Entertainment. Escape room. Larp. Map-based MegaGame. Boasting so many features, Dragon Thrones was an ambitious and collaborative production.
Produced by The Game Theatre and fully funded on Kickstarter in January of 2017, this game came onto the U.S. larp scene as ambiguous and expensive, and its presence and success were not necessarily anticipated by members of the larp community.
Even on day one, players were nervous about its success.
How did this three-day game turn most dubious ticket holders into loyal fans ready to buy another ticket?
Dragon Thrones provided a surprising amount of immersion and engagement, especially for a game involving so many other elements not always present in a larp.
I participated in Dragon Thrones as a game master (GM), assisting House Ardmore, one of ten houses (teams) in the game. Going into Dragon Thrones, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect or whether the game would suit my roleplay style (I enjoy intensely exploring themes of loyalty, conflict, grief, and romance in larp so long as there are rules for engaging in consensual roleplay).
Also contributing to some apprehension on my part: I was one of two women on the GM team, the other being a more experienced GM than me. Being not so great with numbers, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to advocate for my house or even manage the MegaGame (see below section) properly. However, The Game Theatre worked closely with all the GMs so that they were able to learn, collaborate, support each other as well as the players.
Regarding group leadership and supporting our player character (PC) group leader, I felt more confident, having experience in American fantasy boffer games such as Seventh Kingdom IGE and in the Nordic-inspired New World Magischola. In Dragon Thrones, GMs assumed responsibility for MegaGame management, resource distribution, and supporting their assigned house through roleplay.
Like the players expressed in post-game comments on Facebook, immersion carried my GM experience to a high degree, and from the beginning, I was encouraged to be an embedded character within my assigned house. The level of immersion I experienced makes me enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to Dragon Thrones.
In addition to immersion creating fantastic game play, assuming the role of a character beloved by her house allowed me to handle the otherwise overwhelming or unknown aspects of the game more confidently than I would have otherwise.
What is a MegaGame?
Most MegaGames involve strategy, problem solving, negotiation, and diplomacy. There are typically set rules, rounds, and resource trading involved, as well as light roleplaying.
While I didn’t define it as a MegaGame at the time, the first MegaGame I participated in was in the 1990s. It was a UN-type roleplaying scenario run at my high school. I took on the role of a diplomat of Israel. Though I was a theatrical person, I was new to improvisation, shy, and talked over by the other students. I was impressed with the game, but ineffective.
I have always enjoyed strategic elements in the games I play. When I play games like Risk or Civilization V, involving troop movements and resources, I tend to internalize the role of the leader more than others who play the game, sometimes as a deliberate, immersive way to explore decisiveness and to employ strategies that I as the player might not normally choose.
Since the high school game, Dragon Thrones was my first MegaGame. Due to the technical elements, I predicted a low level immersion and had some serious concerns about how the MegaGame element would integrate with immersive larp – in addition to doubts about my own abilities in GMing a MegaGame.
The Game Theatre included the MegaGame element to resolve character versus character (CvC) actions without the type of combat (and even more rules) typically found in American fantasy boffer combat larps. Due to the magic of the setting (see “Castle as a Character” below), characters were safe at Bryn Mawr. The MegaGame allowed them to make moves against other groups, which in turn escalated tensions, highly positioned the importance of diplomacy, and created high immersion in the roleplay following the MegaGame rounds.
Neither my doubts about the game nor the integrated structure of gaming variety prevented immersion to a high degree.
Game Structure and Schedule
Dragon Thrones had an ambitious schedule, and it seemed that most players were never bored. The schedule included:
- Scheduled meals (most in cafeteria, one in great hall – most of my house chose to eat primarily in character and with our house).
- Mead and beer tastings and Catered Meal Cocktail Hour (also served during the dinner).
- High council meetings (two representatives from each house vote on global issues).
- Escape room (sign up for a time slot).
- Side Quests (can complete at any time).
- MegaGame (scheduled rounds).
- Entertainment in the main hall, including music and dance.
- Scripted entertainment (modules, including a finale scene).
- Night missions (at GM discretion when there were 45+ minutes of time).
As in many games (especially in the first run), the schedule changed as needed, but there was always something to do.
Introduction and Group Exercises
The first run of Dragon Thrones did not feature any exercises relating to the introduction of larp, bleed, or how to communicate things in game versus out of game. This was handled by each GM at their own discretion. (With the help of the larp community, I expect this will be added in following runs.)
