This past weekend marked the thirteenth weekend-long event of Dust to Dust, so I want to talk about what goes into filling out an event’s schedule. Now, there are a ton of valid ways to approach this; the one that works for you is necessarily correct. I’m just talking about what works for us. Also, Dust to Dust is a fantasy boffer LARP with a heavy emphasis on story and relatively open-world play – if your game isn’t one or more of these things, this advice may not apply at all. (That is, I don’t pretend that my comments would apply to the Camarilla, which is salon-style; Dagorhir, which as I understand it is not story-focused; or IFGS, which is more about running groups through modules than open-world play.)
There are a few immutable points in any Dust to Dust event schedule, so we start with those. (Most times are goals rather than absolutes.)
- Friday, 11:00 p.m.: Opening Ceremonies
- Friday, 11:30 p.m.: Start of Play
- Saturday, somewhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.: Plot falls asleep
- Saturday, somewhere between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.: Plot wakes up again
- Saturday, 4 p.m.: Celestial Teaching Time
- Saturday, 6 or 7 p.m.: Feast
- Saturday, somewhere between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Sunday (preferably earlier): Climactic Action, usu. in the form of a Field Battle
- Sunday, somewhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.: Plot falls asleep
- Sunday, somewhere between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.: Plot wakes up again
- Sunday, 11 a.m.: Closing Ceremonies. (This is the one absolutely fixed time on the schedule.)
Since it’s a comment I expect to hear – this is not the right place to debate whether we should start earlier, stop earlier, go to bed differently, or whatever. Other games may have other times for each of these things to happen. When considering the advice in this post, fill in your own times.
To handle the information of the schedule, there’s a GDocs spreadsheet with the names of staff members and known full-time NPCs on the rows, and each waking hour of the event on the columns. Additional rows at the bottom summarize the in-town and module action at any given time.
For this post to have anything more than the abundantly obvious, we’ll have to get down to brass tacks. Friday night is usually about exposition for the whole of the event, the first part of which is getting new characters through their newbie module.
The Newbie Module
If you’re running a boffer LARP with any connection to the traditions of other American boffer LARPs, I probably don’t need to explain the newbie module to you. For the sake of completeness, though, I’ll say a few words. It’s a good idea to make sure that new characters have something interesting and fun to do right off the bat, a kind of tutorial that isn’t just a lite version of the real game. It’s tough to write really compelling newbie modules – by definition, newbies don’t have the context that more experienced characters have. (Here I’m speaking of new characters, regardless of the experience of the players.) An adventure needs its own exposition, rising action, climax, and conclusion; a newbie module needs all of those things to also serve as exposition.
The newbie module also shouldn’t take too long, because when you want new players to engage with the event’s content, keeping them away from it suffers from diminishing returns. Best practices include introducing information and bennies that make the new characters useful to the weekend’s main conflicts. Handing out information alone is clearly easier, but if this is your pattern, you run the risk of experienced players getting the info download from the new players and ignoring them from thenceforth. (Even with very inclusive playerbases, if there’s a lot of other pressure in the event’s conflicts, remembering to include the new guy is one of the first priorities to go out the window.)
Another way to kick off an event – and one that trumps the need for a newbie module – is what we tend to call a “hard” open. (It’s a parallel to a TV show’s cold open, but the true cold open is not a possibility within our gaming format.) In this usage, a hard open is violence, or the clear threat thereof, right from the moment that gameplay begins. The most common variant of this we commonly call “taking the town.”
Taking the Town
This idea plays to a lot of the common conceits of state-park-based boffer LARPing: that the PCs collectively represent the populace of a town, and the cabins of the state park are a town. Sometimes the plot makes it reasonable for the PCs to enter the area as a group, exploring it as if it were new and unfamiliar, and presumably facing resistance along the way. The huge benefit to this is that with some effort, you get players to look at familiar space in a new and unfamiliar way. It also puts them on the offensive, which is a disadvantage to them; in most games they are accustomed to defending this ground and being the ones with tricks up their sleeves.
