Guns And Death In Tombstone

Steve Hatherley

In 2001 I was co-writing a weekend-long Western freeform (which is how we refer to interactive theatre LARPS in the UK) in the style of the Cruel Hoax games such as Café Casablanca and The King’s Musketeers. Our game is called Once Upon a Time in Tombstone, and is based on the Western movie genre, rather than anything historical.

In designing the game, one of the big discussions we’ve had is concerning guns and death. Both play a prominent part in Westerns, but both have distinct problems.

Hardy’s First Law

In the late 1990s I played in a live Vampire: the Masquerade game. This was about the time that the Minds Eye Theatre boxed set came out (complete with false teeth and fake blood) but the organisers weren’t bothering with those, they had some other rules figured out. Unfortunately, the organisers had some very strange ideas. They were the sort of live-action gamers that found “realism” or “authenticity” more important than having a good time, and this had several effects on the game. Some were trivial. Some were not.

For example, we were told that if we wanted to smoke or drink beer, we’d have to spend some of our character points on a special ability that let us smoke and drink beer. (Normal White Wolf vampires don’t smoke, eat or drink. Or so I’m told.) As the venue was an alternative nightclub in Bradford, it was obvious that smoking and drinking beer was going to be an important part of the experience. So that meant that everyone would have to spend five character points on this particular ability – which effectively meant that everyone had five fewer points to spend. That just made the ability meaningless. (And it turned out to be impossible to police anyway, so what was the point?)

And I’m sure it’s admirable to want to play Vampire while it’s dark, what do you do in the summer when it doesn’t get dark until gone 10pm? Some people have to get up early and work for a living. How about we just pretend it’s dark? It’s not like we’re really vampires.
But if that was bad, I couldn’t believe their policy on guns.

“If you want to use a gun, you must have a blank-firing replica. A toy cap gun isn’t good enough.” Yes, that’s right. These people were advocating running around with blank firing replicas. Perhaps I should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they thought the guns would only be used inside (ignoring, for the sake of the argument, the serious risk to your hearing that a blank-firing gun can pose indoors). But the organisers were experienced live action gamers – they really should have remembered Hardy’s First Law of live-action gaming: “A gamer’s intelligence halves the moment they put on a costume. And it halves again as soon as they pick up a weapon.”

(Actually, I’m not sure who first said it, but I first heard it from Lynne Hardy so it’ll always be Hardy’s First Law to me.)

But they didn’t. They had a stupid rule about replica firearms instead.

And so the game started. The game itself was probably pretty lousy – I don’t know, I just chatted with people and had fun. There was some kind of plot, but I don’t remember what it was about. I do remember that the game spilled out into the streets of Bradford. I do remember getting into a taxi and travelling to someone’s house to watch an interrogation. (I also remember that there were several sessions of this, but this was some years ago and my memory is hazy and I can’t remember what happened and where.)

I think my most vivid memory is of finding a police van outside the club and an officer of the law talking to one of the organisers. I found out later that there had been five reported shootings in Bradford that night. (Hardy’s First Law indeed!) The Armed Response Squad had been called out and were parked around the corner.

“Your guns fire blanks,” the officer said. “Ours don’t.”

The organisers were lucky to get away with a warning. They were just as lucky not to have someone seriously injured. The game collapsed in a heap of apathy shortly after that, which was probably for the best.

The Armed Response Squad is a big deal in the UK. Our police are not routinely armed. I can’t remember the last time I saw a real gun over here. But the experience has made me wary of using any kind of prop gun in a freeform. Guns in freeforms are often used in a threatening manner, and even toy guns can look quite realistic from a distance. As a member of the public is only likely to see the guns from a distance, they may not realise that everything is just a game. So guns could cause us a potential problem.

And yet guns are such an integral part of the Western genre that it would be shame to do without them. We have several options.

