Murderhearts: Designing a One-Shot LARP

Last autumn I got invited to a murder mystery dinner at a friend-of-a-friend’s place. It was a really fun evening, but the out-of-the-box scenario was very much a murder mystery dinner rather than a LARP. Its design assumed an audience unaccustomed to role-playing or improv: the central plot was driven wholly by scripted events, leaving players with campy one-dimensional characters whose agency was pretty much irrelevant to the main action. On the way home, somewhat fortified by the generous cellars of our host, I mentioned to Anna Armstrong that we could totally have written something better.

The next morning Anna said something along the lines of “hey, you know what would be a terrible ridiculous idea and we shouldn’t do it? A MonsterMonsterheartshearts murder-mystery.” Half an hour later we were mocking up how it might work, should we do it, which we definitely weren’t going to.

I’m going to be breaking this up into a series of posts. This first one is going to be about the design considerations that went into adapting a tabletop storygame into a theatre LARP; the second is going to be about design process and organisation, the actual work of putting a LARP together; the third will be about how things went and what I learned. This is not intended as a masterclass; it was the first LARP that either of us had designed, and the first I’d run, so it’s more ‘here’s what I learned’ than ‘observe my powers at work.’

Adaptation always means discarding something. If you’re going to adapt a work, you need to have a strong idea of what you most value about it – you need to design around that, and you need to be able to check back in to ensure that the Core Stuff didn’t get lost in the mix.

So what do I really like about Monsterhearts as a system?

Sexuality. Sex is central to Monsterhearts. You’re not in control of your own sexuality, although you’re always free to interpret what it means for your identity and actions. This is one of the big reasons that the game is totally not for everyone – given enough time, characters tend to gravitate towards pansexual polyamory, and it’d be really difficult to play an asexual aromantic character.

Sex is also a narrative big deal for MH. Sexuality disrupts the status quo, gives direction to the story, complicates it. A simple, well-trodden way to make a story interesting is to give the protagonist (at least) two sets of motives, then entangle them; and the most reliable secondary motivations tend to be family and romance. Aside from narrative concerns, multiple motivations are practically useful in a LARP, because if a player gets stumped on one objective they can switch focus to another. So I wanted flirting and attraction to be a big part of the game.

Emotional ties as weapons. An important resource in MH is strings, which represent emotional leverage over particular characters. Mechanically, a string can be used for a bunch of things, but what it boils down to is influence over how someone feels: fear, lust, dominance, longing, trust, respect, trauma, whatever – power. If you had to boil the themes of the game down to a single narrow thesis, it would be something like this:

Monsterhearts characters have damaging, unsustainable relationships because, as inexperienced, confused, urgently needy kids, they view all social interaction in a selfish, objectifying way; but only through fucking up, getting hurt and hurting others can they develop mature, caring approaches to relationships.

One of the coolest effects that games can pull off is to give you power, entice you to use it, make that choice meaningful and conscious, make you invested in its objectives; and then organically – that is, through the natural action of the power itself – reveal how that particular vector of power is poisonous. Monsterhearts is incredibly effective at this. I really wanted something similar – to give players power and room to screw up.

Mechanically, I felt that Strings would be kind of awkward to use in a LARP setting, so I decided to shift emotional power into backstory and special Moves.

Unique moves. In addition to a stock of common moves which get used most of the time, MH skins have individual powers which complement their play style. This is not exceptional stuff for RPGs, but I wanted to keep sight of it. Most characters should have unique powers.

Making templates your own. Monsterhearts – like most Powered by the Apocalypse games – begins from a set of trope-heavy character templates, but then encourages you to develop and customise them. There are no established rules for how vampirism works, for instance – you can decide on whatever best suits your character, theme and story. We really wanted to customise characters to suit their players, ideally with the active participation of the players themselves, rather than making up a bunch of characters and then trying to assign players to them.

