Every year at Go Play NW you get a sense of certain games that are the New Hotness, recently-released or newly-rediscovered games that get played a whole bunch and come up in almost every conversation. This year Luke Crane’s Viking LARP Inheritance was pretty high on the list, right by that one about the mecha pilots who spend all their time flirting at parties. I highly recommend playing it if you get the chance, although I don’t think that new copies are presently available; regardless, I’ll try to avoid strong spoilers in the review itself. (No promises about the comments.)
Inheritance is a smallish-scale one-shot LARP; it’s made for nine players and a facilitator, is playable in about 3 hours, and – crucially – works totally fine as a pick-up game. (Usually I miss out on the LARPs at Go Play due to a chronic failure to plan ahead, so this was much-appreciated.) This size turns out to be a very sweet spot: a group small enough that you can quickly figure out who everybody is, but large enough to have several separate conversations going on at once, always give you another conversation you need to be having, allow for some fairly tangled intrigues.
Story-wise, it feels very much like a Shakespearean tragedy. (Well, perhaps its middle acts. But there’s no small aroma of Hamlet around the thing.) Power, pride and loyalty, secrets and betrayal, swords and poison; a plot driven by everybody wanting something, with many characters torn between conflicting desires. It’s set in 10th-century Denmark, with the old Viking ways intact but Christianity nibbling at the edges. (Familiarity with Old Norse culture isn’t necessary, but it helps a good deal for flavour and confidence.) The patriarch of a noble family has died; his funeral gives the opportunity for the return of a disgraced grandson, a kinslayer. There is a will to be read, but more than that, tradition and the future of the line is at stake.
I played Thorvald, the head of the family, and from where I was sitting the story felt like Thorvald’s tragedy. But from another perspective I’m sure it would have felt very different. One of the things I love most about LARP is the sense of the ground shifting under you – how you make a plan, and maybe it’s not perfect but it’s something, and then the actions of other players change everything. There’s a lot of room for the ground to shift in Inheritance.
The game benefits a lot from different kinds of authority. Thorvald has broad and direct powers over the family and law, but his wife has authority over the household – she chooses seating arrangements in the feast hall, and controls much of the pacing by deciding when meals begin and end and when everyone goes to bed. The Christian priest and the seiðkona of Odin can assert the will of their gods, and most of the characters take this seriously. Only three characters are literate and thus able to read the will, and some characters are just really good at violence of various kinds. Not every role is equally influential, and some roles require a lot more speaking in front of the group.
The effect of this authority, however, is that the facilitator takes a relatively light hand, because most of the power over the nuts and bolts of story management is delegated to players. There is a lot of ceremony, but most of that ceremony is relatively light, open-ended, and player-led. “You’re at the funeral pyre. You’re going to say something about Grandfather, but the priestess decides who speaks.” And this habit of hands-on control over the plot really loosens players up and makes them feel empowered to take big, story-shaking actions.
LARP is an excellent medium for plots about the secret and the revealed, about the balance between things that you see going on and things that happen without you noticing. Inheritance has a big free-play sequence in the middle, but it also has a number of structured group scenes where everybody’s watching, and a set of scenes – meetings in the night – that are secret in-character but are watched by the whole group out-of-character. I don’t know if this is a common technique, but it’s deployed expertly: after all the characters have had time to get wound taut by the events of the day, they have the opportunity to have it out with one another in private, and there’s a good chance that the most dramatic moments of the plot will get seen by the whole group. This requires the players to have some discipline about separating in-character and out-of-character knowledge – a very easy sell for a storygames crowd, but I know that some players really dislike this. It also requires your players to be comfortable with switching from a mingling situation to acting out scenes in front of an audience; fortunately, this comes at a point when they’ve had time to get comfortable with their characters.
(Sidebar: I played this first thing on the Sunday morning slot at Go Play, and man, it’s a good idea to do LARP slots in the morning. LARP is mostly played standing up, which – for me, at least – is really good for getting the brain out of morning sluggishness. And it’s mostly played directly in-character, putting you immediately into the action – in tabletop storygames there’s often an instinct to prevaricate about actually going into scenes, especially when you’re not feeling at the top of your game. And LARP is intense, so when it all comes together you get kind of a buzz off it. At any rate, the success of the morning session translated into some really good games later in the day.)
It’s some very tight design, dialed in over years of testing; non-essential elements have been pared away, and much of what’s essential has been kept simple. (Having written one extremely messy LARP, I have a non-trivial amount of envy over this.) The combat system, for instance, is very simple and completely deterministic – combat-capable characters have a set of cards that tell you what happens if you fight any given character, but are kept hidden until you actually fight.
There’s a small but useful set of interpersonal physical signalling: a single hand-grip just above the elbow for physical intimidation; standing at an ally’s shoulder to express support in a conflict without everybody jumping in and yelling; both hands upturned, clasping wrists, for embraces and physical intimacy. This system didn’t get used heavily in our session, but whenever it was used it was important and felt natural.
Thanks to the magic of Kickstarter, the presentation is also really nice. Much of the plot centres around the reading of a will, which is gorgeously illuminated. Rather than character sheets – flappy awkward things to walk about with – you have palm-sized booklets. In the cloth edition, everyone gets their handouts condensed into a flat cloth bag which you wear around your neck, doubling as a name-tag. (They knot behind the neck, which makes practical sense except that you should really make sure everyone can tie a knot that won’t slip and fall off, for instance, during a bathroom break. Ahem.) It all feels really considered.
I haven’t played a huge amount of LARP, so take this with a grain of salt; but Inheritance feels like it sets a bar for design. In the past I’ve felt as though writing LARP is largely about throwing a lot of shit at the wall in the hope that some of it will stick – messy, sprawling design, creating a lot of hooks in the hope that some small portion of it will click. That’s not how Inheritance feels at all. Inheritance has its shit together.