The Credits - How A Second Chance for Wings was written
A Second Chance for Wings was created in 26 hours at the Build Your Own Game (BYOG) workshop at the 2015 New England LARP Conference (NELCO). Gaylord Tang moderated the BYOG effort. The game was written by Jeff Diewald, Sarah Judd, Joshua Kronengold, Alon Levy, Michael McAfee, Lisa Padol, and Gaylord Tang.
I made some notes as I participated in the process. That's what follows here. These are my thoughts and impressions.
Day 1 - Friday Night (August 28, 2015)
So, we've gone through the seminar for the Build Your Own Game process at the New England LARP Conference (NELCO). This was a bit unusual, in that we've all written LARPs before, so it went fairly quickly. We've now gone through the brainstorming, which has a lot of weird ideas on the board. Well, on the wall. We use Post-It notes, to capture all the ideas. There are no bad ideas. They all go up. A LARP will emerge from this... on Saturday.
Around midnight on Friday night
Once the Post-Its are up, just stuck to the wall as the brainstorming continues, it's time to try and group them. There are a lot of ideas on the wall. Some of them go with others. Everyone gets a chance to rearrange them and group them as they see fit, because you never know where someone sees an interesting connection that will lead to "the game concept."
Being ahead of the curve in the Build Your Own Game LARP process at NELCO, we settled on three main themes to explore further. There's a whole set of ideas around space/time travel. There's another set of ideas around (mad) science. The final set deals with military themes and stories. We did some more brainstorming, to add more ideas, to develop some directions. We've stopped for the night, to get some sleep, to do some socializing with the others who are here, and to let things percolate overnight.
Sure, it may not look like a lot of progress, but there are four or five or six much more specific game ideas in the collections of Post-Its. Tomorrow morning, we'll spend some more time on each category, adding ideas, finding more focus, and developing the ideas we all seem to like. The goal is to find a LARP the seven of us want to write, hopefully by lunchtime.
Between 2 AM and 5 AM Saturday morning (August 29, 2015)
My brain is working overtime on the BYOG LARP for NELCO. I keep waking up to put more notes in my phone - and I'm going to be up all night tomorrow, well - today now, and need my sleep tonight...
What would you write for space/pirates/mad science/war stories? In my dreams, they're blurring together, which may not be a bad thing...
Saturday, around 12:45 PM
People drifted in to NELCO this morning, and the writing team for the Build Your Own LARP was all in place around 10:45 AM or so. There was a lot of discussion focused on six specific variants of the three themes we worked on last night, with a few new bits. The challenge with seven authors is finding a common idea that all are excited about. This includes the subject, but also includes the style of the game, what kind of tone we want to create, and allowing everyone to have a veto over things they don't want to write. It's always a challenge, but we settled on an idea that we can all get behind.
So, all the LARP topic Post-Its come down, because the LARP will call for its own new set, with multiple colors. But first, it's time for lunch.
Saturday, around 5 PM
The afternoon progresses in the NELCO Build Your Own LARP process. We have a name: A Second Chance for Wings. We have a very specific game outline. Three of the team (Sarah, Alon, and Michael) are off fleshing out the characters - taking "A", "B", and so on from the Post-Its into characters with names and foibles.
Four of the team (Jeff, Joshua, Lisa, and Gaylord) are off fleshing out the structure of the game, which is an interesting scene-based structure.
There are document templates being created on Google Drive. We're putting words in place. Occasionally, other people at NELCO come downstairs to see what we're doing.
Saturday, around 6 PM
The NELCO BYOG LARP has a blurb that has gone out to the attendees:
A Second Chance for Wings
It is 4392 on the Modern Calendar, in the country of Emera, and the Blue Phoenix corporation has turned its vision to space. It’s been almost sixty years since the Tursans put three people on the largest of the three moons in the sky, and no one’s been back, not even to orbit, since then. The charismatic CEO of Blue Phoenix has vowed to put the first Emerans into space, and to bring back fame, glory, and profits that will raise poor Emera into the ranks of leading nations.
A Second Chance for Wings is a two hour Tale-telling LARP that plays out the arc of the Emeran push for space. A Second Chance for Wings is a character-driven, low-mechanic, little-to-no combat five player LARP, where the players will play the same characters throughout the game, provided they survive each Tale. Will Blue Phoenix and Emera reach space and the moons, or will space be empty for the foreseeable future? Come play A Second Chance for Wings!
The BYOG team will run up to three parallel runs of the game.
The team working on characters have a very good idea who is who, and how they relate to each other. They were constrained in the space on the whiteboard, as information from one of the Camelot RPG campaigns already claimed sections of the whiteboard.
Now all we have to do is start cranking out all the character sheets and the Tale parts. This seems very attainable. What am I forgetting?
