Steam Legends LARP: A Post-Mortem

So, after a month or so of shutting down my larp, I finally got around to writing about it. It was pretty difficult, as criticizing your own work can be hard, but it’s necessary to understand your failures so that you don’t repeat them. So, here we go.

What Was Steam Legends?

Steam Legends was a LARP set in a Steampunk Fantasy setting, with an emphasis on Discovery and Fellowship. I wanted item crafting to be a significant element in Steam Legends, as I haven’t seen that done to a great extent at other larps. Sure, you can make them, but a larp’s IG economy usually a secondary concern.

I tried to make a game where players can make their own spells and steampunk contraptions. Spells were customizable, and mages needed to write their own spell formulae in their spellbooks. Sometimes they fail, as they had to select how powerful and how much “fatigue” it used. If it used too little the spell would fail, while if it used too much it would be an inefficient spell. Similar things happened with Chemistry and Engineering. Our site was a picnic shelter in the middle of High Park in Toronto, so we had limited space to play and we were surrounded by a lot of people, so we couldn’t exactly leave things lying around for players to discover, so instead we put a lot of the discovery element into our crafting system.

Many of the other larps in Southern Ontario center around an “everyone for themselves” style of anarchy, usually worse than the wild west. What I wanted was to have a player-run municipal government, democratically elected by both the PCs and NPCs living in the area. There would be oversight from the plot team in the form of provincial and federal oversight, but the elected officials would have a budget with which to plan and build a town as they see fit, and those outside of that town council could purchase land to build homes and businesses. Sure, there was monsters and other stuff to kill like many other boffer larps, but the decisions made by players would impact the local NPC populace just as much as themselves, and they would have to deal with the ramifications of those actions, good or bad.

What Worked?

Basic Combat

Every boffer larp must have a simple but mechanically intriguing combat system in place. The reason many have hit points and damage calls is so that you don’t necessarily need to be a real-life swordsman. The fantasy of being a combatant of sorts shouldn’t hinge on real-world athletic ability or skill.

Steam Legends’ used a system where, after purchasing the basic group of weapons you can use at its base value (1-Handed Edged, Firearms, etc.), you purchased Combat Maneuvers. Each one came with an ability and a Combat Maneuver point, which you can use to activate your Combat Maneuvers. So, if you bought Parry, Critical Strike, and Disarm, you could use those points to Parry three times, or Critical Strike twice and Disarm once, and so on.

It worked very well, and there was little confusion on how they worked.

Customizable Spells and Items

Our players liked the idea of spells and gadgets that they could call their own. Many of our early players spent their free time just crafting spells, trying to figure out the limitations and costs of the effects in the book.

It was only later in the game’s lifespan that the engineering was starting to get picked apart in a similar fashion. And while the engineering rules were fine, there was a larger problem that impacted that skill set in the game. We’ll get to that.

The World with Order

I really enjoyed the political side of the game, short lived as it was. We had a liaison for the crown come in as the point of contact for the PCs. They would have tasks for players to, and if they accomplished them, would be paid for said tasks. In the late season, we held an election for the town council, including a mayor. Many players were interested in it, as they liked the idea of being able to influence how the town prospers.

In our second season, we had a PC break the law. Instead of a noble just killing them on the spot, or ignoring the crime altogether, we had them arrested, tried and convicted. We held an event in which the main focus was the trial for that character. It was the first time I have ever seen something like that without it being a joke.

What Didn’t Work?

The Economy

One of the major design mistakes I made was basing the economy on another larp that is a constant state of depression and whose main form of currency is an Out-Of-Game one that is rewarded for volunteer work. This greatly affected the crafting element of the game. Many complained that they couldn’t afford basic upgrades to their gadgets because of the high cost of components. This in turn actively discouraged the discovery element inherent in engineering, as it was just too difficult to figure out without vast amounts of In-Game money or Out-Of-Game points to get the expensive components.

Lack of Support Staff

When I first started off, I did have a lot of support. However, for various reasons, many of which were just life getting in the way, my support staff dwindled to just my brother and sister-in-law. While I really love and appreciate their help through the years, I just didn’t have enough to continue to adequately run the game.

Because of that, much of the rules changes and plot fell on my shoulders. I did have a plot marshal during my first and third seasons of the game, but even then, I had an involvement in writing plot. It was a heavy burden with little relief.

Other Things

The site we had in High Park was very small and very public. Our picnic shelter was a stop for a lot of people taking a walk. I remember one weekend we had a group of mothers with their kids try to escape the rain, and even tried to ask a nearby police officer to kick us out despite having a permit to be there. The public was a constant distraction, despite the convenience of having a larp in the middle of Toronto.

One thing I certainly didn’t expect was that players can be very slow to act. We setup a plot thread starting with our first event that we wanted our players to solve. It wasn’t solved until the end of the second season. This was partly because of player inaction, and partly because we had a completely different player base between the first and second seasons. As a result, we were slow to setup an In-game municipality, which in turn irritated our players.

Why I Shut It Down

Ultimately, after three years, I was burnt out. In addition to running Steam Legends, I am also working on a video game project, a part-time job, and a strong need for some downtime lest I lose my sanity. Something had to give. I had given the idea of shutting down the game before the season started, but I just couldn’t take it much more and needed to give it up.

What’s Left?

For now, Steam Legends is not a thing. It was an interesting experience and I learned a lot about game design through its successes and failures. Maybe in the future, if I have more resources and interest, I’ll remake and revive the game once more. Other options are to turn it into a video game or table-top RPG. But for now, all I’d like to do with it is let it rest for a while.

As for larping in general, I think I want to wait a little while before I attend one. I’m focusing my efforts on gaining a career as a video game designer, and just self-improvement of sorts, such as learning to drive. I love larping, and I won’t be giving it up any time soon, I just won’t be running one in any capacity for a while.

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