It is no secret that I am a huge Dresden Files nerd. If you haven’t read the amazing book series by Jim Butcher, you are missing out on some of the best urban fantasy around. If you watched the TV show, you’re nearly there – now go to Kindle or the library or your local bookseller and make your eyeballs do the walking across those amazing pages. Ahem. So, as I said, huge Dresden nerd. (I even cosplayed as a female Harry Dresden at last year’s NYCC – no joke).

So when I thought a few years back about what LARP I would love to run, the Dresden Files came to mind. I was a huge fan of the tabletop RPG created by Evil Hat Productions and once i got my hands on the book, we were off to the races. Now, two and a half years later and three versions of the rules (at least!) gone by, my team and I run The Unofficial Dresden Files LARP out of the Double Exposure conventions in Morristown, New Jersey. Over the July 4th weekend, my team and I ran our fourth Dresden Files game to the tune of forty-five people. The game, entitled “Final Frost” was the culmination of our very first chronicle. And it has been a wild ride. Here’s how it all went down.

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The cast of the Unofficial Dresden Files game “Final Frost”

The Unofficial Dresden Files LARP

Design Team: Shoshana Kessock, John Adamus, Josh Harrison, Kat Schoynheder

Production Assistants: Justin Reyes, Abigail Corfman, Andrea Vasilescu

Location: Double Exposure Conventions (New Jersey, USA)

How This Happened: As I said before, I’m a huge Dresden Files fan. After running a few tabletop sessions of the Evil Hat tabletop RPG, I came upon the idea that Dresden Files would make a great LARP. Why? It has all the factors that make supernatural theater LARP great – a multitude of different supernatural creatures, a decent balance between human characters and the things that go bump in the night, and a world that ties everything together so perfectly. The fact that the world has such a fan following and such a strong intellectual property made it a perfect level of buy-in for players. Moreover, I felt that Dresden was a supernatural world with all the moral ambiguity and personal choice play that people could get with World of Darkness games without a lot of the darker, sometimes depressing overtones that WoD games can bring. Dresden is a rollicking adventure world where people take their adventure in their hands and go for broke, and that’s the kind of games I love. So I got together a team and we began planning. Now, two and half years later, most of the original team have gone on to other projects but the passionate players of this convention game experience have stayed. The result is a growing player base who have come back four times in a row to see what we can offer.

The Premise: The world of the Dresden Files is a supernatural playground of wizards, vampires, were-creatures, fae and their changeling children, and every flavor of supernatural whozamawhutzits that might come in between. These characters try to coexist in a world that, for the most part, doesn’t know they’re around. Dark powers wriggle around in the background of course and those ‘in the know’ try to figure out how to stay afloat in a constantly shifting supernatural world. The main themes of the game are personal choice between power and humanity and we tried to keep very close to those themes when designing our very first chronicle. We began with “Trouble Signs” in which a powerful CEO tried to jumpstart his career in the supernatural world by signing onto what are known as the Unseelie Accords. His idea? Host a massive auction where he would sell off some of his prized magical items for support. Of course nothing goes correctly and he causes everyone to get in dutch with the Queen of the Winter Fae, Mab herself. By the time game four rolled around, the characters had to travel into the very heart of Winter to the stronghold of Arctus Tor to ask Queen Mab not to explode a huge section of New York City with Mordite. In between there were Denarians, dominance battles by werewolves, possessions and corrupt cops, reconstituted faerie courts and wizards risen from the dead.

Yeah, it kind of went like that.

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The Preparation: This chronicle, as I mentioned, has been two and half years of work in the making. From concept to final execution it has had literally hundreds of hours of work by multiple people. For the sake of brevity, however, I’ll focus on the prep for Final Frost, our most recent game.

The player briefing before game.
The player briefing before game.