As for the things which I like about LARP:

The information economy. Secrets, rumours and lies. The feel when you drop an interpretation of info into the pool and the ripples bounce back to you. The need to act decisively on incomplete information, and the possibility that you’ll dig your own grave in the process. The shear of doubt. This is all good stuff for a Monsterhearts setting – uncertainty, rumour and isolation are good teen-angst fuel.

In normal Monsterhearts, it’s kind of boring to have characters constantly doing reaction shots of the “…vampires exist?!” variety; it’s a lot smoother to go with the Whedon approach of “well, OK; let’s deal with it.” But in a hidden-information game, I wanted to play on the doubt of players: what kind of monsters are out there? What kind of powers do they have? I think I’m pretty badass, but what if there are things out there that are much, much worse?

Multiple goals. The need to work towards different objectives. Opportunity cost. Practically speaking, it’s good that if a player feels stumped about how to approach X, they can dedicate their attention to Y for a while. But it’s also dramatically interesting to have characters who are pulled in multiple directions – single-minded characters are just boring. I wanted to give every character at least two major motivations.

Other Influences

A lot of underlying assumptions were drawn from the Werewolf family of hidden-role games. Specifically, for the endgame I was thinking about The Resistance, which is like Werewolf without player elimination; a leader must pick a team for a mission, but if they pick the secret bad guys, they might act as saboteurs. I wanted players to be wondering about who they could trust – looking for a murderer – and then be forced to make that into a concrete choice.

We were making a game in which investigating the death of an apparently happy, popular kid exposes hidden badness, weirdness and sex, so I had Twin Peaks in the back of my mind a lot. In the event, we didn’t go anywhere near as dark as that, partly because we were being careful about player safety and partly because doing it appropriately would have been a more challenging writing job, and we were pressed for time.

We watched an awful lot of American high-school movies. This didn’t end up informing a lot of design decisions, but we did really want a trio of Popular Girls ruled over by a despotic queen, or at least a tough-as-nails one. [Edit: Anna says that this helped her get in the mindset to write Godawful Teenage Relationships.]

 Making Tabletop Work as LARP

Tabletop RPG and LARP are very closely related; but even if the differences aren’t big, they’re pretty potent. LARP typically involves way more players; a Monsterhearts game works best with 3-4 players plus an MC, and we were aiming at about four times that. This makes information a lot harder to share, which changes a great many things.

One of the first obvious choices was that dice rolls weren’t going to be a good idea. Rolling dice is awkward in a context where you’re standing up and walking around most of the time, and we wanted to keep mechanics as simple and quick-moving as possible. Some LARPs use dice-like systems, but they tend to be more oriented towards campaign play; in a one-shot, you can’t dedicate as much time for players to learn the system.

More than that, I didn’t think that the Apocalypse World dice roll system would work super-well in a LARP: it inherently involves a certain amount of interpretation, discussion, and GM fiat. Here’s an example of what a normal Monsterhearts roll might look like:

Jodie: I’m going to spend all class making suggestive eyebrow-waggles at Linley. Bite my lip a little. I think I’m being super-subtle about it.

MC: OK, roll to Turn On.

Jodie: 6. So with my Hot 1 that’s a 7. Woo!

MC: Partial success – OK, Linley, you’re into it. Your choice: you can give yourself to her, promise her something you think she wants, or give her a String on you.

Linley: Well, obviously I’m not going to fuck her in the middle of class –

MC: Doesn’t have to be sex; ‘give yourself’ is intentionally vague. It could be some really obvious PDA, or just a look loaded with unspoken but sincere promises.

Linley: I don’t think Linley’s anywhere near that brave. Hm. What do I think you want, hm hm hm.

MC: You can just give the String if you can’t think of anything.

Linley: Yeah, but that’s boring. OK, I think you want to spend more time with me, and I assume that means me and my friends because that’s how I roll, so I pass Jodie a note inviting her to hang out with us at Smoker’s Corner this lunchtime.

Jodie: Being vetted by your scary friends is the last thing I want.

