Design Diary: Stolen Crown [name subject to change]

I frequently see people asking “how do I write a (theatreform) larp”? While there’s some advice online (including some from me), there’s not a lot of walkthroughs. Since I seem to be in the early stages of writing a larp, I thought I’d document my process as it happens. Feedback, queries, and comments about how you do things welcome.


The hard bit

Getting started is always the hardest bit for me. Having finished a Crusader Kings bender I decided that it was time to write another larp (it has been a while). But what? There are so many possible larps I could write. And I can only pick one.

First, I thought about my constraints. The market at the moment means I want something in the 8-12 player range (maybe a bit bigger, but we’re a long way from the good old days of regular 20-player larps). In terms of themes, I want to avoid going too close to anything currently scheduled, because I like variety. So, no Westerns (not my genre anyway) or Regency (there’s lots of it around, and I have one already that people want me to rerun), and I should probably also try and avoid renaissance (Empty Vessels). And given the general state of the world, I probably want to avoid anything too nasty, because people just aren’t in the right headspace for it (unfortunately, straight-up comedy isn’t my strong point). I also want a fairly quick turnaround - I have hopes of running in September - which rules out any serious historical requiring research (which is probably for the better anyway: never stopping research is one of my known failure modes for writing)

The next phase was to look at my graveyard. Not every larp gets finished (some never progress beyond a sketchy outline), and all of that gets thrown in a Google Drive folder in case I restart it later. Was there anything there I could revive, or hack to fit my current constraints? Some were too big. Some would obviously send me down the research rabbit-hole. Some were too unfocused (which is why I abandoned them). The two best candidates were “After the revolution” (leaders of a revolt on a shitty corporate mining world have to decide how they’re going to deal with each other and their former masters when they’ve won) and a vague idea to do “Diamond Geezers” with fantasy thieves (I’m running Blades in the Dark ATM). But the first really lacked any emotional content, while the latter would probably be a nasty “find the traitor” game and so not really what i want to write.

Has any recent media inspired me? Nothing really in the book department (well, Hench would make a great larp, but I can’t do superheroes). On the TV front, Badehotellet would make a great larp (just move it to Cornwall), but is too big. And I couldn’t see an easy in for For All Mankind (though I did waste an evening reading about life on Mir and the ISS while toying with the idea). What about gaming? I’d already rules out Blades (for the moment…), and I need to actually read The Dee sanction (and besides, that’s historical, and fodder for the Tudor Laundry game). Malice - a toolkit for making small-town murder mysteries, inspired by Twin Peaks and Fortitude could be promising, but not what I wanted to write. And then I remembered Rebel Crown, a FitD game about a prince returning to claim their throne. Hmmmm…

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Design

With a promising concept, I started thinking about design. I’d need a prince (or princess), and some factions for them to negotiate with. And probably a couple of advisors to help them, and create internal tensions. I could have each advisor represent an approach to rulership or gaining the throne - justice vs cynicism, for example - and have the factions represent the Three Estates (those who fight, those who pray, and those who work - but the latter would probably be merchants because who talks to peasants?). And if I padded my factions out a bit - two noble houses, alike in dignity, perhaps? - I could have five, which suggested that old favourite, the pentagram structure. The prince/princess and their advisers could be a triangle within that, which would give me 8 players (or 9 if I had three advisors and the prince/princes sin the middle…)

“Negotiations” mean there must be something to negotiate about, though in this case its obvious: will the factions support the prince/princess’ claim to the throne and provide armies for the civil war? So, they should all want something (or multiple somethings) that any half-decent prince will be highly reluctant to give, or which would be a choice between the approaches advocated by the advisors, so I worked up a list of possible issues. That’s the inward-facing part of the plot. The prince and the advisers should be dealing with all of this, so that’s their outward-facing part, and I can build tensions off their backgrounds and their different approaches to seizing the throne to give them a nice little soap opera as a “B” plot.

But the factions will need other things to do too - plot with each other, not just with the prince/princess. I’ve written a pentagram game before - The Kyme Summit - so I can probably just steal the structure there: there’s some trade, and a thing where some factions are “influential” and others want their support for agendas. So, draw up some lists of possible agendas and McGuffins. Though it would be nice if the McGuffins could actually do something during the game or affect the outcome somehow, so I need to think about that. The presence of religious leadership means there should probably be a minor theme of religious differences (in Crusader Kings I’d had huge problems with heretics, so that could be interesting to play with), so I should probably think about that too…

This phase took me two evenings: start seriously considering the idea on Sunday night, and sketch out the design (with a few holes) on Monday. I can feel that inspiration bus approaching…

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Details

Having sketched out a design, I spent Tuesday night filling out the details. Which meant a rough map and a bunch of names: names for countries, names for families, and names for characters. Country-names were a matter of thinking of my naming themes (I wanted somewhere “English”, somewhere “French” and somewhere “Dutch / Burgundian”) and then playing around with Google Translate and Wikipedia looking for old names for places and what they meant. For families, I look at the great English noble houses of the War of the Roses - Neville, Beaufort, Pole etc - and twisted them a bit.

As I noted on Discord, character names were the worst. Character names can convey a lot of information about a character, both who they are and how you want people to react, and their culture. A good naming scheme in a larp can do a lot of work. But one of my constraints was that I wanted every character to be gender-neutral, which really restricts that. In the end I found something that worked: important nobles would just have a last name (because that is how people address them: Lord or Lady X), while important characters with first names (like the prince/princess, and the off-scene kings) would be named after trees (which also lets me use names to indicate character). A few gender neutral “fantasy” names rounded things out for the characters who didn’t fall into either category.

My “deliverable” after all this was a draft blurb, which would set the tone and establish a few key facts to work with. And here it is:

I am not sure about the name. Suggestions for a better one gratefully appreciated.

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More details

After Tuesday, I had a design and a blurb. I felt I could almost start writing my first character (my plan is to write Ash first, and work from the inside out, building up details as I go), but in the end I decided to do the player-facing background instead. The reason for this is that I find it much easier to write if I have my details and ephemera already there to work with (hence early character sheets are hard and later ones are easier); doing the background would let me nail down a bunch of stuff for re-use later. The result is here:

This took almost exactly two hours. The hardest bit was the “who’s who”, which effectively sketches out all the characters, and required a bit of detail about why they might be sympathetic to Ash’s cause. But doing that has helped fill in some of the gaps in my design.

Obviously, this will all need re-editing later. But I now have a solid foundation on which to start writing characters.

Goal for Thursday: first character sheet (or maybe a spreadsheet).

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The first character

Last night, I cranked out the first character for this game: Ash, the returning prince / princess. Unlike other larps, this game actually has a central character - lots of the plots point inwards - so I need to get them right. I had the broad outlines of their story, and it was really just a matter of fleshing that out. In the process I tweaked some of the details from the background, extending the timeline and answering the obvious question of what happened to their mother (executed, of course - gotta get that “Wars of the Roses” bad blood feeling in there).

I still need to do their relationship summary, but I often do that later. I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, and as with the background, I think its given me a good foundation to work with.

(This thread will pause for a while, as its Scandal & Society tomorrow).

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The second character

Having slept off the aftermath of Scandal & Society, I went back to work last night, and cranked out a character sheet for Thorn, the bastard, one of Ash’s advisers. I’d under-designed for the advisers, and needed to give them extra plot, so it took a bit longer than I would have liked as I thought about it. But I think I’ve worked out that aspect of the game now, and the other two will be largely a matter of perspective and rearranging my elements.

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The grind

Two more characters last night, which completes the claimant and their trio of advisors. I’m not quite happy with the last one - they seem to have too little to do - so I’ll be thinking about how to give them an extra plotline.

