(CN Note: mention of IC sexual assault, violence, and death.)
Some discussions came up at the last NERO BANE event regarding what it means to be in-character and restraints on in-character actions, and on the drive home I remembered this article about the harm done by the concept of IC vs. OOC as a measure of worth. I think it aligns fairly well with my perspective, and has a lot of good conversation fodder. I’m going to expand on my thoughts on it in this post
After years of gaming, including in games that attempted to enforce very strict rules about IC vs. OOC motivations, that made emotional bleed a taboo subject, that had no rules regarding consenting to stories or scenes, I realized that the environment I had come from was the cause of a lot of grief. The habits I picked up there had negatively affected players in those games and later ones. I disregarded their out of character feelings and even what made a good story, because I had learned that “in-character” actions were always justified.
My enjoyment or lack thereof in a game is my own. Everyone has different tolerances for every aspect of LARPing, from logistical challenges to each game design element to costuming to combat. What is a dealbreaker for me may not be for you and vice-versa, and I do not want to invalidate anyone’s experience of the game. I can understand easily how someone could enjoy this game much more than I did.
Like all experiences with LARPs, each person on site experiences the game differently and sees different facets of game. This is true of staff as well, so none of us have a complete understanding of the game. My past experiences informed my understanding and interpretation of the game as it unfolded, as it does for everyone. These opinions are my own, though informed by communication with other players to confirm events that either happened beyond my line of sight or where I wished to double-check my own memory of events.
Please let me know if I have made any factual errors. Conversations are relayed here as I remember them, and I’ll stand by that those were my perceptions of the conversations with the full understanding that memories of conversations have been found to be exceptionally faulty in studies. Where relevant, I will add additional perspectives or disclaimers regarding them. For factual errors, I will add corrections and preserve my original wording so any mistakes are obvious.
I have anonymized some of the events and the names of some participants who do not wish to have their names included here. If your name is included here, and you don’t want it to be, please contact me at the email address above.
About The Game
1878: Welcome to Salvation came to my attention through Dziobak Studios’ Facebook page. I had an amazing experience at Convention of Thorns 2 in 2017 and was excited about a game here in the USA that was the same quality. I was also excited about a game that was more relevant to my husband, who does not prefer Vampire games as a whole. Full of enthusiasm, we bought tickets almost immediately after the announcement.
The game was billed as a blockbuster, immersive LARP about the Wild West as we know it in movies and fiction. Not strictly historical, but instead larger than life, centering around the rising conflict in a small town in Texas and how it will determine its future in a new and changing world. A collection of conflicts were described: the out of town business interests putting pressure on the locals, the locals fighting with each other over old bad blood, the state of Texas attempting to exert authority, the criminal elements trying to preserve their livelihood or adapt to a new one, and the small personal dramas of each character.
This is a tried and true LARP structure and one I was familiar with. Combined with my desire to try out 1870’s natural form era costuming, it sounded like a great time.
Part 1: Pre-Game
The pre-game setup was disorganized and delayed. Questions went unanswered, simple requests (a correction of an incorrect character name, for example) did not occur unless repeated requests were made, information on casting, logistics, and gameplay were both later than I would have expected for a game like this and often delivered past the date they were promised. Given the expense of the game, and what I expected about a game that Dziobak Studios had put its name on, this left me concerned before the game even started.
The game was described as a western with gunfights, but information on whether cap guns could be rented was promised and then not given until multiple people posted questions, at which point it was stated that we had to provide our own guns and rentals would not be available. I understand that there are always stumbling blocks with running a game for the first time, but this is a key part of a western game. Cap guns aren’t expensive, but then there’s the question of transporting gun replicas. It was a player who looked into all the rules of flying with cap guns and caps and posted information about it for reference, not staff. Considering that transporting explosives in your luggage is forbidden, and caps count as explosives, if that player had not googled that, how many people would have gotten their luggage searched, delayed, or even confiscated entirely?
The inclusion of a friend of staff cast in a key role of the game also gave me pause. I don’t generally object to some favoritism, since it’s human nature and not always a problem, but the person in question didn’t appear to be acting in the role of facilitator the way I would expect from a PC/NPC combo. He was very focused on his own story in pre-game discussions, which I found off-putting for someone with that kind of responsibility.
Regarding character casting and sheets, I learned afterwards that some of the character sheets contained sexism, racism, or other banned topics. Was this a holdover from an earlier version of the game? Was it intended to inform roleplay without being addressed directly? Why was it included if someone didn’t opt in explicitly, as the code of conduct requires for such RP? This seems sloppy. I was lucky and did not have to roleplay around those issues, however.
A confounding factor in communication issues was that information about the game was spread over multiple platforms. The LARP website, facebook, emails to players, google docs, player’s google doc notes of live chats, and the discord chat all had information that couldn’t be gained any other way. Complete centralization is impossible, but narrowing it down to fewer platforms would have been preferable.
Suggestions for Pre-Game Logistics:
Limit the number of platforms where information can be found as much as possible. It’s fine to duplicate on multiple platforms, but I found vital, non-duplicated information in the following places: facebook, discord chat, official google docs, player-created google docs summarizing chats, emails, and the LARP website. Making it so I only have to check two places looking for information instead of four or more would be welcome.
Pin an index post to the top of the facebook group with links to all the resources.
Earlier communication on all fronts, and timely communication. Hire more organizers if necessary, or redirect more resources there.
There was a huge lull between tickets going on sale and us hearing ANYTHING about details or logistics, and even then it seemed like everything was happening last minute.
Information about TSA guidelines on capguns should have been provided as soon as staff made the decision to not rent out capguns.
Once it was clear that the game was undersold, communication with us that that was the case and saying that rewrites were taking place would have been appreciated.
Have someone look over the sheets with fresh eyes and make sure things aren’t missing. Some characters’ sheets had no reference to deceased spouses that were brought up by NPCs later. Some characters had banned topics written into their characters. Many people didn’t know things that NPCs assumed that they did.
Part 2: Safety Workshops
The safety workshops were fairly standard for a game of this type. They went over basics, including historical tweaks to make the game more inclusive and less uncomfortable for groups that were historically marginalized in the west.