There was time for the GMs to meet with their individual houses, so I put together a quick workshop based on what I discuss in my salon larps and what I have seen used successfully in other games such as New World Magischola. I introduced the players – to addressing concerns in game versus out of game (to each other, game staff, and me as the GM) and warned them about the potential emotional intensity involved in an intentionally competitive game. I was assigned to a roleplay-oriented group of players with varying amounts of larp experience.
I also allowed each player time to introduce themselves and talk about their characters as well as form some quick relationship history between their characters and others.
Lastly, I did a quick ‘lines of play’ exercise, asking players to line up based on how their characters feel about certain world events and issues and what attitudes they have. By the end of this exercise, players were suggesting items to scale on, and I was pleased to see this level of engagement.
I could have provided a bit more detail about bleed. I also heard that other GMs focused on instruction about the MegaGame component. Instead of focusing on the MegaGame, I opted to ensure that a few of the house members would attend the workshop on the MegaGame with me.
Each house initially convened in its war room, which served as home base for the house. The war room location promoted a sense of fellowship.
Prior to game, the organizers ran “university,” during which players could learn about an area of interest to them. The classes were out of character and the options included:
- Draconian lore and magic
- Diplomacy and Espionage
Houses were encouraged to split up to cover each class. These workshops were pretty efficient and there was plenty of time for the staff to address questions about game mechanics.
Immersion and GM Role
As the GM, I understood that much of my role would be out of game. (I consider this to also be the case when holding leadership positions in other larps traditionally billed as more immersive.)
With the MegaGame elements, I had to wrangle a computer (and sometimes my cell phone) and GM chat, all while handling the needs of my house and the in-game concerns of other houses’ diplomats and spies – they had functions requiring GM approval for use of game mechanics.
- The mechanical elements of the MegaGame did break immersion, though this was largely limited to MegaGame rounds.
- The MegaGame got easier with practice.
While the attention to out-out-of-game mechanics required a lot of immersion breaking for myself and most of the players in the war room, there were also gains in the level of immersion.
The MegaGame prompted diplomacy and spying (which also engaged characters not otherwise interested in the MegaGame) and resulted in rapidly escalating tension and camaraderie between kingdoms.
Multiple MegaGame rounds were played over the course of three days. Length of round decreased with player experience as the weekend continued, which caused a bit of a thrill as things began moving fast towards the climactic ending.
Players also interacted with the MegaGame, dumping resources into purchasing and enhancing forces using clear game mechanics provided on printed worksheets: it wasn’t clear to me as the GM how immersion-breaking or immersion-enhancing this activity was for them.
Immersive Setting: Castle as Character
As is the case with many blockbuster larps, the setting is integral to the immersion of the game. In the case of Castle Bryn Mawr, the castle felt like its own character and played a specific role in the story. To create further immersion and realism, Castle Bryn Mawr was “The Citadel of Mirrors,” establishing peaceful dialogue between houses and kingdoms, the ability to travel through magical mirrors on covert missions, and providing characters a reason to have wounds healed or for assassinations to fail.
The magic of the Citadel of Mirrors prevented (or warned of the danger of) attacking players in-game. The lore states that “those who attack others while under the magic of the Citadel (of Mirrors) attack only themselves. As if you’re attacking your own reflection.”
This preemptively addressed issues like griefing (unrelenting kills) and grave camping (standing by a deceased character, waiting for a respawn so that the character can be killed repeatedly) sometimes encountered in rules-heavy American boffer combat larp settings.
Prior to arriving at Dragon Thrones, I saw many posts in the Facebook group about all the dancers, knights, professional actors, and alcohol distributors who would be at the event. I became concerned that it was going to be more like spectator theater or at best a renaissance faire than a game with larp elements.
In this respect, I was delightfully wrong. Every entertainer I saw interacted with the player in-game which helped enhance the immersion rather than reduce it. This included the bard who ate with my team on Saturday night and the dancers who added story elements through their art and interactions.
The most amusing example of this level of immersion involved a champion (knight) who represented our house. This actor who portrayed the knight, along with his group, was hired to perform a choreographed fight. Following the fight, each champion came to meet with his house in game.
As a GM integrated with my house in a roleplay sense, my character’s king pointed out that he was interested in marrying her to their house’s champion. I consented to this attempt (and let him know that I was okay with it on an out of game level), but obviously this was not a scene we had prepared with our champion. When the knight came in to greet us, the king introduced my character as his ‘future wife.’
I did an out of game check-in with the actor to make sure he was comfortable with it – it turns out he was, and that he was an actor with roleplay experience. He rolled with the scene, his character being quite kind and receptive to mine, and within five minutes, the high priest character had wed the pair.
