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Introduction:

These are the notes I wrote for a talk at Nerdeast 2016 on running small science-fiction LARPS. Rather than spend a chunk of time to reformat this as a standalone article I'd rather publish this as a it stands and then cover the areas I'm particularly interested in as separate pieces. As it stands there is a reasonable pre-amble about science-fiction and general Larp theory to give a foundation to some of the later topics.

It's also written from a UK point of view so our rather 'keen' control of imitation firearms is addressed from that regards. 

Hopefully the document as it stands will be still of interest to people.

They are reasonably complete for talk notes but there was some additional conversation which isn't captured here.

Anyway...

Tech, Blood and Off-we-go - A rough guide to running a small Sci-fi LRP (Given at Nerdeast 2016)

Good afternoon

For those of you don’t know me I write on RPG theory and mechanics under the RPG Elements banner and for the last 6 years have been running a near-future science-survival live roleplaying game called 5000 REM.

This talk is based on an article I’m writing as a retrospective of the 6 years of 5000 REM but for today I’ve made this talk a bit more general to form a rough guide to running a small Sci-fi LRP.

Before I talk about any game specifics I thought it would be worth covering some general terminology and distinctions. Particularly as they don’t have a formal definition elsewhere.

Types of setting

More than anything else the type game setting will influence what you can do in your game and how you can do it.

And key is the distinction between science fiction and science fantasy.

Science fiction vs science fantasy

Science fiction and science fantasy exist as two poles of an axis.

Science fiction focuses on settings and narratives that are projections of current scientific understanding. They exist with credibility to the world as it is now.

Science fantasy exists as the fantastic with the veneer of science to justify but not explain its world.

Soft Science vs Hard Science)

Another axis for how science-narratives are represented in a setting is by the distinction between Soft Science and Hard Science.

Soft science focuses on science but doesn’t expect to be questioned in how devices are justified. There is a premise that matches scientific theory but that’s all there is. The world has only the most basic of laws.

Hard science focuses on science where the premises laid out in the world are justifiable as definable scientific theory. What is possible within the world is achievable and probable given our current understanding of the world, the world’s laws are defined in detail.

The compass

The two axes can then therefore create a compass that all games or settings can be defined by:

SF Axis
Setting Compass

Showing some examples from popular culture.

In relation to games.

Due to the limitations posed by games it is therefore possible to say that any science based LRP should probably exist with the Central 4 quarters of the compass.

To stray too far towards science-fantasy, then the distinction between that game and a fantasy game is largely moot.

And finally the Hard-Science-Fantasy exists as a grey area that really should be avoided.

Game form

I wanted to avoid using terms wouldn’t be seen as divisive here but as you’ll see, I failed somewhat. Additionally to what was covered before games must exist somewhere on the scale of causal to complex.

Causal games – have low entry requirements and low expected engagement. They are pick up and put down. Causal games focus fun, and winning can be considered the objective.

Complex games – have high entry requirements and high-expected engagement. Complex games focus on immersion and have no formalised objective.

Neither are negative, and there is a lot more to say about both, but for the sake of staying on topic I’ll not go into this in any more detail.

Therefore?

A science fiction game must exist somewhere on all of these three axes, and where it exists will be fundamental in how the game is developed and the systems produced.

How a game falls on these axes must inform how the game is to be run.

Given that I’m here to talk solely on science fiction, I leave science-fantasy to one side.

One must then consider the remaining ranges between causal and complex vs soft and hard.

It is entirely possible to run a hard or soft-science causal game, the information is there for those who want it but not essential. However it is very difficult to run a complex soft-science game, a complex game needs immersion and the ability to discover and engage with the world – if the science backing up the immersion has no substance behind it, then the immersion inherently will fail.

How the game is shaped

All these this fundamental factors then will then define what is possible within your game world and what the rules and setting must accordingly looks like.

WYSIWYG

Very much for hard-science game but also for soft the continuation of scientific justification must be present in the system. Therefore it can be said that no-physrep no-scene or WYSIWYG. The aim is to create the 360° illusion both for sake immersion and also to ensure that you are creating credible science fiction setting.

This is the primary limitation of science-fiction LRP, particularly when compared to science-fantasy, roleplay.

With a science-fiction game this becomes increasingly important and potentially difficult. Because more than WYSIWYG, it must also be able to stand up to interaction. Pysreps have to be to be interacted with in a credible way, one that allows for believable actions and reactions. Later I’ll cover how this is can be done.

Knowledge

The scientific knowledge that you need to have in order to deliver credible content for your game. Anyone running a sci-fi game, even if the game has a soft setting needs to have a good general understanding of the three principle scientific, physics, chemistry and biology and also engineering and information system.

However they do not need to be an expert in these things but they must have an understanding that exceeds that of the average player. It should also then be made clear OOC where and what the boundaries are for the game knowledge base. This has to be a point when the runner’s knowledge is exhausted and a player with a Phd in Astrophysics knows that they will have to place an upper-limit on their expectations of the game.

This doesn’t just protect the game-runner but it also protects the other players by enforcing a fair gradient to the playing field. It should be possible for anyone with the time to do some background reading and who understands the system to be able to play a science based character. Someone with OOC science experience will have an easier time, but the system limits ensures that they are still in the same range of the other players.

