Big Bad Con 2017: White Death and The Watch

White Death (9am-1pm)

I am not a LARPer. I don't say that because I find LARP distasteful or embarrassing. I say it because I've barely done it. The most recent LARP experience was Dog Day Afternoon, based on the movie with the same name, which was made as a LARP and run by Aaron Vanek and partner Kirsten (holy shit that's 1.5 years ago... time flies).

Originally I didn't get into White Death (due to popularity), but I had flagged it as very interesting. However, due to continued availability of online signup, I found an open slot when I checked Friday morning. It was run by the same duo as my prior LARP experience... Kirsten Hageleit assisted by Aaron! This nordic LARP is described as "an abstract, completely non-verbal blackbox LARP focused on physical play. It portrays an allegorical story of settlers who try to make a community, but are stymied by their own limitations, until one by one they die in the snow—and are then transformed. This LARP is built from limited physical movement, simple characters, and symbolic props, and uses theatrical lighting and a dramatic soundscape to explore themes of community, conflict, grief, and joy." Sounded intriguing. 

Although the LARP / game itself is about an hour in length, the 4-hour session was broken up into a 2-hour introductory workshop, an hour of intense, actual game, and then some time for debrief.

The workshop was great: A description and practice of how the game would work, which was definitely abstract. There wouldn't be any verbal communication, between the players, or even from the facilitators and the players. Certain sounds and lights would signal events (such as incoming storms, availability of "resources", and similar events). There was some strict limitation of movement, so we practiced what that would look and feel like. 

The story reminded me a bit of the premise behind The Quiet Year. A village trying to survive under harsh conditions, with the end result being that everyone would "transform" to the white ones / ghosts (i.e. we would all die at the end). Being a human meant that you could move in specific ways, and would have to remain in the lighted areas of the dark room. Once you have passed on, however, you were free to move however you like. However only in the dark parts of the room... and you could no longer interact with the resources or the humans, other than to look from the outside of the village in.

But it starts with you finding out who you are. I got two random tickets: 1. About movement: "Magnets between toes and heels so that the toes on one foot stick to the heel of the other. Elbows connected as if by a stick, so the arms cannot move independently from the elbow to the shoulder." 2. About prejudice: "I hate people with longer hair then me."

This defines your human. Now imagine a room with over a dozen people, all walking in different and limiting ways, and without the ability to communicate in what would normally be easy for us: verbally. And imagine that they inexplicably are OK with some of the other folks in the community, but just hate others. And even showing that love and hate is unclear. Cliques start to form, and then break, in repetition. 

And then resources appear at times... balloons (which represent "dreams", whatever that is), and sugar candies (which represent sustenance), and paper strips (which represent "faith"). And then the storms come, one by one, preceded by an alarm sound. During storms people may leave the human forms behind, and join the white ones, the ghosts, and dance in the darkness just outside the lighted village.

It was a bit of a surreal experience, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. It was interesting how oppressive it was to be restricted in movement, and then how very liberating when you become a white one. You just want to dance and stretch with the freedom! And then leaving behind the hate and the society and just moving freely among your ghostly peers.

The debrief afterwards was interesting, just to hear how different some people's experiences were, and what components of the LARP they latched on to. Definitely something I'd try again in some form.

The Watch: Dark Tide (2pm-10pm)

This was my other of my highest priority sign-up games. This game was listed as 8 hours! That means it also overlays 2 time slots, which is a serious commitment. But, it was The Watch, a game I've found interesting in concept. And my friend Jerry really wanted to check it out as well, so we knew we'd get to hang out for serious gaming.

The Watch is an RPG about soldiers fighting a desperate war to save their homeland. The Shadow has come over the border to the clanslands, and unfortunately all our men are vulnerable to its corrupting influence. But women (and non-binary) folk are mostly immune. So it falls only to them to save our clans. And of course the game is a metaphor for shitty old-school patriarchy and punching it in the face (or dying in the process). Sign me up.

