Hollywood Lives! – Reiner Knizia designs a LARP

LARPs, for those of you who may not have seen them being played at cons or caught the Vampire: The Masquerade jokes in Dork Tower, are role-playing games taken to their logical extreme. There is no character sheet, no clear victory condition, few rules, and it’s all about the acting, costumes, and roleplaying.

In Hollywood Lives!, players take the roles of Hollywood personalities trying to gain fame, fortune, and make great movies. The game is played in two rounds. In each round, there are three screenplays available. Players bid money for the right to produce these movies, which probably requires making deals and pooling assets, since the scripts are likely to go for more than a single player’s starting capital ($10M). Once the screenplays are acquired, the three producers then try to acquire the talent to make the movies. Each movie will have a certain number of roles, each of which will provide fame for the player who land them; the amount of revenue the movie makes will also be determined by the fame of the actors that the producer can recruit. There are several more roles than players, so there will always be demand.

Then, the real game begins. Once the cast is signed up, you have to actually make the movie. From script acquisition through deal-making to performance, the team has 20 minutes to produce a 3-minute trailer, in which everyone has to act in at least a minor role. After seeing all the trailers, everyone votes on best film, best actor, and best actress. The best actors and actresses gain fame, and the film voted best gets a substantial cash payout.

Here were the films that were produced:

Night of the Lemmings
From a famed Finnish director, a saga of a forest ranger’s tireless quest to find out why lemmings jump. Rita Bargot (Jennifer) wins an Academy Award for best actress for her compelling scream in the role of the forest ranger. This moody picture would take home the Academy Award for 1951.

David & Samson
David says Goliath, Delilah shears Samson, the lion steals Samson’s hair and goes after David. Then it turns out Goliath isn’t dead, and he kills the lion and gives Samson back his hair. Will there be a happy ending for David and Samson? Will the audience be able to actually follow the plot? Come see the film to find out. C C Senior (Matt) wins Best Actor for his portrayal of David, while Buster Langdon (Rich) gets a nomination for the role of Samson. David & Samson would also bring home an Academy Award nomination.

It’s a Marvelous Wife
It’s Paris. Lonely men and a Moulin Rouge dancer, a waitress, and a rich daughter of the Defense Minister, fallen somewhat out of favor after WWI. How will the couples pair off in the end? Millie Zenelli (Michelle) as the traumatized waitress, Barbara Candlewick (Candy) as the daughter of the defense minister, and Louis D. Major (Roger) as an American tourist would all bring home Academy Award nominations.

I was the gamemaster, and I had warned everyone that time would be tight, and that a 3-minute trailer really isn’t a whole lot of time. I used to do speech & debate back in high school, and I remember the 5 minutes they game us always felt very short. In the end I may have led people astray, though, as nobody used up their full 3 minutes. In the second round, folks adjusted:

The Big Sheep
The second picture from producer Sam E. Blodwyn (Chris – producer of Night of the Lemmings) features 4 farmers on an island. The brick production is going fine. There is wood to spare. Grain and ore are in abundance. But with winter approaching, folks think it might be nice to have … some sheep. But in the morning, the sheep are missing, to a faint odor of mutton. Who committed the dastardly dead? The islanders hire a knight to investigate. The Big Sheep would earn an Academy Award nomination, and C C Senior (Matt) would win a best actor nomination for his dual role as the farmer and the knight.

High Moon
From producer Mimi van Donen, we have another plot-heavy drama centering on a dysfunctional family, a distraught wife, their out-of-control son. A handsome stranger happens by and changes the life of the wife with his kindness, but in the end must donate his brain to save the life of the child when he kills himself in an explosion. High Moon cleaned up in the awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actress for Millie Zenelli (Michelle) as the wife, a nomination for Mimi van Donen (Linda) in a dual role (mother and flower saleswoman), and Best Actor for Errol G. Swash (Shay) as the handsome stranger.

Drop Anchor
Fresh from his triumph in Night of the Lemmings, this big-budget musical was a star vehicle for Humphrey Geaucart. The cast valiantly attempts a song & dance show about a retiring pirate, his assistants, a king, and his daughter, but the audience has a hard time following plot twists and turns that make the Pirates of Penzance look plausible. Humphrey Geaucart (Liam) and Olivia de Lancaster (Kim) get Academy Award nominations.

You can see some photos of the teams here. I wish we had gotten more photos, but everyone was pretty busy hammering together performances. If we run it again, I might consider taking video of the trailers; The Big Sheep could have been an underground cult gamer’s classic, and everyone’s performances were entertaining. But taping it might also put a damper on the friendly atmosphere, so on balance I think it’s just as well we didn’t.

Hollywood Lives has essentially two bits to it. There is the bit where everyone sits down to write, produce, and act in movies. This is the “LARP bit”. Then there is the “Knizia bit”, which is where everyone makes financing deals, negotiates contracts, and earns money. At some level, I’m not the one to judge because I didn’t play – I just ran the game, making sure everyone knew the rules, tracking the timing, tallying votes for awards, and calculating movie payouts. But, my sense is that the LARP bit went over really well. Everyone, even the folks who had some trepidation going in, seemed to get into making the movies. The structure is great, with significant time pressure keeping people from slowing down to think, and the short trailer format letting people be creative without being too overwhelming to folks who wouldn’t normally do this sort of thing. The academy award voting adds an element of nice friendly competition, but with enough awards being handed out each year (6 actor/actress awards, with only 12 or so players, and 2 of the 3 movies get awards), the odds are you’ll get to experience success at some point.

In our group, though, I’m not sure that the Knizia bit quite flew, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of us are big fans of Knizia’s boardgames. It seemed like the negotiation for roles and the bidding for screenplays was a bit flat. I think it’s a combination of things, with the amount of money movies make being fixed by an open formula and not that dependent on the fame ratings of the actors, but more on academy awards, which are won on script-writing ability and acting talent – which nobody knows until you’ve played with the same group a couple of times. It’s not that it didn’t work, just that it wasn’t really compelling – I don’t think there is ever enough money at stake to make the negotiations worthwhile. I think if you wanted to get into that aspect of the game you could, but only if everyone else was doing it too. I wish that element were a little better. Competing for stars and money lends the game structure, which is nice, but I’m just not sure that competition is compelling enough.

But in the end, the “LARP bit” is the reason to play the game – the “Knizia bit” is just a supporting framework to provide some concrete goals, and has the advantage of relative simplicity. I think everyone enjoyed producing the trailers, and I enjoyed watching them. It was fun, and Kim & I hope to do it again sometime.

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