Eskhaton: Reviewing the End of the World

(Featured Photos by Jesse Robert Gifford Stuart.) I recently attended Eskhaton Larp in Rhode Island, run by Reverie Studios, as someone skilled in larp design with the eye of a journalist. Eskhaton was talked about as a horror game, but in truth, it was a game of modern day cults and the end of the world. The characters and cults were the horrors, not the things being horrified. It was interesting to walk on the other side of that classic gaming genre. While I was invited to play, it was with the goal of giving a critical review of the event afterwards. Therefore, this write-up isn’t all butterflies; it’s done with the eye of someone who thinks we collectively better ourselves by learning from flaws and successes in other’s designs. Also, I’ll admit to a touch of selfishness that Eskhaton will be run again taking all feedback into account because it was a unique story, a truly captivating event for a first run, and I think it has the potential to be really breakthrough in a second run taking this review and other feedback into account.

The Challenges

I’ll start by examining what flaws and challenges the game presented players. Some of these are major holes, many of them are places where the design was exciting but could learn and grow from some tweaking.

Necessary Pre-Planning: This game needed a lot of pre-planning to be fully engaged in the content. Many of the character sheets had entire NPCs or background stories that never saw the light of day unless you pre-planned with others ahead of the game and requested the scenes. There was no time in the workshops to check in with cross-faction connections, so if you hadn’t found them before the game on the internet, you had no real way of making that connection play out in game. Players who had no time for pre-planning definitely felt themselves at a disadvantage in the game compared to factions who coordinated months in advance together. This is easily fixed a few ways:

  1. Making it clear in the game documentation and website that this game is best played with pre-planned scenes and relationships
  2. Giving players more time in the workshop to negotiate those relationships if they haven’t had the time
  3. Laying out a clear way players can request scenes on the ground during game.

Food Sensitivities: Small things, not necessarily game design relevant, but important to player experience. While the food was good, some players’ allergies weren’t taken fully into account and the waitstaff wasn’t informed on the food contents, so they were unable to answer player questions. I’ve seen these issues at multiple games and while they are minor, it is frustrating to players in the moment when it occurs. Once more, these are fixed by setting expectations for the players coming. If a venue isn’t going to easily be able to accommodate allergies or food sensitivities, making certain everyone knows that and can prepare ahead means players can better prepare as well.

Calibration Mechanics and Timing: While the look down and the OK Check-in were both used, no other calibration or safety mechanics were given until players asked for them. There was no way to de-escalate a scene if needed or call a hard stop to a scene if something was wrong. In a game dealing with such dark topics, these should be put in place before hand, especially since the rest of the game did so well about emphasizing safe play. Eventually, the collective player base settled on “Cut” if a scene needed a hard stop and Red/Yellow/Green light for calibrations. Lastly, all of Saturday morning was open for players to use as they pleased. Several of us spent this time running around frantically trying to calibrate and negotiate between our player factions because of some very intense roleplay that had the chance to spill into out of character animosity. If a set time for check-ins and calibration had been put down on Saturday morning (a second, brief workshop?) it would have created the expectation to do more calibrations that morning and giving us a clear place/time to handle these conversations.

Staff Balance and Presentation: This is difficult to write, because I know not all of Reverie are white masculine-presenting people. They had some brilliant women working with them and at least one person of color. However, at the workshop, other than the woman running the workshop (Miranda Chadbourne, brilliant guidance and amazing player safety coach) every single person standing in front of the room who got accolades was white and male-presenting. This was jarring to more than a few people. In the future, I highly recommend that every staff member present stand and get proper introductions, especially when a game is making the steps towards hiring more diverse voices. Secondly, I’d love to see Reverie hire at least one *designer* who is a woman, or a personal of color, for their core design staff. It’s a challenge all of the game world is facing, but there are such voices in design out there, and they make all of our games more diverse and supportive for a wide range of players. (* Editorial Footnote below.)