Final Frost was perhaps easier than the previous games in that we had been through the process several times before. In between games two and three we had junked our entire rules system for a brand new adaptation of the brilliant tabletop Fate Core system (also by Evil Hat Productions). Fate is the engine that drives the Dresden Files RPG and the newest version gave us a lot of the agile storytelling options that we wanted to focus on for the LARP. I was lucky enough to team up with John Adamus, who worked as editor on Fate Core, and we schemed ways to adapt Fate Core into a system for the LARP. The results from John was a brilliant adaptation of the Fate numbers system for a card-pull based mechanic that kept the core of Fate games – the Aspect system- intact. The Stunts and Powers for each player were individually crafted to suit the player character’s needs and skills were stripped wholesale from the tabletop in a simple adaptation. The mechanics were tailored to make the resolution systems more narrative focused and quick, as our intent was to foster games where player agency was key. The Dresdenverse is driven by characters that take chances, do amazing things and step out on the edge and that’s what we wanted to support in our players.

Power versus humanity - bargains being made.
Power versus humanity – bargains being made.

For the actual game session we relied on very bare-bones theater-style setting with rooms set up with sparse lighting. We relied heavily on narrators setting the scene and describing what was seen since, to be frank, we didn’t have the budget to build a giant ice castle. Relying on the players imagination and the judicious application of props, we lead players through everything from a Queens warehouse under siege by Black Court vampires, darkened roads through the Nevernever, and the heart of Queen Mab’s territory itself. We relied heavily on small props as well, cleaning out local stores for props that could represent magic and transformations in game. For example: were-forms were a big part of our campaign. Yet transformations into werewolves always bugged me in games. So to indicate transformation we handed out little plastic face masks that went over the nose and mouth. Whenever a were-form would transform, they would pop on the nose and presto, insta-werewolf!

The characters for the campaign had always been pre-generated since the beginning of the chronicle. Players however began to get so attached to their characters that they would register with us before the convention in the hopes of reprising their previous characters, so much so that we had almost a 75% retention rate for players coming back by game four. Each player was provided with a character sheet with stats and a full backstory. Though these backstories originally topped out at over a page long, by game four the necessity for that much information had decreased since players knew their characters well and we managed to get down to one paragraph. That dramatically shortened the workload for me considering I was writing most of those backstories (that’s a lot of typing). And that was predominantly the workload for this game – story ideation, character management, system building and iteration, and sheet generation. Paperwork. Lots of paperwork.

A wizard back from the dead.
A wizard back from the dead.

The Game: When Final Frost started, the players were headed into the Nevernever to confront Queen Mab over what might become the destruction of everything on Earth. They had opened up a trapped box that held Mordite, an anti-magical substance that would have exploded and eradicated most of New York. The reason for Mab’s ire? The players had managed to help reconstitute the Autumn and Spring courts of the fae, causing upheaval in the fae realms. To that end, she started a near war in New York and the players were out to stop it. The game before had seen some players escape into the Nevernever to find Mab while the others stayed behind to guard the Mordite trap from being stolen by the Black Court vampires. They too however escaped into the Nevernever by wrenching open a gateway using the power of some faeries and the sacrifice of two were-forms (they lived but lost their ability to shapeshift). Once inside the magical Nevernever they were reunited with their friends and headed for Artcus Tor. There they fought Mab’s guards until she stopped the battle and issued a challenge – break the Autumn and Spring Courts and she would stop the box. Pretty straight forward? It’s never that easy! The players were forced to track down the sword of Spring and bargain for the lost magic of a wizard (a player character) to be able to take on the power of the Spring Queen, whose life Mab demanded be forfeit.

Its funny as a storyteller when you set out events before players what happens. The end results might be the same but nobody ever gets there the way that you expect. I had the honor of playing both Queen Mab and the Mother of the Winter Court, Mother Winter, and throughout the night it was fae bargains left and right. Souls were sold, deals were brokered and power changed hands. In the end, however, the Spring Queen was eradicated and the power of the courts broken when the players were given some insight into what would happen if they didn’t do what Mab said. The Mordite box was removed and plenty of people ended up owing Mab their lives when the destruction of the Spring Queen nearly killed everyone involved. For the most part, however, the players returned from the Nevernever in one piece – all except for a lone wizard who had stayed alive long enough to do his job. Then he was taken away by Mab, after sharing a last meal of burgers and fries with his apprentice and their fellow wizards.

The part of this game that was so satisfying was watching the character arcs for so many players come to a (temporary) close after “Final Frost.” It would be impossible to talk about all the great events that went on for the characters but I’ll give some highlights of my favorite story lines:

  • Changelings hiding from the madness outside.
    Changelings hiding from the madness outside.

