Isle of Saints
Isle of Saints was a one to two days and nights long larp for about 60 players, organized by team of three writers. It was also what's known in Finland as a city game – a larp where the play area is a whole city and sometimes beyond that. The setting was loosely based on White Wolf's World of Darkness. The text below was originally written in 2007 as developement debrief from one of the organizers and can be read as an example of late 90's/early 2000's Finnish larp, based heavily on pre-written characters and plot hooks.
The game was held in Helsinki, which doubled as the capital city of Isle of Saints – an imaginary island in middle of Atlantic Ocean. The cities were identical copies and the players were instructed to think that the streets matched and internally think that the street names fitted the setting.
IoS was based on White Wolf's World of Darkness, mostly Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension, though not on the Minds Eye Theatre-versions of them. One of the reasons we wrote the larp was to fix things that thought were not working well enough in the MET-based larks we'd been participating.
Some examples of things we wanted to avoid or do in a different way:
Change the rules. Minds Eye Theatre is, for a character immersive play, a very clunky set of rules; it basically takes the Storytelling system tabletop rules, streamlines them a bit, changes dices to RPS-test and tells you to roll with it. In essence, it brings a tabletop-paradigm to a larp with not that good results, since larps are very different beasts. More about this in rules -post.
The “Elysium-syndrome”; larps tend to happen in single physical place, which is a bit ankward for a large group of players and characters. Players have to fake reasons to stay in the playing area even if it's clear that their characters would not stay there. So either you hang around, with no reason, or go out from the game.
The “Only Vampires Allowed”-syndrome. It doesen’t really feel that you're a beast in the top of the food chain if the only people you meet are other beasts in the top of the food chain. Where's the personal horror and predatory feeling in that? We wanted to simulate a full city in World of Darkness, with several different supernatural factions not entirely aware of each other, and with lot of humans mostly unaware of supernatural beings. In essence, we wanted “the masquerade” that works.
We wanted to avoid a large social gathering with obvious plots happening during a fixed period of time; in other words, we wanted to simulate few days and nights of life of the characters; not the least exiting days, more like starting slow and then acclerating the pace.
We decided that we'd want to have around 60 players and that the game would be invitation only; we picked an initial list of players whom we know would have the same idea of Live-Roleplaying that we had. We also had to take into account matters like playing space (players that could provide their apartments for playing) and travelling (players with cars). We drafted initial budget, calculated the participation fee and discounts for players providing apartment or a car.
We didn't really spent a lot of time pondering on how we wanted to do things; two other writers had one similar game under their belt and we reviewed what worked in it and what did not, what to do in same way and what to improve.
Initial concept design and iteration
After the vision has been decided, we had the rough number of players and basic concept for the game (setting, logistics, idea for what kind of game we wanted to do), we set down to do the concept design. Basically, it's brainstorming, setting design, character concept design and plot hook/structure design.
We started with the setting; what kind of place Isle of Saints was? What was the history, both normal and supernatural one. Isle of Saints was modelled after the Over-the-Edgish island-state of Al-Amarja, with the somewhat kooky secret society and paranoid stuff ripped out and replaced with “enlightened” western dictature; take the Kennedy family and give them dictatorial powers. The island was set about 400 miles east from Newfoundland. The main GM, responsible for the setting, wrote about six to seven pages of setting background, mostly “fluff” for reading and establishing tone and theme of the place. It included instructions on how to map the imagined setting into the real life counterpart.
Then we brainstormed the major character groups, factions and initial plot hooks that would tie these groups together; the possibility of conflicts.
And then went to brainstorm character concepts within the groups, relationships within the groups and relationships spanning from individual character in one group to characters in other groups. We did this iteratively; sat down four or five times, tossed character concepts, possible plot hooks and relationships, took notes and at the same time pondered about what could be realisticly achieved. We had a rough estimate of playing spaces at this point, which we also included to the brainstorming; this large communal apartment could be used for this, this small city apartment for that. We also started looking at the player list and casted players to character roles.
At the end of concept design phase we had:
- List of character concepts
- List of character group concepts
- List of character relationships
- List of players
- List of locations
- Setting information
Main plotlines, groups and group level plotlines
The character groups were:
- Camarilla vampires, seven or eight characters and several mortal servants
' Sabbat/Anarchist vampires, three characters and several mortal assosicates
- Technocracy mages, six or seven characters
- Tradition mages, six or seven characters
- Polices, six characters, one nonplayer character
- Criminal gang, six characters
- The Artist Gang, five or six mortal characters
- The rest characters were mortals in different small groups or connected to other groups
The characters were divided to three writers roughly according to groups; I wrote, for example, five camarilla vampires, three sabbat vampires, five police detectives, one tradition mage and five other mortal characters (son of a detective, husband of a mage, boyfriend of a sabbat vampire and three office workers).