Doing a take-the-town well requires a lot of work from Plot. The high-water mark of my experience is the final event of Shattered Isles’ first arc. The event used a park that some of us had never even seen before, which Plot had spent the entirety of Friday decorating in great detail. Most of the cabins had been transformed in some way, and the traps rogues had more to do than ever before. It was the most fear for the longest period that a LARP has ever inspired in me, and I think the same was true for many other players.
There are a lot of valid implementations of taking-the-town that involve a less overwhelming amount of work; the unifying factor is getting the PCs the proceed through the main area of the site with trepidation, facing resistance. The longer you can keep the players off-balance and decentralized, the better. Though you wouldn’t want to do it every time, taking-the-town induces players to entertain themselves more than “normal” play. It presents them with a large-scale goal with a large number of unknowns that they do not need a marshal to resolve, just a Plan and some organization. Basic self-preservation slows their advance and draws out the amount of engaging gameplay that taking-the-town provides; this is extended further when the opposing force shows some cunning. I think for most people this is a pretty satisfying emotional arc, too. Securing an unfamiliar area is a very solid check mark of achievement, and resolving fear and uncertainty into confidence gets to the heart of heroic adventuring.
Aside from the obvious labor involved on Plot’s part, another issue with this device is that it is pretty action-focused. If you have a substantial population of characters who don’t have skills applicable to the exploration, they may be stuck without much to do.
Corollary: Best-practices encounter design applies here. Look for ways to make those less-combat-useful skills pay off here, with puzzles or anything else. The obvious one is locks and traps, though be careful about how heavily you require security-disabling skills to get into each building, because you can wind up giving them too much spotlight. That is, if there are too few security-disabling players available, they become a bottleneck to gameplay.
There are a lot of other valid ways to open an event, of course. There’s nothing wrong with a soft open; if it isn’t the most common format, a hard open loses a little of its impact. There are also a lot of other possible hard opens; one Wildlands South event opened with a character spewing green foam from the mouth and delivering a creepy speech. (The character had done something unwise at the end of the previous event, and this was the result – a test case for “even punishment is interesting content.”) A good soft open gives PCs a chance to get their footing and ease into character, as the action ramps up. For Dust to Dust and Eclipse, the first hour or two of gameplay are especially filled with characters coming back together after some time apart, and comparing notes on the various tasks they’ve accomplished.
Dust to Dust’s ritualism rules have obligated us to re-examine our approach to the hard and soft opens. Because ritualists prepare their spells on-camera with gameplay that includes a failure chance, they need more time to get ready than other characters. Originally, this meant that the first 1-2 hours of gameplay were eaten up with ritual casting. Since we didn’t want to just ruin their events, hard opens were off the table. You may deduce from my commentary above that this didn’t sit well, so we now allow ritualists and homunculi to begin casting prior to the technical start of play, just as soon as they have checked in. This hasn’t caused any issues, and has been a major quality-of-life improvement for ritualists and homunculi. The one wrinkle that has come up a few times, as in this past event, is when the PCs are separated along unusual lines prior to the start of play, so that their choices of cooperative casting partners are limited. I regard this as a feature.
This is one of the hardest things in running a LARP of the genre I’m talking about (again, that’s boffer LARPs with an emphasis on story and open-world play): balancing the intense and personal-scale fun of modules against the need to entertain everyone, and thus have lots of in-town activity and entertainment. I doubt that any game has avoided struggling with this at some point. Good in-town entertainment is hard, and doing something more involved than Another Field Battle is hard – believe me, I know. Innovations in in-town entertainment are rare and beautiful things.
The goal is to keep two or three encounters going on in different parts of the site at all times. Easy is everything happening at the site’s mess hall – but that’s guaranteed to miss people who are relaxing in their cabins across site because it’s either very hot or very cold out, or because they’ve made their cabin into a social hub and want to get some mileage out of that work. It’s best when PCs entertain one another, but that has its limits – active and entertaining PCs are not an excuse for Plot to fuck off to the pub. If you’re spending that time running modules, an NPC coming up to that group and taking a portion of the group off on an adventure while the rest stay home is kind of a wet blanket on their efforts to entertain one another, as even the best players will have a passing thought of “But… adventure! I’m here to do the adventuring!”