    A rookie New York City discovers he has a magical past that goes back further than he knows. He gains tremendous power, transferred to him by his dying relative, whose violent murder at the hands of a Denarian sends the cop on a mission of vengeance. In the end he found new wizards to learn from, others who share his vengeance, and maybe a girlfriend?

  • A young woman tries to escape from her bargain with Queen Mab and talks her way into becoming the Queen of Autumn. Yet everything comes with a price and while she’s trying to understand what being a fae Queen is all about, she has to try and save her people from Mab’s wrath. In the end she sacrifices her new power to end the Spring Queen’s life before she can cause calamity.
  • A charismatic White Court Vampire tries to lead his family through the turbulent times in New York and ends up making deals that drive him in the middle of a war with the fae. When he’s trapped in a warehouse, trying to find a way to rescue himself and his cousin from destruction, he is killed fighting when thrown into the Mordite trap.
  • A wizard of the White Council comes up from New Orleans to track down the Denarian that murdered his mentor. Upon arrival he’s pushed into the middle of a war, ends up with an apprentice after watching a Warden killed in front of him, and sacrifices his own magic. By the end however he was returned to his power and even found himself the oddest of ladies to fall for, all before watching the Warden rise from the dead to help battle Mab’s trials.
  • A young werewolf tries to keep his pack together after most of them were slaughtered, including his father, by Red Court vampires. Along with his sister, they long to find protection from anyone who would hurt them. Too bad it was his actions that caused the Red Court to come after his family in the first place- and all over the love of a blood-addicted girl! Reunited with the girl, he ends up forsaking his pack and following her into the Nevernever to end up a servant of the fae Queen of Autumn who rescued her, sworn together as true lovers and leaving his de-powered were-form sister behind.

The list of stories go on and on. And they’re not done yet! This chronicle may be over, but the game will continue. After the success of the last few games, the team decided that we wanted to continue running the game…. with a few changes.

Change Is Coming: There were some things we wanted to change from the original chronicle in response to player feedback and our own experiences running the game. First of all, we wanted to hand over control of characters to the players. Convention games often breed pregenerated characters, but that requires a lot of work on the staff’s part and also is a hell of a pre-game casting process. Moreover, we felt that to create a personal experience for players, we wanted them to be able to have their own characters that could travel with them from game to game. New players would be able to create their own characters as well going forward. Those who played the game in the past would be able to continue playing the characters from the first chronicle – with a few adjustments.

Players learning the new mass combat rules.
Players learning the new mass combat rules.

As said before, the game was kind of high powered. We had faerie queens. We had Denarians. We had dragons for goodness sake. The game, much like the tabletop, is meant to focus on a lower power scale so as to emphasize the notion of power versus humanity, a staple of the Dresden Files books. This chronicle stepped up that power level to make the events of the game earth shaking. After all that, we decided that we wanted to take the game back down to street level, where players would be dealing with less world-changing problems and instead focus more on manageable power scales. This answered feedback from some of our players who felt that their characters were just not scaled to fit some of the threats showing up in the game.

That said, we also took a look at some of our mechanics that were and were not working. We’ve taken the feedback given to us and gone after our stress system (which is the damage system for Fate) and how it adapts in a faster-paced LARP session. Mass combat was also tested and, for the most part, held up – yet there were a few considerations that needed looking at that we’re taking back to the drawing board. In the end, the stress test of high powered combat worked to give us the data we needed to work on polishing up the system.

A Special Shout-Out: We also had a wonderful experience hosting a LARP guest at the game. RPG editor Amanda Valentine, who worked on the Dresden Files tabletop as well as a host of other games for companies like Evil Hat and Margaret Weiss Productions, came by to watch the game. Specifically she came because her daughter, Mary Rose, wanted to see the game in action. Instead of watching, Mary Rose got to join us by playing the guest star for the evening, the twelve-year-old Archive Ivy. The Archive is a favorite character of mine from the Dresden books and it was a pleasure hosting Mary Rose to play the character. It was her first time LARPing and she took to the whole thing like a champ, which made her a lot of fans among the players. We hope to have her back sometime soon!

