Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Camarilla Invictus - Up Close and Personal Review

I gave Camarilla Invictus a rating of 4 out of 5.

At the start of this year, I said to myself and others that I would start to do more.

The past two years have been reclusive for me. I've stayed away from a lot of people, avoided social interactions and slowly lost old friends - mainly, I suppose because our goals in life are no longer shared. All this, not because I wanted to - but because I felt that's what should happen. I suppose I needed a clean break from the past to start things over - perhaps I needed time to separate myself from those events. Part of me feels that it's because with what happened, I must have done something so bad that I just didn't deserve to be around people. My condition means I think this way - it's taken a long time (over a decade) to come to terms with the fact that I don't need these thoughts - and that they're not mine to have.

I can't choose how I feel. I can choose what I do about it.

So, I've decided to start LARP again (heaven knows why - this is explored in another post).

I was looking around at various LARPs in my area, and LARPs I can actually get to. Needless to say, there aren't a lot that I'd be up for doing, for one reason or another, such as:

  • Unfair, unbalanced, bigoted system set-up
  • Attitudes of some players (believe me... will also be explored in another post)
  • I really don't want to use a calculator...

After asking around a bit, I was invited to Camarilla Invictus. Within a couple of hours I was warmly greeted, was in a conversation with a referee, have an offer of a lift and was invited to the group.

That was quick!

That's a bit different from my experiences so far with LARP, even after a decade - so I thought, why not? Camarilla Invictus is based off White Wolf's first impression of the World of Darkness game Vampire: The Masquerade. It's a gothic-punk, socio-political orientated story-based role-play. That doesn't convey the experience very well I admit, but you'll pick it up from what I have to say.

I was given a lift by a good man called Michael, who was very chatty with me. We talked and swapped stories, which was great because it helped me relax - I don't know how nervous I seemed! When we arrived I had another new experience - players there actually came over, said hello, introduced themselves, gave me some low-down on the game setting and some tips - phew! Around friendly people at last!

We arrived at an old university - the type that its alumni compare to Oxford or Cambridge because of its size, vast green grounds, old Georgian red brick and marble-columned entrance halls with carved oak and stained panel staircases, doors and gargoyles. It was a very good setting for a game of dark Vampire mystery.

I was left to my own devices for a while, but was warmly greeted by those that came through the doors after my host and me. The other players milled around for a while and then a couple of nice ladies came to me and we chatted - it was a nice, no-pressure ease into the group, and they gave me some extra tips and this-is-what-you-know stuff that helped me later with the game story so far. They helped describe my Character Sheets, showing me things like Health and combat works, Fortitude and such - things that, unfortunately, I didn't get from the Wikidot (which serves as the game's website).

After safety checks (nice to see!) and newbie brief (it was a bit brief...) the scene was set and we moved into the banquet hall.

The game itself consisted of walking around the room, chatting to various others. Court is usually a place of comparative safety for those that serve a Prince Vampire, so there was no combat. A ban had also been placed against using Powers at Court, so there was no real 'Calls' being used. So, walking, talking... and that was it. This isn't a bad thing, by any stretch of the imagination, however.

To me, there are two distinct attitudes at LARPs I've encountered - either a LARP is lots of combat or has some combat but little else social-wise. This was entirely different as the game focused on social interaction - something us geeks are notoriously bad at. This, I thought, was exactly right for geeks - gets them out of their shell by being someone else, gets people talking, exploring new ways of communicating - brilliant, love it. It's also a great way to bring people into a game - and partly, exactly what I wanted from my previous game and what I want from my current one. Players could make friends, catch up with friends and if they wanted to talk Out of Character, they just walked to one side.

At points during the event, the players were informed about changes of roles of certain members, a Prince was lost and one temporarily placed. Movements of territory were planned and claims were staked in areas of land. Apart from a menace in the background, most of this didn't really make sense to me. Don't get me wrong, I understood many of the implications of certain things, I'm just not sure why they were considered part of playing or the 'plot'. These elements, whilst they affect players, are not part of the game - they could be decided Downtime.

There was indeed plot to be had - but, I felt it was in a Curious Pastimes kind of way - one that I have found distinctly unfair to players and what eventually was a point of contention in my previous LARP. Perhaps that was just my impression because it was my first game.

On one table there was a picture of a beast made out of faces that Characters would recognise, apparently drawn by a psychic. The players were encouraged to ponder its meaning and it proved a pivotal turning point for decisions later made - I loved that higher ranking Vampires listened and responded to lower ranks, rather than just ignore lower Characters like at other LARPs I've been to.