That, then, relates to why in-town encounters need to be active and compelling experiences: you don’t mind not going on the module if there’s something cool going on Right Here. In-play games – especially high-stakes tournaments of in-play games – are solid gold as far as this goes. God bless players who organize and run tourneys and other in-play games for the low, low price of some in-play currency donated by an NPC faction. The Court of Love event at KG was one of the best long sequences of in-town entertainment I can recall, because it combined tourneys with high-profile political NPCs.
Smaller-scale in-town encounters are also important: 1-3 NPCs with major or minor briefings, entering town to advance a plotline, show another aspect of the setting, or just provide some conflict to resolve. If the NPCs have a decent number of goals or things to offer, they can be a wonderfully efficient use of resources to entertain people. This is a sort of complicated place to use first-time NPCs: sending them out in talky roles can be incredibly overwhelming, and they need to have the confidence to be outgoing. Talky NPCs who sit in a corner and wait for people to come to them are a waste, unless it’s abundantly clear that they are interesting, important people (through props, costuming, or whatever). This phenomenon – of players ignoring NPCs who aren’t obviously of immediate importance – is only exacerbated by the need for those NPCs to come into the tavern in a vague semblance of a costume to get food and water (such as at feast); it’s necessary, but teaches a bad lesson.
Let’s take it as a given that you’re going to run modules. Yes, it’s possible to run games without them. If you find that you’re running too many modules and neglecting in-town entertainment, it’s a bold but worthy exercise to run an event without any modules, so that all of the action takes place in the central game area or includes the entire playerbase in non-central action (that is, a module that includes the whole playerbase – a common way to run field battles). Still, it’s not the common mode, and it does really restrict what you can do with the story and the action. In-town entertainment still needs to be king, though – it is the shared experience of the game. If you have a choice between staging an encounter in-town or on a module, in-town is very nearly always the right answer. If and when there’s nothing at all going on in town (at least during your active hours), that’s kind of a problem.
Teaching Time is something of an artifact that Dust to Dust inherited from Shattered Isles, not found in King’s Gate, Eclipse, or most other campaigns. In Shattered Isles, it was the time that elementals emerged from the Dorum Almatul to teach the alchemists new spells and allow them to advance to new circles. This was, pretty reliably, somewhere around 3 or 4 p.m. on Saturday. As long as you showed up at the Dorum, it was a guaranteed encounter with something that probably did not want to kill you. There was a separate teaching time for sorcerers, when a master sorcerer NPC would show up to teach spells and run circle tests (I should really write about circle tests at some point), but because sorcery was illegal during much of the first arc, these encounters were held in secret.
In Dust to Dust, only the celestials require teaching of spells in the way that spellcasters did in Shattered Isles. When a marshal tips the players off that Plot is ready to run the encounter, the celestials go to a pre-arranged location on site and spend an expensive consumable production item, called a Sigil of Sanctification. This summons a Primarch, a member of a higher choir of angels, who talks to the assembled PCs, provides a little free psychotherapy, advances them in the celestial warrior order (if applicable), and teaches celestials new spells. It takes an hour or two of a staff member’s time on Saturday afternoon, and entertains between ten and twenty players pretty reliably – all in all, an astoundingly efficient use of that staffer’s time.
The other good thing about Teaching Time is simply having a regular occurrence that shows up in every event. It’s consistent plot support for a whole player race, and the Primarchs are (if anything) even more alien in their thinking than the celestial PCs. There’s a sense of spectacle to the summoning of the Primarch – most summons include characters of other races in the audience as well. There are a ton of other kinds of Teaching Time one could include in a game: Seven Virtues hangs a huge portion of its event on this idea, while I understand that at least one NERO chapter has a school of chivalry every Saturday morning. These are prime examples of using the regularly scheduled encounter to communicate what’s really important in the setting.
Okay, a serious breakdown of Feast at events needs a lot more time than I can give it in this post, as well as being a deeply controversial issue. Let’s skip it for now, and maybe I can write that post someday. For now, let’s go with this: people need calories, and if Plot can provide centralized entertainment during dinner, so much the better. By this point in a normal event, Plot needs calories as much or more than anyone else, and until those calories have started to work their magic, getting a polished roleplaying encounter out of the average staff member is unusually hard.
