Zombies and stories

I’m still collecting my thoughts from The Story yesterday – so much to digest & absorb from some absolutely fantastic speakers in all sorts of disciplines. I’m going to blog once I’ve significantly rewired my brain to take in all that was said, but in the mean time, here are my slides and notes from the talk I made (including all the bits I skipped over because I ran out of time). I think there’s going to be an audio podcast uploaded too – I’ll add the link once it’s up.

Zombie LARP – a story machineNotes after the jump.

It’s the first time I’ve done public speaking like this, so I’ve decided to test out a new hi-tech storytelling system with this presentation.

This talk is about Zombie LARP – a LARP, for those who don’t know, stands for Live Action Roleplaying Game. Zombie is very different from most. We think of our game as a story machine, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I’m Mary, one of the head refs and co-creators of the game, and the state-of-the-art graphics are created by Grant, the other head ref, who sadly isn’t here today. He wanted me to say that he’s not shouting, he has a beard.

Has anyone here played Left 4 Dead? Resident Evil? Seen any films whose titles end with the words “of the Dead”? We create a live-action version of that – in real life and real time, not online. Groups of 5-8 people try to survive in a zombie-infested building with locked exit doors – there’s one or two ways they can escape, and they survive by shooting the zombies (or by bashing them with foam replica weapons). When they’re not getting their turn at that, they pretend to be zombies (or sometimes maniacs, cultists, or corpses) to make other people’s turns more fun.

We use NERF and Buzz Bee guns – brightly coloured toy guns that fire foam darts – as the main means for players to interact with the story. The players shoot the zombies. NERF guns are some of my favourite storytelling tools.

Like most other LARPs there’s no one way to “win”. You can “win” Zombie by getting out alive, by dying heroically in order to help your mates get out alive, by sacrificing a team-mate in order to save yourself, by being turned into a zombie and eating your mates, by leaping over the heads of several zombies in direct defiance of our safety rules in order to run away, by killing yourself dramatically when you realise you’re the last one left alive… you get the idea. You win if you get a good story. Like Danny.

Danny is a regular player who’s been joining in with the game since we started 5 years ago, and he’s the reason why the Tommy 12 is both the best, and the worst, weapon in the game.

Buzz Bee Tommy guns aren’t a bad starter weapon. This variant has 12 shots, semi automatic – twice as many as the Nerf Maverick which is our standard small weapon, and a significantly faster rate of fire. In our early games, before Nerf started bringing out increasingly ludicrous plastic weapons like the Vulcan and the Stampede, this was definitely the best thing you could find. In theory.

But no one has ever managed to survive while holding one. One reason is that it makes a horrendous noise. Zombies in our game are attracted to movement, light and sound, so you can see how holding something that makes a noise like an angry vacuum cleaner might not be ideal. And the range is not fantastic – for instance the Nitefinder is much more effective at long range, even though it’s a tiny gun that’s a sod to reload under pressure.

But the main problem with the T20 is that it jams, as Danny demonstrated perfectly. He was the last of his team of 5 left alive, with no weapons and no real hope of escape, and a group of zombies intent on eating his delicious brains. He found a Tommy 20 under a table and opened fire, thinking that with 20 shots he should be able to get out fine – but unfortunately for our hero the gun jammed after two shots and… well… it did not go well for him after that.

That was one of the stories that came out of our very first game – and it had nothing to do with what the refs decided the story should be, and everything to do with how the players, the scenario, the tools and the mechanics came together to make an unexpected emergent narrative.

In the past we tried to do a lot of our storytelling using set pieces, as though we were building interactive theatre – we set up events and non-player characters that the players could interact with, get guns from, generally engage with. But in Zombie we give our players guns – and that means they can interact with the set piece in ways we aren’t expecting, generally by shooting the important bits of it.  So narrative set pieces simply didn’t work as a method of communication within the game, so now our set pieces are decorative and optional – and most players will only see about half the environmental events and set pieces we create for their run.

In our third game, we had a grand overarching plot structure and we tried very hard to impart that to the players, whose missions all involved interacting with this grand story that we as refs had created. It wasn’t hugely successful – their creativity was stifled by the stricter narrative focus, and we put too much emphasis on set pieces. (Far too many of them survived, too – our survival rate for that game was about 80%, and now we aim for closer to 40% – we were too precious about the narrative we wanted to impose on the game.

But the best stories once again were ones we weren’t expecting. Like Danny, who stole a robe from a cultist guard and proceeded to sneak his way around the entire complex in disguise, assassinating cultists with a foam dagger.

