Friday, 26 February 2016

Tombstone second time through

2016 was Once Upon A Time in Tombstone's fifth run, and the second time I had helped to run the game (my first run was it's inaugural run in 2005 - my thoughts here).

Overall the game was a huge success. We had around seventy players and six GMs, and while there were a few issues, on the whole everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. So what follows needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. I am perhaps over critical here, as the game was overall a success.

These are my reflections on running Tombstone for a second time. I don't know if documenting this will help for a future run - I hope so.
Once Upon a Time in Tombstone 2016

Getting the game ready (and managing me)

I co-wrote Once Upon a Time in Tombstone, along with Heidi Kaye, Tony Mitton, AJ Smith and Paul Snow. We started in about 2000 and finished in 2005, and all of us had peaks and troughs of writing activity. Most of my writing was done back in 2001-2003 or so - I peaked early and have troughed ever since.

As a result, I don't really know the game that well. The game has since been run three times in the US as well, and from the perspective of someone who hasn't looked at it in a decade, the Dropbox game files are a mess. Worse, a fair bit of the information is in the head of the other writers.

So to get me to fully understand the game was always a big ask - and to be fair, nobody asked me to do it. Instead, I expected to be assigned a role (the one that nobody else wanted) and I would learn that role. Which I did - I became the Big Country GM, overseeing the map, land registry and Henchmen.

My contribution during the run up to Tombstone was to proofread about twenty characters. I think I could have done a bit more (and I'm aware I'm saying this now that there's no danger of this happening...). But how to get me to do a bit more?

The short answer is I need to be managed. The best way to do that is to give me clear activities and deadlines. (That's why the proofreading worked well.) A clear plan with deadlines and deliverables, along with virtual meetings to discuss progress and issues.

I'm unlikely ever to have the time to do wholesale rewriting of a game the size of Tombstone, but I can be easily motivated to do more than I actually did.

So when I end up helping to run a game again, please manage me!


Most of the game files are on Dropbox, but unfortunately they're not in any sensible condition. There are files here and there from the various runs and it's very hard to find something. Even when you do find a file, it might not have been updated.

So Dropbox needs a thorough spring cleaning.

Worse, there was stuff missing, or stuff that was used in other runs but hadn't made it onto the Dropbox.

To anyone writing a game like this in the future, I recommend that if you are using Dropbox you set up a clear folder structure and put someone in charge of enforcing that structure.

Making it easier to run and organise

We still aren't very good at thinking about how things can be organised so that it's easy to both prepare the game and run the game. It's something I think about quite a lot for Freeform Games, but there is a fine balance between putting the effort up front into making it easy to run compared to the short-term pain during the game.

At FFG it's easy - if we are to be successful as a business, our games have to be easy to run, and if we do it right each game will be run hundreds of times. With Tombstone, the balance is harder - and each time the game is run the characters need a fair amount of rework to account for different player numbers and gender ratios.

Here are some examples though:

Land registry: I was in charge of managing the land registry. The process worked like this. A player approached me with an ability card (and $50) that let them register land. I checked that the land was available to register, and if it was I made a note of their name. I then dug out a slip of paper for that parcel of land and wrote their name on that. Then I gave that to them, and tore up their abilty card.

It would have been much simpler if the ability card doubled as the land registry document. I could have made a note in the master register, and then made a note on their ability card (and initialled it, if we were worried about forgeries). That would also have saved printing out, cutting up and organising all the land registry slips (but against that, some other work would have been needed in changing the system).

Abilities and envelope stuffing: I wish I had taken a photo of the stack of abilities that the game needs. It was nearly a foot high as every character had somewhere between 10-20 abilities. It took three of us about an hour to stuff them all in the envelopes, and that's even with the abilities organised by character.

I would change it so that everyone had a single side of A4 for their abilities. We could format it so that they can cut them out, or they can keep them on the single sheet (I'd leave that up to the players to decide how they want to manage their abilities). It would be a lot quicker to print and pack.

This might also result in a cull - but arguably we had too many abilities anyway.

The downside in doing this:

  • The abilities aren't quite so easy to amend, if they need changing. It's much easier to make changes in a single Excel file prior to mailmerging.
  • Someone needs to spend some time preparing the ability file.
  • There may be some cards that we currently treat as an ability that wouldn't work in this format.

Contingencies: Tombstone has lots of contingency envelopes, but arguably too many.

I quite like good contingency envelopes, and by a 'good' contingency envelope I mean one that is surprising, or changes the direction of play. Unfortunately, quite a few contingency envelopes don't do this, and could just be dealt with simply elsewhere. For example, one character had an envelope that says "Open this if a character leaves your gang" and inside it said to shoot them. That could easily have been on their character sheet (if needed at all).

Similarly those doing prospecting had a contingency envelope that explained what to do in the event that they struck silver. That could simply have been in the rules - removing the need for preparing and packing the envelope. (Arguably making that information available in the rules, and the riches that would result, might have made prospecting more compelling for those involved.)

So I think we should review the contingency envelopes and really challenge if they are needed. If they aren't, move their contents and reduce our preparation workload.

Of those contingencies we do keep, we can probably make them simpler to prepare. My current preference is for a single sheet of A4 paper, folded in three and sealed at the edges. Works for most contingencies (it's not quite so easy for the complicated ones, with multiple envelopes.)

