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Jun. 14th, 2010

Starship Valkyrie - Wyrdcon One 2010 in Costa Mesa, CA


Starship Valkyrie

      The Valkyrie LARP ran at Wyrdcon One, June 12th, 2010. I had worked on the game for many months prior to that date, and I was uncertain whether I would have enough players to run. I decided to prepare two scenarios - in the first, the ship would be run with a skeleton crew because of an accident in space, and then the second would be the full combat scenario. I was prepared to run with as few as ten players. I ended up with twenty-six.

Outline Of The Game
      In the game's story the players were the crew of the Earth Republic Ship "Valkyrie", sent to pursue the unidentified attacker of a remote planetary base. Another ship, the ERS Hydra, was ahead of them, pursuing the enemy through Hyperspace. When the game starts, the Valkyrie is just about to follow the hyperspace trail of the Hydra.
      The Captain gave the order for the ship to engage the hyperdrive and follow the Hydra. During the hyperspace journey the Valkyrie takes a little damage to a few non-critical systems. They drop out of hyperspace in a system they've never seen before to find the Hydra locked in battle with an alien spacecraft. The Hydra is badly clawed-up, and Valkyrie immediately moves to assist.
      The Alien spaceship launches a number of starfighters, which the Valkyrie answers by launching her own; not neglecting to fire lasers and a missile into the oncoming cloud of enemies. The Raven pilots are good, and in ten minutes or so they clean up the enemy fighters.
Meanwhile, the Valkyrie is trying to assess the damage to Hydra and figure out a way to help them. The Captain orders a Raven to go over to the Hydra with an engineering crew, which the XO leads.
      At the same time all this is going on, the Science Team is working on various Brainwave and Hyperspace experiments. They develop a shield against telepathic attack, and a modified warhead for one of the Valkyrie's missiles, and are working on a safer means of hyperspace travel.
      More alien ships appear at the edge of the system, and start heading for Valkyrie. Each of the ships launches a group of fighters, which precedes them on the approach. The Captain orders his 'away team' on the Hydra to return to the ship. It takes the team only a few minutes to return.
      The original alien spaceship, the one that the Hydra had damaged and was still in combat with, now turns on the Valkyrie, moving at slow speed. After a few minutes, a wave of madness sweeps the ship - some of the crew attack others, some run and hide, others do nonsensical things. Only the robots are naturally unaffected by this. The Captain and one of his bridge officers are shielded by a device the science team created to screen out telepathic contact, and so they are unaffected as well.
      The Captain sees a large number of ships closing on his position, and at the same moment, most of his crew appears to have lost their minds. He orders the ship to go to hyperspace, even though it isn't advisable, and the ship will likely take serious damage from Hyperspace.
      When the ship enters hyperspace the crew is restored to sanity but debilitated by the powerful hyperspace forces. Only the ship's robots are able to act to repair critical systems and return the ship to normal space.
      Once the ship returns to normal space, the whole crew springs to action to get the ship back into shape. System after system is rapidly repaired, and scanners show that the ship has suffered structural damage which cannot be repaired in space. Another jump into hyperspace might destroy the ship. The Captain decides they have to chance it, and gives the order.
      Just at that moment, the Science Team is throwing the switch on a hyperspace experiment, which causes the Valkyrie to fly straight into a natural Hyperspace Portal, which takes them back to an Earth Republic Star Navy Base. The base calls the ship and asks the Captain to report. He responds that he needs to see the base commander privately. This ends the game.

