|Yeah, it felt about like this.|
The LARP that I play, Eclipse, recently staged an event that genuinely surprised me and did things I had never before seen in the whole medium of boffer LARPing. I had a phenomenal time, and I want to break down what they did and talk about all the different elements that made it work. I’ve talked before about common event formats, which is a useful baseline and contrast to this event.
Eclipse is a science-fantasy LARP; its essential conceit (revealed over many years of play) is that it is the far future of a relatively-traditional fantasy world, including elves and dwarves (operating under different names). The PCs usually live on the planet variously known as Eclipse, Prime, or Middian, fighting robots or space demons or other whatever else. There was a hydra once. Anyway.
As a secondary element of the fantasy setting, it turns out that navigable space around planets isn’t like it is in real life; it’s a little more like the crystal spheres of Spelljammer. This tidbit was dropped in culture packets at the start of the campaign, which is how I discovered that I hadn’t read mine closely or recently enough.
In past year or so, the playerbase as a whole has gained access to a spaceship with a respectable combat capability. No one in the game is specialized in crewing a ship like this, and that’s good because here we are in Year, uh, Ten? and this is the second or third time anyone has been on a spaceship. It also means that all of the players are learning how the campaign will handle spaceflight and space combat together – no one has skills on their character cards to make them better at this stuff, and we’re all on a level playing field. There’s no Captain or First Mate. This is especially important because, as a campaign in its tenth year (might just be ninth, I don’t remember now) the most senior Eclipse PCs are leaps and bounds above new PCs, and Eclipse’s staff has to be creative in leveling that field.
For those of you with extensive boffer LARPing experience in Georgia, I probably don’t need to describe the group camp of Indian Springs State Park to you. For everyone else: the group camp has several small buildings, which comfortably house four people, or six if two bring cots, and four dorm buildings, each of which comfortably houses… what, like forty people? Somewhere around forty, anyway. Coincidentally, it’s about the same as Eclipse’s current playerbase. The dorms are clustered in two groups of two. One cluster is the sleeping area for staff and NPCs, and the staging area for larger-scale adventures. The other cluster has always been PC housing.
At this event, however, the PCs packed into a single dorm building rather than spreading out over two dorm buildings and two or even three smaller buildings. Our building was “crew quarters,” while the other dorm building nearby was the Command Bridge and some peripheral decks (a diplomatic reception lounge, Engineering, and so on).
Most of our travel involves moving the planet by transitioning into subspace and back out. In approaching our current goal, however, we didn’t have the galactic coordinates to move Eclipse close to our destination. Instead, we got as close as we could and took the spaceship the rest of the way (the spaceship can travel through subspace at need as well). The point of this is, we had a long haul to complete on the spaceship, and there are a number of interesting stellar and planetary features between points A and B.
Or, to put that a different way, through the magic of Artemis, we played Star Trek: the Boffer LARP for much of the weekend, and it was amazing. Unlike Star Trek, however, there was no permanent bridge crew or chain of command. Out-of-play, this is because they wanted everyone to get at least one shot at working the bridge. In-play, this was because controlling the ship involves the ship invasively interfacing with us, and that’s bad for you over periods of more than two hours at a stretch. Unlike a standard run of Artemis, there were away missions.
In one of the large rooms of the dorm building, they set up a large flatscreen for the main view, and tablets for the Helm, Engineering, Weapons, and Science/Comms (normally in Artemis these are separate jobs, but here they were combined) on a semicircle of tables. The captain’s chair was positioned in the center of the semicircle. The windows of the room were covered with circuitry-patterned paper.
For away missions, PC team size was limited by our shuttle… which happened to be someone’s car. We packed about as many people as we could into a player’s car, along with all of our gear. I’ve talked before about how to limit module party size in LARPs, and this one felt pretty real. It was a short enough drive from the dorm buildings down to the module site that we didn’t mind packing in tight; also it was a bitterly cold January weekend, so we were grateful for the shuttle in the first place.
