Saturday, September 8, 2018

Designing and playing live action online games – laogs

This year I started a new project on the Gauntlet Hangouts calendar under the name: live action online games. It’s my attempt to bring some of my favourite moments I had in Nordic larps and American freeform into an online world. In a laog, you stay for the actual play time 100% in-character, often the nature of the video call is part of the game. There can be mechanics or meta-techniques but we don’t describe what our characters are doing, but what we do, we do.

I have written a bit more about the potential of lagos in the form of a manifesto:

You might have also heard of the phrase digital larp, as Tara M. Clapper is using it for her work. I hadn’t had a chance to play her digital larps yet but I belong to the lucky ones who will do so with her at Gauntlet Con (Chariot). On geekinitiative she has written about her experience with digital larps / laogs. Tara is offering laogs / digital larps on a much more professional level and hence you definitely should keep on your mind if you want to get a full laog experience. 

My background on larps
I only returned to larp in 2016 but with a big bang for myself: I travelled to the annual Knutepunkt convention, as it was in Finland it was called Solmukohta that year. I went a week earlier to Helsinki to participate in the pre-con week hosted by the local scene which allows visitors to play a bit more since the actual convention is rather theory and thought exchange focussed.

Nordic larp
Nordic larp and its brothersister American freeform is often focussed on a precisely defined experience framework the participants shall have. Experience as with all media but specifically roleplaying is something deeply personal, but games which for example include the joint creation of art in the game to fill the life in an arty 19th century café (Sarabande) create a well-designed play space I love to explore.

Moving away from larp world
I went on playing larps at the amazing it’s full of larp barcamp style weekends in Germany, I played at the Academy of Art in Berlin (Level 5) but after my family moved to Guatemala my larping came to an abrupt stop. I eagerly took any larp in I could get at Metatopia last year but already knew I need to create my online versions of the larps I like if I want to continue playing. The community of potential players here in rural Guatemala is just too small to realistically belief I could build something up in the short run.

Looking for playing larps online
I knew of ViewScream by Rafael Chandler as an online game and enjoyed playing it. This was the direction to go it seems and when I heard that Jason Morningstar will bring out a larp about a meeting of state security officials (Winterhorn) I decided that it shouldn’t be too difficult to translate Winterhorn into a live action online game: why shouldn’t modern ministries allow their representatives to meet online in a video conference?

The Gauntlet community
I found an enthusiastic crew of players in the Gauntlet community. Some of them had never larped before but were curious about the concept, others were already eager to try to the game in their local communities and wanted to experience it as a player before. The Gauntlet community is a great place to bring such ideas out.

There is a huge pool of open minded players, a supportive crew to put things together and if it doesn’t go well, I always felt people were around me to pull me out of my misery. Which actually rarely happens. Just this week, my power vanished in a game I ran and my players didn’t hesitate to just continue with guiding each other through CATS (concept, aim, tone, subject matter) and character creation until I was back.

Getting started with laogs
As it turned out, Winterhorn was a good first catch trying out laogs. Staying in-character made total sense and I already had the opportunity to test out some of the things I now consider standard for my laog design.

Digital black boxes
For example, we all switch cameras and mics off before we start play and when we return we are instantly in-character. I even recommend that people leave the room they are in and are in-character the moment they close the door to their room. It’s a little thing but has very interesting effects. When doing scenes 1:1 or solo scenes the effect with all other players having their camera and mic off is even stronger. I call it a digital black box in resemblance to black box larp which is very theatre without props like: just light and sound accompany the players.

In the Election of the Wine Queen, a German larp by Silvia Ochlast and Björn Butzen, which I adapted for online play, we have a pre-determined scene with all characters on a dance floor changing dancing partners continuously. The scene starts with two players only having their camera on – pretending to dance together. After a while, each of them can either ask for a new dancing partner – or somebody else switches their camera on and asks to hand over one partner, so the other one goes off camera again. The scene had an amazing flow and created one of the most beautiful conversations I have experienced in gaming.

Safety online

For So, Mom I made this sex tape, a larp by Susanne Vejdemo, published in the #Feminism anthology, the setting was again a straightforward video conference of the characters. That meant, that technical difficulties, connection issues the players had, couldn’t be differentiated from those only their characters had. To still keep an eye on everybody’s safety, it’s obligatory in laogs to always have an eye on an off-game chat window. For safety, we also always have the X card and sometimes largo in place. Both tools can be accessed in game either by using the chat or by making specified clearly visible signs on-screen (crossing your arms before the camera).