Key Play Concepts
      When I started designing the game I had a few ideas in mind: Big Power Cards, Analog Not Digital, Brief Characters, and Detailed Game Sections.
      The Big Power Cards are the ship itself. There were eight consoles, and each one could do one to three different things. In order to use those powers you had to be at the console, and you had to have the appropriate skill. For example, the Weapons Console had two lasers and a Missile Launcher. The person at that console could fire the lasers at any target in range (once they consulted the tactical map) and a timer, included on the console itself, kept track of when each weapon could be fired again. The Consoles were made out of a tough drawing board kind of material, and adorned with indicators, removable cards and timers as needed.
      Wherever there was a choice I aimed at a simple, clean design and construction out of relatively inexpensive materials. I figured that these objects would be easiest to replace if damaged, or modify if play revealed a flaw in their design. For example, The DAISS (read: radar) Display is a sheet of plexiglass over a black felt star-map. I made cardboard counters for this and used them to represent all the various ships, missiles and so forth that appeared in the scenario. An exception to this rule was the Communicator, which was a laptop hooked up to the hotel meeting room's wide-screen tv. The NPC crew of the Hydra contacted the players via a Skype video call.
      Because there was so much to do in the game environment, so much to look at and absorb, I wanted the character backgrounds to be brief. I supplemented this material with some history and knowledge that everyone would know, so that if there was something you forgot, the player standing next to you might remember it. So your character is only three short paragraphs, but there are also three short paragraphs on a number of other subjects included in your briefing as well, such as Earth Republic History or knowledge of the mega-corporation Maxicorp.
      Each section of the ship has a different challenge, and different responsibilities. The bridge has to monitor what's going on outside the ship, and quickly develop an effective response. The pilots have a specially designed card game to play to simulate star-fighter combat. They have to learn that game to be able to do it well, so that makes them very focused on practicing it whenever they aren't on a mission. The engineering and medical teams have to keep the ship and crew operating effectively using limited resources. The science team has the opportunity to conduct experiments in order to discover new resources and tactics for the rest of the ship to use. There's a significant level of detail to each activity and mini-game, but none of it is intended to be overwhelming. It's still an activity, rather than a puzzle.

Notable Player Actions
      Players always do something unexpected. I felt that I had done a fair job trying to anticipate the players, but I was surprised and caught off-guard a number of times. Notably;
      The players sent an 'away team' to the Hydra. I wasn't prepared for that, but I didn't want to arbitrarily say "No". So I let them go there, talk to the Hydra NPCs and come back. There wasn't much for them to do over there, though, since I hadn't planned for it. I think it might have given a cool impression to payers who didn't go, however. And I believe that they talked to the Valkyrie from the Hydra (over Skype) as well, which is also cool.
      The science team hit all the most useful experiments right away. They developed a limited defense against the telepathic weapon of the aliens as their first order of business, and then moved on to the knottier problems of Space and Time. They created a super-weapon if the captain wanted to fight, and they created a safe way home if the captain wanted to run. I had written experiments that didn't turn out well, but they passed on all of those, and only performed experiments that redounded to the benefit of the ship.
      The Captain ordered the ship into Hyperspace. I thought the players would stay and fight at all costs, even if it mean risking destruction. But the Captain felt that the situation was so real, and the odds so badly stacked against them, that he felt he had no other responsible choice. I left him a way out, so he took it. I should have blocked off that exit somehow.

The Game Wrap
      The first thing I did was ask the players what they thought of the Captain's decision to retreat. The Bridge officers mostly supported his decision, but the rest of the crew was united in deploring this action. They all wanted to fight, and were disappointed that they didn't get to the meat of the battle, even if the odds were against them. We talked for a little while about Captain Wells' Court Martial, and who would be speaking at it, and it was tentatively concluded that Captain Wells would be censured for his action, but not demoted or broken out of the service.
      Next we talked about who had been a good leader. The XO was held up as being decisive, but often arbitrary or even ignorant. But overall, his decisiveness was held to be the more necessary quality. One of the Pilots was held up as a good team leader. "He kept us in line," someone said. In general, the people who had leadership roles got praise for being leaders. No scientists were mentioned, no robots, no doctors, no engineers.
      After that I learned a lot about what each ship section was like from the perspective of the players. The engineers talked about how they resented the scientists for taking so many resources, and how they worried that the science experiments would blow up the ship. The pilots bragged about their skill in shooting down enemies, and the scientists complained that there were too many scientists (it was a very full game), and the bridge crew discussed the tactical situation and how they tried to manage it.