Main plotlines or -hooks were written in the concept creation and further detailed in the character writing. These were things we GM's more or less set in motion in order to bump different characters and groups together and create situations. Some of these were pre-set events around which the larp was built, happening in playing spaces. Some examples around the camarilla vampire group:
Main event for the most mortal characters and a good amount of other characters, from almost every character group, was an engagement party of a young couple; a young, talented artist and his girlfriend. The Vampire prince of the city had set his eyes on the young artist and his trusted servant had been sponsoring the artist for some time, and was now ordered to bring the boy to see his unnamed patron during the engagement party.
The camarilla vampires had received a tip of a police detective who had been spying uncomfortably close to them and been in contact with someone who obviously had knowledge of their power structure; their game started with a meeting in which they were to decide what to do with this. The detective himself was a non player character who was bound to go missing in one way or another. This would put the other detectives on the edge.
A camarilla vampire dealing with criminal underground had set his eyes on a certain statue and wanted the criminal gang to break in to the apartment where the statue was supposed to be. The owner was a retired techoncracy agent, and breaking into his apartment was bound to get that group interested. However, the statue had accidentally been delivered to his neighbour, an outwardly normal office worker, with delusions of grandeur and international espionage business.
One camarilla vampire had found out that her childhood friend hanged out with the sabbat vampires and wanted to meet her. The sabbat vampire(s) wanted her to defect and were arriving to town both to see her and check the status of their informant (who was blackmailing the police detective).
The detectives had open cases: they had seek and detain orders for one camarilla vampire (not knowing that he was a vampire), shadowing orders for several criminals and domestic disturbance case for one of the tradition mages.
And so on. The plot hooks did not have a scripted endings; just the setup, initial directions and character goals or needs. Some of them appeared to be character level plot hooks, but with the amount of hooks they were bound to collide at some point. We wanted to set so many wheels into motion and have so many relationships that the events would drive themselves onward and in turn, create more events.
The tool for controlling the events was an simple one; we used pre-determined starting times for characters and pre-determined times for meetings. Some examples:
- Friday 19.30 – an emergency meeting called by the Sheriff (game starts)
- Saturday 18.30 – Servant Blackwell brings young William Morgan to meet me at Elysium
- Saturday 19.30 – Prince's reception at the Elysium
Mike Freyd, detective
- Saturday 14.30 – lunch with son Jens at the Burger Joint (game starts)
- Saturday 16.00 – Work shift starts
- Saturday 16.30 – Meeting of the evening shift
- Sunday 03.00 – Work shift ends
Jens Freyd, detective's son (hanging with the criminal gang who're bound to call him at some point)
- Saturday 14.30 – lunch with dad at the Burger Joint (game starts)
- Saturday 18.00 – a pre-emptive beer with the work mates (the office workers) at Bar Old Hat
- Saturday 19.30 – William's and Anna's house party (will turn into a surprise engagement party, but Jens doesen’t know that)
We used the different stating times and meeting times as a pacing tool, which both allowed us to keep track on the start of the events and gave us times when certain character groups were in certain places. Apart from that, the game was mostly out of our control.
Actual play, logistics, big picture
We had around six designated playing areas around the city, mostly in downtown, but several places in suburbs as well. Most of the groups had a car or two in use (I just checked from a technocracy player that he drove around 170 kilometers during the game – the technocracy base was in the suburbs, and most of their missions happened in downtown).
Players used cell phones for communication; they knew the phone numbers of the characters they had relationships with, or if they had other reasons to know them. They could get more numbers from the GM's if they had reasons and means to do that. The GM's communicated with cell phones as well; the lead GM had a secondary phone line, so he could use one line for in-game calls, and second line for GM tasks.
Also, irc was used for communication – we had several characters who mostly participated through phones and irc; a vampire who didn't want to socialize, a tradition mage in wheelchair, technical police officer (who spent some time online, I think), and perhaps several other players. The lead GM played several NPC's online, the so-called haXor-types in Isle of Saints. The idea looked good on the paper, and sucked in actual play, mostly because we could not focus on the online players and they were more than a bit left out, with little to do. More on this in the problems-section.
So what did the players/characters do during the game? It was mostly social roleplaying, playing a full day of life of your character, until events at some point started to accelerate and turn south, when the plot-hooks kicked in, your or your groups interests collided with other groups, and stuff happened. This did not end the social roleplaying, though – just added some action and direction to it.
So, in essence, the whole event could be thought as several mini-games starting on their own and then colliding and expanding into a larger whole.