Suggestions for Safety Workshop
I would have appreciated breaking into small groups to practice the mechanics.
Anything is better than reading the rules aloud for two hours. It’s okay to ask everyone to read the mechanics before game, and then do a quick powerpoint or demonstration for each mechanic before turning it over to the players.
Since we decided not to use the word “whore” (which is 100% valid), a list of approved and disapproved words would have been nice since sex work is such a loaded subject. The lack of this list caused some issues in game. One possible source for the list would be a player survey, so players could vote on what terms they were okay with. Whore is out, but what about all the other words modern and historical- escort, companion, prostitute, trull, jill, slattern, hooker, working woman/girl, woman of ill repute, soiled dove, femme gallant, lady of the night, night-blooming flower, lady of negotiable affections… the list of terms is nearly endless. If we are banning one term, what about the others of varying levels of offensiveness? How do we know which ones are okay for this game?
Part 3: Mechanics
The fight mechanics for calling people out were, on paper, clunky and required memorizing lines and responses. I don’t mind this method in theory (I certainly wax poetic about Convention of Thorn’s scripted negotiations), but this was much more involved than the CoT ones and involved in-character words and responses that would have best been represented by a flow chart. This would not inherently be a problem, but it meant we had no time to practice the mechanics with each other.
As a result, the mechanics for calling people out for gunfights and “standoffs” were never used in my presence. They were largely ignored in favor of just shooting, and letting the other person decide things, or quick off-game negotiations.
Suggestions for Mechanics Changes:
Include time to practice them. Find time or make time in the schedule. If there wasn’t time on Thursday, we could easily have practiced them on Friday morning and delayed game on that day, since guns weren’t supposed to be fired until noon that day anyway. It is optimistic to expect people to memorize scripts without rehearsal.
Change them to a simpler, faster off-game negotiation. Before each fight, you check in with a quick question like “guns?” or “fisticuffs?” and the other person says yes or no, or suggests a third option.
There was a last-minute change to remove knife fighting. I would have liked to know that before I purchased a LARP-safe knife.
To facilitate traditional wild west crimes in a town smaller than a city block, I would add a rule where you can’t recognize people if they are wearing a bandana over their face. If you see them carrying that bandana, that’s circumstantial evidence that you were involved, but if their face is covered, they are unknowable.
NPCs could not die in the game until PCs could. This was a weird choice that didn’t make a lot of sense, was never communicated explicitly other than by players being told that NPCs couldn’t die in their request scene. This struck me as very strange, and contributed to an overall feeling of complete passivity.
Including the option for PCs to play NPCs after they die. They can die as early as ten hours before the end of the LARP, if they choose to, but their options are returning to the hotel or remaining in the out of character space. The reason given was that staff was extensively trained and they didn’t want to have to prep PCs, which made some sense, but for the final fight, the NPCs did no involved RP, just shooting and yelling. I don’t understand why they couldn’t play those simple NPCs. The other reason given was that we were paying customers and couldn’t be expected to give free labor, but that statement was immediately followed up with “but you can help out at ops in others ways, there’s always stuff to do” which was confusing. Doing paperwork and prep is labor, and generally less fun than NPCing.
Part 4: Game Design
To begin with, the game design in play was radically different from the game described in the design document. I believe that this was the result of re-writing to work around the fact that the game was significantly under-cast, by at least half. I understand the need for working with that, but the way that it was done fundamentally altered the game’ structure. I would have appreciated some communication about this.
The original design, as I understand it based on the design document, was this: the town is having an election and a celebration. There are competing interest groups in the town composed of PCs, with three big ones that all hate each other: The Anderson Family, the Guerrero Family, and the Vulture Gang (secretly the remains of a third founding family, the Holloways). They all have old beefs with each other dating back to the founding of the town thirty years earlier when there was a two-week gang war between the Andersons and the Guerreros, and the Holloways were kicked out of town. There are neutral parties in town as well- the Mayor, the Madame and her employees, and the owners of a few businesses. There are also out of towners who are described as the other main faction. They want the town to incorporate, to connect it to the rest of Texas and formally incorporate so rail, coal, steel, and other industries can move in.
This design makes the central question whether or not the factions in town side with the out of towners to get a leg up, or whether they band together to preserve the town as it is. There are secrets spread throughout the player base that are potentially explosive, and the story moves forward based only on player action and the deals they make. I found this design interesting and dynamic.
This was not the design that was implemented in play.
The biggest shift was a move from a PvP style game to a PvE one with some player conflicts and central NPC antagonists. This is a huge change in design that was not mentioned at all until game on. There are some reasons to drop bombshells like that without warning, as the shock can be good, but it also meant that we were in the dark before game. I had assumed that given the low sales, the game would be changed a bit to continue to function, but I did not expect this big a change, and would have appreciated knowing about it beforehand.
To me, the in-character surprise was not worth losing the time to change character plans, not to mention wondering if we’d have anything to do all weekend or if we’d be trying to have half-staffed family feuds. There was a statement that there wouldn’t be anything supernatural as well, so no surprise Cthulhu. I would have been fine with surprise Cthulhu, honestly, but it was explicitly stated that this was a 100% mundane historical game, which is also fine.
(Please keep this statement by staff in mind as we continue onwards to the Mine Ghost, which was a supernatural plot element that seemed to directly contradict the stated intent by staff to exclude supernatural elements from the game.)
The next section will outline my issues with the PvE game design and the writing choices that were made to make the game work with fewer people.
Part 5: Plot and Full Events of Game Writeup
Section 1: Thursday
The game began with the announcement that the Vulture Gang had surrounded the town. They made the demand that everyone leave town, and anyone who stayed behind would be killed and the town would be razed. The players who remained were the ones who had decided to stay, or who had been trapped here by accident because they couldn’t leave in time.
Julianne Holloway, one of the two Vulture Gang Leaders, came in to secretly talk to people in town. She dropped some cryptic hints about how we should ask questions of certain people so we would know why she was doing what she was doing, then left.The first night was only a couple hours, so the rest was spent sorting out logistics, minor meetings regarding the town, and settling into character.