What Didn't Work
      The game was a success, overall, but there were some notable problems that need to be addressed for a second run.
Communication protocols. It was a moderately-sized, L-shaped room that 15 to 20 people would have been comfortable in, but we had 26. So it was crowded and very noisy. Unless an explicit announcement was made people didn't know what was going on. They didn't know the ship was being attacked, or had taken damage - they didn't know anything. Something would need to be done to ensure basic information was disseminated in a timely way.
      Causality problems. There was so much going on that sometimes there were factual discrepancies. For example, I heard a report that the Raven pilots didn't know they had landed back on the ship for about fifteen minutes. They thought they were still flying. In cases where people didn't know the ship was being attacked they couldn't move to check or repair critical systems. They had no reason to look for wounded people if they didn't know people were getting injured.
      Insufficient Tactical Background Info. The Captain should have been told a little more about how his ship worked, and what constituted a sound strategy. There are many examples of this, but the preeminent one is how powerful his Ravens were. He didn't realize that they might very well have been a match for the incoming enemy fightercraft, even though they were massively out-numbered. Another example is allowing missiles to be used on enemy fighters, when those should probably be reserved for heavy ships.
      Insufficient Dedicated Refs. I needed a ref that was dedicated to the tactical map/bridge end of things, as well as one to handle all engineering and science team issues. Anything that didn't have to do with the pilots had to be fielded by me personally, and that meant I was too busy to manage the game as a whole properly. I did have a ref (Roselle Hurley) but she primarily ran ad hoc errands and had no fixed responsibilities.
      Technical issues. The Skype connection was good, but there should have been more powerful speakers available. As it was the communication officer had to shout a question into the mike and then press his ear (almost) to the speaker to hear the response. The Skype connection lost some of its dramatic power after the initial encounter.

What Did Work
      Immersion Experience. During the wrap I asked two questions of the whole room. "Did you feel like you were running around on a space ship trying to get things done?" the answer to this was a resounding YES. So I followed this up by asking if that turned out to be fun - YES again. So the consoles, the NPCs and the mini-games delivered an interesting and immersive experience to the players, which is what I wanted. If I had only accomplished this, I could have called it a success.
      Consoles. My wife Roselle and I worked a long time on the consoles, and we both felt that they would be instrumental to the success of the game. This investment of time and materials paid off. Many people commented on the consoles as being great props.
      Ravenflight Game. I brainstormed this mini-game months before the Valkyrie game. I sat down with a friend of mine (Ben Lewis) and tried to work out how to simulate a starfighter dogfight with a normal deck of playing cards. We worked on it for a while, which was key to showing me that I really needed a whole new game with pictures on the faces of the cards and a completely new set of rules. I play-tested it two weeks before the Con (at Maxicon) and added a few more special maneuver cards for the pilots after that. All that thinking and working at the concept paid off too. The Raven Pilots had a reasonably interesting and engaging activity to do to simulate their space battles, which made them very happy.
      Experiments. There were hundreds of cards for the Valkyrie game, but the few dozen cards prepared for the Science Experiments were demonstrably the most useful. The science team started with a Theory Card, which focused on a topic, like Hyperspace. Then they would look at the different hyperspace experiments available and decide which one they wanted to do based on what resources were available, and what they thought would work. So the cards stood in for a GM for long parts of the game. The players had all the information they needed to discuss the options without coming to me for clarification.
      Skype. About forty-five minutes into the game the Valkyrie arrives in the strange star system and sees the Hydra on the map. They decide to hail the Hydra and find out their status. Rachel Heslin's face appears on the big screen, swimming in a murky darkness. "We tracked the alien here - we were attacked - damage to our systems... something's happened to the crew..." There was complete silence throughout the ship. Everyone strained to hear what she was saying. The mood was pitch perfect - tense, concerned, everyone ready to do something to help. The video conference, on a big screen, made that happen.

