In my all years of gaming one of my favourite things to do has been to run freeform live role-play (LRP) events for a very special audience. If you’ve never done a live game then I should explain that it is a more immediate and more unpredictable experience than a table top role-playing game. And if you’ve never role-played at all then think of it as like one of those How to Host a Murder Mystery box things, but with more people and no script. Or like one of the shows run by Secret Cinema or Punchdrunk Theatre. Whatever your background the essentials are that you get to dress up, pretend to be someone else for a while, and possible solve some puzzles, defeat the bad guys and/or act the goat all at the same time. If that sound like fun then that’s because it is. Or it can be when it is done right.
I am part of a group that has been doing their own freeform LRP games for over 15 years, and I’ve been creating or helping with the games for this group for 10 of them. Our approach to these games has changed a lot over this time frame as our experience has grown (as has the size of the group). We’ve built up a collective, shared experience which can be tapped into to make sure that each and every game is both successful and entertaining.
One consequence of all this is that I’ve become rather spoilt – I have so much fun at these things that when I go out to participate in a live event run by any other group I am continually disappointed. Even veteran groups that claim to know what they are doing often fall far short of expectations. And while my expectations might be higher than the average punter, there still isn’t any excuse for rookie mistakes or lazy writing.
All of this makes me want to try and encapsulate what I think works and what I think doesn’t work, not just for the benefit of the groups that I know, but so I can point new gamers I meet back at the list for posterity’s sake… 😉
1) If You Have a Plot, Share It
Narrative games can be tough, as you need to give every player’s character a backstory and some way to interact with the plot that will unfold. One common problem I’ve seen in games is that plot sensitive information is hidden away so deeply that players struggle to find it.
Or only one player has the information, and they choose not to share it with the right people (or at all). Because it’s often very difficult to predict how players will use the material they are given I have developed a rule of thumb that if I need a critical piece of plot information disseminated into the crowd I will seed the same information in multiple places – sometimes two, sometimes more.
For similar reasons this is why I prefer the ‘blast’ style of game where all characters are pre-written by the gamemasters, rather than by the players themselves. While it’s often not possible to control players once the game is on motion, the ‘blast’ method does allow you to define very clear narrative starting points and very clear character goals.
Having said that it *is* still possible to exert control if you see things aren’t going the way you planned. Some GMs convince themselves that player freedom is sacrosanct but that’s actually not true – in a narrative game the *story* is sacrosanct and the GM should do whatever it takes to make sure it stays on track.
If a player is holding out on the group and it’s not good for the story then ask them to stop, and if necessary explain why. If you have extremely stubborn players then you can incentivise collaborative play with bonus plot or experience points. Another approach is to hold a few players back to parachute into the game as special non-player characters (NPCs) who can seed items and information if you can see the story is bottle-necking.
2) Every Character is the Centre of His or Her Story
Another problem that commonly occurs in narrative games is that the GMs only believe in one story – the over-arching plot that they write to drive the game. In practice this approach has an unhealthy and polarising effect on the group. Players who get to participate in the ‘big plot’ have a wonderful time and get to feel validated. However, many more players will fail to find the ‘big plot’ (or will get shut out by other players) and a result will feel disappointed and short-changed.
Organisers should remain aware that – particular in paid-for events – an attendee can reasonably expect the same amount of care, attention and ‘spotlight’ as everybody else. The way to ensure this is not to write one single ‘big plot’, but a myriad of smaller interconnecting ones. If a player is given his or her own set of goals and is motivated to achieve them then he or she can measure his or her own success independently of everyone else.
And if as a GM you’re not interested in giving all of your players a fair shake then I’m afraid you’re simply doing it wrong. And if you’re a player on the wrong end of this then I would suggest finding (or starting) a different group.
3) Fill Up the Sandbox
Another thing I see quite a lot in live events is people standing around complaining of nothing to do. This isn’t necessarily a failure of imagination – the guidelines set out by the GMs, writers and organisers implicitly define what is and is not possible during the game.
The net consequence of exhausting the goals on your character sheet is that you no longer have any clear guidance on what to do next. If you have a strong sense of your character and the guts to play them to the hilt then so be it, but not all players are cut from the same cloth. For some a lack of instructions is read as a lack of incentive to engage at all.