Feast is also going to create a lull in the action of the event, extending to an hour or so past the end of actual dining. In addition to the obvious cleanup, no one (including the NPCs) is going to thank you for staging a bunch of fighting right after they’ve stuffed their little tummies with the sustenance they need to get through the next eight or more hours.
Once Plot is fed, their next big priority is the field battle. This involves some amount of setup: at minimum, handing claw boffers, tabards, and packets to the monters, and briefing them. At maximum, Garrick Andrus has spent the last 20 hours setting up tarp, PVC pipe squares, lighting, all kinds of crap hanging from the ceiling, water balloons – that shit is just completely out of control. (The fact that it is Garrick setting it up doesn’t mean it’s an Eclipse event, because G-man has volunteered his time to set up great battles even for games he’s not staffing. Also, he’s usually not working alone.)
Setting up the scene of the field battle, briefing the NPCs, getting the NPCs into place, and getting the PCs to the battle can take hours, and that’s one of the serious sticky points of LARP running. You really don’t want to have nothing happen between 8 p.m. and the start of the battle. (Go ahead, aim for 10 p.m. as the start of the battle. If you want to make the gods of gaming laugh, tell them your plans.) As staffers and volunteers scramble hither and thither over site, the PCs are often sitting on their hands, because sparing one or more staffers to go into play and run an interesting encounter is just pushing the field battle back further. The same is true, if less so, for sending non-staffer NPCs into play for some random violence – a good idea, but they can’t do that and receive briefings or get into costume at the same time, so at some point you have to pull them back to get them ready to fight. It’s all the worse if you have only PCs doing monstering time, and no full-time non-staff NPCs.
Ultimately the “lull” is a fact of life, though it can be controlled and minimized with deft workflow management. Even veteran committees sometimes see this span of time stretch to four hours or more. The best advice I can offer is a careful analysis of workflow prior to the event, and making sure that you can spare a staffer and a few NPCs to handle in-town entertainment. This is a time to minimize modules (highly entertaining, but inefficient across the whole of the playerbase) and, where possible, get players to entertain themselves with tactical briefings that build excitement for the field battle. If a substantive number of Bothans can die to bring some useful information that the players can decipher and debate, that’s fantastic.
Caveat: this may engage only your most outspoken players. This applies in any players-entertaining-each-other situation; if someone is already feeling a little shut out, odds are that will only worsen.
If you are more on the serial-drama side and less on the sandbox/emergent-plot side, this span of time is where the Act IV reveal hits. The players should discover at this stage just how screwed they really are. Their actions up to this point matter, certainly, but the villain’s plan finally unfolds in fullness, or an unsettling truth is uncovered, or The Reversal occurs. It is important that the Act IV reveal doesn’t undermine the protagonists, unless they really are getting too big for their britches. You have got to have a razor-sharp understanding of your players and the narrative realities that they perceive to undermine their prowess without alienating them as players.
The Climactic Action
There’s a link above with a lot more of my thoughts on field battle encounter design, most of which I learned from working on Wildlands South, or directly from talking to Stands-in-Fire. This doesn’t have to be a battle per se, though heroic adventure has always had a tough time internalizing the really gripping aspects of non-combat climaxes, with the possible exception of the skillful repair of dangerous machinery. In other kinds of fiction, it’s normal to hang a climax on a tense exchange of dialogue, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make a tense exchange of dialogue into an encounter that included the whole playerbase. (I grant that it could be done, but I can’t readily see how.) In heroic adventure, we want to see flashing swords, blazing guns, or other setting-appropriate implements of destruction.
In most boffer LARPs, there has been sword-work aplenty up to this point, but the climactic encounter has the most intense dangers and the highest emotional stakes. If you believe in things like narrative structure, anyway. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, I’m sure, but for a truly excellent climax, create more than one possible outcome through which the campaign can still go forward – that is, ways that the PCs can lose the fight without all being dead. Ideally, the bad guys’ goal is only “kill all of the PCs” when the PCs are on the offensive; in that case, you could just as correctly state the antagonists’ goal as “force them to flee and let us continue what we were doing.”
