De la Bête – An Expensive Beast

De la Bête – An Expensive Beast

The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.Revelations, 13:2
De la Bête (About the Beast) was a larp for 95 players, running over 48 hours, with 12 hours workshops before and some extra three hours post-larp workshops.

It was probably the most expensive game in the history of Czech larps. We will go more into detail about size and realizations about using gender specific characters in the end. But first: What was the larp all about?

Background and Theme

For a Czech person, old France, the ‘Ancien Régime’, is always a place of great books and great stories. Dumas ́s brave Three musketeers, de La Fontaine ́s social critique and wisdom transformed into fables, and Balzac ́s fervent drive to describe all aspects of life in his novels, intrigue and romance of de Laclos ́s Dangerous liaisons. And of course Moliére ́s drama and the great works of Rousseau and Voltaire.

Our imagination is maybe even more fired up by real-life events: the legend of Joan of Arc, countless stories of endless rivalry between France and Britain and the horrifying difference between the splendor of Versailles and the poverty of the common man.

We feel that all those stories describe the human condition from really interesting angles – and we found the one story that enabled us to pull all that together in one story.

The story of the Beast.

Setting

Huguenot service, viewed from the roof of the chapel. (Play, Ondra Pěnička)The game is not set in a specific year, but rather it attempts to depict the height of the French Ancien Régime in the second half of the 18th century as a historical phenomenon.

That means that the absolutist and infallible King of France is Louis, without a given number. Technical innovations progress only very slowly, the Church plays a very important role in matters of the world, and volunteers are returning from the war in America.

The key theme of the game is a conflict between different ways of thought. We see the collision between rationality and sensitivity, scientific and superstitious views, Catholics and Huguenots.

These and other lines reflect one of the game’s features – it has several layers of interpretation, which are, from a strictly positivist point of view, mutually exclusive.

Most events in the game can therefore be viewed from several different angles – and all of them can be right. After adding the element of character themes to the game, this feature proved to be very valuable, and the varying interpretations stimulated the game, rather than killing it.

The setting also clearly showed how the advantage of having weapons which the characters could use in conflicts that turned bloody; these being blank firing pistols and steel weapons – mostly different kinds of knives, swords and rapiers, provided by us.

Story

While the rest of the town is feasting, there is a secret mass in the church... (Play, Ondra Pěnička)The game does not have one story that unifies all the players. It takes place in a region suffering under the attacks of the Beast, and although many plots are linked to the hunt for the Beast, many others, based on religious conflicts, witchcraft or schemes at the court, are just as important to the game.

The game begins and ends with symbolic moments (return of the veterans from the war, a speech by the baron de Morsange, followed by individual epilogues, which we will discuss later in more detail). It is divided into acts which outline the game’s framework, both from the point of view of rules (increasing use of violence) and the story. The game works not only with natural escalation of the stories and their setting by us, but also with explicit meta-game information – some of the conflicts, decisions etc. are limited by “You have to solve this before XY”.

This timing allows for quite sophisticated work with the game’s dramaturgy, and very accurate use of plot twists, fakes, double climaxes, etc. In the third run, we also solved the dramaturgic problem of many dramatic games: too many plots reaching their peak in the same time almost leads to comedy, where a tragic love story reaches its climax right next to a young scientist turning mad, while only a few meters away, an unjustly sentenced convict decides to take his revenge.

To players who do not know their plots this naturally seems like random groups of people who are suddenly making dramatic gestures and dying in various ways, without any reason. Our solution used more significant stratification of the content, which caused some plots to reach their climax sooner than others.

The fact that one character always had a role in more than one plot meant that even after the end of one plot the players still had enough content to keep their game going, because they could engage in another plot. We have also changed our approach to scenography and attempted to use the space as effectively as possible, offering various spaces for various uses to the players.

We actively promoted suitable locations for different types of scenes, and from the beginning the players were informed of that: “This romantic pond can be used for a rendezvous, this courtyard for a duel and this table for an argument.” We also tried to support the story’s progress using musical intermezzos between acts, which moved from period tunes (introductory cheerful military march, deliberately used to create contrast with the destitute unit) to unsettling modern ambient.

