Saturday, 3 March 2018

Contingency Envelopes

Contingency envelopes have been a staple of freeforms ever since I started playing them.

If you're unfamiliar with them, they consist of an envelope (or folded sheet of paper) with an instruction for when to open the envelope. It will typically be something like "Open this if you see item 56". If you see item 56, then you open the envelope and hopefully learn something that will help your game.

And I usually like contingency envelopes - particularly when I learn something new, or something that's timed. But poorly designed contingency envelopes offer nothing new, and there's an argument that you don't even need them.

The main advantage that contingency envelopes bring is that they drip feed information into a game without requiring significant GM involvement (which can be a scarce resource). But they also have their downsides.


Recently I played in Shogun, a weekend long freeform (larp) for 70 or so players organised by uk-freeforms. Shogun was epic, expansive and filled with all the glorious goodness we hope for in a weekend larp and I wrote about it recently.

I played Kinyu, the cold moneylender. I wasn't evil, but I only had my own interests at heart.

And, along with pretty much everyone else, I had some contingency envelopes.


One was a timed envelope, for me to open during a particular event. This revealed the identity of a particular character who was important to me but who was in disguise at the start of the game. It was a failsafe to make sure that I actually met this character. (It's entirely possible in a game the size of Shogun for characters to never interact - there were lots of people I never spoke to in game.)

I have no problem with that kind of envelope, although unfortunately the way the contingency was labelled (linking it to a theatrical event) telegraphed who that character actually was.

In hindsight I think it would have been better if it had simply said "If you do not know who Yamamoto is by 11am Saturday, open this envelope."

Item (or person) 79

My other contingency said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79"

Inside, was a detailed description of an item, and what was special about it that my character would know but others wouldn't.

A quick aside: in freeforms it is usual to have an item card representing items (which could be a ship, a sextant, a gun, some wood, a tattoo - pretty much anything you can imagine really) rather than a prop. This helps distinguishes those items that are key to plots from costume props or scenery.

By the end of the game I hadn't seen item 79, so I opened the envelope - at which point I realised that I HAD seen it. At least, I'd seen the prop - but because its item card had been mislaid, I didn't know that it was the item that would have triggered that knowledge. (And that's a shame, because it would have created some plot for me.)

If the envelope had said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79 (a sextant)" then I would have kept my eye out for a sextant and if I'd seen one I'd have thought to have find out exactly what Item number it was. It's much easier for me to remember a thing than a number. (It wasn't a sextant, by the way.)

Similarly, some characters had contingencies that said "Open this envelope if you see person 237". Again, I suspect it would have helped to know if person 237 was a merchant, or a samurai, or a foreigner.

High Trust Option

A high-trust option would be to eliminate contingency envelopes completely. I could imagine my character sheet saying:

"Yamamoto starts the game as Akira. If Yamamoto has not introduced himself to you, we trust you to find a dramatically appropriate time to recognise him after 11am Saturday morning."

In fact, because I had worked out who was playing this character before the game started, this is exactly what happened (although Akira approached me first). In hindsight, though, I would rather have had the surprise.

"If you see an old battered sextant (item 33), you recognise it as originally belonging to Blackbeard."

This would have worked out just fine for me - I have no problem ignoring knowledge that I know but my character doesn't, and it means that I would have been drawn to check out any sextants just in case.

(Interestingly, I made a similar point in my reflection of Once Upon A Time in Tombstone.)

Being a high trust player

While I think we can improve the design of contingency envelopes, perhaps we don't have to go that far. Perhaps I just need to be a high-trust player.

After all, I could just open all my contingency envelopes before the game starts. Nobody can stop me, and I know I wouldn't abuse that information. It might even improve my game - I'd probably try and steer things and put myself in plot's way (much easier to do when you can see it coming).

In hindsight, I wish I'd done that in Shogun: I had guessed one envelope, and not opening the other meant I missed out on something that might have dragged me into a new plot.

Key takeaways

So my key takeaways from all this are:

  • Think about whether you really need a contingency at all. Can you trust the player not to abuse that information instead?
  • Be careful not to telegraph the envelope’s contents in advance.
  • When looking for an item/person number, give players a clue as to what they are looking for.

Second Watch

If I sound like I'm going into this in a bit more detail than it really warrants, you might be right. But part of that is that I'm currently working on Second Watch, a game I co-wrote last year at Peaky that we're preparing for publication.

Second Watch is a suspense-horror game set on a spaceship - inspired by movies such as Alien and Event Horizon. Figuring out what's going on is part of the game.

In an ideal world you'd play Second Watch in a completely immersive environment and a team of GMs. But it's not an ideal world and so we need Second Watch to be runnable with just two GMs (possibly just one - although that might be asking a bit much).

As the game involves visiting different parts of the spaceship, and doing tasks that have set results, we're using contingency envelopes to drip feed the information (and to free up the GMs for their other duties).

