The Credits - How The Night Queen Princess Fluffykins Passed was written
This LARP was the production of a Build Your Own Game workshop. I made some notes as I ran the process. That's what follows here. These are my thoughts and impressions.
Day 1 - Friday Night (August 9, 2013)
Day 1 of the New England LARP Conference is done. There were many of the usual suspects, as well as a few surprising faces. There was some good give and take in my LARP 101 presentation, wrapping with minutes to spare. Then it was on to the Build Your Own Game brainstorming session. Everyone pitched LARP ideas and concepts, which went up on Post-It notes on the big whiteboard. No ideas are refused; the idea behind brainstorming is get ideas flowing, with a bit of a brief discussion. There were a couple dozen Post-Its on the board when the six of us ran out of steam.
I went through each one in turn, asking for interest. Those that the others found uninteresting went to one side; their concepts may get recycled as bits in the winning choice. The ones that were interesting were ranked on the interest levels. There are three rough groupings of related concepts at the top of the list. That was good enough progress for the evening, so we broke for the conference room where everyone was socializing.
Of course, the talk was about LARP.
Now it's too late, and I should be in bed. The marathon writing begins in not that many hours, and I'm already starting a little sleep-deprived.
Day 2 - Saturday (August 10, 2013)
With three interesting candidate games on the big whiteboard, it is tough to pick. Since I am facilitating the workshop, I abstained from voting, as did the experienced Joshua Kronengold - the idea is to let the four workshop participant writers get to pick the game they want to write. Three of the four immediately had their favorites, so they posted their votes on the board. It was, of course, a complete and utter tie. That left Alon Levy to make the choice.
Now we just have a game to write!
We have a game, a brainstormed set of plots and ideas to start with, and a gnawing hunger. We walked over to the sub shop local to the hotel and ordered lunch. There were a lot of discussions about how to frame the game within the constraints of the BYOG process. (With the occasional odd look from other sub shop patrons.) When you have 24 hours to write a game, you can't build a thirty character game unless it's a horde game. Two hours for 10-12 people is a reasonable goal. That means that there are some things you can't do. Eating, however, is quite possible, and now I'm stuffed. There's always room for caffeine, though!
Around 3 PM
We tossed ideas around for half an hour before 2 PM, but it was clear that we were having trouble finding a direction. There were two different competing and divergent approaches that could not be reconciled. At 2, some of the writers were either speaking on other panels, or had asked to go to one specific panel during the writing period. That left three of us to try to figure out how to resolve the challenges we faced. There's at least two good games here, but it's going to require more thought and time to figure out either one of them. We've failed.
By mid-afternoon, it was clear we were stuck and could not find answers. It was time to change course - and it was clear what the second choice game idea was. As soon as we decided to switch, Josh Rachlin (Assistant Morale Officer) said that the energy in the room changed dramatically. This was not surprising, since we had a new concept, and there was a lot of new ideas. The problem was that we'd lost a couple precious hours. The whiteboard has been cleared and redivided, the old Post-Its are gone, and the second choice Post-Its are back to play. We are going to write an all-cat game. Who wrote Meow! at the top of the board?
Sometime Later, But Still in the Afternoon
Finding the structure of the new game was as easy as the last one was hard. There was a natural division and set of conflicts for the game. We all lived with or knew cats, so character ideas were easy to put on the board. The question came up - which of the characters were spayed or neutered? That took us to the idea that un-"fixed" male cats would want to mark their territory. People shook their head, and said we couldn't do anything about that in game.
Why not? There was, to me, an obvious thing we could use to do so - and so now there's a cat territory marking mechanic in the game. It's been one of the funniest moments of the creative/writing process so far, and there have been many.
(ETA: It got a good laugh at game brief as well, and caused several very funny moments in game. That's the sign of a good mechanic; it's natural, it's fast, it's easy, and it adds something significant to the game. The look on poor Adina Schreiber when all the male cats marked her was priceless.)
David Kapell has been after us to figure out how many players we need, and the subject of the game - so he can figure out whether to have Eric Wirtanen come out and run his excellent Star-Crossed. We're aiming for a 12 character, 2 hour all-cat character LARP. That means a name and a blurb. This can't be Game of Cats, which is how we've been referring to it. OK, some quick brainstorming away from the character/plot focus gives us an answer. We're also sensitive to possible player triggers, so we need a list - but what would set players off about an all-cat game? A little more thought yields:
The Night Queen Princess Fluffykins Passed
Damn those Humans, they don't know how to name a cat! And now the Queen is gone, the Robinsons' back door has been left open, and all of the neighborhood cats have gathered. There are indoor cats, outdoor cats, and those with paws in both worlds.
They have gathered to honor the Queen -- with glorious hunts, yowling, revelry, and, of course, mourning. They have gathered to see the other cats of the neighborhood, because a time between Queens is a time of change and possibility. But most importantly, they have gathered to choose a new Queen -- that decision must be made before sunup, and that will be as difficult as herding cats.
This is an all-cat LARP for a small clutter of players. No Dogs Allowed! This is a character-driven, moderately plotted, low mechanics game, subject to change as we actually finish writing the thing. All characters speak fluent Cat, so you should be able to understand each other, although the Russian Blue's accent is a bit thick.
Trigger warnings include forced sterilization, breedism, drug use, self-grooming, and public urination.
Sometime Well After Dinner
When it comes to writing characters, there are many different styles. Some people can bang out rough text, sentence after sentence, knowing they're going to come back to it again for refinement. Using Google Docs for the process gives us the ability to share text immediately, and to go add (even rough) sections to other characters.
I'm in the slower but more finished category of writing. I want to set a tone to the text, and I craft my sentences carefully. Melanie Saunders always seems to know when I am worrying over a section; apparently I bite my lip and have a curious, scrunched look on my face. I am really focused and want to get it right, because I am writing Sunshine, a character based on my own sweet little Phoebe.
We've partitioned the whiteboard into 12 sections, one for each character. The Post-Its referring to each character are in the appropriate section. Where overlaps occur, we try to put the Post-It between the two, if possible. Different characteristics are written down in different marker colors. (I brought my whole set.) The most important ones right now are the blue names of who is writing the character, and the green circle if Lisa Padol has had a chance to read it for editing and consistency. There are still too many characters that have these slots blank.
Sometime After The Last Note
Christopher Amherst has a wealth of experience and knowledge about the Nordic meta-techniques. He's suggested using a brief prologue introduction. It's a different and interesting idea. While there's a little pushback, I think it's worth experimenting with. That's another reason I like doing the BYOG workshop; I get to learn about other techniques people have seen or used. That makes my games better - and, this is just the place to experiment, where we know we're going to have strong players, willing to try something different.
Day 3 - Sunday - But it's still Day 2 for us... (August 11, 2013)
It turns out that Alon Levy is a machine at cranking out character descriptions. I'm still working on Sunshine. He's cranked out three. We're getting there, even if Alon thinks he's going to get a lot of sleep. Optimism. How cute.
Has to be after 2 AM
Sunshine is done. I'm already very toasty. That leaves Z for me, the last character to write. Melanie Saunders has taken on some of the bluesheet material. There's a lot of discussion between the other writers and Lisa Padol, trying to nail down consistency issues and refinements in the other characters. They're reading all of the "finished" character drafts. There are things that need to be reconciled, and they're working the issues. Normally, this gets more time and care, but we don't have that. I just hope we're close. It sounds like we will be. (Joshua Kronengold and Gaylord Tang know how to do this in this environment; they went through this in last year's BYOG.)
I'm not sure what time it is, but people are fading. A two hour nap will do them some good. I can't do that. If I go to sleep, I won't get up - but I knew that going into this. It means that I have a room upstairs that someone can crash in. What's more, we can stagger this a little.
We have twelve characters, but only ten signups. NELCO is small, and some people are commuting, so we could have a problem. There has to be two people we can roust in the morning, so we'll be OK. I hope.
Around 6 AM
It is the long, dark, tea time of the LARP-writers soul. Three of us are still awake (for the moment), three are napping, and The Night Queen Princess Fluffykins Passed is slowly nearing completion. We have just over six hours to runtime, so our new 12 player all-cat LARP had better be ready.
I want to say 7:30ish
It's light out there again. I've gone through far too many cans of Diet Coke, but I'm still slogging. Z has been finished and integrated in with the other characters. I'm doing consistency checks, reading what others have written. There's a lot of good work here. There are also things that character A and B share, but are only in one of the characters. A lot of tired eyes have looked at these characters, and I know that a lot of these have already been fixed. Still, one of my strengths is as an editor, so I see things people miss.
There are desires to cast, but we're still short on players. We haven't gotten anything printed yet, because we're still editing. Priorities - must have as consistent a set of characters as we can manage. We can wing a lot of the runtime things at, well, runtime. (No worries there - I've seen most of these people as runtime GMs, and it's a crew I'd happily run a game with anywhere.)
