LARP Design: Circle Tests


By request from a reader, I’m talking today about Circle Tests in LARPs. These are far from universal in live-action games or any other kind of game, and I am far from an authority on all of the best practices around them. To my knowledge, the term comes from Shattered Isles, the first of many games in a lineage that includes Dust to Dust. 

In SI, the ranks of power in every kind of magic were called circles, so that players had a way to talk about the power of spells and individual casters without breaking immersion. (D&D’s “third-level spell” doesn’t pass the same bar, to my ear.) Players start at First Circle and progress, event by event and year by year, toward Fifth Circle. Initiation into First Circle usually happens before the start of play, though not always. Advancing to any new circle, including First if necessary, involves an encounter (or, much more rarely, a series of encounters) called a Circle Test.

King’s Gate, Eclipse, and Dust to Dust have also included Circle Tests as part of the game-running model, and each have done slightly different things with the concept. I’m going to talk a bit about each game’s efforts, including a bit of inside baseball on the challenges of staging circle tests.

Shattered Isles

Shattered Isles had, arguably, four types of magic that substantially cared about circle tests: Alchemy, Sorcery, Elemental Bonds, and Spirit Bonds. Alchemy and Elemental Bonds were connected, but not identical, and likewise for Sorcery and Spirit Bonds. Alchemy and Sorcery were organized into five circles, while Bonds were organized into three grades.

Alchemy Circle Tests

Alchemical advancement was deliberately straightforward, and a bit mercenary. Every Saturday at or near 4 pm, some elementals showed up at the alchemical place of power. Negotiating with these elementals was easy as long as you had a fistful of Essential Elements – crystallized forms of each element that elementals and alchemists used as a combination of currency and mana battery. Sometimes the elementals also wanted to see that you possessed traits appropriate to the element – ferocity and passion for Fire, tenacity and patience for Stone, and so forth. In this way, alchemists both learned spells and gained circles. (I was not present for many alchemical circle tests, what with not playing an alchemist, so I may be leaving some parts out.) This strong element of resource sink drove a lot of different smaller pieces of gameplay, including the creation of an alchemical guild to make sure people had what they needed to advance.

The down side of this is that it required a fairly hefty amount of Plot presence for each of the six flavors of alchemist to advance – fielding six characters at or near 4 p.m. of every event has a cost. Because it was more mercenary, it wasn’t about presenting the PC with an emotionally wrenching choice, the way Sorcery circle tests were. It wasn’t an intensely personal encounter that was probably going to murder you and your friends. The SI staff had different intentions for alchemy, but it’s hard to get players out of a grass-is-greener mentality.

Sorcery Circle Tests


Now, understand that I played a sorcerer in SI and thus have the kind of ground-level view that might interfere with perspective. Compared to alchemical circle tests, learning sorcery spells was cheap-as-free (just find another sorcerer), but sorcery circle tests were hellish… in a way that was good, fun, exciting, and scary. It’s basically Luke in the Dark Side cave on Dagobah.


Sorcerers were organized into Orders, such as the Order of Light, the Shieldbearers, or the Academy. Each Order had their own set of geasa (violation of which were Serious Business) and Order requirements (violation of which got you a stern look). These rules, applied progressively as you advanced, outlined a code of behavior to protect the sorcerer from descending into madness and Tal Shar, or dark sorcery. Sorcery tests, then, examined the character’s dedication to the Order’s tenets in the context of rejecting evil (mundane or magical) means.

In the ten years of the campaign’s run, they must have run many dozens of circle tests – not every sorcerer reached Fifth Circle, but almost all reached Second or Third. They used many, many variations on a theme, but it all came down to ratcheting up the decision-making pressure in a dangerous situation. In a sense it was a class on the fundamentals of encounter writing: clear stakes, established tension and danger, and sometimes a challenge to work out what constituted success. In most such tests, a major part of the lesson was to de-prioritize the sorcerer’s survival. Though usually only one character was being tested at a time, other characters always came along to tests. In-character, this was to provide moral and defensive support; out-of-character, it provided something more interesting to threaten than just the sorcerer’s own life. I guess you could look at a lot of the encounters as puzzles to figure out how to shift the threat from your allies to yourself, preferably without all of your allies dying.

Have I mentioned that a lot of people died? A lot of people died. It wasn’t a permanent or lasting death; from what I was told after the campaign’s conclusion, deaths suffered in sorcery tests were never real. There was a bustling trade in in-play understanding and rumor at the time, and the players believed that the deaths were only “real” (counted against the player’s odds of resurrection) at Fourth Circle and above. There’s a whole long story of why we believed that, including some appropriate in-play misdirection by staff members. Funny enough, scenes work better when players believe the stakes are in-game-real.

Many circle tests followed a format of a threat presented by a particular villain that we called the Master of the Order of Darkness, who could be stymied but (until the very end of the first campaign arc) never slain. Toe-to-toe fights with this NPC were never the right answer, as a result. There were usually also some shades. Perhaps an NPC from the sorcerer’s character history – circle tests were also a great time to work out one’s personal baggage.

