A few weeks ago I went on a larp retreat weekend — the first for quite a while. (This was ok under UK rules at the time, as it only involved combining two bubbles.) The aim was to playtest some ideas that we had variously been brewing. (As well as lovely company, great food and drink, walking in the countryside, and a hot tub.)
I ran a test of Still Waters, my second attempt at designing a hot-tub larp (the first was Primal Soup, which I don’t think I’ve written about on here yet (why, yes, I am quite behind with this blog): but anyway it works pretty well, you can download it from here).
Still Waters is very different, and I’ll do a proper post about it shortly. Suffice for now to say that the playtest basically worked but pointed up some significant weaknesses and difficulties, which I’ve since fixed thanks to the helpful feedback. So that was good.
Also in the hot tub was Laura Wood’s design Status Line, featuring contestants in a reality TV show. It’s a succession of short scenes set at intervals during the show’s run. The clever bit is that each scene is played twice: once as normal, and then again with each player attempting to reproduce their character’s movements and interactions from the first iteration, but just vocalizing their ongoing internal monologue rather than what they actually said. We did a kind of proof-of-concept on this rather than a full test, but it was enough to show it as interesting and fun.
Then we did actually get out of the tub to playtest another of Laura’s designs, which has the working title The Vision. This is a chamber larp around the lives of a group of children who receive a vision (or do they?) of the Virgin Mary. It’s divided into acts: the immediate aftermath; their teenage years; later in life. In each act, the participants choose a selection of short scenes (from a set of prompts) to play out, illustrating different aspects of the event’s impact on their lives, their relationships, their mental health, etc.
This was a tremendously powerful and engaging experience — grappling with themes of faith, loyalty, sibling rivalry, greed, manipulation, and more. I think it would make a great impression at Fastaval or at Stockholm Scenario Festival.
One thing that I was reminded of, that I perhaps need to fight a bit in myself: when I have the option of choosing between different scenes to play, I will usually by default go for a ‘safe’ choice: something that I know I can do comfortably and capably, rather than exposing myself to the risk of ‘failure’. This is just part of my natural caution, I guess. Whereas if I’ve been told what scene to play, then I will do so wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, no matter how risky it seems.
This is how giving participants agency over story can sometimes result in ‘weak’ play. You can tackle it to some extent by scaffolding the game in such a way as to build confidence and trust: but some people will always take the cautious route, if it’s on offer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it’s how they feel comfortable: but it’s something to be aware of, as a designer.
Anyway though so of course alongside this there was also a load of chat about larps and design and plans and so on: it was great to be together! Larp retreats are an excellent thing, if you get the chance to go on one.