Categorized | Game Designers, Interviews

Matt-M-McElroy

An Interview with the authors of City in the Sand

Posted on August 3, 2009 by Matt-M-McElroy

City in the Sand is a new Mind’s Eye Theatre product from White Wolf using the Storytelling Adventure System. This is the first MET product using the SAS format and I was immediately curious about how the format would work in a live-action environment.

Let’s just say I was impressed with the overall quality of City in the Sand and at the amount of cool stuff that was included in this product. I contacted the folks at White Wolf and had the chance to talk to the authors (Eddy Webb, Kelley Barnes and Jess Hartley) about the design of the product and a bit about Mind’s Eye Theatre in general.

Q: How did City in the Sand come about?

Kelley: In the Summer of 2004, myself and a group of Camarilla members (the Camarilla being White Wolf’s official Fan club) had agreed to write and run a three day LARP session at Gencon SoCal – much as we had historically done for Gencon Indy for some years. Because that summer was the launch of the New World of Darkness, it was a fairly open landscape of story opportunities. I had just read an article about the excavations being done of Cecil B DeMille’s set from the 1923 version of “The Ten Commandments” and it sparked an idea. Instead of a story playing out over three nights in sequence, a story arc told over multiple decades would help explore one of the key elements of the Vampiric condition in the Requiem – the fog of ages – where a vampire who goes to sleep for a time will wake up with memories missing or jumbled about. Vampires in this setting can never be sure that what they think they did or saw decades ago is truth or lies.

The original plan then was to have the first night set at the wrap party for the film in 1923, the second night taking place in the 1950’s on the night of DeMille’s Funeral, and for the last night – a fundraiser in 1988 to aid in the excavation. The central thread going through the three nights dealt with a vampire buried in the set on the night of the party, and the fears of the kindred who took part in that deed that their enemy would be rescued and returned to power. Other sub-plots dealt with political, social and covenant strife, with each group looking to accomplish goals that placed them in opposition with other characters in play.

Eddy: Fast forward to 2007. I was asked on short notice (four weeks) to put together a live-action game for some of our Icelandic co-workers, to get them acquainted with our products. Kelley had all the notes from the original City in the Sand game, but I was only running a game for one night set in the modern day. I had to do a lot of rewriting while still touching on a lot of key aspects of the World of Darkness and Requiem.

Everyone had a good time at the game, and I realized that this is the kind of product that would help people start or get sold on a MET: Requiem game. I wasn’t happy with the hasty revisions I had done, so I decided to rebuild the story from the ground up, using the SAS format. I asked Kelley to help out (since she was heavily involved in the original scenario), and I brought Jess in to give a fresh perspective on the dozens of characters – they were, frankly, a mess, and both Kelley and I were so wrapped up in the original interpretations that we just needed someone new and with good MET experience to come in and whip those characters into shape.

Jess: I was thrilled (and honored) when Eddy asked me to be a part of the transition process – taking the characters that they’d done for the original LARP and helping mold them into something more concise and cohesive. It shows a lot of trust to hand your “baby” over to someone else, and it’s a real challenge to pick up someone else’s ideas and run with them.

Hopefully, I did alright with it – Eddy and Kelley are still talking to me, so I must not have butchered their darlings too badly!

Since this is the first story using the Storytelling Adventure System for Mind’s Eye Theatre I was curious how difficult the transition would be when writing the adventure.

Q: What challenges are there when writing an adventure for live-action play when
compared to a tabletop adventure?

Eddy: It’s very different. The amount of Storyteller characters you can rely on goes way, way down – I developed CitS so that you only need to portray one (and rarely), but it’s easier if you have two Narrators to portray Storyteller characters. Also, the amount of scene-changing events also goes way down, since most of the event takes place in one space in a traditional WoD LARP. So, a lot of the stories move from the Storyteller’s briefing into the character writeups. For example, one guy doesn’t know who his sire is, so another player has to play his sire, and the story comes from how the two play off that dynamic. What’s awesome about this kind of design is that we have no idea how that dynamic will play out – it’s totally up the players – and that’s amazingly exciting. But on the other hand, it’s very difficult to balance all of those subplots and smaller stories, which made writing this a real challenge.