In summary, like any module or other intense personal attention in the game, circle tests were often the highlight of that event for the targeted player, because SI’s staff put so much energy and skill into making them work. On the other hand, it did sometimes happen that a player falls through the cracks and doesn’t get tested for a new circle for as much as a year of real time. The whole model of the circle test requires a nuanced understanding of the character being tested, and this is hard

My advice to any game looking to implement any style of Circle Test is to:

  • set realistic expectations 
  • create an in-game failsafe of some kind, such as “automatically circle after X events of waiting”
  • make circle tests one staff member’s primary responsibility.

To run a more Shattered Isles-style Circle Test:

  • figure out what is Forbidden and what would draw people to it
  • stage an encounter that provides the latter
  • add danger
  • conceal the fact that deaths in circle tests aren’t “real”

Elemental and Spirit Bonds


In general, elemental bond elevation followed the pattern of alchemy testing, and spirit bonds followed the pattern of sorcery testing. Bonds were in a sense a lesser magic, more instinctual but less versatile. If I recall correctly, a number of bond elevations occurred as a secondary element of an alchemist’s or sorcerer’s circling – the bonder was approximately ready to elevate and happened to be part of a test that was otherwise necessary. I hope that someone will speak up in comments and clarify this point.

King’s Gate

The King’s Gate campaign was nominally part of the same world as Shattered Isles, but culturally disconnected, and with magical traditions all its own. Their circle tests reflected this difference.

The Elemental Schools


In place of the six elements of Shattered Isles, King’s Gate had six magical traditions that were distantly connected to the elements, with a lot of reinterpretation through their parent cultures. It substantially changed the flavor of their tests – they were not a transaction with an elemental creature, but a test of loyalty to the school and understanding of its precepts. This often applied pressure to the character’s personal ethics or loyalties outside of the school. 

Here again I can’t provide too much detail about the circle tests. It was an open secret, though, that the Cambiare Third Circle test was about experiencing death and new life, and at least one such test included putting the player in a shallow pit and covering her with a pile of loose cloth, to give the feeling of being buried alive. (One imagines this could be triggering for some portion of the populace; suffice it to say that in 2003 or so, “trigger warning” had not really entered the lexicon and the player in question was okay with all of this.)

I think that the majority of tests for the elemental schools involved only people playing members of those schools, which furthered the sense of group identity and shared secrets. The Cambiare test described above included my character only as part of the vision – my character had no memory of it afterward.

Another test I heard about from the player being tested involved getting locked in a room with one of her political foes who was also a member of this school (an NPC). The two were poisoned, such that they would suffer paranoia and – eventually – death, if they could not cooperate enough to brew a formula to cleanse the poison. Apparently they spent the next hour or so sniping at each other and roleplaying their paranoia, but finally succeeded.

SI and KG also ran a few tests that were an incidental part of a storyline otherwise in progress – for example, the cleansing of a corrupted person, place, or thing that had come up in an unrelated matter. (For all I know, those things were put into the game so that they would result in circle tests, through Brownian motion – both committees were known for their deviousness.)

The Order of Knowledge


In place of the many Orders of SI, KG had two, three, or four Orders, depending on who you asked and at what stage of the campaign. Mechanically, their concept was similar to SI’s Orders, but socially they took the place of the Church in late-medieval/early-Renaissance society. The circle tests tended more toward resolving problems already in the world (I think) rather than introducing a more compartmentalized problem.

Using existing content as a circle test is a great technique (Dust to Dust uses it all the time), but one that has trade-offs and challenges. 

  • The biggest challenge is that Plot doesn’t control the rate at which a player is ready for a new test; the best they can do is make some predictions and be willing to apply a test before the character-point expenditure is complete. (The character point prerequisite should never be more important than the needs – or conveniences – of the story.)
  • Circle tests “in the wild” surrender a lot of staff influence over the encounters. It’s only too easy for a player to get persuaded that they shouldn’t take point on solving the problem that you intend to be their circle test, and a more assertive player may take their place. I’ve talked about staging techniques before.
  • The trade-off is the sense of making the tested character the center of attention. Even if the character is central to solving the problem and passes the test, they may be little more than another face in the crowd. The compartmentalized model of circle tests grants a kind of hyper-focus that many players find gratifying.
    • Other players, of course, would find it out-of-character horrifying and immersion-breaking. Know your audience.
  • The benefits, then, are that you don’t have to write or stage another encounter, and if it all goes well, the player realizes that they were the center of the action; the memory of the circle test gains a sense of grandeur.

The first Order of Knowledge circle test – when a mob of starting characters were all ready to circle at the same time – is also a useful example. At this point in the campaign, there are two public Orders and one double secret Order (not going to lie, I’m still not 100% sure it existed). The characters being tested witness a person get cut down by corrupt spellcasters, and the attackers flee. From this point, the characters naturally divide themselves into those who pursue the attackers and those who aid the victim. Those who gave chase joined the Sword of Knowledge (the Knights Templar, basically), while those who rendered assistance joined the Seekers (…all of the monastic orders rolled up into one). It’s a test without a failure condition, or with a hugely improbable failure condition (“do nothing” or “panic uselessly”), intended more as a Sorting-Hat test.