Section 2: Friday
The day was largely taken up with personal roleplay, attempting to follow up on cryptic notes from the Vulture Gang, and meetings. This all went fine, I had a lot of good interactions with players. I did promptly get some information from staff regarding the plot when I went to “look up some tax and residency records” to locate the history of an NPC, but it didn’t end up mattering in the long run. I liked that staff interaction though- I felt I was being rewarded for having a clever idea and being proactive.
Towards the evening, the Star Gang and the Preacher went into the mine due to reports of a ghost. Despite earlier protestations that there was nothing supernatural, there was actually a ghost in the mine, who gave them a bunch of documents and props it had been safeguarding. (Note- I was not here for this scene, this was related to me later by the Preacher and the Star Gang, who were there).
The ghost was never mentioned again by any NPC or plot staff.
Potential fix for the Mine Ghost: the mine was represented by a maze. A map of the maze with the location of the documents and props could be either given to a player as a prop, seeded in the the town hall in an old book with players perhaps having rumors that there is a map somewhere, or both, allowing them to find the cache without involving a ghost.
(Side note: a group of inspired players created a cult surrounding the Ghost in the Mine as a result. It was amazing. They left blood-smeared cryptic signs all around town and blew themselves up with nitroglycerin at the end of the game, taking the whole fort with them after everyone ran out the back. The Way is the truth, brothers and sisters, and the truth of the way is the path to eternal life, and that is through the mine ghost.)
Later that evening, myself and some others decided to take some of the nitroglycerin that was available and go on a suicide mission to destroy the Vulture Gang’s supplies and remove the option of starving us out. We had been informed by staff based on scouting that they numbered between 30 and 50, which would be a hard fight for a town of 40 with maybe 20 of those being dedicated gunslingers.
This original information may have been bad in character. However, it felt very weird to go out there and find out that there were 250-300 in camps of thirty spread around the town. This is the sort of thing that is hard to miss with early scouting, and it felt like the plot staff was retconning the entire situation so that our plan couldn’t succeed. This left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Perception is not the same thing as reality, but the perception is important. If it feels like staff is changing the situation parameters to prevent players from taking any kind of effective action, it is easy to become disengaged from the game.
Potential fix to the suicide mission: considering that the game was going to come to a head the next day with a big gunfight anyway, having us find their centralized supply dump and blow it up would not have meaningfully affected the events that followed, but would have left us with a sense of accomplishment and agency. Illusion is just as good as effect, sometimes.
The last bit of information we got that night was gathered by the Preacher, who went to talk to the Vulture Gang and deliver the documents and props to Julianne Holloway. We found out that she wanted us to seek out the person who killed her mother (the source of her grudge against the town) and deliver them to her. She knew who this was, but she wanted us to find it out and hand them over.
Section 3: Saturday
This is the day where things came to a head, so to speak.
That morning, at church services, Mr. Derringer (the PC/NPC steering character) announced that he was the one who killed Julianne Holloway’s mother on the behest of the elder, off-game Mr. Anderson. This meant that the core conflict of the plot was entirely between NPCs. He then offered to do what was best for the town, “just like he did back then”, and offered to walk out and go to his death. Instead of a PC finding out from dropped hints or evidence and allowing them to make a dramatic accusations, instead the players were forced to watch NPC theater.
The election was held this day. First, a quick thought: Since visitors can vote in the election, and the election is binding, why didn’t the Holloways get all their 250 people and march into town on Thursday, settle in and camp nearby, and then vote Julianne Holloway into being mayor? She could make her brother sheriff, and then legally investigate and kill anyone they wanted to, and seize any property they wanted from “criminals”.
There were three candidates running. Before the election, the candidates talked about the election, and the current front-runner decided to opt out, as they weren’t sure they wanted to do the job on an out of character level. Another candidate was burnt out and also did not want to do it, leaving Percival (full disclosure: played by my husband). They spoke, and looped in another player who would be counting the votes in character, and arranged to throw the election to achieve this outcome. They then spoke to staff, who at the time did not voice objections, nor did they say that this plan, the plan that was negotiated by players to allow someone to opt into the burden of being mayor in a time of crisis, was not feasible.
When the announcement was made, some characters (reasonably) demanded a recount. Staff handed over the ballot box without question, completely ignoring the candidates’ requests. Everyone managed to pull through and make it work after the recount revealed that the front-runner had actually won, but it shouldn’t have been necessary.
Suggested fixes for the Election Negotiation: If the staff felt the players shouldn’t be able to throw the election as a method of opting out, they should have said so and figured out another method for that player to not be Mayor. Possible solutions would include telling the players requesting a recount that the ballots were destroyed IC and the election was thrown for out of character opt-out reasons, and all candidates approved the plotline. Alternately, they could have called together the mayoral candidates and the recount players and had them re-negotiate a solution with the interested parties. Their chosen actions were high-handed and specifically undermined their focus on consent in the safety mechanics. I was left with the impression that negotiations between players would not be respected by staff on even the most basic level.
After that, the players in question ran with it and made it work. Percival was appointed deputy mayor to take on the duties the new mayor’s player didn’t want to. At this point, player who counted the votes voiced her complaints about the way the situation had been handled. She then went in character and dealt with it.
It was at this point that a player was asked to leave site for code of conduct violations after complaining about this and other issues. This player’s violations were the same as many people’s over the weekend- every other small, accidental violation of the code of conduct that I witnessed was handled with a quick “hey, remember that topic isn’t allowed” and an apology. After that, the players retconned or rewound and fixed the issue. Everyone, including the player asked to leave, was engaging with the game and receiving corrections with grace.
This was the only instance I know of a person being asked to leave site or to even be warned for incidental violations, and it was a person who had made their opinions clear to staff. I do not think that was a coincidence.
Suggested Fixes for the issue of targeting a player for complaints: Firstly, code of conduct should be applied in good faith and as evenly as is practical. Secondly, special care should be taken to ensure that players are not being targeted for voicing complaints. Staff has a right to set boundaries or hand off player interactions to other members of staff, but staff does not have a right to be free from critique. By banning only the person who complained, and no one else, they made their position clear.
