So this is about LARP, but also about systems and process. Bare with me, it might get a bit long.
I had pretty much no interest in Odyssey when it started. My first introduction to it was when a group of friends was invited to a test of the combat system a year or so before Event 1, and since LARP Combat really isn’t my thing, I passed. I knew some friends were involved in writing story, but I hadn’t seen anything that wasn’t caught up in the arena stuff, and I was kind of wrapped up in my head a bit anyway. After E1, everyone I knew who played was frothing about this wonderful game, and everyone I knew who crewed was drinking heavily to forget. After some discussions with the latter about ways the game might go better next time I sent an email to PD saying I’d like to join the story team, and eventually became a ref instead.
At the second event, I spent friday evening wandering around the field in my brand new boots, and Saturday morning through to sunday afternoon unable to walk. I became desk-ref by invalid status, and started being the point of contact for story related questions that came to the ref desk. Over the next few events I started to make suggestions as well as ask questions for players, became a member of story team proper, got given a Head Ref title, and generally did my best for Odyssey.
The most annoying thing about the first few Odysseys was the Kudos tracker, which is the system the game uses to keep track of money sacrificed to the Gods and other worthy personages. From Event 2 though to around Event 5 it was a spreadsheet on a shared drive, and because the front desk needed to add things to it, and Story needed to add things to it and make calculations based off it, we were forever shouting at each other, because having it open in Excel or Libreoffice on one computer meant nobody else could write to it. Eventually, I decided this problem wasn’t one that would fix itself, and basically wrote a really simple PHP/MySQL app that did what the spreadsheet did, only with multiple users. This was the first version of Mimir, the Odyssey game management system. Next event I added a blogging platform, so every NPC in the game has a little blog where they write down what happened to them, so the story team can see what’s going on. Also it doubles as a notes area to keep track of “These characters did this thing” in a way that doesn’t result in a thousand tiny doc files stored locally on one of a dozen PCs.
There it lay for a couple of years. It worked well enough, and adding the next big thing to it would take ages, and I never got around to it.
Oh, but I wish I had.
For the first event last year I finally added the promised feature of “Blessings” – always with the scare quotes – that tracks special effects on any given player. From being blessed by Jupiter to strike down foes with thunderbolts, to the secret abilities of the Zodiac Council, to the curse of Dionysus on the guy who stole his drink; Blessings in Odyssey are one of the key interactions and effects that Story will give out.
And they were an absolute arse to maintain.
The first version of a system was an Excel workbook. One sheet was a table of blessings, the second a designed form where if you put the primary key of the blessing in a special place it would generate a pretty form you could print. This was single user, broke if you opened it in Libreoffice, and just about worked. For a couple of years it was another spreadsheet that was used as a data source by an access database that generated PDFs of blessings you could print, and that just about worked… and it all worked enough that there wasn’t really an impetus to replace the system, but enough that every interaction with the system (which was the same for Greater Mysteries – big spells – and Artifacts – Item information sheets) caused a slight uptick in everyone’s stress levels.
At Event 9 it all went to fuck.
A perfect storm of a series of mistargeted blessings going out that absolutely fucked up someone’s event, a block of blessings going entirely missing because they were using the wrong version of the spreadsheet and a set of lower-impact minor bad blessings that were just not game improving; joined forces with a period of time where the only laptop that could generate the blessings couldn’t be accessed… it just all fell over. For the remainder of the event blessings were not allowed out unless one of Me (Head Ref), Ian Andrews (Head of Story) or Si Brind (Lead Si Brind) had physically signed them. The event itself went well, all the players were happy (save the ones who got screwed over), but this needed to be fixed.
This is the problem with things that Just About Work, be they inherited processes or systems, applications or relationships with people. They’re not, none of them, going to one day get better. They’re either going to slowly grind to a halt, or they’re going to go off like a firework in someone’s face; and in this case the face was a player who didn’t even _nearly_ deserve it.
Over autumn I wrote some entity relationship diagrams, over winter I wrote some user interface, over spring I wrote the code to make the interface work and regretted using a home-built framework for it. By event 10 – first event 2015 – I had a system that could import the old spreadsheet and turn it into a modernish web interface with a three-point approvals system, print queue and (the bit that hurt the most) PDF generation of any player’s blessings on demand.
In an exceedingly complimentary post, Ian credits this addition with making last event go so smoothly from back-end side. I’m less convinced it was just – or even mostly – that, this is a really good team and it was working like oiled clockwork last season, but it almost certainly did help, and reduced stress levels a great deal, as well as prep time for next event.
I suspect the moral of this story is something like “There’s always time to create better tools” (there isn’t), or “The right tool in the right place and you can move the world with your thumb” (Which is, but finding “Right” is almost impossible). Mostly, I think it’s “Make better things, and things will be better”.
It’s also “Come to Odyssey”, but you knew that.
Anyway, source for Mimir will be released after the last event (it has some spoilers in it), though data won’t. The data will be used to make some pretty graphs to show, though.
Yup, I have a similar but also quite different thing with the Wiki System used for all the Oxford RPGSoc society games. I occasionally improve it, but it’s never the perfect system. Which I think is a good thing in some ways – the perfect system for one game wouldn’t be the perfect thing for another game, and it’d mean people would be less inclined to experiment when it’d mean various automated or assistive systems would no longer work.
Also, it sounds like you’ve done a good job of solving the problems with Odyssey without adding extra burdens. Making it as simple as possible but no simpler, as the adage goes.
More and more, I’m getting urges to “just do a quick webapp for that”, but luckily I have enough sense to know it’s not that easy. Kudos to you (yeah, I know, I couldn’t resist) for pulling it off.