For this reason when I’m constructing a new event I’m always thinking about secondary goals and other activities that can be run simultaneously within the game – ‘mini-games’ within the game if you will. By structuring in other social and competitive activities within the same game space you provide other things for people to do in addition to their own personal goals.
In fact, this approach can be taken to the extreme such that players are not given personal goals, and their story is entirely built from the activities they choose to engage with within the game space. Hence the term ‘sandbox’. This approach tends to work well (and often better than the narrative approach) with larger groups.
Essentially, presenting too many choices to a player is always better than presenting too few. And if in a rich, sandbox environment a player still complains of having nothing to do then they only have themselves to blame.
(photo by John Callaghan)
4) Ice-Breaking and Team Building
One of the most common problems I see in games is that they start slowly – or may even misfire – because of the getting-to-know-you process. Even in situations where the players know in each other in real life, they still need to go through the motions of learning the names, personalities and predilections of all the characters everyone else are playing in the game. For players that are also strangers this can be a nightmare, particularly for those that have any social anxiety.
There are however plenty of ways to dodge these issues. For example, if you make everyone name badges that also have some details about profession or occupation then the players can identify each other a little more easily. Better yet, on a player’s character sheet you can name other key player characters and give them background information, telling them what they should know and how they should feel about each relationship in advance.
For a sandbox style game a crucial thing to add is a simple activity that triggers interaction between player characters that do not know each other. It could be a simple, social parlour game, or some sort of focused activity requiring a team to be formed on the spot. Whatever the activity, it can serve to break the ice between players who – for whatever reason – might not otherwise approach each other at all.
Starting players in pre-determined teams is also a good ice-breaker – if you learn who is in your team first you have some camaraderie to distinguish you from the rest of the larger group. This philosophy can even be extended to having each team start separately in unique locations, to build both community within each team, and boundaries between the teams.
(photo by Matt Kirk)
5) Immersion, Immersion, Immersion
When you are running an event one big draw for the players is not just being other people, but feeling like you are in a different place and/or a different time. And on a meagre or non-existent budget it can be very difficult to think of ways to build that sense of immersion. You can ask your players to come in an appropriate costume of course, but that isn’t necessarily enough on it’s own.
Any self-respecting stage director would be able to tell you that one of the simplest ways to develop a certain tone or mood is to use the right lighting and the right sound. An empty space does not necessarily need to be dressed at all if you can play music that evokes the right era. Use lamps or spots to focus the attention of the crowd on the right areas (and use shadow to draw attention away from things which you would prefer to be hidden).
Another easy way to establish the mood of your game is in the materials you give out. Don’t just think about exposition, but about the cosmetic presentation. What font can you use on the character sheet? What turns of phrase can you use in the character background? What other material can you supply that would put the player in the right frame of mind?
If money was no object then most enterprising LRP groups would hire or build their own film set to play in, but the budgets or most real groups would never stretch that far. A more realistic goal is to collect generic materials that can be used repeatedly in different combinations to evoke different environments. A good place to start is something simply like tablecloths, or similar sheets to hang on walls. Table lamps and/or battery-powered candles can generate great mood lighting without the need for professional equipment. Invest in compilations of music by era, or film soundtracks.
One great way to wow a player is when they gain some sort of item, rather than give him or her some sort of abstract card or paper proxy, give him or her a real, physical prop instead. If they have an id card then why not get it made and laminated? If they find an ancient tablet, why not carve one out of polystyrene and give it to them to hold in their own hands? If they have money, why not give them ‘real’ dollar bills?
A good prop can also become a puzzle or the fulcrum of a story. What if there is special writing on it that needs to be deciphered? What if it houses a secret compartment that needs to be discovered? What if it part of a larger set of objects that also need to be found? Clever objects can hold player attention on their own for quite a long time – and you will find that players will fight much harder over real things that they can see, smell and touch for themselves.
(photo by Mike Nudd)
Keep it Simple
Well ok so technically this would be a sixth rule, but I consider this one to be more a point of common sense than a gaming commandment. The point really being that if you choose to be a GM, don’t bite off more than you can chew. If there is a simpler, safer or more efficient way of giving your players a similar experience than take it. Don’t make like difficult for yourself if you don’t need to because the process is tough enough as it is.