Hearing about what happened has strongly influenced my decision to not attend any game run by Shoshana Kessok in the future. I do believe she acted incorrectly in this instance, but even if I am wrong and she is right, the trust would not be there anymore for me to engage with any such game. In the interests of those games remaining fun for others and my own fun, I will be avoiding them in the future. Though the writing and the communication choices also contributed to this decision, those are things that are less fundamental than weaponizing a code of conduct.
The game continued. We, as a town, were trying to decide if we wanted to hand over Mr. Derringer to Julianne Holloway. We decided that he could make the choice for himself of whether he faced a firing squad for murder or went out to the Holloways. He chose the latter, but returned to town with Julianne Holloway and the others who went with him to observe or try to save him. Three PCs came back dead or dying.
We understood that there had been a fight between the Holloway siblings over what to do. Julianne then monologued for a little while, told Mr. Derringer to get on his knees and leveled a gun at him. I found this an annoying bit of NPC theater- nothing we did mattered one way or another; players were just an audience.
At this point, Percival asked if Mr. Derringer would fight for Salvation. He said yes. Percival opened fire on Julianne, and instructed another member of the Star Gang, Wyatt, to continue firing until she stopped moving.
Shoshana dropped character as Julianne and yelled that she did not consent to this and was not going to die there because that’s not how the game worked. It’s worth noting that every single other gunfight between players, and between players and NPCs, had not featured the use of the standoff mechanics. Instead, we’d just fired, and if you didn’t want to be hit, you mimed dodging and booked it or fired back. This had been in full view of her and other NPCs the entire game.
She did end up taking the hits, and had Julianne die of her injuries, but she was visibly not happy about it. I understand a desire to follow mechanics, but it was three days in at this point with no uses of them. I do not understand why she expected them, and she had not mentioned at announcements on any of the days that she wanted to see us using them more. She, like everyone else, was rolling with it up until this point.
After dinner, Percival’s player was requested at ops. As he’s my husband, and we had spent some time during dinner talking about his feelings, I went with him to help him talk to staff as he has anxiety and gets anxious about these kinds of interactions, sometimes to the point of being nonverbal. His best friend, Wyatt’s player, came with us as well.
I explained the concerns us three had with the game up to that point- about NPC theater, about the casting of a friend of staff as the most important character in the game with reference to the plot, about a lack of agency, about how little we enjoyed being yelled at about things our characters had no idea about and had not done, and how it was creating frustration and anxiety. Shoshana was very friendly and obliging during the conversation, but overall viewed the game very differently than we did. She stated that Mr. Derringer was a PC with some steering power, and we had affected him and the plot.
First, the example she gave was that Percival’s offer of support after the church service made him decide to walk out of town. However, he had publicly voiced his inclination towards doing so at his initial confession, before that conversation. I would guess she didn’t know the full timing of this.
Secondly, it is not significantly better that the only way of affecting the plot was by roleplaying with a single PC/NPC. I found the character abrasive and avoided him after the scene Saturday morning during the town meeting, which is my standard practice for dealing with NPCs I only enjoy in small doses.
Thirdly, the description that she gave for how she intended the scene to end, with her pushing Mr. Derringer away and saying she didn’t want to deal with us anymore, was anticlimactic and a poor end to the villain who had been taunting the town the entire game. She just… runs off into the darkness? After spending the whole game yanking the town around and threatening us all with death?
Fourthly, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it might as well be a duck. Someone who stands with staff at workshops and the end of game, who has knowledge of the plot in a PvE game, and who is the sole method of changing the outcome of key scenes is, for all intents and purposes, an NPC.
She did voice that she wished we’d brought the concerns up sooner, which I do agree with- I wish I had, too. However, given that much of this was baked into the design and what I learned later about the player who was asked to leave, I am not sure if doing so would have helped. Still, it is true that players not talking to staff about issues before they reach a crisis point is an issue in many games and that is something that players can work on.
I did offer some suggestions that I thought would help games in the future on this front. These I think would be useful for many games, so they are as follows:
Workshop players asking staff for things. Like, actually practice with fake staff requests during workshops.
Give scripts for how to express certain things (“I need this to stop”, “Please keep going”, “this dynamic isn’t working for mer- can we fix it?”, etc) if someone is at a loss for words.
Give specific ideas of scene requests.
Give everyone the task of asking for at least one scene, one NPC, or one explanation from staff over the course of the event. New LARPers should be encouraged to come in at least three times.
A good debrief questions is “what did you know at the end of the game that you wish you had learned before the game started?”
Staff checking in with players more often or sending out NPCs to check on players so that staff can get a feel for how the PCs are interacting with the plot. In a PvP game, this is less necessary, but when we are unable to affect outcomes other than via plot interaction, pacing becomes vitally important.
Another comment she made was about how people thought the ops office was a magic room where things disappear. The thing is, it is a magic box where things disappear. NPCs go in there to disappear all the time. So do props. It’s where the first aid kit is, where the physical contact pins are, where you can find pens, snacks, gatorade, and other off-game things. It’s full of off-game information and items. I think this was in reference to the ballot box which was dropped off there after the election, and considering the context of the ballot box issue, it’s very insensitive that she is blaming the players for the staff not respecting their preferences or even involving them in decisions that affect whether or not they will be included in something they opted out of.
At this point, Percival’s player, Wyatt’s player, and our other friend went back to the hotel, rationalizing that their characters had little reason to stay in Salvation, and that they were done dealing with this. I opted to remain, since I had other PC relations I wanted to see through to the end.
The rest of the game was one long gunfight, and then the aftermath. This went well, I enjoyed it and wished there had been more opportunities to hide in the dark from malevolent bandits with nothing but a revolver, and had some very good character interactions with people during the fight and afterwards. The fight went smoothly and requested scenes (the last stand, the Way blowing up the fort) were fulfilled.
Part 6: If I Ran The Zoo…
Or: how would I have adapted the game to fewer people and prevented basically all of the above from occurring.
I offer a lot of critiques in this review, but one of the things I am attempting to do is to not make critiques without offering solutions. The challenges staff faced were real and not easily brushed off.
After ticket sales tapered off, the first step would be to assess number of players. Once it became clear that the game would have fewer than half the expected players, a whittling down would occur. Some of this did happen during casting- for example, entire groups were uncast, a choice I approve of, though I would have done more cutting.
