Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wasteland UK : Event 1 feedback

This piece is written primarily as a feedback exercise for the people who created and ran Wasteland UK's first event, Brum. As such, it will be most meaningful to them and to other players I roleplayed alongside on the field. However, it should still be accessible to others, and I hope it offers an insight into the game and some of the considerations involved in running a larp system. Comments and interaction are utterly welcome.

I've always enjoyed post-apocalyptic stories and enjoyed the latest 2 Fallout offerings. Until I was enticed into larp I was never that into the fantasy genre, and my favourite tabletop to date is Call of Cthulhu, so I was interested to see how a more modern setting would work. Very interested. Especially after reading the website and the build up on the forums. So interested, in fact, that I left my holiday in Wales a day early and drove to the site.

Unfortunately, being in Wales mean that I had no internet access in the preceding week and missed the in character callout message that was at the centre of the event, and had a bit of an issue with the rulebook. It's never easy to get to grips with rules in paper form without the board, online game, or in-person context to attach it to. For me it got extra difficult because I managed to completely and utterly screw up printing them out as a booklet and had a full set of rules page in a completely random seeming order.

I was one of the first on site, met a friend from LT as I arrived and we wandered around the place to see what was there before going for a drink. There I was introduced to Dudge briefly before he and my friend got very chatty and I felt a little out of my depth while they discussed a system I wasn't involved in, so I left them to it. As more people arrived I found more familiar faces, not all of whom I knew by name and we all started to kit up, which immediately gave me a good feeling about things.

The setting, The Grange, would never work for the fantasy sytems, but with the abandonned vehicles and ramshackle house remains it was really good for this system, and the players had done a pretty amazing job of kit. Perhaps some of that army surplus kit looked a tad too new, and to be honest I felt the tents let down the encampment, but beyond that it was fabulous. Looking through published photographs afterwards I've seen stuff I missed in person, and I was impressed while I was there. From the amazingly scary stimpaks to the moustache on our friendly robot, things just kept making me grin inwardly and I loved the ramshackle cobbled together stuff people were swapping. I got good currency selling a pencil and paper, and I liked the early encounter with the trader who was offering "socks. Real socks, never worn! Straight over from Ireland!" And as for the medical side of things... how many fields of gamers can you walk onto and count five stethoscopes? And everyone got right into the whole trading vitals and saving lives (at a cost, of course, the wastes are harsh) as far as I could see.

Despite meeting Dudge briefly beforehand, because I didn't really know him, he's always going to stick in my mind as Skins, now. He was brilliantly suited to that role and one of the best NPCs I've ever seen. Well cast, well played - inspired. I loved his reaction when we talked of our missing family member, taken by slavers. Awesome and immersive.

As mentioned, I hadn't really wrapped my head around how to heal, despite being a doctor character. I wasn't clear on hour or half hour to check on the patient, and didn't immediately realise that they kept getting better as you checked them, and thought for a long time that medicine was more vital than it actually was. On the other hand, when I accepted that my trait meant I started with a level 2 infection and 6 INF points, I didn't realise a dose of medicine wasn't going to wipe out 3 of them at once (the rules said it would, the briefing said otherwise, and when checking with a ref they called on the harsh side). Similarly I got conflicting advice over how many MAL points should be wiped out by cooked food. And yet, I don't want that to come out as a complaint because the ref-attention we got was spot on. Even if we didn't manage to quite figure out what a doctor could do and what a medic could, everyone ran with the spirit of things, and it was refreshing to be checking the pupils of a patient's eyes, his temperature and his heart rate, then administering drugs rather than sitting around chanting as I would in a fantasy setting. Also brutal but fun to play with was the lack of magically getting better overnight, or suddenly having replenished stocks of the stuff that makes people better.

On day 1 one of my group was uncertain about coming back in future. It was complicated, confusing and harsh. By day 3 we were firm fans and have every intention of attending whatever we can. There's been a fair amount of feedback already regarding what worked and what didn't. Personally I think we had it pretty much spot on. No, I didn't get a single chance to use my lockpick skills, and random drops of chems were rare but... so what? I'd expect different settings to have different things being more prolific, and there was chance to barter and I got to acquire more food, break down a chem and do a deal for rad-away. At the end of the event I had less infection than I started with, more malnutrition and more rads. Our stocks of stuff to fix this, and our money have both decreased. As someone else has pointed out, perhaps it wasn't the most lethal start to the system, but keep us going at that level, take us down slowly and it gets interesting.

