LARP by the power of spreadsheets!
All for One was a major logistical challenge in ways which differed significantly from any live-roleplay event which Crooked House or LarpX had run in the past. We ambitiously decided to use the Cinedrama System to ‘film’ five concurrent films over the course of the weekend. Effectively we were trying to run five LARP events simultaneously, each for seven people, with overlapping plots, NPCs, props and locations.
If you didn’t attend All for One, I suggest you read Ian’s blog about game design before you go any further as it explains the structure of the game in much more detail than I go into here and will make this blog significantly easier to understand.
In the design of All for One we caused ourselves a major logistical headache by programming exactly hour by hour. In organising the cadet academy part of the event design, we’d timetabled exactly what every cadre of cadets would be doing for the majority of the day. This meant that they could sensibly follow a curriculum and our teachers would have classes when they were meant to. In order to minimise irritation, this had to run to time.
During some of these lesson spots — labelled “guard duty” and “latrine duty” — characters were actually going to be on the High Road (an old-school, wooded, linear area) or the Sound Stage (a black box room within the house, to simulate far-flung locations or difficult to phys-rep ideas). You can read more about these locations here. We used these terms to obfuscate what the players would actually be doing until the last possible moment, to surprise them, as we published a timetable online several weeks before the event to allow players to prepare and to reduce their anxiety.
Each cadre had a curriculum consisting of:
- Four lessons which would happen once each over the weekend: Politics, Spycraft, Duelling, and Black Powder Training
- Three other ‘lessons’ which would happen every day: a Dance lesson, a Sound Stage encounter and a High Road encounter.
We arranged these using Realtimeboard (a virtual white-boarding system) and tailored any plot encounters around the order the curriculum took place, with much to-ing and fro-ing to get the best arc for each story. The lessons were important as they foreshadowed events and provided players with information and skills that they would need later in the event.
In doing this, we had accounted for our players — we knew where they were supposed to be at any given time. It was possible for cadets to drop out of classes and remain within the house and grounds, but this caused no problems within the game. However, players were informed out of character that they would be unable to join another cadre’s High Road or Sound Stage encounters. This ensured we knew who was going to be on each mission and enabled us to target them using the tags which had been agreed upon when they generated their characters.
As the person running the event logistics, I still had a huge concern about the timetable. We were attempting to run 5 ‘films’ side by side, staggered over several locations, with multiple props and NPCs who appeared in more than one storyline. We had to create a mechanism to allow us to keep track of all these things and ensure they were in the correct place at the correct time.
Our starting point was the Realtimeboard. We wrote a plot document for each cadre, containing the key encounters of each High Road and Sound Stage mission, ensuring we knew the necessary NPCs and plot items. This was copied onto an hourly slot on the Realtimeboard so we could see key NPCs for those scenes and the cadets’ lessons and make sure there was no clash. A little shuffling of the timetable occurred at that time. As some of these lessons were for individual cadres and some were for pairs of cadres, a single change at this stage involved multiple movements to ensure that the change worked for each pair. At this stage, we also allocated the major NPCs unplotted time in Treowen so that the players could spend time with them.
Once we were satisfied with the flow of the event, we went back and wrote more detail into our plot encounters. These were fleshed out on the day with extra encounters pulled from a hat or decided on the day.
Spreadsheets, bl**dy spreadsheets!
As is likely to become apparent later, I should state that I am not an Excel wizard. I and the rest of the team made simple individual documents and spreadsheets for each subject I wanted to track. Someone skilled in data management could probably integrate many of these functions in a single document. If that’s you, I’d be delighted if you would write a follow up to this about how to do it, so we can all learn from your expertise. So, apologise here if my spreadsheets are basic and dirty, but they worked!
Using our Realtimeboard as a guide, we tabulated each day for the High Road and Sound Stage with columns for plot points, props, and characters. These sheets were used each morning of the event, to check everything physical was in place before the day started.
Using these location sheets as a starting point, we created a spreadsheet for props showing when and where they were needed. Most items were (luckily) used multiple times in single locations, but some props needed to appear on the Sound Stage, the High Road and in Treowen in the hands of different NPCs (relying on us to get them there). One tip for the future might be to put items in the hands of players early, then they are responsible for ensuring that they are correctly located when required!
This procedure was repeated for NPCs, resulting in a timetable of where they needed to be through the day. This was complicated by several supporting cast actors playing multiple characters: for example, the cast member playing the King was also playing his own look-alike.