The Final Analysis: In the end, the final analysis of the first chronicle of the Unofficial Dresden Files LARP is that its a labor of love for us. I’ve had such a great time working with John, Josh, Kat and everyone else to get this game off the ground. Now that we’ve come this far, there’s no chance we’re going to stop now and with the amazing support of the Double Exposure convention organizers, we’ll be back at Dreamation 2013 with the beginning of the next chronicle. In between now and then, we’ll also be taking our show on the road to present a game at WyrdCon 2013 in California, where the special guest for the weekend at the convention is going to be none other than Dresden Files author Jim Butcher himself. Between now and then we have a lot to do but it’s been a pleasure working on this project so far.

So tune in next time, Dresden Files fans, because we’re just getting started.

This is the first of a few articles writing up my experiences regarding running games at this year’s DexCon 2013. The reason this one convention is broken down into several articles? My team ran three LARPs this year. That’s right, we took on the monumental task of working on three games at once over the last few months and presented those games within a single twenty-four hour period. It was an exhausting, exhilarating experience and I’m going to break it down from my perspective in my post-convention recovery period. (And there is a recovery – I am one exhausted game designer).

Please note: this post is meant to be as extensive a documentation of the game from a design perspective as I can get. When possible, pictures and other evidence of design are included. All photos unless otherwise indicated were taken by Matt Yanega or me, Shoshana Kessock.

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Game Name: Battlestar Galactica – Tales of the Rising Star (Game 1 – “Straight On Til Morning”)

Created By: Phoenix Outlaw and Last Minute Productions

Design Team: Shoshana Kessock, Michael Maleki, John Adamus, Josh Harrison, Kat Schoynheder, and Ericka Skirpan

Technical Production Crew: Matt Yanega, Joe Auriemma, Abigail Corfman, Justin Reyes, Ashley Teel

Location: A Double Exposure DexCon 2013 Signature Event (Hyatt Morristown, New Jersey)

How This Happened: Both myself and my team, Phoenix Outlaw Productions, have been running games at the Double Exposure conventions for several years now. After Dreamation in February of this year, I had a conversation with Michael Maleki, who heads up Last Minute Productions. He and I talked about the idea of a Battlestar Galactica game on Friday night of the convention. Apparently on Saturday he mentioned it to Vincent Salzillo, the head of the convention, and Vinny approached me the very same day. He said that he would like to see Battlestar Galactica made into a signature event at DexCon. That meant that we would be producing bigger than we normally did in parlor/theater style games. We’d have to pull out all the stops. I agreed and Mike and I brought our teams together to produce “Straight On Til Morning.”

The Premise: Tales of the Rising Star was an ambitious idea inspired by the amazing work done by the Monitor Celestra team overseas and fantastic full-immersion games like PST Productions Terrorwerks. The notion was trying to design a convention game inside the confines of a ballroom setting that would harken to the Celestra’s immersive atmosphere through prop-building and a focus on more freeform roleplaying styles. Players would get the chance to play one of five groups of characters aboard the Rising Star, a medical ship in the Colonial Fleet, as it escapes from the devastating nuclear attack on the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. Officers, Marines, Engineers, Medical Officers, Scientists and Civilians would work together to keep the ship from being destroyed as they dodged Cylon ships, tricky jumps, and of course internal pressure as they try to decide if they’ll join the ragtag fleet of Commander Adama or go their own way.

The Preparation: The game preparation began months before DexCon between myself and the team. We realized that this was a game on a scope that was new to almost all of us: a seventy person game with more prop building and system development than we had handled before. Most of us were used to dealing with games that either a) had lower physical build, b) less players or c) an already established game system. As it was, we were creating a great deal of set design for the game for a max of 75 players and were building an entirely new system to boot. So we broke down the portions of the design, split the work load, and rolled into production.

IMG_1121Build-wise, Mike and his team spent 20+ hour weeks building a nice sized engine prop with working lights and switches for the Engineers, painted nerf guns for use and designed simple mechanisms like cat litter buckets to hide items in. At the same time he coordinated with Abigail Corfman, our computer technical director, who created an interactive DRADIS system to detect Cylons, as well as a system to show characters how much fuel, oxygen and power the ship had. This system was controlled by Abigail herself during the game, hidden behind a screen where she could directly respond to things like jump coordinates that were input into the system.