I'm torn on that, though. I like my character, I like our group concept. And, in fact, two different crew members complimented us on it, so we're not the only ones. And feedback afterwards has mentioned us, too. So while I want the survival stuff to be in the foreground, I am really keen not to lose the character.

People have said that bullets weren't dangerous enough. I can see their point. But if you make bullets more lethal then we need to either reduce their availability even further, or face mass carnage. I don't want to see the latter. We've got a bunch of scavs who know why they're handing around together, now. Kill ten percent of them, and whoever they come back as... well, why the hell would they join us? Really? We need a level of continuity, and I actually think there's more fun to be had with debilitating us massively and bringing us back from the brink than there is in having a high character churn rate. People seemed to be enjoying playing patient in pain and over-radiated characters who couldn't stop chucking up their paltry supplies of food. Bear in mind we're playing characters who have somehow managed to survive the wastes for years, it would be weird if we were to die en masse at every event.

One of the weird things about our group was that we didn't exactly fit the aims of the plot, and we were small. The bigger groups seemed to grab the plot and run with it, while we were at a disadvantage due to there being only three of us, but also because we didn't exactly have a reason to get directly involved. Based on the background we submitted and the trait I was given, I was playing Mary as someone whose absolute priority was looking out for her kids, and although I didn't get to play with the plot as a result of this, it did lead to character development and interaction. With the Cardiff Cartel off monstering, I found myself being the one taking charge and telling the third set of camp invaders "If I were you I wouldn't take another step forward." Similarly, when our original foraging plans had gone nowhere I found myself being the one coralling a new group together, setting down ground rules. "We need one person in charge, who will it be? Right... let's get a count of exactly how many are going out and make sure the same number come back. And preferably the same people IN that number..." It was cool to have influence. I also enjoyed the fact that I could play scary-mum in protection mode and bitch about others as a result. "Yeah, it was raining, no the rain ain't nice and it can fuck you up, but when nearly everyone is in camp and there are five feral fucking zombie ghouls I don't expect me and mine to be taking out three of them with no bloody backup because everyone's cowering under the tower and in their tents."

On the other hand, when the scary gas-masked creature wandered camp we went into lockdown mode, clambering into our tent, killing the lights and staying as still as possible. And as the three of us lay there quietly we all fell asleep - some of us briefly, some of us for longer, and it was a really nice shared group experience of bolting down and enjoying the safety, and replenishing energy to keep going when it was time to hit the raiders. I know it sounds dumb, but it was really cool. My other "my group is cool" moment came when Mary and Solan were outside the Skian Mhor tent and Toby had stopped being Toby briefly, while he turned back into Chris and admired the larp weapons. Solan nudge Mary, nodded over to the trading tent and said something along the lines of "Aww, bless, look at him looking at the weapons. He couldn't do anything with them even if we could afford anything."

Are you getting the impression I liked it yet?

So what wasn't so great? Well, loresheets weren't available and event packs didn't necessarily contain everything they should. But it's not much of a complaint because it all got sorted with minimal fuss. True, the crew did seem pretty stressed and unsure of which problem to fix first, but they figured something out and it got done. And straying back into positives territory: The ref attention was superb. I wandered past the ref hut, and paused waiting for someone in the toilets, and was checked up on - "Are you okay, player?" We were checked on during a rainy downpour. "Are you having fun? Anything not working for you?" and they talked us through the confusing of healing, and they came and told us in private and politely and in a friendly manner when one of us miscounted his hits and didn't fall as soon as he should.