Totem Bonds


King’s Gate had another kind of magic, called Totem Bonds, in which a human’s soul was joined with an animal spirit, and the human gained powers as a result. As a Bond structure, they had only three levels of advancement, but they still had elevation tests. I wasn’t involved in very many of these, but I’m under the impression that many of them resembled SI-style sorcery tests, testing more for resistance to feral nature than resistance to corruption.

These Bonds drew on Australian Aboriginal themes, so they worked with concepts of Dreamtime and vision quests. One of the tests I participated in was more on the vision-quest side, relying on the players to understand the deeper meaning of the unusual things they saw. My character was connected to the one being tested, so I was present in a much changed form, both in appearance and roleplay. That made it a great experience for me, certainly, and I think for the other players involved as well. I can’t recall the central challenge or question of the encounter, though.

Martial Schools


In addition to tests for all the different kinds of magic, King’s Gate also introduced Martial Schools to the Chimera Interactive/Rule of Three system. In brief, they are additional special abilities for fighters to pursue, based on alternate expenditures or other tweaks on existing abilities. Martial Schools had three grades of advancement, and since players almost always entered play as full members of the Martial School, that really meant they had two tests in the lifetime of the character (if they advanced that far). These tests often took the form of duels with an equal or superior member of the school, though I remember seeing a physical challenge course set up that was supposed to be a proving ground for martial school members.

I think Martial Schools were something of a bridge of circle tests becoming more objective challenges to player skill. For more about that, read on.

Eclipse

I’ve included Eclipse for the sake of completeness here. I know surprisingly little about their circle tests for psions, aside from noting that many Metabolic psions have roughly the same Third Tier test: triage, and a test of how you handle the certain knowledge that you can’t save everyone. My character’s power sets – cybernetics and a Combat Discipline (that’s Eclipse’s name for Martial Schools) – don’t have elevation tests; cybernetics has an echo of the transaction-style tests in SI’s Alchemy system, but it’s a direct transaction with the production and medical systems. (To be fair, this is thematically appropriate to cybernetics.)

I’ve seen a fair number of mutant elevation tests, which tend to require the character to put their trust in their mutant powers to see them through whatever the challenge is – whether that’s trusting in their Adaptation mutation to endure a nuclear blast at ground zero, or in their Beast mutation to endure the introduction of horrific alien DNA. The strength of these tests is that they are memorable for more players than just the one being tested, and they reinforce the mutant-as-occasional-superhero theme. One of the conceits of the system is that mutants can achieve things during an elevation that they never again manage; this idea occasionally showed up in SI’s and KG’s elevations, but in Eclipse it takes center stage.

Overall, though, I think Eclipse has trended away from the heavy use of circle tests, because they take a lot of staff resources. (Eclipse staffers, if I am super wrong about this, feel free to let me gently know the gravity of my error.)

Dust to Dust

The game I run! It comes last in chronological start date. We made a conscious decision to require fewer circle tests out of each type of magic – no one has more than three tests, including initiation. We’ve had celestial circle tests that were formal debates, in which characters had to argue positions with which they vehemently disagreed (this is culturally appropriate to celestials); Forge Magic tests that involved travel to another plane of existence and working through a field battle; Alchemy tests with math puzzles to work out the ratios of different substances in a formula (a pure test of player skill); shooting galleries for our ranged-weapon Warrior Order; a combination vision quest and logic puzzle, for a dinner with eighteen guests, in a mystery cult test; even a complex social challenge of trading tokens throughout the course of a gala. We directly lifted SI’s alchemical teaching time for celestials, though it is not as mercenary in tone.

The dominant trends of our circle tests have been to fold them into existing content as often as possible (with the occasional trade-off of the test just… not happening, and the player never finds out why it is taking us so damn long to test them), and favoring objective tests over subjective ones. On objective vs. subjective, I don’t believe that either way is better, but the former fits our style. The down side to it is that it dissuades some players from pursuing skills for which they expect to face such tests. In actuality, we would try to fit the test to the player’s way of engaging with the game.

Conclusion

If you’re running a long-term LARP campaign, circle tests can add richness to in-game skill progression. They are a great way to showcase the deeper meaning of a form of magic or an organization. As long as you’re dealing with players who accept the spotlight, circle tests feel awesome – the player proves her skill, or makes a choice that alters or restates their heroic ethos. In that light, it is the definition of drama.

On the other hand, they raise players’ expectations, and they intersect with a character’s mechanical progression. Without circle tests or something like them, I feel like there are no hurdles to learning powerful magic or becoming one of the world’s greatest swordsmen – just wait, play the game, and you’ll inevitably get there. With circle tests, failure is on the table as a possibility, though that should be a setback and not a permanent dead end. Take a good, hard look at the game you want to run, the resources available, and whether those resources could be better used some other way. Certainly in SI’s case, sorcery circle tests generated enough anticipation and preparatory interaction that they entertained players long before and long after the test itself. As I mentioned, SI’s alchemy tests and spell teaching drove the alchemists’ gameplay. As a result, they do look like an efficient use of staff resources after the fact.

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