Jess: For me, the biggest challenges was mapping out how all of the 50+ characters inter-related to one another. I remember, at one point, literally having my entire dining room table covered with piles of character sheets, note cards and Post-Its. I used paperclips, color coding and any other way I could think of to show connectivity between the different individuals and groups, so that I could make sure that each one not only had some sort of personal goal, but that they were in a relationship of some sort with others in the game. Rivals, lovers, relations, enemies – something above and beyond the storyline (which is awesome, by the way) that would allow the players to pursue their character’s goals and motivations, even if they didn’t ever interact with the main plotline.

Kelley: To echo a bit of what Eddy said -Live-action play differs from 5-6 players struggling against the world as defined by the ST to a world defined by all the other players in the game. It requires in some measure a more reactive Storyteller – who can adapt and change the flow of the game to reflect the actions of the characters -you need the ability to observe and analyze the preferred play-styles of a number of individuals . The write up can only take you so far, but our goal was to provide a solid framework and suggestions that come from our collective experience to aid the Storyteller in making the game fun and intriguing for everyone involved.

Q: How does the Storytelling Adventure System specifically come into play as part of City in the Sand?

Eddy: The goal of the SAS is to encapsulate scenes into discrete units that can be modified and moved around as needed. One thing I realized in designing my own LARP scenarios is that there are usually similar units, and it seemed natural to try to apply it to the existing Storytelling Adventure System. For example, there’s a scene where the Prince calls the Kindred together to hold court — a very common scene in Requiem — but when and how it happens (and how many times it happens) depends on how the scenario plays out for each group, so it makes sense to put all that information into a portable scene instead of saying “The Prince will say X and Y at 8pm.”

In addition to the SAS scenes and background details on the Kindred of Los Angeles City in the Sand contains a short “introductory packet” for new players. I thought was an excellent addition to the main book.

Q: What can you tell us about the New Player Booklet?

Eddy: It’s an idea that was first developed in the Camarilla, which I expanded on when I was running a number of demo LARPs while promoting MET: Awakening. I didn’t want new players to look at two 400-page books and think they needed to know all that to play, so we broke it down into a smaller, 16-page book that covered the basics very succinctly. However, it still assumed some familiarity with the WoD property, which wasn’t the case for the game I ran at the office, so I had to revise that again to talk about the basics of being a vampire, let alone the core rules. It ended up working out pretty well, so I didn’t have to do much revision when I reworked that for the final release of CitS.

Q: Is the New Player Booklet something that other Mind’s Eye Theatre troupes will find useful beyond City in the Sand?

Eddy: To a limited extent. There are some specifics for City in the Sand in the New Player Booklet, but most of it is a very top-level explanation of Mind’s Eye Theatre: The Requiem as a whole. With a bit of “ignore this bit on these pages,” it’s still very useful beyond this scenario.

Just about all World of Darkness products have both a Theme and a Mood listed with notes for the Storyteller to make use of, City in the Sand was no exception. I was curious as to what the Theme of “Dangerous Secrets” meant to the authors when creating this story.

Q: The Theme of City in the Sand is Dangerous Secrets. What makes that Theme particularly fitting for a Requiem story?

Eddy: I love mysteries, and Requiem is, to me, just one big noir mystery. In a LARP, it’s actually much easier to seed secrets, because all you have to do is write a story and then break it up into pieces and scatter them amongst the characters – one guy is a killer, say, so another one is an investigator and a third is a person who saw the murder. Give them all conflicting goals, and throw them together.

Interestingly, I’ve found that you don’t have to work a lot of red herrings into the mix – usually if you tell a group of players that they need to keep secrets and then give a few of them legitimate secrets, the players will weave a complex web of lies and deception that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t unravel.

Jess: Knowledge is power. When you have the possibility of living for hundreds – even thousands – of years, it’s really the one thing that has value in the long run. So keeping information to yourself – hiding it or using misdirection to foul your rivals’ knowledge stores – that’s at the heart of Requiem, I think.

Kelley: Again, I am drawn to the Fog of Ages. Not only as a vampire do you question who you can trust, but you have to question yourself. That’s where I think the element of personal horror that is such a part of the World of Darkness comes into play with Vampire: The Requiem.

City in the Sand includes over 50 pre-generated characters for Storytellers to hand out to their Players. Almost all of them are either gender-neutral or include dual names (such as Robert/Roberta), a detail I found quite useful since you never know exactly how many Players you’ll get or who they will want to play.

Q: City in the Sand is designed as stand-alone story that includes a ton of pre-generated characters. Were convention games the initial goal of this product?