The Course of Play
The bridge didn’t need a crew twenty-four hours a day – whenever we shifted into subspace, there was nothing for the crew to do. Considering how content-rich our tour of regular space was, it’s just as well that they didn’t try to sustain that pace more than they did. In regular space, one staff member managed the Artemis server (which was, it must be admitted, a bit flaky), coached the players a bit on how to use the game’s UI, and portrayed the ship’s computer. (He’s no Majel Barrett, but he did a great job anyway.)
What made this impressive was that the marshal was running things responsively. Some away-mission modules were pre-planned, but many ran with minimal forewarning. In the latter case, the marshal just told the staffer and PCs doing their staff augmentation time a general theme and maybe a high point to hit, and they improvised. The away missions I went on were clearly on the more-planned side, including an encounter with something that was basically a psychic myconid – a simple encounter with a truly impressive costuming job.
Most of the away missions emphasized puzzle-solving over combat, including repairs to the ship in EVA suits (all players had been advised to bring something that could be at least a semi-plausible future-tech EVA suit). I think there were usually about two away missions running at any given time, plus the bridge crew.
What this means – and what makes this so impressive to me – is that Artemis and the bridge crew are a kind of meta-module. One staff member occupies five players for a two-hour span, and those five players organize and distribute incoming content to the other players. (We even had cases of bridge crew members getting assigned to away missions, though fortunately not the whole crew like you’d see in Star Trek.) Thanks to walkie-talkies – in-play comms – away missions can even communicate with the bridge.
In my stint on the bridge crew, I stood (well, sat, but the idiom is stood) at the helm, and our roster turned out to work together like a well-oiled machine without training. This isn’t a review of Artemis, but in super-brief – I can’t say enough good about the gamification of player communication that I’m seeing more and more of these days, and I love the player interdependency that goes on in this game.
The staff showed extraordinary agility in responding to things going wrong in Artemis and making things happen on the ship. In one case, a very powerful enemy ship got the better of the bridge crew. The staff reworked the opening of an encounter they were going to run anyway (because its briefing and costuming were clearly pretty intense), putting the PCs in the debt of some people we would really rather not be in debt to and changing the tenor of a diplomatic encounter in an interesting way. It also gave those NPCs a lot of credibility right out of the gate.
For this particular event, I NPCed the field battle, and have no perspective on how the decisions leading up to the field battle were framed to the PCs. The result was a lot like Act IV of any Star Trek movie – the bad guy took over the ship, including the ship’s computer. If this had been Star Trek, it would have been a good time to separate the saucer and reverse the polarity of something or other.
This event model wouldn’t work for most LARPs, because Artemis isn’t easily reskinned or replicated to fit genres other than space opera. I can vaguely imagine alternate meta-module structures, but a huge part of what made this event such a success was making all of the PCs feel like they were packed into cramped crew quarters (which require large dorm buildings), and having a visual marker (onscreen, that is) for our space travel. Artemis is a very good game in its own right. This wasn’t Eclipse’s first time using it, but it was the grandest vision for how it could shape a whole event – before this event, it had remained an interesting sideline rather than the central feature.
Everyone I’ve talked to about this content model has shown enthusiasm for its re-use – maybe not every event, but once or twice a year. I would be interested to see a space-opera campaign develop the model further, but I feel like the absence of a command crew would eventually feel really weird. At the same time, having a command crew would block a lot of players from engaging with the content – so maybe Eclipse’s precise circumstances are lightning in a bottle.
Highly flexible module teams and re-briefing NPCs moments before they go on stage to adapt to changing circumstances are good techniques for every game, though the latter is less necessary in the low-tech communications environment of most fantasy LARPs.
I look forward to the next shipboard event, especially following a few other events of more conventional formats. Probably no event has ever left me with as strong a feeling of “how are they going to top this?” as this one did, on the merits of its innovative format.