After Action Report – Tabula Rasa, 9-10/12/17

Last weekend, we ran (with support from Broken Dreams LRP) Tabula Rasa, a science-fiction game designed with Nordic larp principles in mind and very different to my usual game design style. The game was written as a birthday commission for a good friend, who discussed the overall shape with us early on but left us to do the majority of the design ourselves.

Tabula Rasa is a game that deals with issues of identity, memory,. self and self-awareness; that asks some questions of those who play as to what their ethical and moral beliefs are and how they translate into characters that are, essentially, blank slates.

Our characters are colonists on a deep-space transport. They are frozen in cryogenic suspension in a process that requires their memories to be stored separately and are awakened unexpectedly – without access to their memories or any identity beyond their pod number – when their ship finds itself in an unusual situation.

The initial game background materials for the first run can be found here.

Now we are past Blue Tuesday, and I have had time to digest the game experience and the froth from the players, I think I can take an objective view.

There are a number of things I would do differently and prepare more in advance for a second run – our IT was held together with spit and baling wire, and our props thrown together on a shoestring (with many of those that weren’t borrowed from BD or Grange Live Gaming, the venue).

I had originally thought that the game would benefit from being shortened to be a one day experience but on reflection I am now not so certain. I think it was about the right length, and could perhaps have gone on a little longer.

I will avoid spoilers, as the game experience is quite reliant on the thrill of discovery and the vast majority of the conflict and complication occurs in the characters’ headspaces, rather than the environment itself – unusually for me, while there is a clear narrative to this game, it is not the core of the game. And drawing a line between character agency and player agency – the players had full agency to try and influence the situation they found themselves in through a wide variety of tools, some overt, some less so. Players significantly altered the trajectory of the overall narrative several times, and in one case, shocked themselves rigid by doing so.

We ran to the usual principles I tend to run events to – we created an array of gingerbread houses and inviting pit traps for people to stumble into, and reacted dynamically to their efforts to get out of those gingerbread houses in a way that was thematically and narratively appropriate and adhered to the rules of the world.

What we ended up with was a 24-hour game (near enough – we timed out for five hours because it seemed the right thing to do for pacing, which I was iffy about at the time but on reflection was the right thing to do). Only one or two scuffles occurred, but players went away from the game horrified, riddled with existential ennui, contemplating the nature of life, free will and their place in the universe, and had obsessive, emotional stress dreams about the game the following night. Some of the players have written phenomenally eloquent and analytical breakdowns of their experiences that have been just as much of a pleasure to read as the game itself was to run.

Overall, I am taking that as a design success…

Tabula Rasa is very much a “marmite” game as described by one of our players; those it will appeal to, it will very much appeal to, but for some it won’t be an enjoyable experience. That’s OK; it isn’t designed for broad appeal so much as deep. It is a game that might require you to redefine your concept of what a “win” is, for you, and for your character, and if you enjoy going into some bleak, dark places in your role-playing you might well enjoy it.

Many of traditional tools and resolution methods that we are used to in UK larp are likely to have unexpected effects or major consequences – the battles you fight are more likely to be with what you see in the mirror or the uncaring vast emptiness of space – or of the human soul – than with anything solid or tangible.

Watching some of those internal battles play out led to some of the most rewarding scenes (as a designer) in a larp I have seen in a very long time.

We are seeking a date later in 2018 for a second run. If you are interested in the game, please send enquiries to [email protected]