The lack of a central story served to untie our hands in many aspects, and we were able to work with three levels of plots (according to the number of characters involved):

  1. Mass plots, concerning tens of characters, based on a specific feature – for example a problem concerning all local Huguenots. These plots provided more of a framework and points of reference: in reality, the players did not spend that much time with them, and the emphasis was on the other two categories.
  2. Group plots, which were meant for groups of 4 to 8 players, from obvious and official (families, hunting groups), to unofficial ones (gambling societies, collectives of veterans) and secret ones (conspiratorial organizations). The goal was to have every character involved in at least 3 – 5 such plots (depending on their intensity – being a member of the Freemasons generated a lot of content in itself). Various private groups were meant to provide sufficient interconnection between character groups and create a believable, and above all interesting network of relationships, which allowed the player to see different parts of the game and play out scenes in different contexts.
  3. Personal plots, which included a small number of characters. This category included personal goals and motivations of the characters, which correspond to the characters’ themes if possible, and support them. The theme of a character was the most significant game design element of De la Bête.

The market gave a chance to swap goods, information and favors. (Play, Ondra Pěnička)

The Character As a Novel

Each character has its theme, problem, and main question that is usually phrased in a rather general way: “What boundaries does scientific knowledge have?”, “What does it mean to become an adult?”. These are reflected in concrete situations in the game: “Is it morally tolerable to carry out an autopsy, though the relatives are against it?”, “Can I steal to provide for my siblings?”.

The theme also provides the main interpretative angle of the game: everything the players encounter in the game can be integrated in their theme, or overlooked because it does not support their story.

An important creative shift for us was to explicitly acknowledge the theme on a meta-level, right in the character text. The text of the role, which the player received, contained a brief summary of the character’s life story, clearly stated goals, relationships, and values, and an explicitly described theme of the character.

Apart from that we also added a song to each character, which served as an inspiration and which we thought depicted some aspect of the role (we used a great variety of songs and tunes, from classical music, to Stairway to Heaven, to Polish and French mutations of Still Alive from Portal).

This approach to the characters also significantly influenced the ways the game was played. Inclusion of individual scenes into one’s own story led to a situation when emotional scenes are not perceived as the pinnacle of the game, but rather the scene submits to the general storyline, which conforms to a general message and meaning.

The game style, which presented individual scenes as means to piece together the story and let the whole game be interpreted through the prism of a character theme, was completely new in the Czech Republic. We will later present a more detailed explanation of how it was created in a specialized article, The cure for the stuffed Beast. But for now, the key factor for the game was that this style of gameplay did not require any kind of sophisticated training – only an outline of the general direction for the players during the workshops.

During the game itself, there was a specially designated room in the pub in which the players had the possibility to consult with organizers. The organizers were trained for this purpose, had a complex overview of the game, and also performed basic evaluations of the players’ mental state and problems (we assign great importance to mental hygiene).

The players were openly instructed to visit them at least once every act, to talk about their plans and options, or at least to reflect on how they had progressed in the game using the available information, additional texts and such. The idea was to get detached from the role for a short time, in order to come back to the game with a better idea how to advance and perhaps even a new perspective.

The epilogues, which concluded the game, have the form of one clearly phrased question which the player answers not from the point of view of their character, but rather the author of a novel. These questions were not necessarily the same as in the original text of the theme in the character sheet, but they could address the theme from an unexpected angle.

It is answering these questions that really ends the game. A secondary goal of this system of game conclusion is to support an important design plan: we tried to write the characters without using classical archetypes or dramatically functional division to good and bad, or one-dimensional. We used the system of varying groups and plots to show different sides of the characters’ personalities, and a void one-sided archetypes, such as “mother”, “mistress”, “murderer”, etc.

Realization

Nothing says "intrigue" like soldiers holding a lantern. (Play, Ondra Pěnička)We spent quite a long time deciding whether it would be reasonable to write a game from a period, where costumes would create a challenge for most players. In the end we decided to avoid the problem by providing all costumes, weapons and other props for the game.

Despite the non-simulationist nature of the game, we decided to invest as much effort as possible into the setting, props and scenery. The logical result was to create three organizer teams, connected by two main organizers and other links.

The PR team was involved in communicating with the players, promotion, photographers, managing payments and so on.

The realization team had four permanent members, who worked together with the creative team throughout the whole year. Their responsibilities included creating props, coordinating volunteers, logistics and production. At times, there were over fifty volunteers participating on the production of the event.

For maximal optimization, we had ten people dedicated to scene setting, cooking and packing up the game throughout the whole weekend, and a number of others, who were involved only for some time (players, working before and after the game for a discount on the fee, stagehands, who went off to play a short-term role for a while, and vice versa).