I would have combined characters and cut characters. Some characters (like my own) were very fun, but had no relation to the core storyline. I would have cut the non-Vulture gang groups entirely- the Derringer Crew and the Star Gang both didn’t end up doing much with the main conflict as gangs, only as individuals. Criminal elements could be sprinkled into other groups and if they were retained, the gangs could be secret organizations that were an additional affiliation on top of the core affiliation. Make characters do double duty, add some more fun secrets. People didn’t have things to do for some of the game, so I think there is room to add secret affiliations to some of the non-leader sheets.
If there were still not enough players to support the town rivalries and the out of town pressure, I would move the out of town pressure to NPC status. Since it is an outside threat that isn’t as existential as a horde of violent gang members threatening to burn the town down, there’s more opportunity to debate and work with them. They are available for meetings, or by telegram, or you can leave notes for them. The core personal conflicts between the Holloways, the Andersons, and the Guerreros would remain, with townsfolk caught in the middle.
I would collate information and make sure that PCs have everything they need in their backstories, and that all characters from a specific family or faction have access to a writeup of what all members know about the group. Each character would have some secret knowledge about the group, too. I would probably make all the PC character sheets open, but that’s a stylistic choice and I understand reasons for keeping that information secret OOC.
For the props, documents, etc., I would scatter those among the players. Some of them might know where documents are hidden, others might have them on their person. Some could be found by diligent searching, or by someone idly looking through ledgers in town hall (which could also contain printouts of town history and other game documents for reference). Information could be as obscure as tax ledgers that don’t balance properly, as challenging as coded letters, or as straightforward as a court stenographer’s notes. Historical letters could be hidden in private areas of the different groups. Most information would be duplicated in multiple places between character backstories and props.
For example, the documents in the mine that were given to the players by the Mine Ghost Maybe the Vulture Gang knows that the stash is there, but not where in the mine exactly. A casual miner recently stumbled across a big locked box, but is waiting for a reliable helper to carry it out. The Anderson siblings have a map of the mine, so know about the back exit that could be used to stealthily remove it. If someone starts asking, they might get suspicious and look themselves for whatever is in the mine. This way three different groups have a shot at getting those documents first, and might all end up in the mine at the same time.
I would add subplots that could affect the main conflict, such as buried treasure, heistable items, star-crossed lovers, paternity questions (maybe one of the PCs is actually a child of both families?), etc. People could also find evidence of these and pursue them either to get an advantage on the main conflict or for their own sake.
Part 7: Non-Game Parts of Game (Logistics, etc.)
Staff: There were also a number of people listed as being involved on the website who never were involved in communications with players and were not present at game. To my knowledge, the only person who is listed as being on staff and actually was on staff at game was Shoshana Kessok. I do not know if any of them were involved on the back end and we just didn’t know about it. Overall, I was left wondering how much support Dziobak Studios and Imagination Nation actually gave this game other than providing branding and advertising, given my perception of the budget and the logistical issues they encountered.
Staff Solution: Keeping us abreast of staffing and support changes would have created less of a feeling like I was being sold one thing and receiving another.
Water: Water on site was apparently not recommended for drinking unless we were used to it. The off-game eating space ran out of water at every single meal, water was not always provided at other locations, and running out of cups for the water was also common. Given the daytime heat, this was a safety issue. Staff did a lot to try to help this and I commend their effort, but it seems like something that should have been more robustly planned for ahead of time.
Water Solution: Water should have been made available and regularly replaced at any location that served “alcohol” (sweet tea), and cheap plastic mugs or mason jars could have been given to players to write their names on, so they didn’t need to keep using disposables that we ran out of. In addition, asking players to bring their own in-character drinking vessels as part of their kit if they could would have lessened the issue.
Food: Food was only available at mealtimes unless you bought food from the (very nice!) people who ran the site, which wasn’t always available. They were delightful and provided free coffee when they were there. They have my eternal gratitude for this. Also, they sold very welcome ice cream. Overall, the quality of the food was good, plentiful, and I was very satisfied with it.
Food Improvements: When food arrived early on Friday night, meant that we were hungry and food was there, but we did the walkthrough and plot announcements before food was served. By that time, it was cold. Baskets of snacks (granola bars, etc.) would have been welcome.
Heat: The nights were cold. I was fine, because I made my costume out of multiple layers of wool, silk, and cotton and slowly melted during the day, but a lot of people were freezing by 10PM every night. There were no in-character spaces that were isolated from the wind or had heaters. I felt especially bad for the women playing the brothel employees, who were often dressed in shorter skirts and low-cut dresses.
Heat Solution: Some other location should have had a heater. Town hall had a door that closed all the way and wasn’t utilized much, or the far corner of the saloon away from the door would have worked okay.
Pacing: The game had some lulls and lagging parts, and could have been shorter each day. We could have started later or finished earlier, and, in fact, in-character gameplay often did have a slow start each morning and petered out each evening as it got cold and people moved to the warm places. Lunch also had a big lull where people dropped character. The lulls were made worse by the fact that we couldn’t do anything to affect the plot, which limited the usefulness of politicking and deal-making.
Pacing Solution: Just shorten game? Sleep is good! We could head home earlier each night, thus making the cold less of a problem. Artificial light was expensive in period anyway.
Part 8: Things I Liked
An important part of any review!
I liked the site, very good pick. The people running it were friendly, it was atmospheric and perfectly appropriate, and it was private. The only things I wished it had were things that would be hard to find in a site that looked that good and was affordable- potable water, running water in outbuildings, some truly indoor spaces for warmth.
Food was tasty and varied. It was a different caterer for every meal, and the food was always the sort where I could pick and choose parts of it I took, which is good because I’m a picky eater.
I would like to give a special shout out to the staff member (I am sorry, I forgot your name!) who gave me a ride back to the hotel when I left my medication there one morning. Thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty.
The props that did go out were cool and fun. The documents looked appropriately aged, the jewelry props felt real, and the bags of gold coins were great fun. I wish the dollars had been two-sided but that’s a small thing.
Telegrams! Great mechanic for delivering dribbles of information, and withholding it. Also Bear as Western Union Telegram Guy was excellent. A+ would receive ominous telegrams again.
