Fairweather Manor: The Latest Iteration of the Blockbuster Formula?

Published on Tuesday 22 December 2015 in Reviews,slide

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Fairweather Manor is a historically-inspired international larp for 140 whose first run took place in Zamek Moszna, Poland, on the 5-8th of November 2015. It was created by the Liveform/Rollespilsfabrikken team already behind the creation of College of Wizardry. As such, the format, creative team, and overall design of the larp connects Fairweather Manor to the previous games considered as following the Blockbuster Formula, while also having its own, unique identity.

This article will therefore try to analyze how we might examine the design choices of Fairweather Manor in this light, how this larp also might differ singularly from those others, and which elements pertaining to the Brute Force design may also apply to Fairweather Manor.

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In the Grand Scheme of Things

In a similar fashion to Celestra and College of Wizardry, Fairweather Manor utilizes the full potential of running a game in a truly breathtaking location and of using both the setting and players’ efforts to create a spectacular 360° illusion. The Castle of Moszna possesses a variety of small sets whose exploration works as a perpetual incentive and makes for the possibility of a variety of scenes. A grand staircase, the dining area opening on the Winter Garden in the Orangerie, the chapel, the grounds, and Graveyard were all spectacular settings. On the upper floors, the big suites of the Castle served as family rooms for the nobles, making them a little less accessible, but giving some players the opportunity for other grand scenes.

The sheer size of the game — 140 players divided into three character-type groups — and the collective efforts of the players ensured that the experience would be a descent into 1914. Players could offer activities, such as a fencing lesson, an open stage, a play rehearsal, concerts, or speeches, which would become part of the frame for the larp. You could go on a car or a coach run, and then discuss the comparative merits of the two. You would meet different people at dinner and hone your skills at small or big talk.

The larp, like its predecessors, also benefited from the established world material factor. Historical resources on the period are numerous and, by claiming only a loose historical accuracy, the larp allowed for some flexibility on that ground. For the dramatic side, knowledge of the inspirational television series Downton Abbey was certainly an incentive for most of the players and the melodramatic aspect of the series’ narrative combined with the play-to-lose approach of the larp ensured that the play style of the participants, even when they came from a lot of different nationalities and backgrounds, would remain sensibly the same. These elements ensured that, overall, the game presented itself as a flowing, immersive experience with an extremely high production value.

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Characters at Play: The Legacy of the Brute Force Design

However, Fairweather Manor seems to differ from the previous blockbuster models in regard to context, background, and the way it would influence the characters’ agenda. In a context such as those larps, which were inspired by Battlestar Galactica and Harry Potter, the incentive comes from the universe in itself. In other terms, the context drives the plot. In Battlestar Galactica, there is a (space)ship to run for the sake of the preservation of humanity and duties to be fulfilled. In the Harry Potter-verse or any magical equivalent, the combination of school routines and a general sense of exploration, fun, and adventure is more than enough to drive any narrative. In the confines of the strict hierarchies and overall lack of universe or plot-driven incentives, however, the narratives of Fairweather Manor had to rely mostly on characters.

Following heavily the character template established by College of Wizardry (CoW) — albeit with a little more room for pre-established character interactions — the characters of Fairweather Manor followed the same logic, aiming at giving the players something very flexible with which to play. Characters could be changed and exchanged at will, and players had to prepare as much interactions and development by themselves as they could. However, where the location and structure of College of Wizardry makes this type of flexibility fairly easy with most characters being students in the same location, the same cannot be said of Fairweather Manor, where characters came with established gender, age groups, family ties, social functions, etc. This design was a necessity to establish the society of Fairweather Manor in a credible way, but also, combined with a rather arbitrary distribution of characters between players, it limited the liberty that some players would have to transform their character at their will. Furthermore, the characters had gone through a variety of approaches in the writing process, making them extremely diverse. Some characters were, within the confines of the CoW model, more detailed, with pre-established storylines. Some were more constrained within their social function; some would prove fairly difficult to play at all. Furthermore, Fairweather Manor, while run by a substantial staff of organizers, chose to dispense entirely with NPCs. While the purpose was obviously to make the larp completely self-sufficient and self-contained, it meant that Fairweather Manor would not have the leeway that College of Wizardry would have when it came to letting players create their own storylines. As such, most of the character work had to be done upstream when it was needed, the margin for freeplay being much more reduced once onsite. Therefore, as is often the case with the huge sandbox type these games prove to be, any character would only be as good as the way each player chose to handle them and co-create their own narrative.

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When characters worked, however — and a significant number of them did — they provided the frame for a lot of deep, emotional interactions. In keeping with the social norm — and thanks to the rather clever technique of “think of the family” (an in-game expression that would also work on a meta-level to incite the player to keep the intensity of confrontations low) — most of the interactions were kept low-key, avoiding for the most part the risk of expansive melodrama or plot overload that can happen in this type of format. Lastly, we might underline the fact that two elements associated with the Brute Force design also came very much into play in that regard: secrets, and conflicting characters’ agenda.

Although the approach of the larp was fairly transparent, with all characters published in a common folder, players did not have to read them if they did not want to do so. Existing storylines often included personal or familial secrets, and pre-game preparation between players also tended to include secrets of the backstory that would come to fruition over the course of the game. A lot of players wrote letters addressed to or sent by their characters, which would be used to put their secrets in the open. Again, in keeping with the play-to-lose approach, secrets were used only as hooks for big reveals and intense conflicts. Whether this aspect makes for interesting role-play or not is of course a matter of personal preference, but seems necessary to a design such as Fairweather Manor, where (dysfunctional) family values really came out as an overarching theme.

