Setting Thought Experiment: The City of Mists

Once Dust to Dust ends, I will need a long break from running LARPs. Possibly permanent, but who knows? The point is that this post is just something I have to write to get it out of my head: a LARP setting and approach to game-running that are quite different from DtD. (Otherwise I’d be thinking about how to pack more Cool Stuff into that game, in keeping with Brustian literary theory.) In offset blocks below most of these points, I will say a few words about why I like each idea.
There is a village, surrounded by a sea of impassible mists. The only things the villagers can get to outside of the village are a mountain with a cave system beneath it, and the river that flows from the mountain. All of the players are from different families of this village, and each family is responsible for some of the things that sustain the whole village. Was there ever anything beyond the mists? There are tales of dreams, nothing more.

The reasoning here is that I’d like to experiment with making the world more accessible to players. I love what we’ve accomplished with DtD, and I’d like to see what the other end of that spectrum looks like. Scaling down to stakes that are immediate, visible, and quantifiable also has a lot of appeal. I don’t expect that the whole campaign would stay at that level, but that’s fine.

In the village there is a Great Machine that has lain dormant for as long as can be remembered. When it sparks back to life, it brings change to the village, spouting instructions and teaching the villagers to use strange new talents. In this way the villagers begin to relearn the secrets of magic and science. Many adventures center on repairs or modifications to the Great Machine.

Ideally, there is also some kind of no-marshal-needed way to interact with and enjoy the machine. I’ve been very pleased that Martel’s Table has given players something to look at and think about, but they can only do things when a marshal is present. The next step on the path of Interesting Stuff is to give it moving parts that the players can mess with and resolve without a marshal present. 

Several years ago I wrote this post about changing the scale of games. I’d be pursuing this idea, with the addition of a few more tasks – something that was like being nobility, but not. Maybe a “family of the Council Fire” – a few families that for some reason have a hereditary right to lead the village council. They’re a priestly and judicial caste. These backgrounds are a big part of how the game sets its tone for the players. The more unorthodox version of this is a more formalized character history process, but I’d need to give that more thought. I don’t know what kinds of dramatic events might have shaped this village, but I am happy enough with Historical Events that it would be tough for me not to repeat that trick. Some of the burden currently shouldered by Historical Events would instead rest on familial connections that Plot goes out of its way to help establish.
There are at least three options open as player races – that is, human and two others. I might go with something like elves (green highlights, pointed ears) and veytikka (gray skin, maybe black nails, claws; fangs optional), and further give each of them another distinctive skin tone option (maybe veytikka also sometimes have human-looking skin that is dappled with black, and maybe some elves are dark elves (but not evil as a result… they just look different, to make the point that non-humans have as much internal variation as humans). Also, new player races are very likely to become available over the course of play. Fortunately I am never going to have to implement this, so I can stop at the brainstorming stage. (It is worth noting that the earliest conversations that eventually became DtD were predicated on “never having to implement this.”)

This setting seems like a perfect chance to have an all-humans campaign, but in working on DtD I’ve realized that makeup races are really useful in distinguishing two different characters played by the same person. It’s easier and more memorable than making sure every single character you need to play has a distinctive piece of costuming. At the same time, I’ve never quite gotten on board with the huge numbers of character races seen in some settings.

One of the tough things about this game is that I want to shift more of the entertainment value into non-combat play, just because the mood that interests me for this place requires establishing the serenity that is later broken. (This idea might be better off as a video game than as a LARP.) It would be possible, but a bit of an uphill climb, to work out enough social conflict that people had things to do and talk about all of the time. The big challenge of the first event, for example, is constructing a forge that is sufficient to make good steel, so that the village can have sturdy weapons. Some of this I could cover by making modules especially focused on physical challenges.

I have this very weird idea that the Great Machine might teach skills in a manner almost comparable to The Matrix. Players find tokens of different shapes and sizes with the name of a new skill or ability written on them, as rewards for all sorts of different tasks. They can exchange tokens with one another, but once it goes into the Great Machine to teach a skill, it’s gone. I’d want to look for new and inventive ways to put this “treasure” into the game, to make sure even people who are Bad At Treasure got interesting things.