  1. Don’t have any guns. If you want to fire a gun, use your finger and thumb (like you used to do when you were little). This is undoubtedly the easiest option and worked perfectly well for Cafe Casablanca, but this is a Western we’re writing and we’re under pressure to do something a little more exciting.
  2. Cardboard cut-outs. We could print up some guns on some heavy card stock and the players could cut them out. This has the advantage that the guns will be approximately the right size, and nobody will mistake them for real weapons. Unfortunately, cardboard is a bit flimsy - we’re likely to need several for each player so they can get replacements.
  3. Water-pistols, rubber-band guns and the like. I can’t remember who suggested water-pistols, but I can just imagine our freeform degenerating into a big water fight. Therefore, not an option.
  4. Toy guns. We could provide plastic toy guns for the players to use - hopefully these won’t look too realistic. However, it would only take one thoughtless individual and an unfortunate incident to bring us perilously close to my Vampire horror story. I’m not sure I want to take that risk. On the other hand, everyone should be in full Western costume, so having a few guns around shouldn’t look so odd. (Comparatively speaking, anyway.)

If we go for the toy guns we will need to decide whether to supply the guns ourselves or expect players to supply their own. If we supply them, we will have control – but at the added expense for us. If we let the players supply their own guns then we will have to explain what we are (and are not) permitting, and will have to vet them all.

My personal favourite depends on what day of the week it is. The finger and thumb method is simple, easy, and completely safe. And yet, I’m occasionally a fan of the toy pistol option. However, whatever happens, blank-firing replicas will not be permitted in Tombstone.

Killing Characters

Of course, if you give guns to your characters, then they will expect to use them. Hell, they’ll want to use them. If they’re like most gamers, they’ll be itching to blast away at the first thing that moves. And that means that other characters will be shot - and killed. After all, what’s the point in giving characters guns if you don’t let them kill anyone? How much fun will the shootouts be if you can’t die? People need to be threatened in a game with guns - they need to be threatened with character death. And if nothing else, they need to die in a Western game. It’s part of the genre.

Which brings me to another problem: character death.

Character death causes a number of problems for players, directors - and writers. For everyone.

For a start, the threat of losing your character can have quite an effect on some players. For example, if someone is playing a desperado with a price on their head and every bounty hunter is gunning for them, don’t be too surprised if they never venture from the safety of their secret hideout. That’s unlikely to be much fun for them or for anyone else, but it’s probably more fun than being killed. At least they’re alive. At least they still have the character they started the game with, the one they did the research and hired a costume for. For some players, that’s important.

Roleplaying games don’t normally have “winners” and “losers”. It’s always been one of the great selling points about roleplaying – it’s not supposed to be competitive. Although freeforms are technically roleplaying games, they are unusual because they do provide a measure of success – goals. The more goals you achieve in a freeform, the more likely you are to regard yourself as successful – ie, you “won”. You don’t tend to be given an objective that says, “Stay alive until the end of the game,” but that’s mainly because it’s implicit. Very rarely does anyone play a character deliberately to kill them – and only then if they are written that way.

So if you are even slightly competitive, chances are that if your character dies, you would consider that you “lost” that freeform. For some people, that’s also important. (I have certainly found that the games I’ve enjoyed the most are usually the ones where I’ve stayed alive and achieved lots of goals – but I know I’m competitive.)

Even if you don’t mind the fact that your character has died, it does introduce a couple of problems. First, there may be plot threads that have suddenly become derailed because a character has died. If the character has an important item, or secret knowledge, then that needs to get back into circulation. Or the character may be instrumental in arranging a big scene with other players (a wedding, a showdown). Without them, the scene will fizzle and die - and that just creates a bunch of unhappy customers.

(Perhaps players with dead characters should be carefully debriefed before letting them loose with a new one. There’s no excuse for not checking the in-game implications of losing a character. That’s just bad game-management.)

Then there’s the replacement character. The player won’t know their new character as well as their old one, and it’s extremely unlikely that they will be as well integrated into the plots - after all, the stand-by character might not be used at all. Therefore the writers cannot give him or her anything unique.

Then there’s costuming - a player is not likely to be best pleased if they’ve dressed as Geronimo (their original character) but the only one left is General Custer.

And it’s not only character death that causes these problems. If a player drops out unexpectedly (for whatever reason) then the problems with plots becoming derailed still apply.

Similarly, when a player achieves his goals ahead of schedule there won’t be anything keeping him in the game. He’s effectively “died” – and it’s time for a new character. (And if you think that should please the competitive players, my own experience is that it isn’t so – I find it unsatisfying not to finish the game with the character I started.)