Sunday, after midnight (August 30, 2015)
Having reached a reasonable stopping point in his work, Michael packs up to leave, promising to be back bright and early in the morning. We make sure that Joshua and Lisa also get to bed, following doctor's orders. That leaves four of us to press on, although we've made excellent progress. There's still much to be done, but we're OK, even if it's just four of us.
Sunday, 4 AM
Taking a break in the long dark tea-time of the Build Your Own Game LARP writer's soul. The NELCO site is quiet. Everyone else has sanely gone home to bed, to get a decent night's sleep. It's only the die-hard writers still at work, writing the last needed bits, reviewing what others have written, and checking the important continuity issues that can break a LARP run. Four of our authors are sleeping, to get up in the morning with clear minds and fresh eyes. (Alon has joined the others in sleep.) Three of us (Jeff, Sarah, and Gaylord) remain awake, to finish filling in the blanks.
A word of warning. We did the last three BYOGs using Google Docs, which was easy, worked relatively intuitively, and did not get in the way of production. Google Drive is not the same experience. Frankly, Google Drive stinks, actively making it far harder to do what used to be simple; I will certainly look for a better alternative before we do this again.
Sunday, a bit after 8 AM
It's now a bit past 8 AM at the NELCO Build Your Own Game, and the rest of the site is beginning to come back to life. There are now four of us awake; we were down to two for about two hours or so. The good news, the LARP writing was completed hours ago. Furthermore, everything has been read by several people, with editing passes for consistency and continuity. We can't promise that those of us still awake got everything right, but the three of us who got a lot of sleep have the burden of one final read-through. There are no item cards. There is no combat mechanic. There is some complexity in the scene structure, but we assembled a GM document that outlines that. The trick is going to come in printing, stuffing, and prepping the game.
Sunday, 9:30 AM
Now with less than three hours to game time, we really have to restrain ourself with last minute editing. Our sleepers are getting up, so we should have some fresh eyes at last.
Sunday, just before noon1
As we raced towards our noon Build Your Own Game runtime deadline at NELCO, our fresh, newly-awake writers picked up the editorial/consistency/completeness pass, for one last check. (One is a professional copy editor IRL, which is a talent every LARP team can use.) As each document was cleared, I printed the necessary number of copies on the correct color paper, and two others collated. A Second Chance for Wings is only a five player LARP, which produced a surprising amount of paper. We were printing two entire copies of the game, for the two runs, plus two single copies of every page of the game for GM notebooks. As I printed, I wrote down the sequence of the pages as I printed them, along with the requisite number of copies and color of paper needed for each. I'll type this into a new GM document for the next run.
Color coding just makes it easier to see the different components of the LARP. Every initial character packet manila folder must contain yellow pages, which are only found in this group, a white page, a blue page and a name tag. If each Tale doesn't have white pages and a pink page, something is wrong. Only the pink pages may need to be cut into smaller sections. If you can see these patterns as you collate and pack the game, it reduces the potential for errors, which is also crucial when you're putting together a complicated game (or even a simple one).
The GM notebooks serve several purposes. They have a copy of every page of the game, which gives us a place to look things up during the game. If we accidentally miss a page when we stuff things into the character packets (easy to do after being up 26 hours in a row), we can pull the page out of the notebook and hand it to the player. (Not needed today.) The pages are available to be scribbled on, as we note rough timings and things to adjust for the next run. The notebook also contains the GM documents we wrote as we created the game, such as the list of topics we need to cover during the game brief.
Most importantly, A Second Chance For Wings is a Tale-telling LARP. The characters are given a Tale, describing a situation in their life that requires one of them to make an important decision. The decision has ramifications for the Tales that follow, because the decisions they make affect the shape of the Tales that follow. This means there are paths from the first Tale that lead to one of the three potential end states for the LARP. The most important GM document was a table describing the state transitions, with a list of the specific materials that were needed to define the inputs for each successive Tale.
Because each of us in the project have written several LARPs, including during BYOG seminars, we had a pretty good plan for time management. There was no rush to cram things in, just a measured pace towards the goal. (We did have to rein in one of our younger writers, who wanted to keep editing; it's a good impulse, but there has to come a time when you have to stop making changes.)
The result was two copies of the LARP stuffed and ready to go, within minutes of the appointed time! (No time for live blogging, though, which is why this and the next post come during the evening afterglow, before I finally crash for the night.)
Sunday, 12:20 PM - Just before Run Time1
We prepped two runs of the game, needing ten players. There are eight signups. Fortunately, we are at Camelot Cohousing, a cohousing neighborhood built by LARPers. You can't throw a stone in this complex without hitting the house of a really impressive player, or a talented LARP author with several successful LARPs or LARP modules on their resume, or one of the people who make Intercon, NELCO, and other NEIL events happen. (Or some combination of all three. It's a great neighborhood.) Of course, if you were to actually throw a stone, you would be mobbed by angry neighbors with boffer weapons at the ready, so we know better.