NPCs playing requests and flavor characters (special shoutout to Missi as the Undertaker) did a great job. Ian gets a shoutout for getting punched by the Bouncer at the brothel a lot!
Last but most importantly, the players. The players were, to a person, great. I had amazing scenes with them and their stories made my game interesting and engaging. Your costuming was great, and you gave it your all.
Part 9: Numbered Ratings
Some rough scores:
Pre-Game Communication: 2/5, could have been much better and more prompt, but the information did eventually get out there, mostly.
Site: 4/5, really cool. Some quibbles, but it looked great and you’re not likely to find better at an affordable rate. The site owners were friendly and the dogs were excellent.
Props: 3.5/5, generally good quality and good choices of props, but I wish the dollars had been two-sided and the gold bars had weighed more. Capguns were a good choice, though!
Food: 4/5, tasty and plentiful and varied. One point down for the food timing the first night, but seriously, good job.
Players: 5/5, they made the game for me. I had a lot of fun in a lot of scenes that only featured players, or players and one NPC.
Mechanics: 2.5/5, did not actively detract from the game, but also not good and didn’t contribute to the game. Largely got ignored and ad hoc consent arrangements prevailed.
Safety: 2/5, physical safety was fine other than the water and cold issues, and the staff member who took me to the hotel and back for my meds in particular gets another shout out for being awesome, but player’s arrangements with each other were not respected by staff on multiple occasions. Players checked in with me when doing intense things/yelling and were very respectful. They checked themselves on banned subjects and participated in good faith. Code of Conduct enforcement was, to my knowledge, only employed to ban a player who voiced complaints, which did not give me a great deal of faith in the system.
Plot: 1/5, actively detracted from my game. A complete absence of plot would have been an improvement.
Game Design: 2/5, with two points given for the fact that if it had been executed differently, the PvE switch wouldn’t have been nearly as disruptive and frustrating.
I would not go back to Salvation if it were run again, unless the design was true to the original design document and it was run by a different person. I would not go to a LARP run by Shoshana Kessok again. Though I know some of these issues, like the underbooking, were outside of her control, how the issues were handled was unacceptable to me
I like the idea of a western game and the tensions it wanted to explore, but the game was very different from what was advertised, clumsily rewritten to accommodate fewer players, and when staff encountered problems or deviations from the plan, it was handled with inflexibility and occasionally anger. I did not feel like the game was about the players, but instead about the NPCs and the story that staff wanted to tell about them. That feeling only abated after Julianne Holloway was shot, putting control entirely in the hands of PCs and ending Mr. Derringer’s part of the story.
I do not think anyone on the staff or at any of the LARP companies involved set out to actively make a game different from what was described, nor do I think they meant ill, but it resulted in a game where plot actively detracted from my experience and where I felt like I had bought tickets based on faulty information. It is possible the information was accurate when I bought the tickets, but if the design document is rendered almost entirely inaccurate by the time game starts, that is something that should be communicated to players.
Shoshana said that a survey would be out a week after game. Wanting to give feedback through approved channels directly to staff, I followed up after a week. She then said it would be going out when she got back to the East Coast a week later.
It was not out a week later. As of late January, we have not received a survey link OR promised pictures. I ended up finding out that a lot of very valid life stuff happened in late November through December for her (thanks to her twitter feed), but… there were other people involved in this game.
My husband reached out to corporate about the pictures and surveys in early January, and they said they’d “check on it”. Mid-January ,we finally received an update that pictures were “in processing”.
They were eventually delivered on January 28th, over a month after they were promised.
As of date of publication, we have not received the game survey.
My name is Alison Smaalders. I’ve been LARPing for nearly ten years in a mix of vampire (Masquerade and Requiem), one-short/short run games (Call of Cthulu, etc), fantasy boffer (NERO, Alliance), World of Darkness boffer, and I’ve recently started attending large Nordic-style LARPs in Europe and back here in America.
LARPing combines a lot of my hobbies- I draw, write, design and sew costumes, make props, love history, majored in anthropology, and enjoy acting.
Recently, I began writing reviews of some of the blockbuster games I attended (both positive and more critical), and I wanted a way to share them that wasn’t just a facebook post or a google docs link.
Thus, this blog.
I hope to also occasionally write LARP theory posts, some discussions on best practices (and not so good practices), costuming, and other items that are not strictly reviews but do relate to LARPing in general.
I had a good time at Convention of Thorns 3 (CoT3 from here on), but it was not as good as CoT2 for me, so I thought I’d write this to figure out why. Some of this was based on changes to playerbase/the game, some of it was things about the game that I didn’t notice because they weren’t relevant to me last year, and some had to do with my personal choice of character. She was my second choice, so I can’t blame the casting process either- I just chose a character who wasn’t quite right for me, so you can take all this with that knowledge in mind. Next time, no elders, no princes, and no Tremere. There were fun things about all those categories, but overall I found it much harder to get into character and the responsibilities of being a Pontifex interfered with my favorite things about game. However, that position also put me in a place to notice things I didn’t last year
Some of these things are game design things that I didn’t like, which are very clearly opinions, and some are aspects of the game that could be polished or their function improved. I am aware that some of these are artifacts of behind the scenes compromises that I am not aware of, too.
Part 1: Safety Workshops
I found the safety workshops very valuable and well-run. Only thing I would change is to do them more like CoT2, where we do the break, look down, etc. and practice negotiations according to the script in small groups rather than watching them demonstrated. I really missed having the ritualized dialogue practice, like the script that follows:
“How do you want to do this?”
“I’d like to do X, not Y right now, and definitely never Z”
“Great!” *does X*
It was a really, really good system in my opinion, and particularly for people new to Nordic LARP or LARP in general, it gives a good framework. Honestly, this is the most important thing for me, and the thing I missed the most. As a shy person, it gave me a framework for requesting violence or intimacy that was ritualized and therefore had a lot of the guesswork removed. If only one of these suggestions gets taken, please take this one and re-implement this negotiation system
Part 2: Character
Or, Things That Are My Own Damn Fault
Getting into the meat of game itself. This section is mostly to point out that a lot of other issues I noticed (except the safety workshop thing!) wouldn’t really have mattered if I had picked a different character. I will be picking with all this in mind next year.
