All images courtesy of Allison Kern Photography
Magic appears to have left the realm of Cambria, and many of its inhabitants, human and non-human alike, are struggling to cope with its unexpected absence. A scourge of the undead emerged throughout the land, and the machinations of the inscrutable “Godfather” appears to be spreading strife among the Houses of the realm. This is the situation that greeted the players of Game Theatre’s Dragon Thrones 3: Exodus Magi upon arrival at Bryn Mawr College for a long weekend of hybrid gameplay, mixing megagames, blockbuster LARP, tabletop gaming, and puzzle-solving into a hybrid event that served as a surprisingly effective primer to different corners of the broader immersive play space. Individual players were free to pursue whatever narrative or immersive hooks struck their fancy, while their Houses as a collective benefited from members stretching out of their comfort zones into all the different features the game had to offer.
Explaining what Dragon Thrones offered its players requires a step back to examine its component parts, before understanding how those parts fit together to make a broader story. What follows is an introduction to a number of different flavors of immersive play, as told through the magical lens of Dragon Thrones.
Megagames: These Rules Subject to Negotiation
House Wyndon’s Fortress of Sadathea was taken over by an army of the undead, and troops were falling to the horde en masse in an effort to regain control of Wyndon’s seat of power. Things were looking dire for the beleaguered nation-state, until the King of Ardmore completed an arcane ritual that enabled him to ascend to literal godhood, transforming into Lord Lucent of the Light. With his divine blessing on the battlefield, previously slain troops were brought back to light, and the undead forces were routed.
Most traditional board games don’t include mechanics that let its players ascend to godhood as a literal deus ex machina, and doing so would generally be considered a game-breaking mechanic. But megagames are the board gaming equivalent of the classic improv game “yes, and” – while megagames have a core set of rules, gamemasters known as the “Control” exist to give players the flexibility to find creative solutions outside the pre-defined rules without breaking the experience. In the case of Dragon Thrones, every faction was gifted with a single source of untapped potential – in the case of Ardmore, that source was Ardmore’s Dragon Throne, a throne constructed out of the corpse of an elder dragon. The King of Ardmore would approach the Game Theatre team embedded into the story as characters with his plan, and they would in turn impose costs to enact that plan, and describe what form the results of that plan would have on the megagame itself.
While the King of Ardmore’s deification is an extreme example, this flexible ruleset is as an integral a function of megagames as the large team sizes that make separating fact from fiction a practical impossibility. At PAX Unplugged 2017, Ironmark Games ran The World Turned Upside Down, a “short” four hour megagame themed around the American Revolution. Players were assigned roles as famous figures from the fledgling American states or the British Empire, and lobbied for dominance through legislative finesse, military might, and a deft hand at espionage. I played as a British spy, where the two teams had the opportunity to steal resources from each other through a card game. As the evening progressed, it became clear that things were not going well for the British, and the spies collectively planned to embezzle resources and retire wealthy to the Bahamas. We approached Control with our plan, and they set a fee of how many resources we’d need to collect to enact this plan. This type of “last turn madness” is so common for the genre that a podcast dedicated to the space adopted the term as its name.
But while traditional megagames typically use in-game currency and resources as the coin to power “rule-breaking” moves, Dragon Thrones’ biggest moves were powered by investments in time, through the live-action role playing game and puzzle elements.
Live Action Role Playing: A Flavor for Every Player
One of Helfarian’s diplomats called me over. With magic gone, Helfarian’s Iron Drakes were unable to fly due to the heavy weight of their construction. In exchange for sharing the findings of the research, Wyndon offered up access to their wyverns for study, along with access to their wyvern handlers. As Helfarian’s engineer, I was called over to seal the deal and develop a plan of action for redeploying the engines of war. Since I was also serving as Master of Coin for the House in charge of managing Helfaria’s progression along the various megagaming skill trees, I diverted funds to the development of this special unit and provided our General with a new force to bring to bear on the battlefield.
Since LARPs have the potential to leave players both physically and emotionally vulnerable, signing up for Dragon Thrones starts with an introductory call to feel out what players are looking for in an experience, as well as gauging whether they might play nicely with others. Using that information, every player is assigned a character and backstory to better fit into the world. In the world of Cambria, I was given the role of the engineer Nikol Bellum of House Helfaria, and provided with two pages of backstory explaining how I came to find a place in my Kingdom and my personal goals for the weekend, along with what I knew about the other members of other players pre-Cambrian Summit, along with skeins of plot threads that could potentially drive collaboration and conflict. These character descriptions were delivered weeks in advance, giving players the opportunity to negotiate tweaks and modifications to create the character they wanted to play for the long weekend.
Every House had a member of the Game Theatre team embedded as both character and gamemaster, serving as an in-world concierge to guide players through the various challenges, and to check in to ensure players were enjoying themselves along the way. Dragon Thrones is a salon-style LARP, focused on creating and encouraging interactions between players unlike the more combat-focused boffer LARP format. So while many characters brought foam weapons as part of their costuming, players could not use them against each other directly. Instead, the focus was on role-playing through relationships and court intrigue, complemented with questing for the more action-packed tasks, which took a variety of forms.