Workshopping, i.e. actual practicing certain techniques used in a game is something I very much enjoy in larping. It takes the often purely theoretical explanations used in online games especially for the X card to another level, in my opinion. For the Election of the Wine Queen we practiced largo (asking the other player to reduce the intensity of the scene a bit) by going into 1:1 scenes insulting at each other.

Turning deficiencies into design challenges
In Election of the Wine Queen we had one more interesting technique which was a drinking song intrusion into a scene. The game is very much about personally intimate and hurtful situations. When scenes become most intense, every player not in the scene can start playing the recording of the Octoberfest style song ‘Ein Prosit’. Then all players have to immediately drop the scene, respectively go on-camera and heartfully, cheer and sing the song together while drinking actual wine (this part is optional). When the song is over, the next scene begins.

To have a game with scenes and a story in which the characters are not sitting behind screens, a bit of preparation has to be done. Scenes are better defined that the actual movement of the characters doesn’t play a role. Again, this goes back to certain types of theatre and black box larp. What I do is to structure the game into Acts. Between Acts, players leave their role for a couple of minutes and discuss which scenes they would like to see in the next Act and who will be in the scene. As soon as the Act begins, all scenes follow a natural flow. Scenes can be ended by switching the camera off or neutrally saying ‘cut’.

Playing with separable spaces
In End Game, a short interpersonal drama focussed larp written by David Hertz for Glass Free Games, we play a team of eSport professionals who just got relegated from the professional league. It’s the day before they wrap up things, shut down the server and their team’s forum. It’s very short with just one hour of actual play time but in this one hour a lot is happening.
Larps can in contrast to online or even face to face tabletop games can play with space and sub-group interaction much easier. A group of players can leave one room and discuss in another room easily. End Game is using this a lot as there are supposed to be two rooms and players can negotiate what should happen with the eSport team. I decided to turn this design challenge for a laog into the opportunity to try to run in two separate video calls between which players can move back and forth in-character. So, to get the full story, a potential viewer of the game has to move as well from one recording to the other.

Online though it is much more difficult to estimate what is going on in the other space – you can’t sneak through the door to just take a look but it is some effort to switch video streams. So what I did in the design is to have break points every ten minutes in the game in which the set-up who is in which room is rigorously changed. For every break point, a different player had an in-character reason to initiate the switch and could decide – again in-character – who moves into which space. For example, the Rookie was about to be interviewed by an eSport journalist and could decide if they want to take the Captain or the Veteran with them.

Laog GMing
That brings me to a last point which is that End Game was the first laog I designed in which one player is taking over the role of a set of NPCs. It doesn’t change much for the other players but allows for this player to take more of a director stance on the story. The journalist in the example above then was able to take a look at the story so far and either estrange the Rookie from the rest of the team through the right questions or question their decision to give up on the team.

Laog design
Live action online games offer a great new perspective. If you want to hear another voice about how laogs can add to online RPGs in this Gauntlet Podcast episode Jason Cordova tals about his experience with the Election of the Wine Queen but also generally about the potential for gaming. He gives a great summary and rightfully mentions how accessibility to larps can be overcome through online play. So, I would say that the larp community should take a sharp look at laogs as a fantastic way to extend their audience.  

So far, my ambition was to transform existing larps to laogs and to see through the differences what laogs need to do to create a similar experience. But also, to show how the larp experience online actually is a new design dimension and how larps can benefit from being played online.

The next natural step now is to go for direct live action design for online spaces and how to get the most out of its advantages and design challenges. There are a couple of design elements many people would consider as too risky for example in a real world space. One laog I’m currently developing for example contains getting naked (with camera off, for sure).

What RPG design can learn from laogs
On the other side of the spectrum I see many design elements arising from laog design which could be very interesting to leverage in classic tabletop RPGs being played online. The idea of having workshops before the game, the power of a digital black box are very interesting for many games. 

Generally, tabletop RPGs designers should strongly consider designing specifically for online groups in my opinion. The way laogs show can offer inspiration. Another game I’m currently designing contains playing a collaborative online puzzle game together as its resolution mechanic – the idea came from looking around for an online way to play games with tumbling towers (Star Crossed, Dread) but has further developed since then. 

I’m personally very much looking forward to explore this design field more and see what other people bring in it from their perspective and which needs they see need to be realized. I’m looking forward to get in touch with you if you are interested in sharing your ideas or collaborate on something. I’m also happy to playtest your ideas through the Gauntlet Hangouts Calendar.

Election of the Wine Queen laog

End Game laog

So Mom I made this sex tape laog

The laog - live action online games - manifesto

Youtube playlist with the laogs I run so far: