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LARP Design: Story Arc Transitions

The Eclipse campaign has successfully concluded its first story arc. Their six-year mission: to boldly go where no LARP of its lineage has gone before. This is far from the end for the campaign, however, as they have announced that the second story arc begins in September. Arc structure, especially in the beginnings and endings, is a very difficult (yet scarcely discussed) area of LARP design. The narrative and mechanical implications of an arc transition are largely the same as any other event, but intensified by the implicit emphasis of being the end of something.

Story Arcs

At this point, I've been involved with four campaigns that have ended one story arc and started up a second: Shattered Isles, Wildlands South, King's Gate, and now Eclipse. These games planned around a limited-arc structure from the beginning of the campaign; five years is the "traditional" length, though that includes very large or very small values of five. To the best of my knowledge, these arcs are based on learning from Babylon 5 that a closed arc following a narrative structure of exposition, rising action, and climax is stronger than a soap opera where conflict must never be resolved or released. (Falling action and denouement do not really need to take place on-camera - wrapping this up in text is pretty much fine.)

At the same time, a Plot committee is always throwing everything it has into every event, so how do they top everything that has come before to make the climax into something legendary? Following immediately on that question, if they hold nothing back, how do they leave anything left to explore in a new arc? Continuity and finality are in tension in almost every consideration.

On a narrative level, the climactic event is the most important event in the campaign: the payoff for everything that has come before, the answer to the questions that have driven the campaign up to that point. So, you know, no pressure. It's difficult enough to wrap everything up at or near the same event in a way that feels at all natural, so much of the final season leading up to that event is wrap-up for plotlines other than the main campaign plot. (I'll reiterate here that there are five kinds of plot, of which Main Plot is one.)

This gets thorny when some plotlines result in the necessary retirement of a character one or more events before the finale: those players must choose between NPCing the final few events or starting a new character so close to the end that there are no real on-ramps to plotline involvement. If the conclusion of the plotline is such that you are, say, trapped in a crystal battling an ancient evil for the rest of eternity, there's not really a good way to get even a convincing cameo at the final event. Otherwise, Plot usually decides to delay forced-retirement plotlines until the final event, or to leave an opening for the retired or dead PC to play the final event in some altered form. In some cases this looks a lot like playing fast and loose with the rules of permanent death, but most players understand that it's a nod to continuity and a thank-you note to players who remained loyal fans throughout the campaign to date.

To make the event really stand out, most games go for some kind of non-standard field battle as their big action, and as the linked post might lead you to believe, I can only laud this choice. Eclipse did so in spades: their four-day arc closer featured four major field battles.
  1. Simple point-defense.
  2. Player-directed terrain deformation. Players set up walls that permitted ranged attacks but not melee attacks. This was the closest to classic tower-defense that I have ever seen in a LARP.
  3. Completely insane mobility and four-point-defense battle. They went nuts on introducing new rules to support fighting in a low-G environment, while also making highly cinematic use of "flying" NPCs.
  4. Module-during-field-battle, which is classic stuff; in addition to this, the field battle was governed by the NPCs trying to break objects we were defending. There were also occasional transfers between the module and the field battle. 
This demonstrates that the climactic event is also treated as being the most important on a mechanical level. The characters are at the peak of their powers; in many games they are further amplified by the payoff of one plotline or another, allowing them to tackle epic threats that would normally destroy them. If you're going to hand out character power for free (free here relates solely to XP - work and engagement as currency are valid but totally beside the point), the end of an arc is the best time for it, but be careful: it's easy to get into player-favoritism territory here. This is a whole huge topic of its own, but let's keep it brief for now and just say that it's generally good to include a reason that the increased power goes away at the end of the arc, either because the character retires from play or because the power is withdrawn by the gods or whoever.