Lizard and Flower, a pair of fairies idling in the Bryn Mawr courtyard served as quest-givers for many of the more exploratory quests of Dragon Thrones, guiding groups of players through some of the campus’ more iconic locations to help players tackle some of the more global challenges of the game, like the recovery of magic through collecting physical orbs and cornerstones of magic that contained power to influence the world of Cambria, either through the megagame or more personal pursuits. For one particularly memorable moment, I joined a group of players in translating a shroud through an impromptu theatrical performance recounting a tale from the two fairies’ pasts. Teas, hand-fasting ceremonies, and live performances from dancers and magicians also served to create the 360 degree illusion of being immersed in the world of Cambria for those who wanted to evoke that sense of realism. And while Dragon Thrones is not a boffer LARP, lessons in foam weapon combat were provided, culminating in a boffer tourney to whet the appetites of the more combat-inclined.
Tabletop Tasks: A Questing We Will Go
A rough assemblage of players from a motley collection of Houses led by Lancaster gathered to explore the frigid north, in search of magic. During Lancaster’s prior expedition, a young boy named Timmy was the only survivor and brought word of a massive dragon skeleton lying where it fell after the events of the first game of Dragon Thrones. In the dead of night, our group made our way to a labyrinth on Bryn Mawr’s campus, and settled in to describe our journey. As we would soon learn, the Undead were involved on a similar mission to find the dragon’s corpse. Upon reaching the clearing where Timmy saw the corpse previously, nothing remained. It seems as though at least one dragon returned to the world of the living.
Many of the more fantastical missions of Dragon Thrones were completed through simulated gameplay, using an ever-changing mix of role-playing game formats. For our journey in search of the dragon’s corpse, what started out as an adventure in collective storytelling moderated by Lancaster’s Dungeon Master quickly morphed into a LARP-centric negotation with the Undead player faction that came to the labyrinth before returning to a collective storytelling session at the final clearing. Some sessions used games of odds and evens to determine the success of player actions, while others relied on more traditional tabletop tactics like dice rolls.
Personally, one of the most affective mission types were through games of role-playing using Jenga towers to complete missions, reminiscent of the tabletop game Dread. For these missions, embedded dungeon masters led players through tabletop role-playing missions. But instead of determining success or failure based on a roll of the die or a randomly generated number, players would have to make a pull from the Jenga tower. Particularly stupid or difficult choices, like doing a front-flip into a collection of hostile villagers with weapons drawn, might be met with multiple draws from the tower. If the tower falls before the mission ends, dire things might befall the person who caused the tower to crumble, and possibly the entire group.
The Hybrid LARP: The Magic is in the Mixture
The beauty of this hybrid LARP model is it gives players the freedom and flexibility to focus their efforts on the types of immersive play they enjoy the most, while giving players gentle nudges to try things that might be less familiar to them, because it could have the potential to help the rest of the House, and possibly all of Cambria. I participated in the first and third Dragon Thrones games. For the first, I focused more on quests, running through the game’s escape room and a handful of puzzle quests that involved finding locations on campus and solving the riddles hidden there, along with aiding a fellow housemate in their quest to sneak into a rival faction’s base and translate the runes contained within. These tasks unlocked resources to help support the House, as well as provided an essential power-up to my housemate for the final confrontation.
In Dragon Thrones 3, the time investment required to manage the megagame portion was greatly reduced so even though I was heavily involved in resource allocation for that portion of the game, I found there was more time to explore the game’s other aspects. And since success at those additional quests were just as often tied to information about the world’s lore or progress on personal objectives as they were to the megagame itself, the systemic pressure to participate in particular pre-set ways eased considerably. “Story gems” were introduced as an alternate currency that were used exclusively for managing personal quests, but the most valuable resource in Dragon Thrones was time spent pursuing the many different stories and styles of interaction available. During Dragon Thrones 3, some of the most rewarding time I spent was in support of two fellow players’ quests for power and immortality on their terms. Both succeeded, and while none of that manifested directly in the megagame, the scheming involved to pull it off was a definite highlight of the weekend especially after seeing how many players the two co-opted into their machinations.
Because these games often have over 60 different plotlines going on at the same time with implications ranging from personal to global, the sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what on earth is going on is a feature of both LARPs and megagames – this brings an additional set of realism to the game, since what’s true in the game is equally true in real life. Unlike real life, both LARPs and megagames will typically conclude with debriefing sessions where players can talk through what happened, both to figure out what happened and to provide closure to the emotional highs and lows of the game.
The Broader Hybrid LARP Space
The Game Theatre is planning on bringing its unique blend of megagaming and LARP back for another year of Dragon Thrones in 2019, but the market for hybrid and blockbuster LARPs is bigger than one company. For example, Chronicles of the Realm‘s immersive blend focuses on bringing in immersive theater elements to their game, pulling in actors and actresses to complement traditional roleplay with rehearsed scenes, focusing on preserving and expanding on the illusion of 360 immersion. Felbis Productions is releasing a series of three themed hybrid LARPs focusing on high fantasy, steampunk, and wizarding worlds, integrating theatrical moments with the events of the tabletop elements. The Game Theatre’s next project is a similar gateway game, focused on offering a tour of classic gaming experiences with First Player Go!, letting players live out their easter egg hunting fantasies across video, board, and tabletop games with light role-playing elements.
Because hybrid LARPs are creating experiences that cross over so many wildly different styles of gameplay, they act as perfect gateway games for players interested in immersive entertainment, looking to find new niches. Hybrid LARPs can help players find out whether the next game they seek out will be a dedicated megagame like Watch the Skies, a salon game like Armistice Arcane, or even just a game of tabletop role-playing Jenga. To learn more about LARPs (hybrid or otherwise), the LARPing YouTube scene is great for vicariously experiencing everything from the massive LARP event at Bicolline to more intimate experiences like the seafaring pirate LARP Skull & Crossbones. Megagame Makers offers a list tracking global megagaming events.