I got to play one session a few months back with the Gauntlet online community, and was very intrigued by the style of play; specifically Missions. Missions are the bulk of session pay, and in some ways they felt a little more like a GM-less game, where we roll and determine mechanics ahead of time for the general results, and then figure out how to fit the story around it. (Although even this isn't quite accurate given how it ran at this table, and how I understand it now.)

The game was run by Bryanna Hitchcock, so that alone was exciting (the con is full of RPG superstars). But really I was just so impressed with how this slot was handled. We weren't just playing a few missions, which is what I expected. We were playing a full campaign! What normally is a 10 mission story arc (for 30+ hours of campaign play) was going to be played in 8 hours. And it went off fabulously.

We did some of the usual PbtA style build-at-the-table magic. Defined characters, all sorts of bonds, and attributes of various tribes of the clans. I played Ahjo the Raven, the fresh recruit, unexperienced in the battle, returning from a journey abroad to this unexpected war. We had Stephen as Parda our Spider, Anthony as Zaysha our scout, Jerry as Paele our fearless leader, Tor as Measho our bad ass, and Alison as Pola our mother bear.

The Watch as a campaign is played over an arc that spans a full storyline, which is recommended to roughly follow something like: Running from an offensive force, defending towns at the new border, coming to the defense of a significant fortress, pushing back against the oppressors and taking back lands and landmarks, and finally taking the fight to their capital and attempting to defeat them. This follows the characters as they progress through the ranks of The Watch, working their way into more prominent positions in the war. Harm is tracked along the way (through Hurting, Wounded, and Critical levels), so dying is a possibility, and there are three ways that growth is tracked: Weary, Jaded, and Experience. Experience lets you advance through advanced moves. Whereas Jaded gives you powers, but will start to quickly snowball so that your character just can't handle it anymore, and eventually retires.

Many NPC (non player character) compatriots join the group and follow the journey, and many may fall along the way. Eulogies are given (which is a core mechanic of the game), and the war moves on. We got to see this in action a few times.

We struggled defending a border town. Found out it was a distraction for a larger offensive against our main base. Rode to the base to find it being overwhelmed, and charged to help out. The base was overrun and partially destroyed, but we did beat back the enemies, at great cost. Much of that cost was my fault, and our own Measho caused drama by telling this to the grand commander of The Watch in a bid to disgrace Paele. Paele was told to give me lashes, but instead she bore the punishment, claiming her leadership made her responsible. The actual reparte was fantastic. We fought and won back our great library (in the form of a large tree), and then across the border to win against our oppressors.

By this point Paele and Zaysha were both of equal rank, and both commanded large groups of soldiers. Although we didn't get much time to develop our NPCs, I can see how in a longer campaign the bonds would be stronger and deeper and more relevant.

Although I expected missions to be mostly about rolling a few dice to determine the outcome, and then narrating it collaboratively, the way Bryanna ran it was more nuanced then that. It felt a little more like a traditional adventure-based RPG, at times. Yes, we'd start by getting roles assigned, and rolling for general outcomes for these missions, which let us know how many complications we had, and whether or not we'd succeed at the task. But as we narrated and played out scenes there was a lot of additional events that would play out, just as in a standard RPG. During those times, we'd be called for additional moves and rolls, which would inform the results of those smaller, individual scenes. It felt a lot more like a standard RPG than I had expected. Bryanna pulled this off very well considering the restriction of having 6 players and an accelerated game in an 8 hour convention slot, with only so much spotlight to shine around.

By the end, we'd wrapped up a great ending, with Zaysha dying for the cause, and scene of final victory straight out of a movie.

[EDIT: Oh yes, I should totally link Bryanna's post here, because she put together such a great writeup that you should check out if this is in your wheelhouse!]

Our game in progress, by Brian Kwa (official BBC photographer!)

Our game in progress, by Brian Kwa (official BBC photographer!)

The Jerry table selfie, with Alison, Bryanna, myself, Stephen, Tor and Anthony

The Jerry table selfie, with Alison, Bryanna, myself, Stephen, Tor and Anthony

Late night hanging out

Again, night after night, I eschewed sleep in lieu of late night conversations and hanging out in the hotel lobby. This night was no different, and it was great getting chat with Bryanna and others post-game as way to relive some of the action.