Character Continuity and Retirement

This is probably the single most controversial point in this whole post. At least within long-campaign boffer LARPs, it may be flat-out one of the most controversial topics in the whole of game design. If there's going to be a second arc, who are the characters we're going to care about? Do the survivors of the first arc continue on, does everyone have to start a new character, or is there a middle ground? Roll this up with the issues around permanent death, while you're at it. Death is a big part of heroic sacrifice, and heroism is what we're here to talk about in high-adventure boffer LARPing. (If this doesn't apply to your LARP, that's cool, but this post isn't for you.)

I could write not merely a blog entry but a whole blog about perspectives on this. I'll try to keep it concise: death needs to be a meaningful threat, and there is no death as satisfying in narrative as the one that magnifies the feeling of glory. If a new character has to start play at some XP total lower than the highest-XP player in the game (this is... currently universal, but a game could hypothetically be run the other way), then the game needs the most experienced characters to shuffle off at some point to make way for new.

There are any number of different ways to handle this, from shepherding all characters toward retirement at a certain XP total to letting the player's wishes, the random chance of permanent death, and the inherent end of a campaign handle things organically. The games I've been involved with have all gone for the latter, with considerable variation in frequency of permanent deaths. I have internalized the reasoning behind this design choice, at this point; other choices are probably valid, but the way this works out is the way I think things should be. (It's cool if you disagree with me, is what I'm saying.) The games I've been involved in have solved the problem of characters that never retire and grow to colossal power by ending, and by intermittently increasing the starting XP total.

In games that don't take a strong hand in pushing high-powered characters out the door, the last season-or-so of the campaign involves an increased degree of backstage communication and negotiation between players and Plot to sort things out: perhaps the player seeks a glorious death and/or retirement, or Plot feels that a particular character's end really ought to be nigh. A changeup in the Plot committee roster is also an expected feature of campaign transitions, and a leading cause of character retirement. If you're lucky, Plot committee churn has been minimal up to that point, but even the best teams have people suffering from burnout and needing to move on to other projects. Introducing new creative voices to Plot is good for finding energy and motivation, though the new folks have to work overtime to catch up with the setting lore - it's all too easy for continuity bugs to creep in when the committee changes.

In Eclipse's case, there's a lot still up in the air as to which characters will stick around for the second arc. It's been heavily discussed within the community already, but Plot (and emergent story) threw a number of curveballs along with the smokin' fastball that was disguised as an eight-foot-tall robot and a demon queen, so plans can change without warning. Players have any number of different reasons for wanting to continue or retire a character.

Setting Continuity

The arc finale should spend as much time and energy as possible recalling the campaign's history up to that point, both for the sake of wrapping up dangling plot threads and for the reminder of the emotional highs and lows that brought the campaign to that conclusion. The Plot committee should spend some time in preceding season delving into its collective memory for those dangling threads, shared jokes, and other nostalgic devices. Past is prologue - celebrate it. In real life it is painful to dwell on past traumas; in games it's easier to see that the beauty of the triumph was defined by the suffering that made it necessary.

Just as much as characters change with the end of an arc, so do the settings. So much of an arc's tone and texture come from its setting: the mysteries and conflicts that Plot built into it and proceeded to explore. For the arc's end to be truly satisfying, the biggest questions have to find some resolution. For the second arc to feel like it has any relation to the first, something has to continue from the first campaign, whether it's old plotlines that finally see new life or plotlines that were first introduced in the final season solely to provide that link between the arcs. In each of the LARPs I've been involved with, this has involved a massive change in the primary setting:

A new setting makes it only natural to introduce new cultures as well, or even new player races - this is at its best if the "unlocking" of these options is the clear result of PC action in the first arc. At the same time, player actions might very well remove options from play, or entirely transform a player race into something new and strange. As a general principle, I have to recommend dynamism over stasis, but anyone who has watched a long-running TV series knows that big changes to a property signal both sharks in the water. Develop a deep understanding of the themes that kept players engaged in the first arc, and keep the new material true to those themes.

The wonderful thing about setting continuity, though, is that it's more intricate than anything you could have written prior to the start of the first arc, and it has objective reality for your playerbase. I talk a lot about Historical Events in DtD as ways for characters to hook into campaign backstory, strengthening connections to PCs and NPCs. Several years of on-screen campaign history would just about do the trick, wouldn't you say? (Make a summary of those major campaign events available on your website, so that players completely new to your gaming community can do the same. Experienced players bringing in new characters already have an easier time getting hooked into things than a newbie.)

Think back to the years that you poured into creating mysteries and compelling conflicts in the setting of the first arc (since I take it for granted now that there will be a setting change). Another major challenge of the second arc is that you're either writing that setting in parallel with the last season or two of your first arc (while you're already slammed with ramping up to the finale) or you're pounding it out in the half-year-or-so between the end of the first arc and the start of the second. I generally don't see games wait more than half a year between arcs, because the longer they wait, the more players find other commitments or move on to other games. It makes gamers sound like a terribly fickle breed, and to a certain extent we are. It's just that it gets harder to remember why you loved that game, especially when the conflicts you cared about did reach a satisfying conclusion. A new multi-year campaign is a big commitment for the players too.

Mechanical Challenges

If you were ever going to make sweeping rules changes or introduce big rules concepts (new schools of magic, for example, are a great way to give the new arc mysteries to explore!), the arc transition point is the time to do it. If you can make those changes part of some kind of Realms-shaking Event (trademark held by Forgotten Realms), it's a damn fine climax for the first arc leading to a brave new world in the second.

Most of the huge mechanical challenges of the arc closer I've mentioned above. The divergent build totals have probably discouraged the introduction of new characters, especially in the area of new recruitment to the game, and the simple truth of any community is that churn is never zero. The best-case scenario is that the last season of the first arc is strong on recruitment to the ranks of the NPCs, because they're waiting for the start of the new arc to jump the fence. (This is also a good recruitment pool for new Plot committee members, of course.)

Since we're talking about the moment of greatest tension in the campaign's run, the threat of death is higher in each combat than it has ever been before. In CI/Ro3 games, this probably means more instant-death effects are getting thrown around than ever before. (It was certainly in one of the arc-finale events of KG 1 that I died from charging into a hail of Rend Spirit spells...) This isn't so much a problem in search of solution as it is an observation on common threads from one finale to another. (Do make sure you keep the challenges remotely winnable, though.) If you have godawful things on your Effect List that you've just been waiting to do to players, let's face it, you're running out of time. I'll just post the Wildlands South checklist disclaimer here for posterity:
The Wildlands Campaign Committee takes no responsibility, stated or implied, for the ensured survival of any Wildlands character. We are not responsible for any effects incurred to a character during a Wildlands event, including but not limited to: diseases, poisoned blood, plagues, insanity, withered or devoured limbs, scars, magical immolation, electrocution, temporal displacement, frostbite, acid burns, parasitic infestation, lingering curses, weakness from spells or alchemy, mechanical "enhancements," wounds incurred from blunt or sharp weapons, berserk rages, transformation into lower life forms, premature aging, disintegration, build or level loss, metamorphosis into a chaos corrupted bug, necromantic spiritwracking, obliteration, or Total Entropic Annihilation.
 In conclusion on all of these points, running an arc finale and topping your previous successes are a major challenge, and Eclipse rose to the occasion. The arc transition is a delicate time, as the broader narrative returns to a new round of exposition, but individual character and plotline narratives (to coin a term, micro-narratives) may be in any of Freytag's stages. In the grand scheme of LARPing, I think it's fair to say that more games don't follow arc format than do, and even for those that do, arc transition is a once-in-a-career occurrence for most Plot members, so most people come to the challenge without specific prior experience. A lot of the traditional lessons of good GMing don't apply to arc transition: "Never take away the PCs' toys," for example, only applies if that character isn't "compensated" with a strong sense of narrative resolution and personal glory. The guidelines of narrative can start to trump the guidelines of game-running, as the latter doesn't have independent rules addressing finality, only perpetual continuation.

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