How we created a Firefly larp, not exactly about Firefly
What is Moon?
Moon is a chamber larp (3 hours + 1 hour debrief) for 10 players, situated in the Firefly universe. But the essence of the game lies in something else than in a cool sci-fi/western setting, and knowledge of Firefly is not necessary for playing the game.
After nearly four years of running Moon, we have decided that it’s time to capture moments from the life of this game. From the first idea that came to mind, to the last weekend when we put our grown-up child in the hands of other teams. This will not be a complete walk-through of the game, but an outline of useful tools for other game designers. We’ll try to describe features in enough detail that anyone can copy them.
Game Design & Tricks
First of all, we wanted to write a game not only to entertain people but also to make them think about a certain topic. That is why the whole Firefly setting is just scenery for our metaphor. Beyond a cool surface there is a very-much-discussed topic; the decision made by the Czechoslovakian president Edvard Beneš after the Munich Conference in 1938 (where he decided not to fight against Hitler and to let the country be occupied).
We wanted to show this difficult decision- making process as it applies to everyday life (“Would I risk the life of my spouse?”) at macro-level political circumstances. Players were not aware of the parallel before playing the game.
This is also the backbone storyline of the larp which drives the flow of the game and makes it cohesive, but it is followed by a number of smaller relationship-based plots. There were also three time points in the game which served as bottleneck for the players.
All of these were speeches, which redefined the situation and focused characters back on the main story plot. In the last one, the governor could choose one of the pre- written texts to decide whether the Moon colony would go to war or accept the occupants. That is the way we ensured a dramatic ending of the larp.
To make the game more authentic all the speeches were based on real historical materials (the Munich Agreement for example). It was a kind of easter egg for players, just like the names of the characters, which referred mainly to important Czechoslovak politicians or characters from well known books of the given period. This was surprisingly highly appreciated by a number of players afterwards.
The second interesting game design aspect is the storyline itself.
The whole scenario contains five smaller compact chapters linked together mainly by interpersonal stories and the history of the Moon colony itself.
Each character took part in 4 of 5 chapters. From the game designers’ perspective it worked well. It was easier to indicate if a certain character had enough content to deal with during the game, and the plot lines were logically coherent.
We accomplished coherence by a quite simple trick. There was a rule for adding any object or person to the plot: It has to be connected to as many characters as possible. So, for example there were messengers who were carrying important medicine and some message was given to them. But they were killed by another character, who stole both: the message and the medicine.
There were also someone ́s friends, who were furious about their death. Finally, the fate of the messengers was important for every character. And this brought to the game a sort of complexity where unintended conflicts and links between characters emerged (we used this technique in a more developed way in our newer games).
However, the chapters and connections were used only as a game design tool; for the players they were invisible. We wrote all the characters in the form of a story. As they were quite long (about 5 – 10 pages), each storyline or important information was repeated at the end of the text.
Meta-techniques in Moon
Our intention wasn’t to have a game full of rules, but some game tricks were necessary. After some discussion we picked three (four, after few reruns) of them.
First of all, there was an “intro” made of three scenes, which were written by us, and so became more like coordinated drama scenes. The reason, why we have decided to use this was in our experience of slow booting of chamber larps in that period and we didn’t want to have a game with a slow beginning.
This sadly proved that we probably weren’t able to manage them in the right way anyway, because in almost every run of the game, there was someone, who failed to do what was asked. It is possible that just writing a set of non-specific instructions on a piece paper and leaving the rest to the players wasn’t such good idea. The basic problem was probably in the strong chain of specified actions spread among different players.
A second meta-technique was special costume props. Aside from flags, hats, and so on, we had grey berets and brown pelerins. According to the Firefly universe (and our intention) there are two opposing sides of the conflict, and we needed players to have the possibility to show their affinity to the Browncoats or the Alliance explicitly. Anyone, who was wearing one or another, was for that moment publicly declaring “I am on side of…” This was also used to escalate conflicts between players subconsciously (and was also pretty and cool).