Examples of group-level plot-hooks kicking into effect:
The Camarilla Vampires started with the mentioned detective investigation, and kidnapped the man. This led to police getting worried about and investigating their colleague who didn't show up to work shift, the Sabbat controller getting this information and relaying to Sabbat pack approaching town, and possibly the tecnocracy getting hang of things via their surveillance.
The young artist was introduced to Prince, which mixed up things in the engagement party, especially when vampires later showed up in the party.
The Vampire with underground ties contacted the criminal group and assigned them to steal a statue, which they failed to do, but in the process accidentally killed a retired technocracy agent (accident and accident – one of the criminals was not named Pepe “Anus” Chicanez for nothing), which then triggered technocracy interest to a whole different level. All these different things eventually led the technocracy to tail the vampires and especially the Prince. It also lead several groups to pursuit the misplaced statue and a certain codemonkey who possessed it, and was investigating international conspiracies in engagement party.
The Sabbat pack approaching town got into contact with the rebel vampire and persuaded her to switch sides. The rest of the camarilla were already a bit suspicious of her and put one of the vampires to keep company to her, which led to an excellent scene; the two vampires visiting engagement party (both had some ties to the humans there), the another vampire leaving the rebel alone just for a mere minute – which she used to sprint across the street and into a waiting car, which then speeded away. Two minutes after this, the rest of the camarilla arrived to the scene with multiple cars, having gotten a hang of the switching attempt – and missing it by just a bit. Talking about narrow escape.
The technocracy tailing vampires eventually did find them, at Elysium, triggering the mentioned escape scene and further driving the vampires to regroup at the safe house, and planning for the future – still now knowing exactly who was after them.
So, in essence, the chaotic model of relationships and plot-hooks did generate a lot of contect and the structure worked – for most of the groups, with the bonus effect of lot of close call -situations. For some other groups and invidual characters, it failed badly.
What worked, what did not work and what should be improved
Communication during the event was probably the biggest failure; we relied on one GM who was supposed to handle the in- and off-game phone calls, online presence, and feed relevant data to different groups. This worked well enough when things were quiet; it became quite a clusterfuck when things went hectic. We gravely underestimated the amount of time phone calls would take and how much the players would be doing in-game phonecalls to whomever. Our communication system was jammed, which affected the police group in particular – they couldn't get data from their moles and street police patrols (which would have been supplied by the GM's, based on where the other groups were moving), quite effectively cutting them off from the rest of the game. It also affected the online-players, as the GM-played NPC's became mostly inactive.
Second, some character preparation and casting work failed. Some players got characters that didn't suit their playing style, which resulted with a boring experience. Some characters were just bland; the concepts didn't work at all. And finally, some where written in a way which didn't result in meaningfull play. For example, the Sabbat gang had a mortal boyfriend (or juicebag) with them and he was written to be a pretty obnoxious guy. The player did a great job playing him – and the Sabbat gang kicked him out after they reached the town, having been just this close to wasting him. That player missed most of the game – and didn't even know he had been in a car with three vampires, until after the game.
One of the players had to cancel his appearance because of illness, just few hours before the game started, and we couldn't replace her. This left her characters husband a bit alone regarding the relationship stuff.
Some mortal character players felt that they got support role character when they found out, after the game, that there had been a whole other dimension in the game. Some comments can be read from here. Should have put more effort to writing the mortal plot-hooks, probably, though the supernatural/mortal divide was there by design.
Some of the characters suffered from a background bloat, which then affected some other backgrounds as well – when the deadlines came close, the quality of writing suffered.
On the positive side, apart from the communication glicthes, the game as whole worked pretty well. Things clicked together and events movent forward, generating more and more stuff when things progressed.
The rules worked for the players; that is, they weren't used much and when they were, the usage was subtle and quick. I'm not sure how much the nature of rules – very freeformish – affected their usage, but more complex rules would probably just have been skipped.
I think we mostly succeeded in the main goal, simulating a certain amount of time in a city of darkness in “realistic” manner. The masquerade was kept until the end; some mortal players probably guessed that there was supernatural stuff going on in the background, but it didn't blatantly jump to their and especially not to characters eyes. The pacing of the game mostly worked; slow start and buildup, hectic ending.
Also, we managed to get material internally consistent, which save us from lot of trouble. The players were pretty much capable of playing on their own, without need to constantly update them about setting- and character related things.
Probably the most important factor was the fact that we chose our players and made an invitation only -game. It's a cheap shot, but this way we didn't have to worry about things like cheating, differences in play styles (though we eventually got some of that, as mentioned) or too many other player-level things.
Helsinki FTZ by Panu Alku was among the first citywide larps held in Finland. It was followed by Mage (the Ascension, of White Wolf -fame) larp organised by Mikko Rautalahti and Mika Loponen. The game design was heavily influence by experience the designers had from the long running Helsingin Camarilla VTM chronicle.