sure players get information, we came up with several solutions: First of all, if they haven’t broken down the door to get into our dear Benacus’s study by midday on Saturday, we’re going to include sounds of someone clawing at the door in Constance’s manifestations to get the idea in the characters’ heads that there might be someone in there who needs help (particularly as they won’t know why Constance is around at this point, and she won’t have been violent yet). We then also decided to split the diary into several locations – the most recent entry will be in the room, and the others will be buried across the play area, with information on where put on a bit of paper in the room. Players generally love a treasure hunt, and it’ll get the people who enjoy physical stuff outside, while those who like reading through can stay indoors.

This particular solution also helped with our other concern, point three on the table – while we advertised this as a reading-prop-heavy game (as well as one with really dark themes), unless players are reading the props or discussing what to do, previously there hadn’t been much that they could actually do about the incoming Constance. The idea of the repeating cycles, of the lost memories and the terrible things they did could have less impact if they aren’t actively reading this source material and instead are just sitting around waiting for more Weird. Having some groups that need to go out digging happily gives more agency to the players.

(This was also the moment where we decided how death and the repeating cycle works, and that some of our players were going to be experiencing strange sensations as a result of having died in aforementioned last cycle. Another relatively key idea coming quite late in the game!)

Oh, and as for how we’ll physically manage those manifestations? I’m not going to sleep. At all.

(Nah. Although we did have to discuss the very real risk of ‘WTF do we do if Lucie has a seizure’.)

One of the problems I had was that I wanted to have Constance mess with some of their artwork – but I didn’t want to actually do anything to spoil players’ OOC art, particularly not when they put lots of effort and work into it. It was Nomlicious who came up with the idea of transparent sheets to put over the top – something we could also use for bloody hand prints on windows. In the grand tradition of re-using props, we’re also going to stick plastic bugs in their beds (AEON has so many plastic bugs) and make use of recording me sobbing and screaming and the sounds of bones breaking and such. It’s a shame we can’t phys-rep smells.

Anyway, that was the majority of the meeting tonight. We did a quick run through of our major props afterwards, and where we’re all at on creating things. Team Benacus Diary is looking ridiculously organised with our multiple internal deadlines and stuff – and it’s coming on pretty well. There are a lot of props that will be sorted out in two weeks time when they have a Meta Meeting (writing the rituals and working out ritual notes), but alas, I won’t be attending that one as I’ll be away at Empire. I think I’ve taken on enough work as it is, to be honest, and so I don’t mind too much – although I like sourcing and making props for rituals so I’m still down on that team.

The next meeting after that is on 10th April, to do something of a ‘show and tell’ on what we’ve done so far – particularly the physical props that a lot of us haven’t had a chance to see yet. The diary will be pretty hefty by then, and I ought to at least have some of Constance’s letters written. I’m generally pretty excited (if a bit nervous) about the LARP as a whole. It’ll be the second time I’ve got naked for players in a horror LARP this year. Hopefully it’ll be a bit less cold by the time we’re in May!

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