Title: Parlor Larps Adaptations: Hamlet Authors: J Li Publisher: Shifting Forest Storyworks Year: 2004 64 pages Product Rating: 3 (***) Game Play Rating: 5 (*****)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2006 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
Hamlet is a live-action role-playing game, written by J Li, and part of Shifting Forest Storyworks' "Parlor Larps" series. Each game of the series is packaged to be a quick-start scenario playable with minimal prep by 4 to 8 people plus a Director within a single room (though this game benefits from a little extra space). The games fulfill a unique and little-filled niche of a game which can be played with minimal preparation, resolves in a few short hours, and is playable by both hobby role-players and non-role-players.
The game requires a Director who is normally responsible for preparation and hosting, but most of the action during play is handled independently by the players. During the game, the Director acts as a referee for PC-to-PC conflicts, and sometimes will play minor NPC parts as well as announce events. However, NPCs never have conflicts with PCs.
Many are set in modern times, with little required in terms of costuming or props. Hamlet could potentially benefit from doing a few props, but the needs are fairly modest. Mostly, just a few sword and knife props. The game relies on a narrated conflict resolution system, where conflicts can be physical, social, or emotional. So there is a lot of dialogue and walking around, but also narrated action described by the players. This larp will probably take from two to four hours of play. With players new to the Parlor Larp system, the start will take roughly an hour to an hour and a half in addition.
The first-printing book that I have is 64 pages half-size (5.5"x8.5"), and spiral bound with a clear plastic front over a color-printed front page. About half of the book is taken up by the characters. There are two copies of each of the eight characters included (for Director and Players), and each character takes up a full sheet (front and back of one page). The sheets are perforated to pull out easily. My early copy is not very durable, but the second printing of all the series are perfect-bound with a full-color card-stock cover. The only drawback the character sheets are harder to tear out from the perfect-bound copies.
The larp of Hamlet takes all of its background exactly from the Shakespeare play. There are no secrets except the obvious ones from the play. It starts with a very specific divergence point: in Act 4, between Scene III and Scene IV. At that point, Hamlet had accidentally killed Polonius the night before, and was about to leave for England with his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The larp begins in a postulated going-away party for Hamlet later that day.
In the play, Polonius' son Laertes does not arrive back at the castle until well after Hamlet had left. In the larp, though, Laertes arrives back in the middle of Hamlet's going-away party -- angrily demanding to know what has happened to his father. This allows the conflicts which takes up the final act to potentially all come to a head at this point.
The eight characters for this are all characters from the play. However, there are a few general notes on characters within the Parlor Larps series. Every Parlor Larp scenario features eight characters with a specific mix of three pairs of descriptors, namely:
Because eight includes all combinations of these, a player can pick a character simply by picking one of each of the three. Philosophically, this is designed to accommodate a mix of larp styles. Some players can pursue their goals, while others concentrate more on immersing in emotions. There are complex characters for delving into, and simple characters for new or less dedicated players. For the Hamlet larp, the eight characters are:
This cast is pretty much what one would expect given the play. The character of Guildenstern was not included as it is redundant with Rosencrantz. Marcellus is a castle guard -- the same who saw old Hamlet's ghost in the beginning. He is there to protect the king, but also has his doubts due to the ghost which could influence him in a conflict. One note is that there are only two women. Most of the original parlor larps are designed to that all eight characters are non-gender-specific, with alternate names like "John/Jane". However, that obviously could not be done in this case.
Each character sheet is 5.5x8.5 inches, and includes a brief background, a list of goals, abilities (see mechanics below), and items. On the back, though, are a list of questions. The characters are all left with open questions for the player to answer about their motivations, background, and feelings. The list of six to ten questions are designed to draw that out of the player. The game recommends checking with the Director for feedback and thoughts about the answers, but this can also be done privately to save time.
The rules include a single set of diceless mechanics that handle three categories of conflict: Physical (P), Social (S), and Emotional (E). There are no randomizers or guessing (like rock-paper-scissors) for resolution. Instead, everything revolves around Function Levels. Each character has five Function Levels, which are an abstract measure of how well the character is. They combine physical, emotional, and social state. If you are reduced to zero Function Levels, you are out of the game. If it is by physical conflict, you are dead. If by social, you are crushed and unable to function. If by emotional, you suffer a breakdown. Because there are only a handful, you can't engage in many conflicts during a game.
Conflicts are resolved by quick diceless comparison of numbers. In addition, each character has a set of numerically rated conflict abilities, such as "Fighting" or "Intimidate". Each character also has three Resist scores, one for each conflict category.
The basic rule of conflict is simple: the character with the higher score wins. To initiate a conflict, you use an ability marked on your sheet, like Intimidate or Swordplay. You compare your active ability with the opponent's Resist score. Whoever has the lower score loses and takes the difference in Function Levels of damage (unless the ability specifies some other effect). If you go to zero function levels, you are out of the game: dead if by physical, outcast if social, and insane or collapsed if emotional.
The key exception here is that you can sacrifice Function Levels to increase your total in a conflict. Each conflict begins with the two sides simultaneously revealing how many Function Levels they bid. This almost never helps you survive, but may help you oppose other characters or achieve your goals. In short, this is an extremely lethal system which encourages sacrifice to go out with a bang.
There are a few other exceptions, most of which are listed on the character sheets. For example, swords or other weapons will increase the damage done upon a successful physical attack. Also, many conflict abilities only work for a limited range of Function Levels -- so if you are badly injures, you cannot swordfight. Lastly, characters may have special abilities described on their sheets. For example, Hamlet has a special "Soliloquy" ability that allows him to freeze the game to speak. Characters may also have limited use abilities, like "Intuition", which allows the player to ask the Director a yes/no question.
I have directed this larp twice, as well as been involved in a number of other Parlor Larps in this series. I find it is generally excellent. The scenario setup is brilliant, and the characters are all well written. I'll start with the strengths:
However, there are a number of drawbacks, mostly to do with the execution of the concept.
Still, for what they are doing, there simply is nothing comparable to the Parlor Larp series -- and I think that Hamlet is a terrific example.