Utilising technology/AR-gaming/Trans-media gaming

As a science-fiction game you are going to have to address the game’s relationship with technology. However technology levels can go up and down depending on the game-world. The differentiation between science-fiction and science-fantasy means that the technology used within the science fiction game must be credible and visible to allow for the immersion.

How you choose to embrace or restrict technology substantially influences how a game works. And it is very difficult to run a high-level of technology game as a LRP because the required physreps cannot exist.

Big questions to answer are:

Long range communications: phones and radios

GPS devices

Computers

 

And the biggest two:

Firearms and Future Technology

If the game is to have to firearms and future technology these requirements are driven by WYSIWYG – to remain true to the science fiction definition. How to you justify both of these items in a way that allows them to exist in a game world whilst remaining plausible and immersive.

Firearms also are restricted by significant legal implications. The VRC act 2007 imposes very limiting criteria on what can be conceivably used and carried by LRPers. On private land screened from view where there is no issue with the public then one has some more flexibility but then this limits the sites that can be used by the game.

Whatever is decided for the above points it is important to ensure the technology is justifiable and believable. And if advanced, or even modern, and firearms technology is removed from the game you have to have a plausible IC reason to back up the OOC reasons.

Manufacture of props

All the previous decisions impact the level and quantity of props that not only you but your players will be expected to make or buy.

Generally you will also find you are increasingly required to make physreps because you are moving away from the products easily available through normal LRP suppliers. Some modern or futuristic weapons are available but not in the same numbers as historical and fantasy items.

Masks and creature physreps are not available. These almost always have to be custom projects and if not by yourself then the supply cost is likely to be very high.

Props vs Science

As I hinted at earlier the advantage of a science-fiction LRP game, as oppose to CRPG or TT-RPG, is to get up to your elbows in science. To touch and play with things based on some genuine interactions rather than just scripted solutions (ie mix blue and yellow to make green).

Some examples are:

Autopsies and surgeries – building dissectible physreps can be done using latex castings but a cheaper way is to use latex, cotton wool and cling-film to build structures that can then be filled with various faux-gore and liquids to produce interesting hands on experiences. And ones that actually are a genuine puzzle that requires intelligence, dexterity and observation to solve.

Microscopes – even a cheap microscope gives you a range of options. Producing slides of very clear cell or material structures can lead to puzzles where characters have to compare existing samples to new ones or identify substances from records.

Black-boxes and hidden-parallel systems – so long as it has switches or lights on the outside basic electronic boxes can stand in for a lot of things. Particularly if behind the scenes they from a parallel system with something more complicated. A computer that can only be turned on once the power supply is repaired. In reality the computer power is controlled by the game-runner and the circuit only powers an LED but to the players the difference is obfuscated.

Android host USB cables – are probably the single most useful thing you can have for a tech heavy game. These female cables plug into android smart phones and let you use memory sticks with smart phones. This is particularly useful if the memory stick is obfuscated as a cyber-link to the military communications satellite etc. And the data then can be read on the phone.

There are also elements that can be taken from ARG (alternate reality gaming) or Trans-media gaming/narratives. That you can set-up simplified websites and host them on the background of the system main-website so they can be followed to allow players to conduct IC research.

Similarly IC forums can exist and be used significantly to increase interaction between PC-PC, PC-NPC and NPC-NPC. Which allows for substantial amounts of world building that exists as a permanent record for new players to be able to access and delve into either to learn about the game or research plot-lines.

Lessons Learnt

Players’ mindsets

One of the most interesting lessons I’ve taken from the last 6 years is how the majority of players view game problems and interactions from the mindset of what is possible within a high/historical fantasy game.

This leads to an interesting leaning in how problem solving is approached, such that people don’t always consider the use of phone calls/texts/emails, databases, photos or online resources as possible solutions or in-game activity.

I think as part of what is a minority scene within LRP it becomes a responsibility to help remind and enable players with these technologies.

Communication

I think any science-fiction game must hold discovery and exploration as important factors within the game. Both in the system and in the world. To do this effectively good methods of communication have to be fostered and available. IC forums are a key ingredient of that but also IC-social events are very important where people have chance to discuss and review information leading to better understanding and discoveries.

Science is inherently about discovering new things and the game structure must reflect that, and also not just hand the information out.

On missions are everyone is typically focussed on the day’s events, it is hard for dsicussion to happen so the runner must allow for sessions or period of reflection and communication on a regular basis to allow the exploration side of the game to flourish.

Sites

Probably the biggest difficulty for a small Science-fiction LRP is the availability of sites. Wooded and wilderness areas are easy but urban, builds or industrial sites are very very rare.

Particularly for a small game where the hire fees of larger sites are very difficult to effectively meet.

In part this is because for most dedicated science plots (ie a lab or bunker) you are looking for a site with twice the number of bed spaces than players to allow you to setup dedicated scientific rooms.

Military sites are used by some groups but access for them can be difficult.

If you are running a game science-fiction game, unless you have a high-tech lab or nuclear bunker, ensure that you have a good justification for why your players only spend time doing work in the woods.

 

I’m Drew, thank you very much.

If there any questions I am happy to answer them now.