Things I learned from Wilkinson-Baker Hall

Last weekend I played @Hanz_Hanz and @sophmelc’s “Downton Abbey”-inspired game, Wilkinson-Baker Hall. It was an excellent and enjoyable game, which kept me entertained and involved in Downton-esque plot for the full duration, despite being down a few players. But there were also a few interesting things about the structure and staging of the game which I think are worth noting for the future.

Normally, we run larps in real-time, with no breaks. Wilkinson-Baker Hall used an act - or rather, “episode” structure, dividing the game into three distinct episodes of ~50 minutes each (with the first one being shorter and the last one being longer). The episodes were set at distinct times during a weekend: Saturday morning, just after breakfast; Saturday afternoon, just after lunch; and Sunday morning, after church. Between each episode there was an “ad break”, during which players could approach the GM to request information or perform actions, which would have an effect in the next episode.

I’m prejudicied against act-breaks in larps - I like to stay in character. But this worked well. In the breaks people could drop character, take a break, do their story actions, but also engage in narrative plotting with other players, setting up meetings for future scenes and so on (I’m not sure how much people planned content of those scenes, and I’d be interested in hearing - spoiler-free, of course). And it gave a natural ebb and flow to the game which mirrored the dramatic arc of the source material. I’m not sure if I’m going to use it, but its definitely a tool for the toolbox, and one that seems well-suited to TV-based settings.

Normally, we run larps in a single room, (hopefully) one appropriately sized for the game. In some cases this is because it is a suitable setting; in others its more of an abstract space. The problem of course is that everything can generally be seen by everyone else (if they’re paying attention), meaning that action tends to spill over and demand attention from those not involved in it.

Wilkinson-Baker Hall used the whole of Petone Community House. We had four rooms on the top floor, representing the hospital (library), servants hall, parlour and private sitting room for the family, plus a downstairs kitchen for the servants (and the stairwell and front door, as the Housekeeper learned to her sorrow). A downstairs room served as the crew room / logistics area.

The result of this was to break up the game physically to mirror its plot separation. I had a sense while playing that I was playing a completely different game to the family, and a different one again from the servants, and the different space emphasized this. Hospital patients tended not to go into the family areas unless invited or sent on an errand. The family tended not to visit the hospital unless there was something they wanted. The servants had free access to everything, but were kept very busy by their work. But it also meant that plot was slow to travel; you couldn’t see or hear everything, you often had to go to a different room to find someone (or send a message via a servant), and the result was to slow down the game. There wasn’t any dead time when nothing was happening, but it produced I think a more natural pacing, and one more suitable for a Downton-inspired game.

Coupled with this there was an “open door rule”: if you were having a “private” conversation, you should make sure to leave the door to the room open so passers-by could hear and listen in. This wasn’t always observed, but as a piece of steering, it was useful for getting plot out there (and possibly producing drama - I’m not sure if anyone was caught eavesdropping, but that would have been fun; on another occasion people actually listened at a door to hear the Important Family Conversation on the other side of it).

This is a staging option perhaps worth stealing for other games. Extra space is expensive, of course, and it would almost certainly require a bump in game prices. But the result could be worth it for the right game.

Most theatre-style games make everyone a character. Wilkinson-Baker Hall used a small crew, there to represent visitors to the house. Naturally, these visitors helped force people’s plots and secrets into the open. It’s a technique which has also been used successfully in The Heat at 3am, and (to a lesser extent) Gold Dragon Tavern.

I’ve read a lot of larps, and I haven’t really seen this technique of a crew there to prod internal plots used elsewhere. There are Horde larps, but these tend to have significantly more crew than players, and use this “horde” as a provider of external plot rather than a trigger for characters internal plots. So, congratulations - these three games seem to have invented a new style of larp! Its an interesting technique, and again one that could be stolen - though it needs rather more run-time GMing than I prefer to do.

Things to do
One other feature was that at least two parts of the game - the hospital and the servants - had Things To Do in game, background tasks which provided a framework for the rest of the stories. Hospital staff had to care for their patients, and keep the paperwork in order, while servants had to run errands, get the door, and even prepare the food served to the players to keep us refreshed. Which meant that there was always something to do, and something to talk with people over. And failures or mistakes could be used to create plot later.

Again, you need the right sort of game for this. I’ve used the technique in The Gehenna Memo (where people have real work to do doing magical research and translating documents), but it won’t suit everything.

These techniques are interesting in isolation, and any of them is stealable. But the combination worked exceptionally well for Wilkinson-Baker Hall. If it was run in a single room, or in continuous time, it would be a completely different game - and IMHO, a weaker one.


Cat and I have started using small crews for our games as well. Some of the prewritten NPCs are for colour or random events, but yeah, it’s useful to have someone turn up and be relevant for one of the PC subplots as well. I think we’ll keep doing it. One thing we’ve found that we like is writing them as self running as possible - write up a cheat sheet of all the NPCs relevant to a plot, and let your crew members pick which characters they’re going to costume as and go in as next.

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I’d forgotten about “Break Room 5 - Basilisk Green”. I can add it to the list of these small crew larps.

So where does this design trend come from? Influences of weekend-long combat larp crewing practices on theatre-style?

Mm, I introduced something similar in Fragrant Harbour as well, though we didn’t have pre-written cheatsheets to give the crew, I don’t think. Oh! And Tesla’s Wedding/Perambulate We Merrily (a bit rudimentary but there).

And, yes, TW would be where it started for me, anyway - the original design brief wanted it set at a Pioneer Village location and with a number of mundanes in costume but not participating, so I created a number of Hats - characters with colourful names and nothing else. When the brief changed I didn’t want to waste them, and I did want to give the impression of a large village celebrating just outside the door, so…

I couldn’t field a full crew for either run, but I guess I liked the idea when we did Fragrant Harbour, and so on. Self-running Crew is freaking awesome.

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