On the game mechanics side, John Adamus worked with Mike Maleki and Josh Harrison to create the actual system. It drew upon the idea that we wanted the game to be very role-play heavy versus skill-check focused. To that end, all players had three stats to differentiate their strengths and weaknesses from one another. They also had two professions that gave them special abilities they could call upon during game. All challenges were time based. A character would need to stay and repair or heal or calculate for a certain amount of time to accomplish their task, where abilities could cut down on time to use their skills. The currency of the game was Mental Energy (ME) that was expended to do tasks. Items in game, such as drinks or food could bring back Mental Energy. So could spending time with Civilians, which kept them integral to more technical characters. That, then, was pretty much it – the system was meant to support a simple ‘yes, and-‘ improvisational role-play model that encouraged players to support and carry along the story with their actions. This system development was extensive, going through nine drafts before it was codified.

Storyteller Ericka Skirpan in character as a pregnant Minister of Health.
Storyteller Ericka Skirpan in character as the pregnant Minister of Health and rival for Laura Roslin’s presidency.

Then came the characters. We were creating pre-generated characters for all the players, which meant that there had to be 75 individual characters created and available to players. In the past, I had focused on writing extensive backstories for players that interwove them not only into the plot but into each other’s backstories. However with a group this large, that amount of writing for one person would be prohibitive. Instead, we chose to focus on creating short but concise backstories that included: a) a few lines regarding the characters backstory, b) personality traits and c) how they reached the Rising Star in the wake of the Cylon attack. Then we looked at the colonies themselves as inspiration for ways to give roleplaying hints to players. Each character was told their colony and given some suggestions as to the stereotypes for that colony. Additionally we integrated a mechanic I heard about from the Monitor Celestra team, which were roleplaying suggestions at the bottom of a character sheet. For example, a Raptor pilot who had lost his whole family on Picon might be ‘a burnt out stim jockey looking for his next score’, or else ‘a haunted survivor intent to help out his fellow crew’. We provided three options and let players take inspirations from these ‘might be’ hints, giving them the agency to select their own character motivations and goals.

The characters were also split up between their profession groups – Civilian, Officers, Marines, Engineers, Scientists, Medical- and each section was assigned to a storyteller. That storyteller was responsible for not only writing the characters but organizing their backstory ties to other characters, as well as taking charge of the plot lines that would be seeded into each of the groups. Puzzles, challenges and plot goals were designed by each of these storytellers.

So we went. And we wrote. And we built. And printed sheets again and again. And finally we came to game.

The Game: Right off the bat there were challenges. First, massive printer snafus caused paperwork mayhem at game check-in. Characters that were assigned were not where they were supposed to be. Then came the build. It began at noon with the build team going straight on until right before game on at 6PM. At six, we gathered the players outside in the hallway in their self-selected profession group and gave them a chance to look over their sheets. Then at 6:30 came the system briefing. Just before 7PM we went in character and so it all began.

The Civilian survivors debate the future of the Colonial government.
The Civilians debate the future of the Colonial government.

Players dove in to their characters with gusto. Engineers raced around the ship to keep the Rising Star flying against missile attacks, shrapnel issues, and various failures and shortages. The bridge crew stayed at their stations and monitored situations thrown at them by Abigail, as well as monitoring communications with other ships (including guest communications from ships left behind by the Galactica due to no FTL and a discussion over the comms with Colonial One towards the end). The Marines secured the halls and lead sortees into space depots where they encountered toasters (of course) that shot them all to hell. The Civilians politicked in the bar while dealing with a mysterious illness that the Scientists and Medics had to try and counteract, or else see the entire ship wiped out by illness.

Meanwhile, storytellers and out of character techs for the game moved around the space wearing white masks. Players were instructed that if they saw anyone in a white mask, they were invisible… Until they touched a player on the shoulder. At that point the player would be able to see and hear everything they said. This was inspired of course by the Cylon projections in the series, specifically the proclivity of the Six Cylon to touch Baltar on the shoulder. This technique for play was inspired (nay, nearly lifted directly) from one used in the Monitor Celestra game in which staff wearing red would do exactly the same thing. Cylon projections spent their time poking at the buttons built into the characters and helping provoke, terrify and inspire them.