Ater that game we introduced an award system, with the inaugural Danny White Award for Sneaky Stealth. We now have various other awards like the Cactus “Bastard” McPhilips award for astonishing bastardry, which has been awarded for sneaking double-barrelled shotguns into unexpected situations, shooting innocent non-player characters in order to save yourself, and executing fellow players as sacrifices to the undead – all moments of player creativity, not ref creations.

Zombie was originally a reaction to some problems we had with traditional LARPs. I like LARPing, but often had issues with suspension of disbelief the minute the combat started, and I’d had some bad experiences. Grant, the other head ref was bored of Vampire live games in which everyone sits in a room for four hours on plastic chairs and then it turns out all the story has happened somewhere else. So we did away with as much abstraction as possible to make a game that placed no obstacles between the player and the story.

One of the first things we cut out was the idea of a complex character. In most LARPs, you’ll have a character name, and props, and a costume. In many, you’ll have experience points to spend, and you’ll be restricted by your race or your character class as to what you can do. Generally your character has a personality that’s separate from your own, and stats or traits that dictate how effective you are at doing various things in the game world. You might have a spell list, if you’re a spellcaster, or you might have hit points in different locations if you’re wearing different sorts of armour, and you will almost certainly have some items that give you stat boosts or help you do things. You’ll very rarely have al of those things, but they’re all tools used to create and mediate character interaction with the game world.

As is the combat system. In some, you’ll use pretend weapons and calls – like “Harry, head, single” for ranged weapons that do 1 damage if you have the “sniper” skill, for instance, and then Harry might call “dodge” to avoid it. Or you might hit someone repeatedly with a foam club while saying “double, double”, and you might have to remember cool-down times. There are lots of different LARP combat systems – some of them much more exciting than this one – but this was what we were reacting against.

With Zombie we wanted to do away with all the complexity and get as close as we could to genuine, on the spot reactions based on genuine emotions. We wanted to get people to suspend disbelief as completely as possible.

So our basic character creation system goes like this: there’s you. And if you’re really lucky, we’ll give you a decent gun.

That gun turns you into a protagonist. It focuses your interaction with the game world down to a single point, a very simple point and click interface. It’s a loaded object in more ways than one – it carries enormous cultural baggage, and it provides a very simple story framework.

The system also removes the traditional sense of attachment players have to a character’s ongoing story. Characters in many LARPs have real-time life expectancies of months or years, and they develop hugely complex storylines and personal histories. Players develop very real attachments to their characters, to the point where they will choose not to take risks or will avoid situations that could lead to character death. Or they’ll focus so hard on gaining useful skills through experience that they’ll miss out on exciting in-character stories that don’t relate to those out-of-character goals.

In Zombie, character death is sort of the point. There’s no continuity between stories, so your character (such as it is) is effectively going to cease to exist anyway. The result is a character that has a much shorter real-time lifespan and a player much more willing to take risks.

But we’re also careful to let players bring as much abstraction and continuity into the game as they want. We have players who play the same characters time and time again, as you would in a video game; we have players who play different incarnations or versions of the same core concepts; we have players who turn up in elaborate costumes, who roleplay among themselves in advance and concoct fascinating back stories, and all those things make the game richer. And we have players who do none of those things, and the game works just as well for them.

What that means is that Zombie can be played perfectly well by non-gamers – people who have no idea what a LARP is or what the difference is between being in and out of character. This is something we’re just starting to do – at New Year’s Eve we ran a stripped-down, cut-back version of the game at a terribly arty party in London Bridge at Shunt. We ran about 35 people through in groups of 3-5, with terrible weapons and very little preparation. None had gamed before. A lot of them went in very, very cocky, convinced it’d be a walk in the park. And most of them came out shaking, giggling and babbling about what had happened – they had a great time, because they’d been able to act as themselves, with no complex rules getting between them and the action.

And once again, the best stories were totally unexpected & often happened outside the boundaries we’d set for the game – on one team of three, the two women were taken down by zombies early on, and went on to chase their single surviving team mate up some stairs we’d marked off as out of bounds, into the area where the rest of the party was being held, and messily consumed his brains to everyone’s great amusement.

We wouldn’t know about most of these stories if it wasn’t for the way we deal with froth. This is one big thing Zombie does have in common with other LARPs. Froth, in the live gaming world, is when someone who has played at a LARP event talks through what happened to their character, describing their personal story and trajectory through the game events. This can be solitary – describing the event to someone who wasn’t there – or a group experience of collaborative storytelling, fitting new or previously unknown snippets of story into the narrative to build up a shared conception of the group experience. It’s a form of oral history attached to LARP. Personal stories can seem minor in the grand scope of big events that might include thousands of participants and huge world-shattering official plotlines, and it’s through froth after the game that those personal stories can come to assume a larger significance and that an individual player might come to an understanding of their place within the wider event.

