Wing and a Prayer — Stress and Structure
Getting emotional in the crucible of a wartime simulation
Spoiler Alert: This post is about the larp / simulation Wing and a Prayer by Allied Games. It first ran in September 2018, and I’ll be talking about aspects of the writing process for that version of the event. I’ll spoil a handful of game surprises as a result. The event will re-run in September 2019, so if you’re planning to play that, it’s better to avoid this for now and come back afterwards!
A Woman’s Place Is In The War
Wing and a Prayer is an event which centres around the work of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAF) during World War 2. The game is built around a simulation of the movements of aircraft across Britain and Northern Europe during the war; in Britain, members of the WAAF were responsible for collating information from radar installations across the UK, plotting the movements of enemy aircraft, determining likely targets, flight paths, and scrambling the RAF squadrons in response. They effectively acted as a human computer, coordinating the British response to the Luftwaffe.
The event takes place in and around the Ops Room of an airbase during the build-up to the Battle of Britain. Players take the roles of members of the WAAF, performing — with reasonable accuracy, based on historical sources — the duties their counterparts would have actually carried out during the war. Other players take on the roles of RAF squadron members, taking to the sky in response to orders from the WAAF and communicating with them via radio. The incoming radar data and the movements of the Luftwaffe are simulated by a computer system, which feeds information to the WAAF players via replica analogue radar terminals of the time, or via supporting cast members playing radio operators from other stations.
The RAF players, when ‘scrambled’, are taken into a building separate from the WAAF. There they play out a card-game of manoeuvres and attacks versus the computer-simulated opponent; however, this game is very rapid, and they are live on radio headsets, acting out every moment against sound effects of aircraft and battle, so that the WAAF back in the Ops Room can hear their actions as radio calls. They hear engines roaring, calls from squadron leaders to wingmen, pilots being shot down and their last moments before they hit the ground.
All this takes place on a real historical WW1 airbase, Stow Maries aerodrome, now a museum. In reality, this wasn’t active in WW2. In our alternate reality, it was pressed into emergency use for the war. We turned one of their buildings into our Ops Room for the event and the other buildings into other base locations.
The team behind the game are very keen on historical accuracy, emotional accuracy, and making no value judgements on the morality involved on either side; the mood of the game is not a bombastic cry of “Hurrah for the British!”, but very much an attempt to simulate, document, and recreate. While the team are primarily British, it might be of interest to note that the computer simulation system responsible for the actions of the Luftwaffe was created and is run during the event by Thorsten Schillo, a native of South-west Germany. It’s also worth mentioning that the players for both runs of the game have come from several different European countries.
The Writing Process
I was asked to help out with the writing for Wing and a Prayer back in 2017, when we had a year before the first event would take place. Harry Harrold and I were notionally the story department, and the event was written with the rest of the team over the course of the next year. I’m not going to go into huge depth on the event itself, but there are some interesting structural points which I think it’s worth discussing. Harry has talked about some of this process over here, but there are some specific bits and pieces I wanted to highlight.
Simulation vs. Recreation
It was apparent from very early on that despite there being a computer simulation at the core of the game, it should be very different from a sterile and disassociated set of counters on a map. In fact, that was our core task as a writing team — to make this larp about people, to try and build up the emotional landscape, to put the players through an emotional journey and try and get them into the mindset that people at the time might have had.
We were testing, for the first time, an application of a player character creation system I call the Tag System. The idea behind it is to allow the players to give very high-level details about their characters by providing a set of keywords; for the writing team to absorb those keywords and perhaps add a few others; and then for the players to be able to flesh out their own characters from that starting point. I talk about the reasons for having this light touch on character creation over here — partly it’s so that the players have ownership of their characters, and so can fully inhabit them; partly it’s to ease the burden on the writers of creating fully realised characters and the associated burden on players of them getting characters wrong; partly it’s to give the event writers an idea of the key themes the players want to explore.
This was our first attempt at the tag system, and so we ran it as a bit of a hybrid, asking the players for three key phrases about their characters, along with a few paragraphs in prose with more detail. We collated all these as tags in our tag system; then we went through the paragraphs of prose and mined them for additional tags, which we added to the character description.