The next characters will be the pentacle of faction leaders, so there’ll likely be a slowdown as I get to grips with them.

Stopping to think

Last night I was meant to write the first of the outer “pentacle” of faction leaders, whose aid the prince / princess would be seeking. But while I’d done the broad design work on them earlier in the process, I felt I didn’t quite have enough. In particular: the exact distribution of some plot elements was still up in the air, as was the exact nature of them. There were meant to be agendas and McGuffins, and some of those were still big “TBC” markers. So, I had to stop and think.

To help this process, I resorted to pen and paper and drew a diagram: sketched out the pentacle, distributed the names of the characters at the points (this bit itself had a point of uncertainty in it), then scribbled the plot elements and anything else under them: who had influence, who had an agenda, who had a McGuffin, who wanted one, and anything else they might want. This immediately highlighted some weak points, and in particular Hertog van Huisdorp, who as a foreign noble was a poor fit anyway. So I threw them overboard and replaced them with one of my backup concepts: the leader of a peasant revolt (who I’ll call Kade, after this - yes, this means I’ll be renaming the Mayor). They were a much better fit, were an obvious candidate for the McGuffin I had nailed down (a captive: other factions want them to either execute or use as a hostage), and suggested some obvious interactions with other characters.

My big problem at the moment is the Agendas. As noted above, three of the factions are influential, which will mean they have language like this on their sheets:

Your House is influential among the nobility and can sway opinions with its words and actions. The Kingdom of Innis had been stable for generations, but Rowan’s usurpation and the incipient civil war have revealed the cracks in its foundations. Taxes are high, and the country is descending into lawlessness, with open warfare between the powerful families and outlaws roaming the forests. No matter who wins, things will need to change if the Kingdom is to survive. It is likely that some of the Houses will want to advance their agendas, and you can use them to advance yours.

The broad idea here is that the three influential groups will decide whether to back one of two agendas (though others could be introduced in play). The planted agendas will be pithy statements of the form “The Kingdom must…” (suggesting some form of action). They also need to be things that people might agree with, and which is a reasonable change for a fantasy medieval kingdom to make. My immediate problem is that the obvious agendas for the characters which have them (currently the High Aster and the Peasant, but the former could be replaced by the Mayor) are things which seem… difficult for influential nobles to agree with (things like “eliminating the Earth Cult” or “freeing the peasantry” or “abolishing private armies”). So I need to think a little more about this (that’s fine, I can write those characters last). If anyone has any suggestions there BTW I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, I need to rewrite my blurb and background a little. And I think I have enough to go on to keep writing characters.

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@TheTimCrow, in a query on Larp Hall:

possibly take some detailed looks with the serial numbers filed off: How much plot do you put in, and how can one tell there is enough. How intertwined to all the characters need to be? Are there missing relationships, or is one PC too central and needs isolating?

How much is “enough” and how do I tell? The general rule of thumb is a character should have at least three plots or three things to do (more is better, but more plot means a longer game. Three or four usually works). In this case: everyone in the ring has:

  • Demands - a couple of things they want from the claimant for their support (which means interacting with the claimant and their advisors)
  • Influence or an Agenda (a reason to negotiate with other ring characters)
  • A McGuffin or a need for one (and a reason why) (ditto)
  • Ideally, something else as well: to solve some mystery, reconcile with some faction or whatever.

The advisors all have

  • A general approach from which to give advice / view demands.
  • A Demand of their own, something specific they want Ash to do
  • A personal relationship plotline among the inner circle
  • Ideally, something else as well (one of them is already weak in this area, and one just got thrown overboard. But I’ve got stuff I can work with).

With this game, I’m a little worried about the advisors “stealing plot” from the ring. The obvious way to prevent this is to add more plot, so there’s no need to.