It would be impossible to tell all the stories from that five hour game, but some highlights included:

  • A Virgon reporter getting her foot shot off for trying to make a run past the Marines to confront the Captain.
  • A lost Viper pilot lands aboard the ship and finds himself unsure if he’s hallucinating or receiving visions.
  • An opportunistic Engineer decides to frak stealing supplies and instead saves his commanding officer, throwing him over his shoulder as he escaped a Cylon attack aboard a supply depot.
  • A Priest of the Lords of Kobol begins receiving visitations from an apparition that promises to lead him to the One True God, and throws him into a crisis of faith under a hail of nuclear missiles.
  • A lone engineer braves a decompressing airlock to help repair the ship, only to be accidentally vented into space when her crew vents a discovered Cylon device without checking if the airlock is empty first. Her inconsolable brother tries to get the captain to send a Raptor out to get her body, but is refused. Despondent over the loss, he chooses to commit suicide out of the very same airlock.
  • The civilians decide that they do not accept Roslin’s ascension to the Presidency and decide to challenge it based on their own delegates aboard. The discussion of whether they were committing a military coup against Roslin was put on hold as a base star appeared and they joined to Ragnar Anchorage to join the fleet, and potentially a very tense political situation.

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As can be seen by anyone who watched BSG, the events in the game were following the miniseries plot but did not necessarily follow the canon exactly. The Rising Star is a canon ship that is mentioned in the series several times, but events aboard the ship in our game are now in the hands of the players. The game ended with the ship joining the fleet at Ragnar (or at least executing the jump to get there!) but from there, who knows what will happen?

The Wins: The success of this game truly came down to the fluid storytelling style we designed for the game. The team created instances we would put into play around a looser framework of events we would throw at the players. However, for the most part the events were being written by the players themselves. The events in game are completely created by the players and whatever happens from here will be set by the characters in game. (And yes, that means that a sequel game is already in the works for next year). I would also say that the game could not have succeeded had the players not embraced the notion of cooperating to create the best story. To use a Nordic term, these players truly embraced playing to lose often. Who could have imagined a player choosing to throw himself out the airlock in despondency over his sister? That moment set the tone for the story for the evening and drove home the sadness of Battlestar so hard, all because a player chose to let himself (and his character) go.

The Not-So-Wins: Every game has its issues and this one did as well. One thing we discovered was the difficulty of integrating the profession groups together within the game play. The military, of course, was interested in locking down their ship and keeping the non-military characters isolated. That lead to a number of characters trapped inside either the ward room (which became the bar very quickly) and the medical bay. While some players were able to talk their way out into the rest of the ship, that left a number of people left inside one room or another for a large part of the game. It took a more active player to get themselves out into the rest of the plot, and some frustration was felt by players who didn’t know what was going on because of their isolation. This came down to a mix of the profession set up and the proficiency of the military characters at locking down the ship, but it was definitely something the team looked at for the future.

Then there were the technical issues. We had aimed large for the game and had lots of issues with our build, from lights that didn’t always work correctly, expensive lighting bulbs that broke in transit, speakers that shorted out the day before the game, and walkie-talkies for an intercom system that were unusable days before. We won’t even get into the printing and paperwork problems brought on by a complete failure of Staples to print things correctly. All were logistical issues behind the scenes that gave us roadblocks. In the end, myself and Mike Maleki as team heads agreed that we would have to scale back from what we originally intended based upon one simple problem: economic constraints.

The Final Analysis: The game seems to have been a glorious success. Players overall responded positively both in person and online on the Facebook group. The feedback we received as well from the convention organizers said that they would like to have us back for next year, and we’ve already agreed that we’ll probably continue the story of the Rising Star. We have some technical and storytelling lessons we’ve learned, but now we have one year to grow our design.

For now, however, we get to sit back with a glass raised to a great bunch of frakin’ players, the games that inspired us before (all hail the Monitor Celestra and her amazing team!), the convention that hosted us, and the people that came together to make this happen. So Say We All!

Players of 'Tales of the Rising Star' - DexCon 2013
Players of ‘Tales of the Rising Star’ – DexCon 2013