A third special rule was using a bit of music. For the whole runtime, there was music playing in the background (we’ve spent a significant amount of time picking music that would be fitting – surprisingly using the “shuffle” mode during the first few runs came up with mind-blowing scenes combining tough situations with precise lyrics). And when we wanted to intervene in the game (like radio broadcasts and booting scenes) we’d just turn the volume up, which intuitively made the players listen up for what would come next.
A fourth added technique was the rule of non-specific informations. It turned out, that players were forced by the large amount of information we had given them to investigate issues in detail. But that wasn’t our intention. So we added a simple rule of “the character who is the expert in a certain field is always right in discussions about that field”. So when the players were talking about something we did not write into the game, it was up to them. We wanted a dramatic game, not an investigation of specific actions in an exact time and space.
The last specific thing was running a beta test of Moon. We weren’t sure, if everything would go right or not, so we needed feedback to improve the game.
We picked a group of selected players we knew and ran it in small clubhouse. These players were chosen to fit the characters we’d written and also by their ability to give us the feedback we needed. Thus we were able to improve the game after the beta test.
Reflection / Feedback
The structured feedback was divided into two parts. The first was rather quick. Each player got a chance to briefly summarize their current impressions and emotional state. This simple step helped the players to concentrate themselves on the next parts, as they were given space to express what was close to their hearts.
This step also served as the first psychological safety check for organizers. More detailed questions followed. We focused on the highlights of the game:
”What was the most interesting scene that they did not take part in?”, “When did the character reach the final decision?”, “What was the key argument?”.
The second part reflected the topic of the game. We created a line, where the ends represented the two poles of a decision: war against a much stronger enemy or acceptance of occupation. Participants were at first asked to choose their character’s place and then their own. Usually it was followed by a spontaneous (but mediated) discussion where a lot of arguments and points of view were mentioned. The last activity was a structured discussion in couples to ensure everyone got time to formulate his or her opinion.
Afterwards the participants responded that this experience was far away from the prevalent rational historical discussions about what Edvard Beneš should have done at that grave moment of Czech history. It brought before them a completely new perspective to the problem, as they were forced to make a decision themselves in the context of arguments which were all around them. We ha ve never mentioned it explicitly, but as you could see above we implemented a number of indices into the game.
Moon Release Session
After approximately 30 runs of Moon we came up with an idea of releasing the game to the public. When we started out, we had decided not to, but time changes things.
We had been enthusiastic about doing more and more re-runs of the game. But at some point the next year this enthusiasm left us. So we decided, that we’d send it into the world, but not just by uploading it online. That was the birth of the “Moon release session”.
The idea was to get some fans and capable promoters together and teach them how to work with Moon. We had written an article about what we were up to, and published it on the website larp.cz (and of course pushed it through Facebook).
We had enough applicants to choose from. Finally, there were 12 people from across the whole of the Czech Republic who learned how to promote Moon. The whole thing took place in a cottage, where we had prepared several activities. From learning the story background, to diving into the game mechanics; both game design and technical stuff. And partying, of course!
We did not have any proper timetable for running the game, so the participants also had to make their own notes about timing, and how to do it all (the fact that there was no timing for the game was one of the reasons, why we did the weekend session, since none of us wanted to write that terribly long instruction manual).
Costumes were discussed, and now there is more than one set of the props in existence in the republic. After this session, there have already been several re-runs of Moon not done by us. Which means we’ve reached our goal – the game lives on.
We are proud that Moon is still able to compete with newer chamber larps, because the Czech chamber larp scene is evolving a lot and dozens of chamber larps have been written in the last four years. So far, more than forty runs have been done.
And it’s still flying.
Credits: Martin “Pirosh” Buchtík, Jindřích “Estanor” Mašek, Petr “Drrak” Platil, Filip Kábrt and Roman “Gordhart” Čech.
Date: February 2011 – till now (more than 40 runs in total)
Length: Game 3 hours, debriefing 1 hour
Players: 10 per run
Participation Fee: €2 – €7
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: Despair and frustration. That’s the impact of those situations. (Play, Martin Buchtík). Other photos by Kristýna Nováková and Martin Buchtík.