After the End: A Review

I don’t do a lot of larp reviews on this blog because it’s more about the enhancement of larp design, but I went to an event this past weekend which was a somewhat life changing as campaign larps go. After the End, run by the Freestyle Science team, is a small larp in the middle of nowhere northern Tennessee. It runs four times a year and is populated by one of the most mature, trust-able, respectful player bases I’ve ever encountered. Their staff operates on a rule of “Radical Trust” of their players, something I acknowledge that we sadly cannot do in a lot of our games in the north east, but they have well earned this trust. Where as I have a lot of design discussions with my contemporaries about the fact that we have to design for “the lowest common denominator,” this game challenges and trusts its players to be better, and they are. The game has been running almost five years and seems an incredible hidden gem. So, I decided to do a brief review, as they used some design concepts I’m considering implementing in other games and I don’t want to forget for the future.

Overview

After the End is a game set about 100 years after the end of civilization. The internet had advanced to a Matrix-like point called “The Lattice”, but the bees started dying off. Without bees, the entire world eventually collapsed. The last nano-fashion trend was Neo-Victorian/Wild West, so all the clothes that were left over mass market are in a Victorian-Western fashion. The buildings have western themes. This is your wild-west post-apocalypse game. To boot, there are still pockets of The Lattice in existence. Around little towns or places of vague infrastructure, the Lattice still allows drifters to communicate with each other, upload their bodies when they die (Digital Immortality, aka their resurrection system), do hacking, and dive into the grid for deeper operations. So, the game literally is a mix of Firefly meets Mad Max meets Shadowrun. And it’s awesome. Somehow, this strange mash up of concepts works INCREDIBLY well on the ground. It lets them fit in perfectly on their 80-percent wild west campsite with some Ikea bunk beds and neon light advertising signs. There is literally not a single area on this campsite that isn’t in genre for this setting.

The only thing better than their setting/camp is their players and staff. The player base is full of amazing roleplayers who are excellent at pulling new players into nearly everything, incredibly intuitive about social-emotional roleplay, and too mature (aka, not in our 20s any more) for petty bullshit. This isn’t a game populated by die hard combat players or power gamers. This isn’t a game for people who are looking to mix-max a great fighter character, win the economic game, or be ‘the best’ by some sort of points reflection on a sheet. This is a game for people who are interested in developing layered characters in a complicated setting and diving into deep roleplay with total strangers your first two hours in character. Lastly, the staff members staff full time, they do not have characters that they play. They are clearly doing this for the love of the game and displayed nothing but passion, creativity, and responsiveness to player actions the whole time I was there. Some of my favourite quotes of game were from staff members which included: “That’s the GOOD kind of Meta, go for it!” “YOU KNOW THE SPIRIT OF THE RULES, FOLLOW THEM!” and: “Of course it’s like your character, I read your backstory!”

The Rough Edges

The Rulebook Layout: I’ll start with what wasn’t amazing, because no game is perfect, and I’d rather get the critique out of the way. Firstly, if you visit the website and look at the rulebook, you will probably end up as confused as we were. While it makes sense once you see it on the ground, the layout was difficult to parse and made what seemed simple concepts in person nearly impossible to understand just on reading. I can’t tell if it’s just not great layout on the website, or if the rules are of a nature that are simply hard to understand until you play through them. I suspect it’s a bit of both.


Doctorin’: Secondly, I found the healing system to be clunky. The inability for a doctor to get someone up quickly in battle (and back into battle) made for a lot of frustrations as a vague combat medic. Fortunately, anyone can use any weapon in this game and if you are useless as a doctor, you can at least help defend the crowd. There are fixes in the works for this already (I know some of us doctors are researching one in character), and there is an item that quickens healing near the saloon. But for field combat operations, I stood around much of the time feeling like a toad on a log, able to patch someone to not dying, but of no real assistance in getting them back into the fight.

The Intriguing

The next bits are parts of the game I really enjoyed, but need to see them play out further to see how they work in the long term.

Positive Sex Work Environment: This is the first game which I’ve seen actively using Ars Amandi as the predominant sex-simulation mechanic in their rulebook. Sex work is a huge part of this setting (being wild west inspired.) They’ve got several active prostitutes in game and clear policies about constant and enthusiastic consent in any sexual encounters, but also that the ‘Soiled Doves’ offer many services which are not sexually oriented. Still, the use of Ars Amandi allows such scenes to be in character ‘played out’ without just fading to black, should players wish. I had discussions with them all after game about the technique Shoshana Kessock developed for 1878, which was a strictly verbal take on Ars Amandi, and I hope that it might be included in the future to give players an option that doesn’t involve touch but allows the scene to still be ‘acted out’ in real time.

New Player Inclusivity: New players are the name of the game. Many of their plot systems have player caps on them (mods, bounties, investigations), but bringing along 1 extra player is always permitted if it’s a new player. So, new players are pulled in on almost EVERYTHING to exceed mod/research cap, and get them involved from game one. It meant that those I attended with were always off doing something and we got to do a ton of plot separate from our little crew, ensuring that we got to meet a bunch of folks who we didn’t know already. The only reservation I have about this system is I wonder if games 2-3 will feel like a let down in compare, as I’ll still be a relatively new player who is low powered, but not all that well known or with a greatly useful amount of skills. Therefore, there will be far less reason for people to include the 2nd or 3rd game player on mods. I don’t THINK this will be an issue, knowing their player base, but it is a concern in my head.