For example, for one character we might end up with a list such as nervous, Polish, fear for family, caring. Or ambitious, mould-breaking, competent. It enabled us to get a very clear picture of each character as they would relate to the others in the game.
Then we turned those tags into a tag-cloud and were able to see easily which themes our players were interested in. Ambitious came up a lot, as did desire to make a difference, class conscious, and fear of losing family. So did foreigner, which surprised us a little. Far fewer players mentioned romantic. This let us write the event to focus on these specific themes and ideas.
As Above, So Below
A key structural component of the event writing came from practical realities. Our players would never have acted as radar operators or plotters before, but we were asking them to take on those roles competently. They would never have worked together before, either. We would have time for a brief lesson or two before the game started; we would be able to point them at some historical references and give them written instructions, but still, we couldn’t expect them to be operating at anything like peak efficiency.
So we made the game mirror this reality; the conceit was that this was a hastily put-together new Ops Room, with recruits drawn from all over — some could have worked at previous ops rooms (if the players wanted that), some could be completely new to the job. That meant that any (entirely reasonable) lack of competency would be explained away by the fiction.
The Crucible of War
That initial conceit showed us our path to the story itself. It would be a story about forging a competent team out of disparate, incompetent material, in the face of impossible odds, huge pressure, and heartbreak. Of pushing people as far as they could go. Of turning something that started out as a game into something deeply affecting.
The raids in the simulation were plotted out dramatically, based on real data. For both players and characters, operations would start with small, easily dealt-with raids. RAF squadrons would be scrambled by WAAF who might not yet know what they were doing. If one or two of the enemy escaped, it might feel inconsequential, still a game. But the handle would crank, and more raids would appear. As the day wore on, the Battle of Britain ever-encroaching, the players would have to pay attention, would have to start properly functioning, or pilots would die, and bombs would be dropped. And there might not be enough squadrons to scramble, as others were already in the air dealing with raids or limping back home short of fuel, and suddenly it was too much and hard decisions had to be taken — which flights would have to be ignored? Which could be turned back?
We made those consequences feel as real as possible. For example:
- Since the players had given us their character backgrounds, the bombs dropped by missed enemy flights might fall on a route near a character’s home town and family.
- A pilot might be shot down and his radio cut out, with the whole of the Ops Room listening; it might be that a WAAF Radar Plotter met him and shared a romantic moment with him at the base’s Welcome Dance, played out the night before.
- The brother of a WAAF Watch Supervisor might not die in the air, but manage to nurse his plane home, to be pulled from the blazing wreck, screaming in agony.
- The radio voices of remote radar stations (played by our supporting cast) who the WAAF had been talking to all day might suddenly go silent as the bombs fell.
- RAF pilots flying home might report the burning of London.
Over this was a fog of sparse information, as it was during the war. Was that pilot dead, or had he managed to deploy a chute? Was he over Germany, or might he be recovered from the sea? Was Croydon actually hit by bombs from that flight, or had they missed? The WAAF might never know.
Stress By Design
Since our core design was going to be based around knitting a fractured group into a functional team, we decided to accentuate this by making sure that they started as fractured and out-of-their-depth as possible.
Some of this came from our tags. For example:
- If a character was ambitious, we’d push them down the base hierarchy; after all, ambition isn’t interesting if there’s nowhere to go and no-one to undermine.
- If someone was out-of-their-depth, we’d push them up the hierarchy into a position they weren’t comfortable with.
- If a character had a distrust of foreigners, we’d put them in a watch next to the newly-recruited WAAFs from a Polish background.
- If they were upper-class and snobbish, we’d push them down the hierarchy and put them next to — or commanded by — the lower class.
We looked for all the fracture lines we could, the points where characters would rub up against other characters, and we ripped those fracture lines apart slightly, promoting argument and drama.
The tag foreigner came up a lot, as mentioned earlier, which gave us more disparity in the group in general.