Linley: Obviously, but that would never occur to Linley, and it seems like a good awkward scene.

This is really powerful in a tabletop storygame, but it would break up the in-character flow of a LARP. The consequences of the roll aren’t immediately obvious, and require considerable interpretation; being flexible in the interpretation involves time-compression and jumps in the action, while a LARP’s action is continuous; players discuss their motives and beliefs out-of-character, while the kind of LARP we were doing relies a lot on hidden information and immersion.

So I wanted the actions that players took to mostly have clear, non-random outcomes – the chaos and uncertainty would come from limited knowledge and player choice, not dice. So, for instance, a player might be able to automatically steal an object from another player, at the cost of the victim knowing who the thief was – but they might not know what it was they were stealing, or what its significance was, or whether their victim was a murderously dangerous werewolf likely to exact revenge.

Rituals

One of the moves in Monsterhearts is Gaze Into The Abyss, a vague category covering visions, divination, dreams, research, introspective realisations, and other underhand tricks used by authors to inject new information into the narrative. Gazing into the abyss is useful because – among other things – it lets you push the plot forwards.

This would be even more crucial in an information-driven theatre LARP, but it’d be really tough to handle if adapted verbatim: Gaze Into The Abyss can be carried out at any time, and lets players ask virtually any question of the MC. (Normally, the MC might make something up on the spot, but that’s less practical in a LARP.) Instead, we arranged a series of group rituals – mostly seances – during which everyone would receive new secret information, either by magic, thinking things through, or twiddling idly on their cellphones. These formed the backbone of our game pacing; the idea was that when things seemed at risk of flagging, we’d introduce the next ritual.

Having rituals meant that we needed, as MCs, to have character roles, people who could draw magic circles and make incantations. We wanted people who would be able to lay down the law a bit, but not really drive the main plot; we settled on guidance counselors who were also secret members of Shadowy Monster-Hunting Organisations.

Violence

Violence and the threat of it is important to Monsterhearts, but it’s handled in a fairly loose, drama-oriented manner. Fights are usually resolved with one or two Moves, and are not modeled in detail. And a complicated combat system is just not a good idea in a one-shot LARP, where players have limited bandwidth to learn stuff. We wanted it to be possible for characters to beat up and kill one another, but for that to be a pretty big deal – we didn’t want bodies dropping like flies.

We decided that fights could only take place off-stage, in the privacy of the Library Bathrooms (in reality, an exit ramp partially screened from the main play area.) They’d be really simple: a Move would give you a combat strength number, you’d compare numbers, and the higher score would win. The winner could choose to kill the loser, or just beat them up (and maybe take their stuff). Deaths wouldn’t be immediately obvious to most players – they’d be reported via the MC.

Dead players – unless they had some supernatural ability that let them survive a lethal attack, which a few did – would turn into Ghosts, with limited ability to communicate but a range of new powers and information.

The Flirt Card

I love rolls to Turn On, but they clearly weren’t going to work in a LARP. If flirting was going to be a major part of the game, we needed some other mechanic.

So the elements I wanted to translate were:

  • you have some idea who you’re attracted to, but also a lot of uncertainty: you can unexpectedly, unintentionally fall for people who are totally inconvenient or utterly Not Your Type, and this can turn your world upside down
  • you can be turned on for pretty much any reason, not just by someone consciously hitting on you.

What I came up with was giving everyone a Flirt Card, on which were two lists of characters: Crushes were strong motivators, while the Hotness list was more casual attraction. Both lists contained some secret symbols, representing unknowns; you wouldn’t realise that you were into them until they flirted with you. The other side of the card contained your own symbol, which you would reveal to the object of your Flirt actions. I tried to emphasize that flirts didn’t have to be intentional; the other person could request a Flirt action if they felt that you were behaving alluringly, even if you didn’t really mean to.

OK. That’s how I hoped it would work. Next time: the process of putting it together.

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One Response to Murderhearts: Designing a One-Shot LARP

  1. Pingback: April Link Assortment | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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