Irene had many things I enjoyed and I think I would have found her very interesting in a longer-running game. Her collection of personal qualities made her a fascinating and unusual elder, but I couldn’t quite push her to have the character development and personal crises I love. Some of that is my own play style- I tend to hesitate and play things too safe. I think I need characters who have everything to gain and little to lose, so that I feel less constrained. I am sure I could mitigate this with effort, but I didn’t consider it when forming connections and deciding on a narrative.
One thing I was very pleased with was the effect she had on other characters. Her interactions with others, however brief, seemed to have outsize effects and were memorable. This pleases me, and to me it means I played the character well, even if my experience personally wasn’t what I hoped it would be.
I felt like I got about halfway done with a bunch of plotlines, and resolved very few of them. The scenes involved in each were very good, but they just… didn’t tie up at the end well.
Suggestions to Myself:
Pick a neonate. Maybe an Ancilla, but not too old. Except: Dragan, because he is a delight.
Pick someone who is a minion to someone powerful, so they always have a task to do and also aren’t management.
I don’t like being management.
Don’t pick Tremere, Giovanni, or any other very clan-y clan.
Pick someone from a domain with vibrant relationships that really speak to me- that’s as important as a good character.
Decide on a character narrative and stick with it while planning relations. Being picky is okay. You don’t need to say yes to everyone.
Part 3: Clan
TREMERE. So, the clan got off to a rocky start online. Tremere is one of the most intensely self-involved clans, along with the Giovanni. The hierarchy is strict, everyone else hates you, the entire clan is blood bonded to the people above them in the pyramid, and absolute authority over a chunk of the clan is part of the package of being Pontifex. The clan has a lot of expectations and traditions that apply to no one else and where violating them can, in canon, get you summarily executed.
For some people, that’s why they like about playing the clan- it is why the Tremere are on their list. For others, this was not their first choice, or even their last choice. Some had no idea who the Tremere were. They might not want to participate in intense games of power dynamics and oppression with every single clan meeting, and have to weigh the consequences of every action, and that’s a very reasonable boundary. This conflict was resolved through a lot of good work on part of all the players and we managed to work something out that worked for everyone, but there were some strong disagreements about it online and in person
Things I really liked about the Clan Workshop:
The status line where we all lined up in exact order of who outranked who. It was very helpful to see where we all stood, literally.
Status lines in general- these were very helpful for tagging people to argue or agree with later IC.
All the players really did their best and did a lot of good work sorting out difficult topics.
Suggestions for the Clan Workshop:
A more assertive facilitator in the clan workshops. The clan workshop, I feel, should have given some more guidance regarding play, particularly given the number of first-time LARPers this year. We had a lovely and kind facilitator, but given the number of strong opinions (and everyone being low on sleep and having pre-LARP jitters and sometimes language barriers), someone who can guide the discussion more firmly would probably be a good pick for next year.
Arm the facilitator with more information on the Tremere and some potential compromise ideas about how to run the Tremere as a clan with regards to hierarchy and oppression, along with workarounds for individuals who really don’t want to play to the hierarchy. For example, the two extremes might be “you are united in the face of your enemies, but internally you are more like an academic environment. There is hierarchy, but also a lot of arguing even across status lines” to the other end of “speaking out of turn will get you dominated or beaten and you’d better do EXACTLY as your superiors tell you, always”. Most players would fall somewhere in the middle, but having a range of described options might help with finding a consensus?
One workaround that was suggested was “I don’t have time for this, I’ll deal with you on Sunday” as a way of expressing that the hierarchy was still present and preserving that for players that liked it, but giving space for the player of a lower-status character to avoid RP they weren’t interested in. It might be worthwhile to include it next year, too?
Breaking into smaller groups based on who is blood bound to who is also something I would recommend adding, and allowing each sub-pyramid to sort out how they want to RP things within that ladder. Could even have formal questions, like the domain workshops.
Sample ritual plans would be welcome. Improvising rituals was stressful for me- I had never done it before in a game, and I didn’t pre-plan rituals like I should have. Having some sample instructions in the Tremere packet for rituals of different sizes could provide some guidance for those who didn’t do a lot of pre-work. Maybe ask previous Tremere players for ideas or written descriptions of rituals? I’d happily contribute.
Part 4: Player Base
I feel like 170 is too many players for the way the game is structured. We couldn’t all vote in the time allotted (more on that later), it was easy to get lost in a crowd, and the game felt less focused than last year when there were only a 100. 100 is about the minimum I’d want, unless entire domains were eliminated to compress people into fewer, more fully cast domains. I know the total number of characters is based on site costs, though, so I understand this may not be changeable while keeping the game costs down. Overall, the game happening is more important than having a hypothetical ideal number of players.
There were also a lot more first-time LARPers this year, and some people in key roles were re-cast late, or the players of those roles had never LARPed before, or didn’t participate in pre-work for the game. All of those things are fine by themselves. But, with all of the factors happening a lot, at once, characters that are written to be powerhouses, coteries that are written to be cohesive, and all the relationships that are built on that foundation, end up falling through. Most of these factors are outside of staff control, but it is worth noting that the game does start breaking down when all these factors compound- it resulted in people abandoning the stated design structure of the game (voting on the Camarilla, etc.) because it became unworkable. Perhaps it would be possible to make character arcs more resilient to this, since it’s bound to happen again sometime? Take a look at characters that fell through the cracks and see if they need some revising?
Father Samuel was moved to a PC/NPC position with special casting for this reason. Other key roles probably do not need to go that far, but what about providing additional information or reaching out to players who are cast in these important roles and making sure they have what they need and providing some suggestions if they aren’t sure what to do? This may already happen, though- I’ve never played a Founder.
Part 5: Voting/Game Structure
Due to the playerbase and my character choice last year, I noticed all of this section a lot less last year. This year, there were some sticking points that made the game harder to engage with for me. I understand the game is structured to create conflict, rather than create an actual outcome or a reasonable process. There is, however, a tipping point where it moves from “story generating conflict” to “kafkaesque and frustrating”. As it stands, I find it very hard to imagine in-character that this structure was designed by anyone who wanted any kind of workable results from the Convention. And if that isn’t true, then why are we here and abiding by this? Why would we pick a system that forces outcomes most people aren’t happy with?