The consent negotiation I initiated, as well as the scene itself, was every bit as immersive as it might have been in a Nordic-inspired larp setting and it created a bonding moment for our entire house.
With more workshopping related to consent negotiation, it is possible that players will take more risks and initiate such interactions rather than limiting access to veteran roleplayers and actors.
Agile Gameplay versus Scripted Plot
From a GM perspective, I was impressed at how many details of the scripted plot were up for alteration.
For example, when the aforementioned Ardmore champion arrived, we were informed that he was a hero from our citadel who had become draconian as the result of another house’s actions in game (House Ardmore is a human house). Not only did this affect house and personal plot, but it was a reason for his victories as a champion. These details mattered and increased our level of immersion.
Large displays and the need for a conclusion did provide the feeling of being steered from time to time, but I appreciated how the details changed significantly depending on in-game actions.
Some of these actions were up to GM discretion, particularly the night missions. The Game Theatre team made story changes in an agile fashion, based upon player character choices in roleplay in multiple aspects of the game. Whether a player made a roleplay decision affecting another player character or non-player character or a large-scale action like troop movement affecting the game world, behind-the-scenes adjustments were often made to the story.
Night Missions: Surprisingly Immersive
Night missions consisted of a narrative session. During the session, the GM allowed the players to embark on an adventure, exactly like the story-oriented part of most tabletop games.
Whenever the players had to make a huge choice or attempt something risky, the GM asked them to pull a Jenga block. This represented the elements of risk in the game, and they’d receive certain rewards (or consequences) based on their result. In my adventures, I let the players select a location on the game map and used that as a starting point. The players chose to:
- Explore a temple
- Retrieve golems from a volcanic area
- Poison an enemy’s water supply
The player feedback indicated that night missions were one of their most beloved parts of the game. What really surprised me is how immersive these missions were, even for me as the storyteller. I imagine this is due to multiple reasons:
- The storytelling and narration came naturally to the players, already immersed in roleplaying these characters in a larp sense. There were no awkward ‘new group meets in a tavern’ scenes; the adventurers know each other before the missions begin.
- Night missions were supposed to be an hour or less. There were no long, boring stretches, and we sometimes squeezed these in between other scheduled events.
- The MegaGame and some of the larp elements were extremely serious in tone, and night missions allowed for a bit of levity based on storytelling style and the potentially late hour of the mission.
- The MegaGame allowed for tangible rewards in the form of gems (player resources) or additional army strength. MacGuffins and roleplay items could be represented by props. Having a goal that can make a difference in army strength, for example, caused the players to remain focused and invested in night missions.
- The Night Mission’s rule set was extremely streamlined and other than pulling a block from Jenga, all of the roleplaying and storytelling was up to the GM and the players. This was a contrast to the structured MegaGame rules and allowed for more player interaction and character development.
- GMs were permitted to exercise a high level of discretion regarding Night Missions. This is overall the case for all of Dragon Thrones, which is part of what allowed for a game with multiple different rulesets to feel so immersive and rewarding.
Overall, the night missions created immersion due to pre-established character relationships, brevity, and tangible goals.
I was initially skeptical of night missions (and my ability to run them), but found them to be one of the more immersive parts of the game. As a larper preferring WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interactions even in a magical world, I was pleasantly surprised.
I was also asked to provide summaries of night missions to the event organizers. In two instances concerning my house, the night missions affected armies in the MegaGame. This was to be recorded in the lexicon of Dragon Thrones to be used for future story elements per the discretion of The Game Theatre.
Final Scene: Narration
The closing scene of the game also involved a great deal of narration. After a tense MegaGame round, the divided kingdoms and houses had to face an elder dragon together. The high king (played by the game’s co-creator, Chris Batarlis of The Game Theatre) set the scene via narration and then called each GM forth to narrate the actions of their house.
I found the storytelling opportunity immersive and I think most players felt that this scene provided us with a great deal of closure (not always – or often – found at Nordic and Nordic inspired-larps). This type of closure may be more conducive to softening negative bleed, and it’s something that may work better for a more competitive game and larp culture.
Evidence of Immersion, Transformative Roleplay and Larp Drop
As an experienced larper, I’m typically aware of what immersion is and when it affects me. As a GM, I was particularly aware of this because I prefer to maintain more out-of-game awareness than I would as a player because I am responsible for providing certain elements and guidance.