Eddy: The game evolved from a convention game, and that’s certainly one application, but really I was trying to emulate “How To Host A Murder Mystery” more than, say, GenCon. I realized that MET was very intimidating to a lot of new players and Storytellers, and I’ve certainly found writing LARP scenarios to be the most challenging Storytelling I’ve done, so I wanted to find a way that people would run a LARP with a minimum amount of time and set-up. Of course, conventions are an easy way to get 50 people together in one space, but with Internet meet-ups, flash raves and other ways of getting spontaneous groups together, it’s certainly not the only way, or even the main one.

Kelley: There is a side benefit to this product that should appeal to Storytellers – that “ton of pre-generated characters” you mentioned. Between the character backgrounds and the coteries built to work together, acquiring City in the Sand gives you the option of having groups ready drop into your table-top game, or repurpose as NPC’s to be played by Narrators in your LARP chronicle. While not a primary goal of this product, speaking as a storyteller myself, I think that is a nice bonus.

Q: What can you tell us about the list of pre-generated characters? Any particular favorites among them?

Eddy: Although we gave Jess a stack of broken characters and asked her to fix them, I think they’re really more her babies now than mine or Kelley’s. I personally think Prince Danton is fun – she strikes a nice balance in my head between a “traditional” WoD vampire Prince and some new ideas that haven’t been explored much – but then again in my playtest the Prince was played by my wife, Michelle Webb, and I’m always a sucker for how she plays insane characters…

Jess: That’s so hard to say, because I tried to really make them all into someone that either I’d love to play, or that I could picture one of my friends loving to play. Fenton, the snarky gossip columnist would be a blast to try for an evening, or Jordan, the gruff ol’ wolfish Gangrel. But I would say there’s probably 40 characters (out of the more than 50 we included) that I’d like to have a chance to try out for myself!

Q: What if none of those characters work for someone wanting to join the game? How easy is it to bring other characters into the story?

Eddy: We tried really hard to cover a lot of the various kinds of play that people bring to Requiem, but it’s certainly possible to bring other characters in. There are a few Kindred that are specifically visitors to the Los Angeles area (where City in the Sand is set), so it’s very simple to bring even more visiting Kindred into the game. There are also ways to expand on the existing coteries.

I’m a big fan of live-action games, even if I don’t get to run them as often as I used to. So far White has three Mind’s Eye Theatre books currently available. The core Mind’s Eye Theatre book along with core books for both Requiem and Awakening.

Q: This is the first non core book for Mind’s Eye Theatre. Are we going to see more support material for live-action games?

Eddy: We’ll have to see. I’m still passionate about live-action roleplay, and I feel very strongly that MET needs more than just rulebooks if it’s going to grow and prosper as a line, but right now everything’s an experiment – first MET: Awakening, and now City in the Sand. Each time we look at how the MET product does and plan accordingly. So, for now, it’s “wait and see.”

Q: Speaking of MET: Awakening, what will Storytellers running an Awakening game or even a mortals game using the Mind’s Eye Theatre core book find useful in City in the Sand?

Eddy: Probably not — the game is really based around Requiem ideas and concepts. That being said, I’ve heard of people taking our regular Vampire tabletop SAS products and converting them to, of all things, Exalted, so anything is possible!

Early we talked a bit about convention games and City in the Sand seems like an excellent introduction to Mind’s Eye Theatre: Requiem (and possibly even the Camarilla).

Q: Is White Wolf planning on running City in the Sand or other Mind’s Theatre games at GenCon this year?

Eddy: We are running three interconnected Requiem LARPs at GenCon, all based in Mexico City. Two are traditional Requiem LARPs, and one is actually based around Belial’s Brood. The traditional ones are Thursday and Friday evening, and the Belial’s Brood game is Friday afternoon. The games are all being run by David Bounds, a very experienced and creative LARP Storyteller with years of experience. Kelley and I will be playing a little as well when we have a chance, so come check it out and game along with us!

I wanted to thank Eddy, Kelley and Jess for taking the time to tell us a bit more about this new product. I hope you get the chance to explore some of those Dangerous Secrets in your own Mind’s Eye Theatre games.

City in the Sand is currently available at the Flames Rising RPGNow Shop.

Eddy Webb is the Alternative Publishing Developer at White Wolf. Kelley Barnes is the Marketing Director at White Wolf. Jess Hartley is a prolific freelance writer, and you can find her website at www.jesshartley.com.

To find out more information on the Storytelling Adventure System visit the SAS Website:www.white-wolf.com/sas. For more information on the Camarilla Fan Club visit the Camarilla website: camarilla.white-wolf.com.

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