Lack of Mechanical Agency Support: Rituals, summoning gods, calling on power, so many epic things could be done at this game. However, there was no real mechanical or design support as to HOW to do these things. Players were simply told to request scenes and the staff was there to help. This meant that players who were previously trained in taking their own agency could do almost anything (including becoming a god themselves, which one player did!) However, players who weren’t good with taking agency, who didn’t quite understand their character’s place in things, who didn’t make good bonds during the workshops, or had never played a game like this before felt quite lost. Without any sort of structure or guidance in place, they weren’t certain what they could do, so several weren’t able to get into things until the second day of game. I think this is one big design space where Reverie could do really well to write some ritual structures or character support design. I know Reverie is an amazing creative team and I’d love to see what they come up with for supporting players who want a bit more structure in this universe.

The End Game: The members of the various cults all got to vote on which dark god brought about the end of the world at this game. It added a competitive element to the event which many American players love. However, the cults were not designed in a way that gave everyone an equal chance of winning. I asked the designers if that was purposeful and was assured that no, the votes were not planned in any way and it was all up to player choice. If that was the goal of the game, the cults needed to be evenly balanced in numbers but ALSO in faith. Most of us knew by the beginning of day two which cult was going to win — they had the most numbers and also had a firmly planned, structured, and reinforced faith between all of them. In contrast, my cult found out late on Saturday that half our people had lied to us about our gods, so many of us lost faith 2/3rds of the way through the game. As other cults realized they had no chance of winning, they built their own ways out. Players were given the agency and support to create satisfying endings for themselves despite the loss of the ‘vote’, and that was a great success of the game. But, if it’s run again, I’d love to see deliberate design balance to the cults OR deliberate design of a winner and some interesting endings designed for the other factions.

The Mareen anoint each other in celebration of their watery goddess, with whom they joined at the end of game. (Photo by Jesse Robert Gifford Stuart.)

Faction and Character Tie Workshopping: Faction building can make or break a player’s game. While there was a faction activity, we were never given direction to introduce ourselves, our characters, their place in the story, discuss what we wanted out of the game, discuss any hard triggers, or take any of the time to build character ties within our faction so we could lift up each other’s game using the out of character meta we learned from each other in faction building. Similarly, there was no time at all directed towards finding ties outside of your faction, so many cross-faction plots were missed unless a player self-directed to see those people out. I’ve seen this sort of vital character workshopping missed in several games lately but it can really help solidify a player experience and is one of the strongest parts of faction based roleplay. An easy fix is building in 30 minutes for out of character faction building and 15 minutes for cross faction tie building into any given workshop. I’ve written up faction workshops on this blog before and always recommend it as a read.

The Successes

Please don’t think the game was horribly rough. It’s always more important to learn from what went difficult so we can grow in the future. But Eskhaton did a ton of things right and I think we can carry on learning from their successes as well.

The Workshop Rituals: If I could put one overarching motif on the game, it was rituals. Everywhere you looked, a ritual was happening. Miranda helped us character build through rituals and the cross-faction character emotions it created was amazing. She hid little props throughout the entire workshop room. After the rules were reviewed, she instructed all of us to get into our character bodies. We then walked around the room and found a prop that spoke to our character. We were to figure out what deep meaning it had to our character. Then she instructed us to walk around the room and find someone we thought it should belong to, then tell them why they should have it. It got the participants quickly into the mind of Yes-Anding, build a basic ritual for them, and created some intense moments between non-related characters in a way I’ve never seen in a workshop before. I’m going to modify and steal this (with credit to Miranda) for some of my own workshops in the future.

Setting, Props and Costumes: I am in awe of everything visual about this game. The site that Reverie found was utterly perfect for a game about dark New England horror. To this moment I can remember the feel of cold concrete beneath my bare feet on the towering island where so many rituals were held. But it wasn’t just the venue, their ability to set dress and create costumes is up there with a movie house. The ProGenus’ corner medical room (pictured below) had the perfect mix of clinically sterile, mad science, and clear plastic medical sheeting tarped enough across the floor we could lay in pools of our own fake blood without worrying about damaging the venue. Tyler Brown had made over a dozen disturbingly gorgeous ritual cult masks the player base had full access to use all game. The costumes for all the NPCs completely transformed them to the point I did not realize who was playing what character. I’d play another Reverie game just to see their set and costume values alone.