Conflicting characters’ agenda were also present, a matter for which players expressed some concerns, for fear that these would hijack the sense of narrative and become a competitive gameplay. Issues pertaining to the Duke’s inheritance, matrimonial strategies, the search of patrons for the artist, the opportunities for better employment, or improving one’s situation for servants, for example, relied on characters’ agenda, and sometimes caused oppositions, but they also were played in a low-key, mostly narrative manner. Although it was not explicitly stated in such a way, most players seemed to choose that any accomplishment in that regard would come with strings attached, or at some cost, which worked well enough, as a valid take on these issues.

The existence of social hierarchies and subgroups — family groups, artists and intellectuals, higher and lower servants — also appear as a legacy of the Brute Force design. They were used, however, less to create conflict than as a backdrop for the enacting of social conventions and constraints. These, however, could have been more forcefully enforced, especially in regard of what would be considered proper and acceptable or not, and what the cost of deviation from the norm would be. More workshops on these issues, manners, and body language might have been useful. At the in location, briefings tackled essentially the subjects of play style, location, safety, and ideologies of the time period. A slot devoted to behaviors and cultural calibration could have been helpful to some, but was probably left out by design.

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Players’ Duties and Sequencing

Like College of Wizardry, Fairweather Manor was based on a strictly timed structure — activities and meals being used to structure the daily lives of the residents — relying on some players’ duties.

Most were taken voluntarily: players wanting to host an activity registered to do so ahead of the larp, providing the entertainment fit for a high-end reception. Artist characters, of course, were very much encouraged to do so. This aspect, combined with a general sense of goodwill in the audience, ensured that the setting always felt active and alive.

The main branch of the nobles — the characters who were the hosts of the reception — were hand-picked and cast way ahead of the lottery. These players did a lot of work pre-game and in-game to ensure that the reception would be running properly, and that information about timing and activities were properly delivered. How heavy a duty that was and how much the larp came to rely on these characters is hard to clearly evaluate, but it certainly should be emphasized that the structure of the larp needs this core group of characters as its foundation.

Then, there is the matter of the servant characters. A huge amount of work has been put to make them operate as a corps, some players being directly involved in the writing of the servants’ handbook. However, if the standing ovation the servant group received at the end of the game is any indication, it is quite obvious that the servant group took upon themselves a much bigger workload than was originally announced or expected of them. In addition, the higher servants — butler, housekeeper, and their seconds — obviously held a great many organizational tasks as well. Could the communication on these aspects have been clearer? Most certainly. But this point also shows how Fairweather Manor worked in no small part through the willful commitment of the participants, and managed to stir their passions, in combination with what remains a grand production design.

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A Story about Love?

To quote from the second teaser, “Being at Fairweather Manor, that’s love.” I would believe that; for all the complexity and issues that are always raised by the grand scope of a blockbuster larp such as this one, it managed to hold up through the love that so many of its actors put into it. This sense of affection is perceptible in the show that inspired it: Downton Abbey is, in my opinion, a nostalgic, benevolent took at a Time that Was, while overlooking its obvious limitations and gruesome inequalities. Likewise, Fairweather Manor displayed all the outdated charm of the period that was called in France La Belle Epoque the Beautiful Era — before the upheaval brought by the war transformed all of society, for better or worse. The high-grade staff production, combined with a significant volunteer work and player commitment to the larp was considerable, its undeniable success as a result, and the surest testimony of the way it succeeded in engaging its participants wholeheartedly in its construction. While being clearly connected to the blockbuster model, Fairweather Manor also managed to be quite unique in distilling elements of the Brute Force in its own narrative. Whether other larps and future runs will manage to follow and improve on the same delicate balance will surely be interesting to contemplate.

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Pictures

Fotograf Karel Křemel

Bibliography

Eirik Fatland and Markus Montola. “The Blockbuster Formula: Brute Force Design in The Monitor Celestra and College of Wizardry.” Nordiclarp.org, May 6, 2015.

http://nordiclarp.org/2015/05/06/the-blockbuster-formula-brute-force-design-in-the-monitor-celestra-and-college-of-wizardry/

Ludography

Fairweather Manor. (2015). Agata Swistak, Agnieszka Linka Hawryluk-Boruta, Akinomaja Borysiewicz, Alexander Tukaj, Beata Ploch, Charles Bo Nielsen, Claus Raasted, Dracan Dembinski, Ida Pawłowicz, Janina Wicher, Krzysztof “Ciastek” Szczęch, Krzysztof “Iryt” Kraus, Maciek Nitka, Mikołaj Wicher, Nadina Wiórkiewicz, Szymon Boruta. Rollespilsfabrikken and Liveform. Moszna, Poland. http://www.fmlarp.com/

2 Responses to Fairweather Manor: The Latest Iteration of the Blockbuster Formula?

  1. “Artist characters, of course, were very much encouraged to do so. ” Were players encouraged to prepare a show before the game ? Do the creative team drive players closely to do so ? With what kind of artistic guidelines ?

    “This aspect, combined with a general sense of goodwill in the audience, ensured that the setting always felt active and alive.” In your opinion, from where does the goodwill come ? Does some meta-technics or creative team’s attitudes supports goodwill in the audience ? Is “play-to-lose approch” one of the usefull tool to insure indulgence and kindness on a LARP ?

  2. @Pink: characters were encouraged to prepare shows and activities. It was not codified or driven by the organizers’ team, but they could provide help when asked. I believe it should be more framed in the second run though
    As for the general goodwill (in a certain proportion at least), I would say the “play-to-lose”, or more accurately, to not win, is central to the process. It was not workshopped but reassessed during briefing, but I believe some workshops can also help establish this idea.

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