Some pressure we applied through small scenes. For example, chocolate and stockings were rationed — but an upper-class character had a hamper of luxuries delivered, in front of her less fortunate companions.
We gave them an unfamiliar base commander who, the scuttlebutt said, was incompetent and had got people killed in the past, earning his posting to this desk job. We let that revelation come to light very early in the game.
We gave them a competent station supervisor, pretending she was another player, and built friendships and loyalties for her into the backgrounds of certain characters, but she resigned in protest at the new commander before the game had even started. (This was a trick we’d previously used at the Crooked House event God Rest Ye Merry.) That meant a very early scene involving the three Watch Supervisors being called into the base commander’s office and told that their performance would be closely monitored, as a new Station Supervisor would have to be appointed by the end of the day.
We gave them ambitions to pursue, and secrets to uncover.
We weren’t sure if we’d gone too far, in some cases. But our players absolutely rose to the challenge.
There’s a great deal I haven’t covered; we used moment-based design to come up with specific beats and scenes that played out during the event, to try and get players to respond in particular ways. There was life on the base outside the ops room itself, and that all funnelled into the overall experience.
But that core loop, the grind of a simulation that piled on more and more pressure, the knitting together of the fractious and frail people that had to withstand it, that was the heart of the game.
It’s important to note that they did step up. From having no experience whatsoever, they became a highly-organised, competent team, performing all the operations expected of them. They made early mistakes, but learned quickly, and faced the odds. They didn’t break, despite being forced to make sacrifices.
From the players’ reactions and feedback, it worked. It gave them emotional arcs, it bonded them in friendship, it made them step up to challenges they didn’t think they could have taken on.
Perhaps more importantly, from their anecdotes, it was wildly successful as an exercise in empathy; in putting modern characters into something-like-the-shoes of the real people of the WAAF at that time. It was as immersive as we could make it, but of course it wasn’t accurate. Of course the circumstances weren’t real. But I think we got closer, in this, than any other medium I can think of. This was happening directly to our players — not experienced at a step away via a book, a movie, or a re-enactment.
It also turned out — and we should really have expected this — that many of the people taking part in the game had some link to that part in the war, through parents or grandparents. Some players were even playing characters based on those relatives. It gave them a new perspective on what those people might have had to go through, and a vast respect for the women who stepped up and did those roles, night after night, without compromise. As a result, the event was layered with emotion in a way that surprised me.
Human, meet simulation
One small anecdote. Reasonably early in the game, one of the RAF players came to us with a concern. We had made the simulation too difficult, he said; one of the squadrons hadn’t reached the enemy aircraft on two occasions, because the WAAF recruits were getting it wrong and hadn’t got the British planes into place in time.
David Norris, one of the game’s crew, asked a really interesting question. “Are you sure it’s because the simulation’s too hard? Could it be because the WAAF radar operator is in love with the squadron leader, and doesn’t want him to get into any trouble, so is reporting false coordinates?”
And suddenly you realise that this isn’t a war-game, it isn’t a simulation. It’s all about people.
This is where, to me, larp can explore things that are impossible in other forms of media.
Photos courtesy of Tom Garnett.
Wing and a Prayer came from an initial idea by Lauren Owen and Nick Bradbeer. Harry and I were part of their team, helping to realise their ideas — full credit goes to Allied Games as a whole and all of the volunteers who crewed and played supporting cast.
Wing and a Prayer is running for a second time in September 2019, but I won’t be on the writing team for this one — I have too many other commitments! Andy Knighton and Harry Harrold will be taking that on. I hope to be there to help out!
The recreation of the simulation systems was done by Nick Bradbeer and Thorsten Schillo, much of that work being based on Eileen Younghusband’s autobiography One Woman’s War, which is very much worth reading.
Since the first game run, the Wing and a Prayer core systems have been used to demonstrate the operation of a WAAF Ops Room to the general public, crewed by volunteers who played the original event. I find it very exciting that something created for a larp can have such a direct educational application.
And to round this all out — here’s the music which we used to end the game. Music by me, vocals by Liss Macklin, based on “Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer” as sung by Anne Shelton.