NPC Allerton Family: Speaking of the NPCs, the staff played the Allerton family as NPC support brilliantly. They were an in-character family all dressed in dark robes with yellow masks. Faceless, nameless, they were only there to serve us — literally both in and out of character. They were the victims and guardians of many rituals. They helped get us to dinner and fresh clothes when ours were ruined. They helped set up and direct scenes as needed, all without ever breaking the play space because they were there as characters. I loved having an NPC family specifically there to be a diegetic part of the setting.

Repeated Reminders of Self-Care: Miranda reminded players of their tap-out mechanics and to self care at least six different times during the workshop. She had us repeated it back to her. She had others repeatedly reinforce ‘If you aren’t comfortable, please tap out.’ By the end of those workshops, I’d heard it more in an HOUR alone than sometimes during an entire game. I believe it’s because of this that I saw more players willing to use their tap out mechanics and take some time out of game here than any other game. Larpers are notoriously bad at self-care, but they managed it far better at this event. Putting a repeated emphasis on it and including that there is NO SHAME in tapping out, I think, is what encouraged more people to do it. That meant the rest of us could lean into dark play without worries that maybe it was being pushed too far.

Safely Supportive of Dark Play: I love some dark roleplay. Outside of 1942, this was probably the darkest game I’ve ever experienced. By the end of game I was so covered with fake blood that I had ruined all my underwear and it took two showers to get it off. However, there were so many safety warnings on things and emphasis on consent negotiations (even if we weren’t quite given some clear tools on that) that every dark scene I entered I felt confident everyone knew what they were getting into. If things were particularly rough or triggering (see bloody ritual below, or don’t if that’s not your thing), they stationed NPCs outside of the rituals to give content warnings for anyone who would even approach the scene. I felt protected, loved, cared for, and supported the entire game which let us lean into some really dark spaces.

The Debrief and Deroling Workshop: It was definitely needed for a lot of people after that experience. Miranda put a strong emphasis on the difference between debriefing and deroling, something even I have forgotten to do in a lot of after game workshops. She gave us time, comfort, and clear instruction to get through that exhausted Sunday morning and come away safer for it.

Full Access to Makeup Artist and NPCs: Need to be transformed into a mermaid? An elder god? A scarred dark fae? THEY WOULD DO THAT FOR YOU. Players had full access to the game’s professional sfx makeup artist and that was incredibly empowering for a lot of players. Also, if you decided you needed a scene on the ground that wasn’t planned before the game, players did have full access to logistics and NPCs. We could ask for support the entirety of the game and, while I know it left staff scrambling sometimes, they were really amazing about giving every player the scenes and support they wanted.

The Photography: Jesse Robert Gifford Stuart is some sort of mastermind ninja photographer who had to have jumped between dimensions to get every shot he did. He sprinted across the venue site, up the hill to the island, and into ice cold water more times than we can count. He didn’t just focus on the traditionally pretty people, or the loudest actors, but took care to get almost everyone some good shots. A friend who says he’s almost never in larp photography said he got more good shots from this one game alone than all his other blockbuster games put together. Lastly, the photos were turned around incredibly fast and, once published, it was clear that he focused not just on pretty shots but on storyboarded photography. Because of his photo series, you could actually piece together the things actively happening in a scene. The photos captured full stories, not just pretty moments, and that’s incredibly valuable larp documentation I rarely get to see.

The Endings: While the voting was awkward, the staff wrote really lovely endings for everyone in game. Each player was able to find their own satisfying way out. An entire cult escaped to their own god’s dark world (Go Mareen! You all looked eerie and beautiful with your watery selves.) Some people transformed. Others managed to jump into another universe where they could live on. I didn’t think it’d be possible to get that many players a satisfying ending in an inherently competitive game. While it wasn’t perfect for everyone, they really managed to get the majority of the playerbase a satisfying wrap to their story and that’s phenomenal. Lastly, the slow walk from in character at the manor house, down the hill, to being out of character in the dining hall — it was near perfect. I love when people have the chance to de-role while physically walking from an in character to an out of character space and it rarely gets to happen in games, so I’m glad they gave us that opportunity.

* After discussions with some of the writers, it turns out the staff was far more diverse than was seen in the room during workshops. Reverie did hire several diverse writers and artists, but a full-staff decision was made to not put them in front of the room, so those participating could enjoy playing the game without having to constantly answer questions as staff.

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