Where To Go From Here
      I have never felt so energized after running a LARP. Usually I feel ...good, but exhausted and happy it's over. For the first time I feel like Valkyrie is the beginning of something else. I want to run Valkyrie for more people, for other groups; whoever wants to play.
Something that was suggested by Graydon Schlichter is a 'Star Navy Academy' game to get people up to speed on the game universe and all its history and rules (and tactics) before putting them on a starship to make life-and-death decisions.
       I have already received a tentative invitation to run Starship Valkyrie again. I plan to run it for Enigma soon as well, possibly as a LARP Campaign with three or four episodes.
      It has also been suggested that I run Valkyrie as a Corporate Event, as a fun team-building exercise.
      I will certainly be doing more with Starship Valkyrie, and soon. I welcome all comments, public or private, from players who participated, GMs who have further questions, or anyone else, really. I've had a great time running Valkyrie and I can't wait to run it again.
Thank you to everyone who played, who NPC'd, and who reff'ed. You're all my friends now, and I look forward to gaming with you again.
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Mar. 28th, 2010

Game and Life Pataphor

Somebody posted a link to this: bit.ly/aDmAYR in the Facebook and I found it interesting. Essentially, the speaker is saying that Gaming can save the world, if we start doing it right. Or something. Anyway, she was very earnest. 

I got to thinking, though, about how I would live my life it was a game. I know I'm not the first person to think of this, but games keep changing, so you need to update the thought experiment every few years if you want it to still have meaning. Think about it, what if you lived your life the way your D&D character does; the way every D&D character ever has lived? There are things they have in common, and am not talking about the homicidal and larcenous tendencies either.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My D&D Character
[Note, something like this has been done. Recently, even.  www.youtube.com/watch]

1. Maximize or  Specialize. Across all genres, all characters either expand all their skills continuously or they pick a core of abilities and advance those in preference to all others. But you never get a character who gets half-way through their associates degree and calls it quits. You never have a fighter that could have taken a weapon specialization but decided he didn't want it because "that's too much work". Nope, your character is always hard at work. The wizard is always studying spells, the fighter is always practicing, and so forth. We should be constantly improving ourselves, too. 

2. Keep Shooting / Fight to the Last Man. D&D Characters (almost) never surrender. If you take that example into online games, then it becomes an absolute. Surrender in an MMORPG is a non-starter. Just keep banging away until you win. In a tabletop game, if your character died, roll up a new character and rejoin the quest. This would be a great rule for life. Because in life, the penalty for failure is rarely death. It's usually just a little embarrassment, actually. Keep fighting and don't fear failure. 

3. Figure out what you believe and stick to it. D&D characters, depending on the version of the rules you use, have a philosophical code called alignment. Even if you think alignment is silly and have done away with it, think how your life would be different if you picked an alignment for yourself and stuck to it in every situation. If you think you're lawful good, then try asking yourself what would a lawful good person do in this situation? Pretend you'll lose exp if you don't answer honestly.

4. Expect Success. In tabletop games it's possible to fail, retreat, be driven off, trapped or knocked unconscious. There's a number of ways to fail that don't involve your character dying. But in any game setting, your character thinks nothing of trying again. No character will ever give up and say, "well, we got captured by the Evil High Priest Zorbag. It was a good run" and not try to escape. 

It's been pointed out to me that game characters have this confidence because they know their challenges have been created by an Intelligent Designer. In real life you don't know for sure that your problems are solvable. But where's the downside in acting as though they were? Act as if your situation was created specially for you to overcome. It's right at your challenge rating or whatever. Assume success is possible in every situation, just like your character does.

5. Choose Adventure. Once in a great while you'll get a group together to play a game and they'll fritter away all the time available on inessential things and never get to the adventure. But that's rare, and nobody wants that. Your character wants nothing more than to start trashing bozos, and right now. Think about your options as if you were a character. You'll pick the stuff that's right at the limit of what you can accomplish - an adventure that gets you the maximum possible reward for your effort. When was the last time the fighter in the group said, "Yeah, but kobolds are smaller and easier to fight. Let's go after them" when there were orcs nearby with better treasure? Choose the bigger adventure.

That's all I can think of for now.

To be fair to my sources, Jane McGonigal covers points four and five in her talk. Though her talk was interesting, I kept thinking that what she really wants to do is 'trick' gamers into doing something that isn't a game at all. But I'm sure she'd disagree with that. It probably also means that I don't quite grasp how she's going to do what she proposes. I wished she'd talked a little more about that.