Phone calls are made. Two volunteers will be at the Common House in minutes, both the kind of players you want in your games.
Alon has been wanting to cast the game since early this morning. Frankly, we could put anyone on the list in any position in the game, and we'd be golden. However, we do have some preferences, and we want to split the group equitably. There is a mass casting exercise, and we divide the players into two groups.
Earlier in the morning, we'd divided the GMs into two teams. Of primary importance, each team had one of the people who'd been stuffing and packing the game, who knew where all of the bits were. Of secondary importance, I am the only GM who's actually run a Tale-telling game before. Three of the others (Joshua, Lisa, and Gaylord) have played in one or more of my Tale-telling games. This drives the division of GMs.
Sarah is offered the choice of picking which group of players she wants to GM for. Alon, in the other slate of GMs, is given the choice of which function space to use. This puts Joshua, Alon, and Gaylord upstairs with cast #1, leaving Jeff, Sarah, Michael, and Lisa, downstairs with cast #2.
Let the games begin!
Sunday, 12:30 PM - Run Time1
There comes a point in LARP writing when you have to put your creation in the hands of players, to see if what you wrote is coherent, if the players can create their own vision of the character you've handed them, if they understand the dilemmas placed before them, if they have enough information to find their own solution to the problem, if you've done it in a way that minimizes the need for the players to break character and ask the GMs a question, and if they are enjoying the materials.
A Build Your Own Game 24 hour LARP writing effort, by definition, is going to have rough edges and holes where more information would be useful. We're spoiled at NELCO, because the people who attend are those who are interested in the process of LARP, who want to talk about how LARP can be better or different or both, who want to share their experiences and who want to learn from others. As a result, they're an understanding, appreciative, and forgiving group of talented players and writers, willing to try something new and experimental. Frankly, we could have randomly assigned these players to parts, and it would have been good. In our run, we had four people I've LARPed with before and consider it my good fortune whenever I get a chance to play opposite them. Our fifth player was someone relatively new to me, who produced one of the best moments (for me) watching the game. The other track was equally strong.
I scribbled several notes into the GM Notebook as the game went on, noting holes to be filled, rough spots to polish, and points of confusion. I also scribbled a few quotes and !!!s when the players took what we'd given them and created some especially good drama and interaction.
The thing is that if I ran the game several times and scribbled notes in each run, I would not get the same results over and over again, unless we created something that was seriously broken. Our two runs took different directions through the tree of possible decisions. Each run had some similar high points and some different rough spots. This is why I am conservative when trying to "fix" a game. Just because one set of players ran into some issues in a single run does not mean that the problem is systemic. This is also a good reason to run a LARP several times; you've already done all that work to create the game, and people always want to LARP more, so reuse, recycle and reanimate your LARPs! It will also teach you about your game. Sometimes, it's the material that needs help and sometimes it's the players who just miss something that every other group has gotten without difficulty.
No, really. Consider a character in one of my most well known games, played by four different people. They were given identical texts to play from, with good players all around each of them. In one run, a player came up to me after the game to tell me that the character was fundamentally flawed. In two other runs of the game, the people playing that same part congratulated me for giving them a character they truly enjoyed, with depth and complexity. A fourth player in that role continues to tell war stories about his game, reminding me of how great a part it was, long after he played that role. I'm not going to change a word in that character, because it's not broken. I will, however, reconsider how I cast the first player the next time he signs up for one of my games.
It's also important to realize that good players will Make Stuff Up (and it will be Good Stuff) when the materials are not present or too thin in the LARP. I made notes of these places; a few visual aids in the materials will let the players have better context as they play. As von Moltke may have said: "no plan survives contact with the enemy; no LARP survives contact with the players." The thing is, I want players to keep Making Stuff Up - that's where the magic explodes. I want players to be able to come up with a decision I can't foresee. Never say "that will never happen" because it will - we had an example of it today.
We asked our players to tell us about the good things from their game today, and we had a lot of smiles and excited bits retold from each run. We asked our players to give us a breather on the flaws and problems; we're all tired, a bit emotionally raw, and have worked hard to produce a completed game in a short time. We want the feedback about the problems, but it's better for us if our players give us a couple days to recover from our sleep deprivation.
A Second Chance for Wings will undoubtedly run again. Some time after I've had some sleep. (It's been 36 hours now.)
I want to thank Gaylord Tang for running the BYOG this year, and Sarah Judd, Joshua Kronengold, Alon Levy, Michael McAfee, Lisa Padol, and Gaylord Tang for letting me share the creative process and write something that was very cool for a long time space geek. I also want to thank our players, who gave us joy watching them play. I'm sure we'll be back again for NELCO 2016.
Note 1: These notes were written after the fact because, when your racing towards run time, you don't have time to stop and type out long notes.