Oh, but you’ve heard this advice before? Well, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – give the PCs goals that don’t involve killing all of the bad guys, so that the bad guys recognize when the battle is lost. A bad guy who fights for awhile and picks a good time to escape (because there’s nothing left to win here) is a bad guy who can return later and develop further emotional context. The conflicts mean more, though, when victory is not assured through plot necessity. Sure, you’re willing to let the PCs lose and end the campaign – but letting them lose in a way that doesn’t end the campaign is the kind of outcome that reshapes player psychology.
Falling Action and Denouement
Assuming the field battle ends before 4 a.m. (God help you), Plot probably does not close up shop the moment the field battle ends. Usually you can get the field battle started earlier than 1:15, and many of them run less than two hours and forty-five minutes. I choose those specific numbers, of course, because that is what happened at this past DtD event – let’s just say that’s not how the schedule got written. (Which brings back to mind the #1 lesson: the schedule is going to slip. If it isn’t a herculean effort to stay somewhere near the schedule, you might not have packed it with enough stuff.)
Anyway, if your field battle has concluded at a reasonable hour, there’s still several more hours left for exciting action. If your game uses attrition mechanics to regulate player power – that is, a lot of per-day powers and consumable items – players would probably like to get a little more mileage out of anything they didn’t spend in the field battle. (If you really pushed them hard enough that everyone is out of juice… good for you, but you can still run social and skill-challenge encounters.)
Like you’d expect from your English 101 class, these post-climax encounters should be about reflection on the outcome of the climax: character development or recapitulation of ethos. Assuming you have a next event to look forward to, you’ll also want to drop hints as to the next big conflict, if necessary. Finally, this is a time for Plot to advance players’ and teams’ individual goals, as separate from the core conflict of the event. (You should be doing some amount of this kind of plot throughout the event, but this is the time for the greatest amount of it, since you don’t have to focus as much on selling the event’s primary conflict anymore.) If there are rewards to be handed out – bounties collected, patents of nobility conferred, that sort of thing – this is a great time for it. The rewards phase is great for drawing out the afterglow of victory. Even better, combine some of these ideas by handing out rewards that are mostly good, but carry a little bit of mixed blessing, and thus provide hooks for future story.
In my experience, the falling action wraps up a lot earlier in cold months (as early as 2 a.m.) and a lot later in hot months (as late as 5:51 a.m., aiiiieee). This has to do with both temperature and the time of sunset – it’s just another thing to keep in mind in laying out a schedule. PCs are going to go to bed when they think the evening’s action is done, or when they’re too tired to care about missing any more of the action. This gets a bit sticky if you are planning something super-late, especially something that they aren’t anticipating – many’s the module that took too long to set up, only to get scrapped or pushed to a later event because all of the PCs had already become one with their pillows.
Once upon a time, Sunday morning was a time for more game content. Wildlands South had a tradition of the Sunday morning field battle, for crying out loud. (In my nightmares I still hear the Campaign Director calling out, “Rise and shine, my little field mice of Evil!”) It’s a habit we’ve gotten far away from, for anything other than a player or two cooking up some breakfast that will be particularly easy to clean up. Remember all that stuff I was just saying about how late things sometimes run? Yeah. It would be great to have the energy and wherewithal to do otherwise, but we have to be cleaned up, packed up, and offsite by 1 p.m. – I’m not much inclined to risk the massive additional stress of rushing the cleanup just to get one additional encounter on-camera for players who have no idea why I’m waking them up and really wish I would fuck off for another hour or so.
It’s important to pack a schedule with content, and to give some thought ahead of time to what you’re going to drop when the schedule slips (or what you can add when an encounter falls through and you need to fill a couple of hours). The average encounter – whatever that means! – can reasonably be called an hour of work, between briefing, costuming, entering play, running the scene, exfiltrating, and debriefing. As long as they’re not dying of heat, cold, or exhaustion, you don’t want NPCs or staffers just hanging around backstage when they could be working on setting up or running an encounter. (“Setting up” here is shorthand for all logistical tasks.)
I expect I’ll revisit a number of schedule elements in future posts, since this one wound up long enough that I could have broken it into at least three posts. I’m interested in hearing the deep truths and bitter lessons of scheduling that other players and staffers have learned from years of experience, including compare-and-contrast lessons from other LARP genres.