At this point we had a spreadsheet each for the High Road and the Sound Stage, listing props and NPCs for each encounter. We also had a sheet each for the props and key NPCs. We cross-checked these multiple times to make sure no prop or person was scheduled in two different places at the same time.
Members of the supporting cast were needed for the High Road and Sound Stage to give us extra characters for encounters. We used 3–5 roving cast on the Sound Stage and 4–10 on the High Road. We also needed Cardinal’s Guards to act as foils for the players in some of the lessons at the academy. (This usefully provided less-experienced cast with practice at combat before the tavern brawl and siege, and dance practice before the ball). A few of these were people who had come along for a day or the weekend purely to help us out. Others were our supporting castmembers who were playing key NPCs, just not at that time.
This meant more columns on the supporting cast spreadsheet. More people who were specific characters at some points and generic characters at others. Eventually, this mutated into a sheet which had every member of the supporting cast listed with their location every hour of the day, including time off for lunch and dinner. The final column gave us a count of how many crew were allocated to the High Road and Sound Stage for that hour, so we could check when the pinch points were likely to be.
This was printed off at huge size to go on the wall in the crew room. Each member of the crew was given a text document with all their encounters and details summarised, by time. They also had a separate timetable of where they were needed by hour.
I am so thankful to our supporting cast for taking the timetables seriously. Everyone was where they were supposed to be at all times. I can’t think of an occasion when I had to chase anyone to make sure they were in the right place. Normally when I went to look for them, they’d already made their way to wherever they were needed. Publishing the timetable as the ‘Academy Lesson Plan’ in-game generally meant the players were as well.
Crew and supporting cast, please take a bow.
The other spreadsheet I created was the massive event-runners’ guide. This told us who we needed at each location every hour and what was going on.
Many missions on the Sound Stage or High Road were initiated by a spoken NPC brief, a messenger or a letter. This gave the cadre a reason to go to Rome or seek out an alchemist. To handle the logistics these triggers were itemised in a column, designated an hour before the event they initiated. Including a specific messenger column meant we could send any available member of crew out with a tabard in to deliver a verbal message or hand over a written invitation.
When the order/request was delivered by a key NPC, we gave them an entry for the mission an hour before the mission happened. This allowed us to brief D’artagnan that he had to speak to the cadre within the next hour as the Queen had requested that they visit. We hoped this would allow a more natural introduction of the topic into conversation when a straight order was not required.
The act breaks were also listed on this spreadsheet. This was necessary as we had a story which took place over months, rather than the days of the event, and the players needed to be made aware when those time shifts happened. As some of them were out on missions as the time change occurred, we couldn’t alert all the player base together. It allowed a production crew member to find each of the cadres, alert them to the fact that time had passed and change game mechanics.
Any written initiating briefs — for example, a letter carried by a messenger — were in a folder in the crew room, organised by time slot, with the time, High Road or Sound Stage and required NPC written on the outside.
The High Road team had their props and documents sorted out during initial set up and placed in plastic boxes (wherever possible due to size), labelled by location and time. If there were any props which were too large to fit in a box, or being used somewhere else beforehand, a large gaffer-tape equivalent of a Post-It note was attached to the outside of the box.
The Sound Stage team were given their props and documents, labelled again by encounter, although some of the more fragile props were kept in the Green Room next to the Sound Stage until required.
I ran the scheduling for the majority of the event, as I had worked with this information and was familiar with most timings. When I was involved with the horses, who were on-site for about 3 hours on Saturday morning, Damian was able to take over without problems, despite having had limited involvement with the timetabling process. We had a key folder with all the spreadsheets in it, but the crucial event-runners’ spreadsheet did allow an easy handover between team members when duties needed sharing.
What else helped?
On the morning of the second day virtually all the cast and crew were involved in the siege. This was great for me as it gave me a chance to sit alone in the Green Room and work through all the props and documents required for the second day and ensure that everything was where it needed to be. It also bought me some valuable peace and quiet to clear my head, a rare and useful thing at a larp event!
What would I have done differently?
A key realisation in the last week before the event was that we had timetabled the horses to be on-site at the same time as the majority of black powder training. Our horses, although sensible, were not used to gunfire or pyrotechnics. We decided the sensible course of action was to avoid this clash and therefore rearranged the whole schedule.
If we had noticed this earlier on in the production schedule, perhaps I could have avoided aggravating a prolapsed disc by sitting tinkering with spreadsheets solidly for two days!
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If you’re interested in more of this sort of thing there’s an entire website over here about our 1950s ghost story, God Rest Ye Merry.