From the point of view of total costs, it was probably the most expensive game in the history of Czech larps, with the total costs slightly exceeding one million crowns. The only game with higher costs is the forthcoming larp The Legion: A Siberian Story. But it was well received, though costly, and we plan to run the game again in 2015.

We are considering translating it into English, and if there are enough players interested in participating, we would start working on it in March.

The game uses a vast amount of texts, and requires high-quality literary translation.

Size

The time for the game itself is 48 hours, adding approximately 12 hours for pre-game workshops and half an hour for the compulsory after-game workshops, and potentially also 2 hours for facultative after-game workshops.

The game is for 95 players, with 57 male characters and 38 female ones. Our choice to use strictly set gender of roles was quite instinctive: it is completely traditional in the Czech Republic, and during the first phases of creating the game, the thought of the possibility of using gender unspecified or cross-gender roles didn’t even occur to us.

Reasons for gender specification of roles:

We still believe that dividing the characters into clearly male and female ones and lack of cross-gender playing is important for the game and for us, for reasons concerning not only the historical setting and costumes that we provide for the game.

There are many multigenerational family plots in the game, and we aim to present stories of people who go beyond the place traditionally assigned to them by society.

Uncovering of a conspiracy results in public trial. (Play, Ondra Pěnička)These themes are especially strong with women, who for instance take a strong stance against their family and the demands that it places on them (e.g. an illegitimate daughter de Portefaix, hardly tolerated at the court), become significant moral authorities (e.g. Claire Gravois, a saint), or disturb the order of the society in general (e.g. the galley prisoners – it should be mentioned here, that the inner social order of the galleys includes two male prisoners, who are, however, at the bottom of the prison hierarchy).

We see these kinds of stories as substantially more interesting and natural in the game when the roles are clearly identified as male or female. We have dismissed the option of casting female players for roles of men and vice versa for the above mentioned reasons, and in order to maintain the visual illusion of a historical world.

Conclusion

De la Bête is a game, which tries to connect classic larp elements (including action, shooting, fencing and running around) with novels (including romance, mystery stories and huge family sagas) and philosophy (attempting to depict a great number of contemporary schools of thought, which we see as interesting and topical even in the present).

And we think that when the Beast howls in the forest, even we, the authors, will shiver for a long time to come…

De la Bête

Credits: Adam Pešta (chief of production); David František Wagner (chief of game design and writing); Kamil Buchtík, Ondřej Hartvich, Lucie Chlumská, Mikuláš Pešta, Petr Turoň (game design and writing); Alice Ďurčatová, Slaven Elčić, Iva Vávrová (PR); Tomáš Bazala, Eva Mlejnková (costumes); Vít Filipovský (website); Alena Kučerová (accounting); Michal Olbert (pre-game photos); Rosenthal o.s., Rolling and another 30 people.
Location: Valeč castle, Czech republic
Length: 2 days + 1 day of pre-larp
Players: 95 per game
Budget: €12,000 per run
Participation Fee: €65 – €95
Game Mechanics: Pre-scripted characters, pre game workshops, rules for combat, act structure
Website: http://delabete.cz/

This article was initially published in The Nordic Larp Yearbook 2014 which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.

Cover photo: Philosopher stands trial (Play, Ondra Pěnička).

Authors

David František Wagner
David František Wagner Is Czech larper, larp author and organizer, one of founders of Rolling. Made De la Bete, Legion: Siberian story and 15 more games from battles to chamber larps.
  • Alex

    Although I understand your reasons for using strictly set genders, please do not use the historical setting as an excuse not to have characters of unspecified gender. The Chevalier d’Eon was a part of the Ancien Regime in the latter half of the 18th century, and s/he was certainly a person who “beyond the place traditionally assigned to them by society”. It is still your call as game designers, but please do not misrepresent history.

  • Rei

    I am unfortunately banned by your rules from playing, since I am non binary and you have no non binary characters but are not allowing people to play cross cast genders. Since I spend all my real life constantly having to fight off attempts to place me within one, it’s tiring enough that I would have no interest in having to do the same in my LARPing. As Alex said, historical realism does not mean exclusion; we have always been here, but we are erased. I strongly advise you to rethink the strictness of these rules, as right now your game does not sound at all friendly towards transgender* players. I’m not sure why cross casting would be such a big deal in any case; why not allow people to play whichever they prefer, so they can choose which story they’d rather try out, and then add in a requirement that they must costume convincingly so as not to spoil your immersion?

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