Hunting Treasure in the Big Country

The Big Country is what we called the area around Tombstone, Cochise County. It was full of ranches, silver mines, potential railroad routes, indian burial grounds, civil war treasure and ancient gold. Unfortunately, our records of where all this stuff was located were a bit haphazard (see my notes above on Dropbox).

Luckily AJ (who was running the ranching rules) had prepared a paper folder with most of the information in, and to start with I used that.

In between processing land requests, I worked up a master file so that we now have all of the locations of interest in one place.

I also used it to track what was happening in those sectors of the map. That idea needs a bit more work as it wasn't perfect. I think in future I would use a lever arch file with plastic wallets into which I could put a sheet of paper with the land information on it, along with any items. If I needed to GM a location, I'd take that sheet with the information from it and use it to GM the scene. Then I'd then update the location sheet by hand with whatever had gone on, and return it to the file.

And thinking about it, I'd put the land regsitry records in front of that folder, so that everything is in one place.

Council Meetings

I wasn't involved in the Town Council meetings, but over breakfast we talked about the problems of locking away a group of players from everyone else for a period of time, whether it's the Town Council, the King's Council, or going off on an adventure.

The scale of these games means that some of this is always inevitable. Players can't expect to get hold of any player at any time.

My problem with council meetings is that they are not only no fun for those outside the meeting who need to talk to someone on the council, they're often deathly boring for those attending the council as well. That's less forgiveable in my mind, and it's something I'm going to be more mindful of in the future.

For example, the town council had a few specific duties. I bet most of those could be achieved without necessarily needing formal meetings dragging everyone away from the rest of the game for an hour or more.

Bit Parts

When we originally wrote Tombstone we thought we would have some bit parts, small roles that players could take on if they fancied a break or became bored. (I first came across this idea in Arabian Nights, which takes the idea and runs with it.)

Miners with a lucky strike coming into town to celebrate, innocent poker players ripe for conning out of their wealth, people with locations of treasure maps, eager deputies for the bad guys to gun down, minor gangs for the lawmen to arrest.

That sort of thing - lots of small roles to make Tombstone feel a bit bigger than it might otherwise have been. I even wrote a few of these, although nothing came of them. However, instead of the players playing the bit parts, I think we could have had dedicated bit part players. I think Tombstone could easily have coped with two or three people doing nothing but playing bit parts for the weekend. It would have required a bit of effort - but I was willing to have sorted all that. It didn't happen because I didn't push it, which I'm slightly disappointed at myself about.

Having said that, Tombstone really didn't seem to need bit parts, but part of me would have liked to try it anyway.

(I'm told that in one of the US runs they did have one person doing nothing but playing these bit parts.)

The "Does this character look fun to play?" check that we didn't do

Unfortunately we had one character that, in hindsight, wasn't particularly well written and didn't work out for that player. When we reviewed the character in the cold light of day, it became clear that there were problems with it (it was much lighter than any of the others). It turned out that the character was written for a young player who would play with a parent, and not a "full" character as we normally would know it.

Unfortunately we didn't spot it beforehand.

What we should have done is a quality check of all the characters along the lines of "Knowing what we know about the game, does this character look fun to play?" I think because we had run the game before we were lulled into a false sense of security.

Key Lessons

So here are my key lessons from this run of Tombstone.

  • Figure out how to manage me in the run up to a game. I need to be motivated.
  • Put someone in charge of keeping Dropbox tidy.
  • Think about how the systems you write will actually work, and look for ways to make them easier to prepare and run.
  • Think about meetings and other events that draw groups of players away from everyone else. What result do you want, and are there other ways of achieving that?
  • Double check that all characters are fun to play

The dilemma

The time to do this is now. We're unlikely to run Tombstone again for another decade, and we're better investing the time to do this now (while we're all fired up with enthusiasm) than just let it drop. But that said, these are fairly minor niggles - it wouldn't be the end of the world if we did nothing.

And perhaps I should be making these amendments instead of just thinking and writing about it.

So maybe that's my final key lesson. Instead of just talking and thinking about improving the game, arrange some time to make those improvements.


  1. It was a pleasure working with you-- thank you for your work in developing and running the game the first time 'round, and for doing it again for this run!

    1. Thanks! And likewise - I look forward to doing it again.

  2. I played one of those US runs, it was a lot of fun! When I was reading your romance system post, I thought to myself, "this sounds similar to some romance systems I experienced in some British weekend long LARPs."

    I've played in a number of LARPs called "horde LARPs" where there is a group of players dedicated to playing bit parts (often half or more than half of the players), they can be a lot of fun. I don't recall any in my Tombstone run (could have been there and I didn't notice, or maybe it was one of the other runs) but I remember getting to do it in King's Musketeers; it was a nice way to get involved in a scene I otherwise wouldn't have been able to directly interact with, and take a break from my character when I wasn't sure what she should do next. It would also be a nice way to involve people who aren't available the whole weekend, or don't get in off a waitlist but would still like to join in for a bit.

    I hope Tombstone does run again, it's a great LARP! There aren't enough excellent weekend long theater LARPs around here. :)

    1. Thanks, and yes, I hope Tombstone runs again as well.

      I've played a small number of horde games, but I've not found them very satisfying. They seem to end up a bit too silly for my mind (but I'm not an expert - I'm basing this on the three or four that I have played). I do think that there's more design space to be explored there though.