For games with less structure, I’ve found it useful to use a spreadsheet to set up a grid: plotlines along one edge (“save the cat”, “find the tin opener”, etc), character names along another. Rank each character’s involvement in a plot as 1, 2, or 3 depending on strength and put it in the appropriate box. Adding it up shows which characters don’t have enough (and you can also see which characters mostly have weak involvement, which is another problem). For relationships, just grid characters vs characters, mark where they have a meaningful relationship, and again you can see who has lots of links and who is an outlier (whether that is a problem of course depends on what sort of game it is).

For relationships, unless you’re running an amnesia game where no-one knows anyone, everyone needs at least one person they can rely on, and probably at least one person they instinctively oppose or hate. But I generally write relationships to follow plot, so that tends to write itself once the plots are done.

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The halfway mark

After stopping to think on Wednesday night, last night I tweaked the player guide, made a few changes to existing character sheets, then settled down and cranked out the sheet for Aran Kade (who should maybe be called Kade Tyler, just to reference my other historical inspiration). So far almost all the sheets have had a potted history of how the throne was usurped by Rowan (to show how it affected particular characters). This time, I had to think about what gets glossed over with “you spent five years in exile”, and also how different things look from the perspective of a peasant than a noble involved in court politics.

I suspect I’m going to have to write a manifesto as a prop for this character. Fortunately, I have an example to work from.

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Two-thirds
Character six got written last night, meaning there are only three to go. Again it was slow, due to having to work out the local perspective on events. But the work now should make everyone else go quicker.

I’m wondering about marriages. I’d thought of them as something that the factions could demand from Ash as a means of sealing a formal alliance, but do I want a generic mechanic for it? Do I want marriagable children to just be an item card that you can match up (which both suits how they were treated, but seems a bit… inhuman).

I’m also wondering how Rowan is such a bad king. Lawlessness, corruption, a peasant revolt, letting your great vassals openly fight… at least Henry VI had the excuse of regular bouts of catatonia during which the country was ruled by a squabbling council. Possibly I just need to have him distracted by a war or something (except there’s officially peace with Valois, and pirates).

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Seven

I cranked out character seven yesterday afternoon, which went relatively quickly. But I’m still having problems with that final McGuffin. I have a fallback option, but it ate the “something extra” for this character, which I’m not too happy about. So I spent last night thinking about alternatives, and where influence and McGuffins would sit among my final two characters. I don’t think I have an optimal answer yet, but I’ve at least got something I can write, and often having that will them lead me to write something better.

Two more characters to go.

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The first draft

I completed the last two characters yesterday, meaning I now have a complete first draft. It still needs to be tightened up - at least one character feels a bit weak - and I need to do a first consistency check and rewrite the player guide, and then the GM materials (which will include making final decisions on the “endgame”, which will make the decisions in the larp meaningful). But that’s all polishing. The bulk of the work is done.

In writing the final character, I drew up a fresh interaction diagram: put the five “ring” characters in a circle, and draw arrows if they had a clear and specific reason to talk to someone (general reasons don’t get arrows, and I made sure everyone had one of those). This identified a few weak points, people who didn’t have enough outgoing arrows. I’ll be focusing on those in the polishing.

Meanwhile, now I have a big question: when am I going to run it?

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Commitment

Since completing the character sheets I’ve done a little tinkering, tweaking a few bits, adding name badges, and drawing up a task list for what needs to be done in order to run and (eventually) publish. The big part of which is relationships and consistency check, and iron out any weak spots.

I’ve also just booked a venue for July 17th to run it. There’ll be an event page “soon” (when I’ve sorted out whether I’m running in the afternoon or evening, and what is going in the other slot), but I guess I’m premiering then. So, I guess I have a deadline: casting over the next month, and character sheets absolutely done by July 1 at the latest.

(Normally I say “don’t offer to run the game until the larp is written”. In this case, I think its written enough. The character sheets are done, and while they need polishing, I’m not going to be dropping or adding characters at the last minute with flow-on casting chaos).

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So its official:

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