We did get a bit frustrated by not being able to get a scav encounter on Saturday. That was a very weird situation actually. We got a bunch of interested people ready to go out, and alerted the team. Then nothing happened and the group got involved in other stuff. Eventually some of the initial group, frustrated at not having had a chance, went out to look for stuff that might exist outside of properly set up encounter areas - some had improvised and managed to heal MAL with picked berries, and we thought maybe there would be some drops of stuff. There wasn't. As we wandered, we got roleplayed at by some people we found in the wastes, and so we played back, and had a fun encounter. Which it turned out we shouldn't have seen, and which had been set up for someone else. Oops. We stole an encounter. But to be honest, after waiting so long for one of our own I didn't feel guilty for it. The issue, I think, was being understaffed, and the demands from players were hard to meet. But when we complained we did get our own stuff sorted for the next morning and a heads up that it would be available - so it's hard to criticise too much.

What else wasn't great? The site was a bit small. We had to keep being told by refs whether we could see stuff in character, despite it being loud and obvious out of character. I got sunburn. Damn refs, not controlling the weather appropriately. Um... Oh, the wind down at the end was weird. There seemed to be a massive lull after the radbadger (which was awesome - he had talons THIS BIG!) and people drifted off, not sure what was going on. Tents were already being dropped by the time Skins came back to talk to us. The briefing at the end... that was a bit odd. I've never encountered that before, and it was taking a while to get round people. I was sort of expecting more input from plot than the team wanting input from us. I sort of thought it would go "So, over the next two weeks will you be travelling with the party? Right, you encounter x, y, z..." and it was more of a "so what did we do well?". I totally understand why the team needs that, especially when we're kind of still in a beta-test sort of scenario, but we weren't even told to think about the questions we'd be asked, so felt a bit on the spot and unable to answer "what was the high, what was the low?" sort of stuff. And it was necessary to feed back what state our characters were in and what equipment we had, but I don't really want to wait around at the end of an event to be dealt with when I have a massive drive home ahead of me... not sure how we get around that.

Which reminds me of another point others have mentioned. The team running this stuff is small. I'm not convinced it's practical for them to have to find every player and sort out their malnutrition increases, but how else do you handle it?

One concern I have, related to such things, is that the system really, really relies on honour. I strongly doubt that anyone there cheated deliberately at this event, but I suspect that that could change as people grow more attached to characters and the player base increases - especially if a death means a loss of significant skills or stuff which could happen if down-time and continued attendance develops characters. It's way too easy to avoid the hand out of MAL points, or accidentally lose a sticker if you want to - how do we avoid that? Even more ref attention than we already have? Hmm...
Moving on. Something you could take as a negative is that we completely missed our plot hook. My group is on the look out for Lucy, my daughter, the boys' sister. One of the traders we walked away from, happily brandishing our purchase, were actually part of the group of slavers who took her. But we didn't hear what they called themselves. That said, the history I wrote said that Lucy was taken by slavers posing as "nomadic traders" and these guys apparently named themselves as "Nomadic Traders". Thing is, in the wasteland, there are hundreds of nomadic traders who really are just that, I'd not intended it as a company name or similar so even if I'd head it I'd have missed it. It's fine, I'm cool with it - Lucy is an excuse for us to leave home. If we do recover her it'll be quite a surprise to Mary, even if she wouldn't ever tell the boys that.

Some people complained about the random weird things that hit the camp. I have no problem with the seemingly indestructible mystery thing in a gas mask doing that. I like a bit of mystery and fear without a simple and obvious resolution. I liked and was intrigued by the flashing ball, too - although I was a bit surprised when it paralysed me. If paralysis is in the rules I forgot about it, and had no idea how long it was meant to last on me (something I will check).

And that's kind of all I have right now. I loved the atmosphere, I quite liked roleplaying without plastering my face in makeup and wearing a thousand layers. I enjoyed seeing other people's interaction with the game and getting to know people a little bit better. We're keen for more and looking forward to it.

We're not on any kind of a recruitment drive, but if anyone wants to give the system a try the Jones family is pretty enormous - if you're my sort of age or higher you could be a brother or sister to me, younger players could be cousins, distant or close. I definitely recommend the game based on event 1 and as a result of ebay in the aftermath of the event I now own some really rather interesting items. Turn up next time to see what!

Many, many thanks to the team for seeing it through to fruition, for all the work it's taken. I for one appreciate it hugely.

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