Infinite Firing Squads: The Evolution of The Tribunal

Infinite Firing Squads: The Evolution of The Tribunal

I accidentally created a hit, and have ever since been wondering why. I have had success with several mini-larps over the years, such as A Serpent of Ash (2006) and Prayers on a Porcelain Altar (2007), both of which keep getting the occasional rerun here and there. The Tribunal, however, is something else. It has become a viral work that seems to evolve by itself, far beyond my grasp.

Yet, nevertheless, each iteration adds something new. The little game has achieved a Pinocchio effect of its own, and lives a life about which I only hear fragments, in the form of G+ discussions, blog posts, emails and the occasional blog post.

So what exactly happened? It was originally a contest game, part of the first LarpWriter challenge, back in 2010. A game meant for educational purposes: A group of soldiers, waiting for an unjust trial, intended to possibly spark a few key reflections about the mechanics of oppression.

Then, through a couple of convention runs, it started to spread, while still also being run in Belarus, for which it was originally designed. I had received feedback with certain changes to how the game was run being suggested, but due to the educational intent, I was loath to make the recommended changes. I experimented with a few (e.g., an extra character; post- game confessions), but did not add them to the script.

In the mean time, however, others did. As the game script spread, Tribunal was suddenly run by other people much more often than by myself. In some places, it became a tool for symbolic resistance, with characters reaching a uniform goal to do the right thing (and probably die as a result), because the players thought they could not do the same in real life.

In the United States, thanks to the simultaneous contributions of many famous role-playing activists, runs appeared, during which the characters were taken to testify and then returned to the room, with filmed, emotional interrogations, and so forth. Jason Morningstar even made a better-looking version of the game material, which I had kept as a simple text document, for localization.

So what made The Tribunal so popular that I have lost both count and track of its runs after #30 or so? Personally, I believe it to be a combination of factors. Part of the success obviously comes from the success itself: the reputation it has as a good larp brings in more players, as do recommendations from well-known larpers. The design structure, too, has a significant impact.

First and foremost, it is a short one-trick pony, easy to organize and play in a convention setting, or a small apartment. The topic is strong enough to (most of the time) carry the interaction and interest of the participants, and the injustice palpable enough. I nevertheless think that the key factor was my sudden idea to create a fable, to name each character after an animal and give them personalities accordingly.

That is a particularly effective way for players to not only create a strong personality from of the short amount of text, but also to remember those of others. For Finnish players, I could have said “This character is Lehto”, but for everyone else – and the Finn – saying he is Wolf carries the point much better.

The topic and the character templates together create something that is neither transparent nor secret in design[1]Andresen, M. E. (2012). Bringing fiction alive: An introduction for education and recreation. In M. E. Andresen (ed.) Playing the learning game (pp. 10-17). Oslo: Fantasiforbundet.. Everyone knows that Cat will be selfish, as Rat probably will too, but no one knows how they will testify.

This produces emergent plot, in which there is no need for steering, just the freedom to talk and to act[2]Harviainen, J. T. (2012). Experiences with emergent plot. In Truhlář, S. M. (ed.). Odraž se dokud můžeš (pp. 133-145). Praha: Odraz.. The same way, game masters do not have to intervene in any way, unless they want to run interrogations during the game.

No scene breaks, no inner monologues – it could be run on a stage as an improvisational theatre piece, with very little instructions needed (and actually has). It has its flaws, I know, which are especially visible if certain roles are played in a passive manner. Strangely, when they occasionally manifest, those flaws seem to inspire people to improve on the work, rather than abandon it,

Finally, I think The Tribunal evolves because I did not follow my own advice on writing repeatable larps[3]Harviainen, J. T. (2009). Notes on designing repeatable larps. In M. Holter, E. Fatland & E. Tømte (Eds.) Larp, the universe, and everything (pp. 97-110). Oslo: Knutepunkt.: I left the running instructions vague – and thus flexible. So people inspired by the libretto are inspired to experiment with it, rather than to run it by the book. Lucky for me, they are also willing to share the results of those experiments. Tribunal, like any healthy child, may have been influenced by its parent, but it is obvious that it has matured into something with a unique life of its own.

The Tribunal and other free games by the author can be downloaded from:
http://leavingmundania.com/2014/08/17/j-tuomas-harviainen-larp-collection/

This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book 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: Stockholm Scenario Festival 2014 by Johannes Axner is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

References   [ + ]

1. Andresen, M. E. (2012). Bringing fiction alive: An introduction for education and recreation. In M. E. Andresen (ed.) Playing the learning game (pp. 10-17). Oslo: Fantasiforbundet.
2. Harviainen, J. T. (2012). Experiences with emergent plot. In Truhlář, S. M. (ed.). Odraž se dokud můžeš (pp. 133-145). Praha: Odraz.
3. Harviainen, J. T. (2009). Notes on designing repeatable larps. In M. Holter, E. Fatland & E. Tømte (Eds.) Larp, the universe, and everything (pp. 97-110). Oslo: Knutepunkt.

Authors

J. Tuomas Harviainen
J. Tuomas Harviainen (M.Th., Ph.D.) runs a library, sidelines as a researcher for the University of Tampere, has co-edited three books about games, edits two journals, and supervises doctoral students for three universities. His mini-larps have been translated into 13 languages and run in over two dozen countries.
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