Investigations: Their Investigation system is wonderful, but incredibly storyteller time intensive. Three people can go on any investigation (or 4, if you have a new player), and the ST sits down with the crowd from the first moment it starts. There is no ‘pretend roleplay researching something for 30 minutes then come to ops and wait your turn to ask some rushed questions.’ The ST holds your hand, answers questions from the moment it starts, and can be immensely player responsive to what the plot needs. Players then get a certain amount of targeted questions according to what applicable skills they have and how many points in the skills. The investigation roleplay exists in a strange meta-area where a single player will ask the question using their skills, but it’s simply assumed that every player gained the information as the ST explains it. So, while the investigations are done ICly, there is a lot of meta-easing the roleplay back and forth. It helped all of us access and understand plot better while keeping things moving. My only concern about this system is that if the game grows, the STs might not be able to keep up with player demand, as it was immensely time intensive for any story staff to be involved with the amount of investigations that happened over the weekend. (I participated in at least 4 I can remember during the game, as a game one player.)

The Outstanding

Bounty Plots: They consisted of a closed folder with two pieces of paper in it. A player would get together their bounty team and collect the folder from ops. Inside, the top half of the paper listed the basic bounty information. Then cards were taped over the bottom half with a skill on the back of each card. If one of your party members had that skill, you opened up that card and read more information about it. Once all the information your party could gain was had, the PCs decided who went out on the mission directly and who “scouted the area.” Scouting the area meant your PC wasn’t essential to this mod, so you agreed to play the NPCs instead. The players who weren’t actively doing the mod grab the second sheet of paper, which is the NPC information. They go change costume, set up mod site, do whatever is needed, and then the players go off on the mod. When it’s done, the whole group of players comes back and gets paid, whether they “scouted”/NPCed or played out the mod. Entire engaging plots ran this way with the ONLY ST contact being the writing work pre-game, and the payout at the end of plot. It was incredibly useful and player entertaining. I also heard players saying generous things like: “I know I might fit on this mod better, but you NPCed the last one, let me NPC this one so you can go play.”

A deep understanding of their genre/setting: The story staff has an excellent understanding of coding, computers, AND philosophy. At one point in game, a PC ‘died’, but her digital imprint was totally ripped from her body. The players desperately were trying to get that imprint back into her so she could upload properly and in some messy attempts to get it out of the lattice, they made a digital echo/copy of her. I was explaining this to a friend who understands coding, and his immediate response was: “Oh my god, you forked someone’s code!” He was incredibly impressed, excited, and a bit horrified that actual programming errors were used in a game to accidentally digitally clone someone. Then, when the PCs finally managed to get her actual digital spirit back, one asked the ST using a skill: “Which is the real one?” to which the ST responded: “Philosophers have been asking that question for 1,000s of years…” Needless to say, this plot went into some amazingly deep debates about self, humanity, and the ethics of AI. It couldn’t have done any of that without the STs understanding of their setting and the players willingness to push deep into such roleplay.

Safe Combat: Their combat system is a rule of one hit per second, make it dramatic. It’s clear, there are very few calls, and the player base collectively sticks to this. Even if the STs didn’t make accommodations for bad conditions, I’d have felt safe fighting at this game. That being said, Saturday night was a muddy, icy, wreck of a messy night to fight. Therefore, the ST staff made a call that we were all “fording up a river” when fighting, and automatically slowed. This was specifically done to ensure EVERYONE was double safe fighting and no one felt the need to run, charge, or take things too fast in bad conditions. This is the GOOD kind of meta, and I loved it.

Player Agency: While the book and the rules are there to give good outlines of everything you CAN do, the players have an immense amount of agency to design their own flare to everything. How you use your skills, what sort of background you come from (Bunker Baby or Cultist? You make up your own flavor entirely!), and how you develop your skills are almost entirely in the player’s hands. There is an excellent research system for players to invent new skills or coding scripts in character, which the STs can monitor to keep them in genre and power balance, but it gives the players the ability to have a true mark on the world in so many ways.

The Food: For ten dollars, they give you six meals. Friday late dinner, Saturday breakfast, lunch, dinner, Sunday breakfast, lunch. I don’t know how they do it. The food was DELICIOUS and filling. The saloon is always manned by at least one PC to help get food/drinks at any given time. I walked away from this larp stuffed and craving their chili recipe.

Retirement: After a certain amount of time in game, when a player has hit most everything maximum level their character does, there is an enforced retirement. A player gets to create and extra special skill that comes straight from their character and is developed with staff through plot. Then, that player gets a special retirement plot as a swan-song to the PC. Character retirement is something that is celebrated widely in this game, seen as a good thing, and happily enjoyed by both the PC and the PCs around the person retiring. I got to see one this weekend, and it was incredibly beautiful to watch. More long running games could HIGHLY benefit from learning how to celebrate a character’s retirement and wrap a character’s story before they become dinosaurs.

Player Forms: They have pre-game calibration forms that they encourage every player to fill out, actually read, and adapt the game to player preferences. As a first game player, it was clear they’d read the things I wanted, read my backstory, and made efforts to put these things into play. I wanted to cry, I felt like the ST staff cared so much about my player experience.

The Basics: There are so many other things to say, honestly, but I’ve gone on long enough. Much of what I loved about the game otherwise is covered in the Basics document, and really gives a good feel for what this game is all about.

I was almost scared to put this review up online, as I don’t want this beautiful community to be spoiled by a huge rush of new or unhealthy players. There’s a lot of toxicity in the gaming community, and it seemed a strange miracle to find a game seemingly free of it. And this game certainly won’t be for everyone. It’s not a play-to-win system OR player culture at all. There is very little PvP and, what PvP there is, is all social-emotional-ethical play, not stealing people’s things. But if you are looking for an innovative, player agency, deeply character driven game, I absolutely recommend After the End to anyone who can make their way to that sleepy Tennessee town.

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