As far as Tombstone goes, we have all these problems to consider. Several of us writers have had bad experiences with having our characters killed off or characters important to our plots leave the game or players dropping out. We are therefore keen to avoid these problems wherever we can.

I’ve only mentioned the negative aspects of character death here. There are benefits – going out in a blaze of glory can be wonderful. Introducing replacement characters can breathe a spark of life into some plots (and you may want to stagger the arrival of some characters anyway). But thanks to our personal experiences, we generally regard character death as a Bad Thing.

And yet we have guns in our Western game.

No Death ‘til Sunday

So how do we reconcile the fact that we have lots of guns, and players keen to use them, and yet none of us actually want our characters to die? How is the game to work?

In movies, the important characters rarely die before the climax. Until then, various minor characters might have been blown away in a variety of gunfights, but the lead villain (or, occasionally, the hero) doesn’t die until the last reel. So that leads to our first rule – no deaths until Sunday. The plan is to run the game over a weekend, starting on Friday and wrapping at lunchtime on Sunday. And if we prohibit character deaths until Sunday then we should be able keep everyone happy. Even us difficult-to-please types don’t mind going out in a blaze of glory in the final reel.

Café Casablanca had a similar rule, but it also had certain abilities that let particularly evil characters kill earlier in the game. (I personally think the game would have been better without those particular abilities.) Well, we’re not doing that. But if we are to maintain the action on Friday and Saturday, how are we to go about doing it?

We’re expecting gunfights will still take place before Sunday, but losing gunfighters will only be wounded. (There may be some other consequence as well – such as having to give up an item or losing an ability, we haven’t finalised the details yet.) They’ll then have to find some way of healing, but they won’t be dead.

Our second trick is to use something I first discovered playing Arabian Nights. Freeforms don’t really have non-player characters. Unlike other live action games, which often have players who “monster” for the paying customers, the cast of a freeform is usually all you need. Everyone is a player character and all are created equal. Arabian Nights, however, introduced me to the concept of “bit parts”. The idea that if you were bored, or stuck, or just fancied a change, you could go to one of the directors and ask for a small character to play for a while. Such a character might be, say, a bounty hunter out to collect the reward on Billy the Kid’s head. Of course, being a bit part, he won’t be expected to do anything except demonstrate how good Billy’s gunfighting skills are.

Bit parts are fun. They are often rather off the wall (one bit part in Arabian Nights had me playing an oyster!), and playing them is a refreshing change of pace. And, of course, as minor characters, bit parts can die well before the final reel. But that’s not their only use, we have other plans for them – including clueless poker opponents, drunken miners, inept rustlers and so on.

The only problem that you can have with bit parts is if someone wants to speak to the player’s “main” character while they are having fun with a bit part. As bit parts usually last for no more than about half an hour, I’ve not found that to be a big problem.

A third trick to dealing with dead characters would be to have their character avenged by their brother or sister (played by the same player). While that may work for a couple of characters, it’s unlikely to work for all 60. I don’t think we’re taking that route, but it’s still an option – we haven’t finished the game yet.

Of course, we still have to overcome the problem of characters leaving because they’ve accomplished all of their objectives. We’ve got two ways around that – the first is to provide so many plots that they’ll be struggling to do everything before Sunday. Second, anyone who leaves the game early will be killed by Indians in the pass. It’s a pathetic, unmourned death – and we’re going to be up front about it and put it in the rules. We want the characters to stick around so that they can face their enemies in a climactic showdown, and we’re prepared to play dirty.

We’re also going to tell the players about the no deaths until Sunday rule. We’ll be up front about it, and we’ll explain why and tell people about the bit parts. I’ve found that freeformers are usually a very reasonable and civil group of people. As long as you explain your reasoning for something, they’ll be more than happy to play along.

So that’s our writing philosophy regarding guns and death for Once Upon A Time In Tombstone. We’ve got guns – lots of them, but in keeping with all those Western movies, we’re not letting anyone important die before the end. Which is surely as it should be.

Post article note: Once Upon a Time in Tombstone aired in 2005 and we ended up providing all the players with toy guns, and advised the hotel staff in advance of what to expect. The game was, from my point of view, a fantastic success.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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