While I had to focus in an out-of-game context during MegaGame rounds, there were long periods of roleplay-only activities. I disliked breaking immersion, but also found that I wandered back into an immersive state relatively naturally due to several reasons:
- It was clearly that my in-game friendships with other characters were heralding out of game friendships. In the MegaGame, we had to work together out-of-game to a degree, and we fortunately discovered that most of us got along well in character, too.
- There were long portions of time without the MegaGame, and I was matched with a group who wanted to focus on roleplay.
- Mead. There was a lot of mead, and we consumed it responsibly.
- Dining together helped us immerse and come together as a group.
My character’s role as a trusted advisor to the King of Ardmore guided me into an immersive state. In and out of game, king players and characters knew that the GMs and their characters were there to help them, and would not be traitors.
The writers had given me a character who had been fostered with the king and his family. Aside from making my job as a GM easier, the unquestioning loyalty my character felt towards the king created an endless amount of roleplay opportunities and encouraged other characters to further explore themes of loyalty and betrayal. How far would these characters follow their king when his decisions deviated from their desires? My character would speak her mind, but would follow him to victory or ruin.
Throughout the event, my character consulted a deck of archetype cards (similar to tarot in purpose) for help in advising their king. As a prop, it also helped me play an outgoing and flirtatious character who could easily converse with others and facilitate connections.
In a tender scene, walking from war room to the great hall, my character advised the king on an important matter, then told him, “That counsel is not from my cards…it is how I feel.” He responded that such advice meant the most, and that he trusted it.
That’s when the transformative nature of the immersive roleplay occurred.
Having lost my job less than a month prior to the event, my real life was filled with stress and pressure. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could pull off the MegaGame aspect of GMing, but I had found that the GM team worked well together and that I was paired with a really compatible group in the game.
How many times have I given in to imposter syndrome or second guessed my own intuition? Far too often – but not nearly as often as other people have brushed it off.
As GM and Karinna, I worked hard to provide the best advice – to guide the king as player and character, but to leave the choices up to him. To find this rewarded with an acceptance of my own intuition was a very powerful takeaway from this game, and not one that would have sunk in without the roleplay.
This also resulted in lasting friendships with many of the players on my team. We’ve already made plans to play and run games together in the future, at Dragon Thrones and beyond. I’ve heard that this experience is not unique to my team.
The most compelling piece of evidence of immersion and enjoyment is the larp drop experienced by many of the players involved. This refers to feelings of loneliness upon returning to the real world. For me, larp drop manifests most intensely not after playing specific relationship types with individuals, but with the type of team dynamic present at Dragon Thrones. I feel this type of larp drop pretty strongly, and weeks after the game I am still experiencing it.
Above all, it felt fulfilling to work with a house that valued me and my intuition and judgment in and out of game, and that feeling also extends to the organizers, GMs, writers, and full player base. That sort of self-development is not something I achieve without immersive and transformative roleplay.
Unique Selling Proposition (USP) as Related to Immersion
Every larp needs its own hook. What makes it different from every other game?
For Dragon Thrones, it’s clearly a combination of setting, entertainment, MegaGame, and immersive larp. Describing the setting (Bryn Mawr College, outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is the easiest way to convey the immersive nature of the game format, though the latest trailer solves Dragon Thrones’ pre-game issue about expectations and game identity (it was so many different things in one) and also emphasizes the avenues towards immersion a player can experience in the game:
- Setting and discovery (“an entire castle for you to explore”)
- War game strategy (“masterfully control the MegaGame”)
- Agency, decision making and collaborative storytelling (“choose your own path; your actions shape the story”)
- Bonds of loyalty and duty to kingdom (“be the hero for your kingdom”)
- Conflict and competition (“crush your enemies”)
- Leadership and the hero’s call (“lead your kingdom to victory”)
- Destiny and influence (“the fate of the realm is in your hands”)
- Social decisions and choices (“what decisions will you make?”)
Dragon Thrones 2 and Beyond
The notes and feedback surrounding Dragon Thrones were significant, particularly concerning the MegaGame rules. A second run of the game certainly needs to address these issues (I understand this is in progress) and this will enhance immersion to an even greater degree.
The other necessary improvement involves workshopping and debrief. Now that there is a clearer sense of what Dragon Thrones is and the type of immersion players were able to accomplish, I imagine the next run will be even more spectacular and hope to remain involved.
Following the first run, I would define Dragon Thrones as a larp with strategic elements and fully integrated professional entertainment. A new or experienced larper aiming for immersion has the potential to meet their goals at this larp.
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Cover photo: Before the Dragon Throne (courtesy of The Game Theatre, LLC). Picture has been cropped.