Not Long Before 9 AM
There's a little glitch with the printer and my laptop, but dammit, you will print! I brought a laundry basket full of LARP production supplies, and it's had everything we've needed. The room has been cleaned up, and there's a neat row of clearly marked character envelopes on the table. There's a complete list of what I have to print. (A lesson I learned long ago: make yourself the instructions you need to assemble the game, no matter how crude, as you write. It will save you in the Crazy Hours, as you're trying to put the game into players' hands.) It's clear I am working with a great team of people; they know there are things that need to be done, and know enough to ask, or just do them - and they are done well.
The printer relents. I print, and hand the sheets off to more rested hands. The sheets are put on the correct character envelope and checked. A copy is punched and put into the GM notebook. It's not yet 9 AM. We're going to be done with time to spare.
After 10 AM
Staples opens at 10, and is, conveniently, just down the road from the hotel. We need masking tape, colored Post-Its for the territory marking mechanic, a laser pointer, a ball of yarn, and bells for two cat collars. Since I live here, I have a car, I know where to go, and Melanie Saunders goes with me. Staples takes my slightly expired coupon, and we get the tape and Post-Its. If I was more awake, I would have realized that there's also a PetSmart and a Michaels next to the Staples. That means getting the rest of the list is easy, even if Mel wanders off in the PetSmart to see if there are any bunnies. We consider buying actual collars, but the cat ones are too small and the dog ones are big enough, but not cat-like. Yarn will have to do to make collars, and we have more than enough. We are back before 11.
11 AM or so
Crap! We're still two players short, despite bugging the people we can find in the boardroom talking. We've called some others to no avail. We haven't written this to be flexible. We can't cut two characters.
When I first started running LARPs (1986), there weren't other games I could play in. Besides, I wrote the kind of games I wanted to play, so I always wrote myself a character. My games were designed with no mechanics, so there wasn't a reason for me, as an author, to just stand around and watch. I played in my own games, going "green ribbon" to be a GM briefly, to answer a question.
With six authors/GMs, we can easily spare two of us to play the slots we need filled. The other three authors can be the primary GMs, since they've all had some sleep. Being the only one without sleep, I can fill in as needed.
Casting is always a challenge, and it's important to ask the players what they like in a game. We don't have that luxury. The luxury we have is that we have hard-core LARPers on the list - and, oh, what a luxury. I've played with everyone on the list at least once, and I've known most of them for a very long time. This is a dream player list; most of the list consists of players who I lust for in my games. I know that their presence will just make the game so much better - and we have a whole contingent of them. Almost every one is an experienced GM, and most have written several LARPs. Casting is easy. We know who will like what parts, and the names flow onto the envelopes.
After 2 PM
Runtime, and I am broken, several times, doubled over with laughter - enough to cause tears. Our players are totally brilliant; they take what we have given them and just go completely over the top. Our cats are alive!
We haven't given enough thought to the runtime, so decisions are made on the fly. It's a strong GM team, so we ask ourselves what would be the most fun. Crap, I am winging it. It is a blast to run, but, oh my, the play, the dialogue, and the sheer insanity that results. There is also drama and angst, which is good. There is much we never expected, including a whole clowder of ferocious cats surrounding poor Gaylord Tang (as an NPC) at one point.
In just over 24 hours, we created a game that players left with big smiles, talking excitedly about their characters, their interactions, and the fun they had. Sure, there's a lot more we can do to fix the rough parts of the game. We can add notes for the GMs. There's some work I'd like to do with some of the characters. But, just like last year (and in other BYOGs), I'm proud of what we produced in such a short time. I loved working with Christopher Amherst, Joshua Kronengold, Alon Levy, Melanie Saunders, Gaylord Tang and Lisa Padol (with a shoutout to Josh Rachlin, too), and would happily do so again. We did good, and I look forward to future runs of The Night Queen Princess Fluffykins Passed.
Note 1: David Kapell is the NELCO organizer, making it possible for me to run the BYOG while others are running panels, workshops, and discussions about LARPing as the BYOG is taking place.
Note 2: Z is a bit of a cheat. I originally wrote Z for a Submit Your Own Character game called Hairball way back at Intercon XI. The game authors took my submission and added material to integrate it into their game. I played that Z in the game.
My original base version of Z is a fun read and an interesting character that deserved to live again, so I took that original material and adapted it in a different way to integrate him into this game.
Note 3: NELCO 2012 produced The Barbecue.