That in turn made it harder for me to engage with the process, especially as someone in a decision-making role.
One option that I heard about after game that I didn’t even realize was an option was Justicars voting on tradition edits after their clans have joined. Making sure people are aware of this as an additional layer of political maneuvering would, I feel, be a good quick fix. Because in the end, why should the clans that join the Camarilla be beholden to traditions that may have been intentionally created to wreak havoc by clans that did not join? It would preserve the jockeying for traditions, but it would make clans have to be clever with their attempts to undermine the Camarilla. After all, if they just attempt to troll the process and not join, the Justicars will re-write the traditions to the next runner up option that wasn’t trolling.
I know that the trolling may be part of the design on purpose, though it was explicitly discouraged by the PC/NPC Father Samuel. For me, though, as a player, it makes it hard to stay immersed because I cannot believe that this is a real situation that people would agree to participate in. Your mileage may vary greatly here.
Suggestions for First Night Voting:
I understand the beads method, and the lining up method from last year, and why the switch happened, but neither one works very well. Lining up is hard to organize with more than 100 people, and the beads method meant people couldn’t cast votes or had to pick between getting crushed and voting.
General Suggestion: Write out the rules for the voting on handouts, or put them in the design doc. It might cut down on questions day-of.
First idea- only clans that want to put their name in the hat for leadership of a council put out vases for each tradition. The vases are labeled. Then, each clan is called up one by one to vote for all tradition leaderships at once. This avoids the OOC crush of bodies of everyone going up at once and makes everyone’s votes more visible.
Second idea- every player, with their nametag, gets a small bag of six beads of different colors, one for each tradition. They can vote for their pick at ANY point during the night after vases are put out for the clans. People who want to can vote early, or vote at the end, but you’ve got until 2:30 to put the beads in the vases. Bonus: if you use beads that are mostly a uniform size and weight, winners can be determined by weighing the vases.
Third idea- secret ballot. Removes the public aspect, but filling out sheets that you get with your nametag is quick and easy
Suggestions for Second Night Voting:
Nothing, really! I like the second night voting just fine, and I really like the public posting of tradition options. The CoT3 medals are a vast improvement over the sashes from CoT2. Only thing I’d suggest is maybe writing in small letters on the back the name of the Tradition. Numbers are good for the look of the medals, but I spent a lot of time asking “… what tradition number is that?”
Suggestions for Post-Voting Politics:
Make it more clear that Justicars now have complete authority over the traditions and can vote on changes, which may of course lead to clans joining or leaving the Camarilla. Final traditions should be up by a certain deadline, though- maybe by 9pm on Saturday? Giving people time to backroom deal on edits, but also time for the next idea…
To keep the process open to more people, I’m going to suggest something Edin came up with regarding primogen meetings at regular vampire games: Justicar meetings to discuss edits to the Traditions should be public. The Justicars will probably do most of the talking, but people should be able to comment, interject, heckle, storm out, etc.
Keeping this discussion time-limited will help it stay urgent, I think. No more than 10 minutes per Tradition. Say meeting starts at 7:30, is done by 8:30, final posting is done by 9, and then people have time to read and decide.
Part 6: End of Game Summaries
Entirely personal opinion: I would prefer the game end with the long-term conclusion left open-ended. Partly because it is literally impossible for anyone to know what sort of backroom deals and long-term plans people have agreed to that could skew things dramatically, so it can be really jarring if something that was a key part of your character’s arc is completely omitted, or something that they worked hard and sacrificed for and got consensus from multiple other players on doesn’t matter. This has left a bad taste in my mouth before, and though I can headcanon it into my mental idea of game with a bit of work, it means that the immediate end of each game leaves me feeling disappointed when I want to continue the excitement of having just wrapped up game.
Part 7: Game Schedule
I really feel like CoT2’s third night ran until midnight, but I might be misremembering. Can we bring that back? The last night felt so, so short! 6-10:30 just isn’t enough time to wrap up storylines. If we could compress workshops (we didn’t need all that domain time, I think) and maybe we could start game earlier on Thursday, too? Expanding day 1 and day 3 to a full six hours each would be welcome if it’s possible.
Part 8: Things I love about this game and why I’m coming back that don’t fit into the other topics
A ton of things!
I love the time period and the costuming staff and players do.
I love the NPC request process and what you all make happen.
I love the NPCs- you all are great.
I love the castle as a site.
I love how responsive and helpful all the staff are, with special shoutouts to Edin and Boruta. I know how much work it was, for example, to send out individual hotel emails to everyone, but I greatly appreciate that Boruta and crew put in the time to make us more comfortable.
I love how thoughtful the organizers are, too- like, I would never have thought to have Plan B available, but that one thing, which I have never had to use nor think I will have to use, made me feel like staff was really thinking about all possible outcomes and cared about the players and NPCs. Being willing to commit civil disobedience on this impressed me
I love how dedicated the players are and how much they throw themselves into the characters.
I love Masquerade as a setting, for all its many flaws as a setting and as a game.
I love the work Edin and others have put into filing off Masquerade’s rougher (read: racist/sexist/90’s edgelord) bits and making clans more playable or interesting.
I love the decadent, overwhelming nature of it all. It really feels like you’re getting swept up in history.
I love the fact that it’s the scenario every year, so there’s no “one true AU” for it- there are many, and there is always next year. It’s honestly a thing that makes any rough patches much, much easier to deal with- this is no more “real” than any other run.
I’ll be coming back to game next year, unless something in real life happens that means I can’t go. It was still a really fun experience, and I applaud the game runners for a lot of very hard work in making this happen. I will be bringing more interested friends this year, too.
I learned a lot about my character preferences at this game, which is something I’ve learned at every big LARP that hasn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. CoT2 with Gertrude von Hohenzollern was basically the perfect character pick for me and set a very high bar for my experience, so I’ll be looking for similar characters next year, characters that will allow me to avoid the parts of game I’m less excited about and really dive into the parts that I am.
Lastly, I’d like to thank the staff and volunteers of the game again. For starting me on my Nordic LARP journey, for making this game, for always doing your best.