Here's the sort of contingency envelopes we’re using:

  • Medical tests: the crew start the game coming out of cryosleep, and one of the tasks the ship’s doctor has to do is undertake a medical examination of everyone to make sure they’re okay. It’s a bit of roleplaying for them, and there may be clues (and red herrings) in the test results. The subject of the examination starts with the contingency, and then gives it to the doctor during the examination.
  • Systems checks: The crew has some systems checks to do to make sure the ship is still working fine. Rather than create a queue at the GM desk for resolving this, we’re doing it with contingency envelopes.
  • Experiments: While the crew are checking systems, the scientists are checking their experiments. There may be clues there…

Some of the contingencies are purely down to pacing. If we just put the information on the character sheet, the game is likely to move faster than we would like - we’re aiming for a slow build up of suspense, and hopefully the contingency envelopes will help us do that.

And while we’ll review them in light of the takeaways above, I suspect we’ll keep most of them.

Open this if you’ve reached the bottom of this post

So while for most freeforms I would advocate sticking to my three key takeaways, obviously there are times when you should ignore them.

Like all good rules, the trick is to know when to break them.


  1. Thanks, interesting thoughts! I really can't see the point of contingency envelopes that are included because the designers don't trust players not to misuse the information if given it in advance -- surely we're beyond that now? If they think their participants are going to 'cheat' like that, why on earth are they still larping with them? Imo the ability to steer -- and, as in your Tombstone examples, knowing what the actual stakes are -- given by making that info open are extremely valuable.

    But using envelopes as a drip info release mechanism feels to me like a different sort of thing. Hopefully I'll get to play Second Watch some time and experience how it works in that!

  2. Yes, I think that we're beyond that now - but I'm not sure that everyone is at the same point in the journey.

    (Besides, as Pandemic Legacy is currently showing me, having surprises come along mid-game is also fun!)

    1. I think we're beyond that in terms of design, even if everyone *isn't* at the same point in the journey - we've mostly got the hang of writing freeforms that work well by trusting the players, even if there are one or two players who aren't used to that idea yet.

      However, I still VERY MUCH prefer contingency envelopes to surprise me. Yes, I can roleplay not knowing all about item X / person Y perfectly well until a dramatically appropriate time...

      ...but it's not as much fun.

      I enjoy reacting to surprises during the game. I can act surprised just as well for roleplay purposes, but I don't get to enjoy the moment of revelation for myself if I was told in advance.

      This is purely a personal taste issue of course; there's a lot to be said for being able to steer dramatic revelations in advance, too.

  3. I had something similar if I talked to character 101. I’m rubbish at remembering to look and eventually asked the GMs, turned out I’d talked to them and worked through the plot point without opening the envelope.

    I have put them into Miss Maypole as two options which can open the one with much more information if you have medical knowledge and go to look at bodies.

  4. Encounter based contingencies should have enough of a clue to help you get to them, without breaking the info.

    Drip feeding timed information - absolutely, and these are different to regular contingency envelopes. I have meta-ed these in the past to be a "these give your character a nagging itch to be in that area". Particularly if they have a soon "break time", that seems perfectly reasonable to me. These have given me some of the most satisfying games of my career.

    "Timeout - all players with one, open envelope B" is a completely different class of contingency"

    I do wonder if tech is the answer in the future. Recognition will be fed to you.

    But the real issue is we play too nice - players who break trust and can't be relied on not to use that info early still play our games. 99% are fine, but you write systems to cater for everyone.

    1. Re tech -- in the Spanish larp Conscience that I was recently at, we had a dedicated phone app which fed us information via an earpiece. (In the fiction, the characters were androids getting communications from a central computer).
      This was terrifically flexible and effective -- some of the information releases were pre-shceduled, some were GM interventions; some were personalized, some were en masse; some were location-triggered (done via GPS-tracking the phone).
      The two downsides were (1) we had to keep one earbud in at all times, which hindered real-world directional hearing somewhat; (2) wifi coverage was inconsistent across the (large) site, meaning that if you spent quite some time in a dead zone you would come back into signal to a mini-avalanche of messages.

    2. I agree entirely that there's a real distinction between event-based contingencies and those that represent secret character knowledge or skills.

      When it comes to Mo's "knowing what the actual stakes are", that's one good use I've seen for a contingency of the "all players with envelope A, open it now" kind.

      I'm thinking in particular of the contingencies in games like Teapot Travesty, where they don't provide secret information - they provide roleplay cues for members of certain factions as to how that faction is affected by events that have happened in public.
      That let the writers surprise players with events, without having to give them away by advance briefing, and still make sure players knew everything they needed to about the game world.

      Similarly, the one major contingency I wrote for "Acerbus Terminus" is opened by all players at the same time, so it really just takes the place of a GM announcement. By writing it as a contingency instead, I achieved two useful goals:

      1) Saved the GMs trying to yell across a large game loudly enough to be heard.

      2) I could cue a few characters that have reasons to react differently by giving the players a different description of the same event.

  5. I've often thought including more images in LARP documents might help in a number of ways, including with some of the issues you raised here. For example, if a photo of the prop had been included, it wouldn't have been an issue if the prop got separated from its item card, and there'd be no risk of a player not matching a description to the item. Similarly, with a player's permission, a photo of the player might be better than "open if you see Character #7" or "open if you see Character Name" for contingency envelopes designed to help you recognize people in disguise.

    1. I like the idea of photos of the props - that would work well.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Seconding this one very strongly. Good graphic design - clear layout and photos where they might be useful - improves handouts in many ways.
      - Daniel