This is vital currency for Zombie, so part of the construction of our story machine has been encouraging, institutionalising and curating froth. After their mission, the players are taken into a room and “debriefed” – in part because we want to know what happened and how the game went, but mostly because encouraging the players to tell their story in a group helps to cement the narrative and make sense of a massively complex, rushed, disorienting experience. The brain does weird things with adrenalin – time slows down when you’re scared or stressed, as you are in Zombie, but it makes it harder to remember what really happened in a linear way – so talking it through as the players calm down helps make sure the experience doesn’t get lost. Our frothing debriefs are story sprouting sessions – and some of the stories become the game’s urban legends, especially when they involve Danny.

And after the game, we end up with all sorts of unexpected story-based results. People have written highly subjective short fiction based on their missions; people write in-character official mission debriefs; they make and buy costumes for next time; they paint their Nerf guns specifically for our game; they draw posters, they created card games, and in one case they’ve had our logo tattooed on their neck. We’ve even had one fan write slash fiction about two of our non-player characters. These are all products of the players’ imaginations and creative desire, not ours – they’re story machine products.

Everything we do now is about making the story machine better, refining it and making it work as effectively as we can.

So we have a class system – people can play medics, security guards, test subjects, preachers or deeply unlucky survivors – and the rules around those classes are aimed at giving the players more options in difficult situations – more ways to have an action-packed death, more ways to sacrifice themselves to save others, and so on. More ways to take control of the narrative and turn it into a story they want. We’ve built the class system so that no one class can really win the game – it encourages team work and gives players “template roles” so that those who don’t have or don’t want a defined character have a few basic behavioural tropes to draw on – it’s storytelling shorthand.

We’ve also tweaked the difficulty of the game to make the story machine work. If the game is too easy, it’s not as much fun as it could be, because stories proliferate under high pressure – but if the game’s too hard, then players don’t feel they can have as much of an effect on the story as they want – it takes away narrative control. Within our game it’s just as much fun to almost survive as it is to almost die, so now it’s my main job to organise missions, zombie placement and level design so that almost all the players die within a few feet of the exit door.

As refs and game creators we’re no longer trying to be storytellers – we’re trying to build an environment where stories proliferate. That’s the heart of what we do, and why it works. Zombie is designed as a sandbox, it’s designed to be fun for both the players and the zombies; it’s designed to create edge conditions, where stories bubble into life and where player creativity is not only encouraged but rewarded. It’s not tightly plotted or elegant – it’s a messy, scrappy experience that makes sense in retrospect – but it works at its best because of people forgetting that they’re playing a game and acting on instinct.

It’s also immensely good fun to shoot a bunch of people with NERF guns.

Published by

Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

14 thoughts on “Zombies and stories”

  1. Sounds like a real blast.

    The closest I have come to this was on a trip to Jersey 16 years ago, when I was taken to a laser-gun zone (set over a number of floors in a turret like structure with slides, ladders and trapdoors).

    Like your non-gamers I was a bit cocky at first – thinking it would all be rather silly – but as soon as the game started I was swept up in the excitement of the hunt/chase. Pumping adrenalin and weird lighting helped make it seem both super-real and surreal.

    There was no talk of game playing but I got the impression that we all slipped into some form of character simply driven by whether you were hunter or prey (think we were split into groups – and swapped roles half way).

    What I found extraordinary was the extent to which you could feel genuine fear, anger and elation at surviving in what was just a game (I remember this as a child but somehow thought that being an adult would have dulled that aspect of make-believe).

    I also remember the way the experience distorted time – I think each session only lasted 10 minutes but felt like much longer – after an hour we were exhausted.

    I wouldn’t even say it was a “willing suspension of disbelief” but an involuntary suspension. I wonder if Samuel Taylor Coleridge appreciated just how little “human interest and a semblance of truth” was needed to create the illusion (his “poetic faith”).

    As you, Mary say: “It works at its best because of people forgetting that they’re playing a game and acting on instinct.”

    1. Something I found fascinating yesterday was how many people had had similar experiences as adults or remembered having them as children. There’s a moment when people lose their inhibitions and just go for it, losing themselves in the experience and – like you say – dropping disbelief whether they want to or not. Zombie works in a space where there’s not much in the way of theory – psychological, narrative, or game – so tracking and exposing common phenomena like that is hugely important to building a better game (there’s no best practice in the field or research or anything similar to build on).

      I very much like your Coleridge quote. Not least because mentioning zombies and Coleridge in the same breath manages to smash two hugely disparate worlds into one space in a most wonderful way.

  2. Great slides! I’ve actually quite enjoyed trying to piece together the actual content of the day from people’s reactions – and it seems you did, indeed, kick all kinds of ass. 🙂

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