However, such interaction with the picture was minimal, and 'reading' into the picture by those with psychic means was limited to less than a handful of Characters. Whilst I know that this could be what the players have set-up or decided, I feel referees need to understand that other means need to be put in too so other players have something fair to play with.

I was later informed that the LARP year for Camarilla Invictus was from about mid-year to mid-year when a major-combat event would overturn the plot ready for another year of plot.

Whilst this sounds great, there are a few minor flaws I've encountered with LARP when this is the plan:

  • This is The Plan. Therefore, it's almost completely unavoidable and plot is specifically driven to reach such conclusions
  • Event 1, start of the new year... and it's not when plot is restarted. Whilst this means little to me, it does mean I started half-way through the year, which seems at odds with the real-world. The start of the year IRL psychologically sets you up for new starts - hence my decision to look around, and apparently the same with some others that joined
  • It also means some plots are pushed to one side, or delayed, specifically to reach the goal of separating the talky stuff. Again, I understand the reason for it... I just think there are better ways to do it

In another CP-like way, the plot was established from multiple angles, with various things going on behind the scenes. This might sound like a great idea; it's not as great as you think. Plot this way - if poorly managed, or abused - is set up to screw the players over, simply because if they go after one objective the other bits them in the arse. Players need to focus on simple goals, preferably in a sequence. If plot is radial the above way it needs to be so a group of players can tackle one, then then next (etc) - it could be these groups move from one to another to do it, but each ‘branch’ needs to be sequential.

I've said before that plot needs to be episodic with clear breaks. I've also said before that smaller goals need to clear and easily to meet. The reason for this is to establish a Chain of Success - so that players feel a little triumph each time to spur them on, rather than feeling getting nowhere - after all, there's a reason why games like Candy Crush, Temple Run that that ilk are so popular.

With Camarilla Invictus, from what I've seen, players usually feel they're getting somewhere because they can and often do directly influence the plot.

I just feel that - especially being E1 ('event one') of a year (IRL) - it needed a 'bang'. Granted, this might have seemed problematic to the new players, but I highly doubt it.

I feel there's a lot to be learned from Murder Mystery dinner games, specifically to this kind of game.

Rules-wise - OMG it's sooooooo much better than Mind's Eye! The rules are simpler; Calls are In Character... brilliant! I would say that the rules are still just a little too complicated, and could be made more dynamic, but as a system it works brilliant. I feel the Wikidot needs to clarification and tidying up - possibly summarising certain points.

My biggest concern rules-wise is that, like Mind’s Eye, it’s a direct translation from the tabletop system. It’s much more simple, smooth system, no card-tricks or rock-paper-scissors, but it seems all they’ve done is reduced it to Top Trumps. Players still needed Character sheets and many kept pulling them out of their pocket during play. Table Top conversion to LARP never works out well… maybe in this instance as it’s been going 20 years? Even so, I think the system must run into real difficulties sometimes, and I reckon it can be simplified even more to improve playability.

Would I go again? To be fair, for me, the above points are minor compared to what I've experienced in the past, and the slow game was a great re-introduction to LARP. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I'm already planning my next Vampire. I think I'd like to see some changes were I to play long-term, however, so the issued aren't entirely closed for me.

Do try it though - you'll love it!

I have to add that I honestly think that the nWoD would actually be a better setting that cWoD for LARP, and especially this group. cWoD is most definitely a 'Gothic-punk' setting in that it is just that - bland, drivel-lead pseudo-goth emo-ness. It's a story system in that you tell a tale... but that's it.

nWoD is, as the White Wolf Wikia describes, much closer to the theme they originally intended. The new setting 'humanises' characters more, gives them more of a direction, aim and personality. By adding beliefs, virtues and vices, nWoD focuses the experience of the game on the individual rather than the group - causing a more 'meaningful' experience for the players. As a games titled 'darkness' this is much better for Vampire players, allowing them to explore their own person horrors and limits.

Don't get me wrong, I have my issues with some of the nWoD stuff (combat and the God Machine stuff... explored in another post) but the newer setting is definitely far more rich and involving.

I really don't understand this cling to the past attitude - you enjoyed cWoD? Great. Good for you.... Times change? Get over it? I dunno... maybe it because most of the RPGers I meet that play cWoD over nWoD haven't actually looked at nWoD - or they have, briefly - or they have but haven't played - or they've played a couple of games... rather than actually giving it a try...

And for the record, I actually think that 1920's (Arkham style?), Victorian or possibly even Regency period would be much better settings to explore... Imagine the potential...