The seed of this idea is the tokens themselves and how they are decorated. I feel like it would be incredibly cool to establish a visual language signifying relative rarity and value in the size, shape, and coloration of tokens, so that when you get something awesome, every aspect of the object builds your anticipation of this new thing. The name of the skill – that is, the literal signifier – can grow more mysterious and ambiguous; if everything else comes together correctly, this only intensifies your interest in the thing.

After an event or two, the Great Machine signals that it is ready to rejoin the village with another mist-bound piece of real estate. The question is, will it be the Witchwood, or the Ruined Abbey? The Great Machine calls for a vote among the villagers, possibly appointing someone at random to break a tie. This happens repeatedly over the course of the campaign’s run. Plot has to be ready to move forward with either one, noting that players can’t ever choose “none of the above.” Sometimes all of the options are “bad” or at least scary options, sometimes they are all “good” options, but it’s all just new content (which means there are conflicts and rewards to be found). Sometimes things the players passed by earlier become options again later (especially if that option lost by only a small margin), and sometimes they’re gone.

The point here is pretty obvious: to let the players direct the evolution of the content. This is something that we’ve done in DtD, probably more than players realize. Therefore I’d like to try making those choices and directions more explicit. The early choices also inform later choices, to a certain degree, by establishing idioms and connotations; otherwise a lot of these choices are made with minimal transparency, only a smattering of clues, to put a tiny bit of a brake on the tendency toward recrimination if you wind up not liking the results.

On consideration, a lot of this idea seems like a simple perspective shift on Tulevar from Shattered Isles’ second arc. There is some justice to that; it’s been eleven years since Tulevar became part of my imagination’s melting pot, and it’s not surprising that it should resurface. On the other hand, I’m pointedly casting the PCs as the natives, and I’m not planning to go in an Aztec direction with this so much. The cave complex that provides a place to explore in the early game is a strong parallel for Tulevar’s Labyrinth, after a fashion, though not quite as multiversal. Also, if I ever did run this, I could do a damn sight worse than stealing the kepri (malicious goat-people) outright. Each time the Great Machine adds new territory to the world, the setting becomes a bit more unlike Tulevar.
Another of my major sources here is Below, which I talked about not too long ago. The writing of that game achieves exactly the right balance of depth and approachability – that is, the exposition never gets in the way, and there’s a lot of room for the player’s imagination to backfill from the briefest of cues. One of the things I would steal from that outright is the Wolf-Lord, a massive talking wolf who is defeated more by wits than by force of arms. I’m not sure how I’d implement that to make it interesting in a LARP, but one possibility is that it first must be defeated by brute force (because Action is still the second letter of LARP). Once it has been beaten down, it gains an unlimited usage of a tagline that is something like Disengage; it stays alive but injured until its pride is defeated as well, in some kind of battle of wits.

The important part of this idea is something I mean to post about in much greater detail in the future, but in brief it’s this: Villains should always get a chance to talk to the heroes. The conflict of their goals and philosophies is what defines each as hero or villain. You can’t be an iconic hero if you don’t recapitulate your ethos, and you can’t be a very good dramatic hero if no one knows what your ethos was before and after it changed. I would go out of my way to establish customs of parlay (more like really important guidelines that it profits the heroes to obey) in the setting – which is also a related aspect of wanting violence to be the solution to fewer of the significant conflicts.

I haven’t currently worked out any of the story of why the world is separated into island realms in the mists, though I want to emphasize that I am not just putting a new coat of paint on Ravenloft. Ravenloft is one of the all-time great settings, no question about it – and there are certainly Major Villains in the setting that are dimly comparable to the domain lords – but it’s still not quite where I am with this.
On a systems front, it may be obvious by now that the core CI/Ro3 system isn’t the best possible fit for this. I haven’t explored the idea of what I would do, and (in an unusual move for me) the system isn’t what interests me here. I would probably go for a stripped-down version of CI/Ro3’s rules, unless I were making this into a video game instead. (I don’t know that I’d ever get around to making this a video game, but with Storium gaining steam over in Kickstarter, and StoryNexus being… all that it is, I’m at least intrigued by the idea.) My main thought is that minigame-driven magic such as DtD uses in ritualism (and, if I understand correctly, 2nd Dawn uses in one of their magic systems) is still a space with a lot of room left to explore, and I’d like to do something new there, perhaps taking some inspiration from the system of charges found in the Forest of Doors magic system.
And hey, if you stuck with me this far… thanks! Comments welcome.

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