The weekend before last was Festival of the LARPs, the annual all LARPing weekend at Brandeis University. I was somewhat worried about Festival this year, as there was a bit more of a time crunch than usual, and it looked like the attendee numbers might be down. But happily, we ended up with over 100 attendees registered, and nearly all of the LARPs filled (and the one LARP that didn’t hit minimum player numbers was replaced by ones that did.)
I tapped the New Zealand LARP community for suggestions for LARPs that would be new to the community, looking for small games that would be easy to run. They gave me a few good suggestions, which I downloaded off of DrivethruRPG, though I only ended up running one due to how the numbers shook out for sign ups. I have the others in my back pocket for future LARP events, like the Bubbles and SLAW. (Specifically, I thought about running Argonautica, The Demon Gate, and The Face of Oblivion.)
I didn’t end up playing a Friday evening LARP, which was unusual for me. My first LARP was one of the late additions to the schedule, But Not Tonight, which ran on Saturday afternoon. But Not Tonight is a freeform LARP that was described to me as “The Breakfast Club,set in a fallout shelter”. Through the workshop, players create characters by choose a formal and informal name, a clique, a keyword, a grade, a wound (a problem they’re struggling with), a gift (a strength that helps them address problems), and positive and negative relationships with the other students and the guidance counselor (also a player).
I decided to draw on personal experience during the workshop. I initially reached for “athletes” for my clique (varsity volleyball was a significant part of my high school experience), but since two other players also chose athletes, I swapped to artist. I really liked the name element, where each character picked a formal name and an informal name, something people who know you well would call you, and something people who don’t, which players can use during the gameplay to reflect changing relationships dynamics. Again, drawing on personal experience, I decided my character had an older sister with a rhyming name, and school staff that didn’t know her well usually called her by her sister’s name. I think my favorite detail was that she was the person inside the mascot costume (which was the basis of her positive relationship with the cheerleader.)
For my wound, I chose “having an affair with a teacher” because it seemed the most interesting, but later I found it difficult to steer my character in the direction of revealing the details and/or discussing it in depth, particularly with the guidance counselor present, for fear of getting the teacher in legal trouble. (In retrospect, I feel I should have steered harder towards not being concerned about that particular consequence, both for my own sake, and for the sake of the experience of the guidance counselor, and another player playing the teacher’s nephew.) I also found it somewhat difficult to use my character’s gift — being outspoken for what she believed in — in a way that didn’t feel contrived.
The highlights of the LARP for me included the game of Truth or Dare, which was basically a series of prompts for good roleplay — either to reveal secrets we had already determined, or a fun way to come up with new ones on the fly. (I think this is a good sign for an upcoming weekend long LARP which will likely involve a lot of ice breaker/sleepover type games.) I also really liked the way But Not Tonight cleverly simulated a montage of time dragging past, and the little moment when we discovered twinkies and tang in the school fall out shelter.
An interesting thing about this sort of freeform LARP, where characters are created through workshops before play, is that they’re very open to replay, and they might even potentially be better the second time around, as players can make more informed decisions during the workshop to lead to the kind of play they hope to have. It’s probably also often easier to figure out how to successfully steer (that is, positively metagame) for dynamic roleplay.
Even though this was a freeform with no pre-casting, I still did a little costuming, and wore my more retro pair of glasses (they’re not exactly 80s, but that’s ok), a retro looking striped t-shirt, jeans, converse sneakers, and my vegan leather jacket. I thought it worked well enough for an 80s high school student when combined with a side ponytail. (I only wish I’d remembered to crimp my hair.)
My evening LARP at Festival was Blackwell. This was my first choice sign up, one I was excited to play based on some positive reviews I’d heard about a run at Intercon. Inspired by a book, The Red Garden (I have not yet read it, but now I would like to), Blackwell is set in the 19th century during an unspecified war in a small town somewhere in Western Massachusetts. (Prior to the LARP, there was some discussion over the most likely war, with the American Civil War being the obvious answer, and the Mexican-American War and Spanish-American war as not-impossible alternatives.)
I was cast as the mysterious Fisherman’s Wife. I was very excited about this character when it came through email; it seemed like a lot of fun, with some very interesting roleplaying challenges and a nice opportunity to re-wear the costume I put together for an NPC role at Musica Universalis, with its long dramatic veil. (I even soaked my hair in a sink a few times during the LARP, just as I did for MU — you never realize just how quickly hair dries until you want it to stay wet.) It’s a very spoilerable sort of role so I won’t say too much more here, other than it was just as fun as I expected it to be, and definitely the role I would have picked for myself, were I asked to self-cast knowing everything I know about the LARP now.
Highlights of the LARP included a play performed by two characters just before the end, in which they told the story of much of their time in the town, and a poem written and read by another character. I think if players are up for it, more LARPs should include performances, whether its music, dance, poetry recital, or theater. Part of the play included me as a participating audience member tossing (nearly empty) cups of water in the actors’ faces (at their instruction). It was a recreation of a moment from earlier in the LARP, in which I tossed cups of (entirely imaginary) water at them.
It seems like such a little thing, but I thought it made for a nice, dramatic bit of showy roleplay. We shy away from things like this in LARP, in part because we often avoid exaggerated expressions of negative emotions (though in this case, my character was not expressing a negative emotion, she was trying to be helpful), but more practically, (and entirely reasonably) we avoid creating even minor physical discomfort (or risking damaging costuming.) Of course, this is the kind of thing that requires pre-negotiation, but it’s such an easy way to create instant drama, I’d like to keep it mind for future LARPs.
One odd observation — even though the LARP was explicitly set in Massachusetts (and nearly all of the characters were locals), I noticed a number of LARPers affecting a Southern drawl.
On Sunday morning, I was signed up to play a LARP mysteriously labeled ????? on the schedule. The blurb for the LARP was originally also ?????, but later updated to reassure people it wasn’t an error, but was in fact a LARP intentionally labeled and described with question marks. And it filled, which I think says something about this community and its eagerness to LARP, along with how it values surprise in LARP. However, upon arrival on Sunday morning, I found out the LARP had one extra player, and so I agreed to NPC instead. It turned out to be a wacky LARP about random characters from history and literature playing a bizarre, chaotic, and poorly managed game show in Purgatory. I played random harried stage hands, confused but enthusiastic studio audience members, and later some vague authority figure closing down the whole affair. I found some large paper bags in the classroom where we ran, and with some board markers, created impromptu signs cheering on the different players while in the role of the audience.
After ?????, it was time for Spellbound! a LARP from the New Zealand community inspired by supernatural 1960s sitcoms (specifically, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie), along with a bit of Stepford Wives and Mad Men, set at a Thanksigving dinner. I’m not a terribly experienced GM, so I was a little nervous about running it, but the writer was very nice and patient when answering my questions over email, and casting worked out such that I didn’t feel there were any characters that didn’t fit the corresponding questionnaire responses.
In prepping for the LARP, I had fun making a little bit of set decoration and props. I pulled some vintage Thanksgiving art off of the internet and made some cards. I also put together an ad that had been produced by the advertising company that two of the characters work for. And I had fun decorating two green bottles, one large, one small, with nail polish, gold paint pens, and stick-on gems. Since I didn’t manage to obtain a rat prop, I pulled an image off the internet, printed it, and cut it out. I think the props worked out well.
At the start of the LARP, the family started inside the main game space, and I had the guests enter in the order I thought would most maximize awkwardness and tension. And during the run, I pulled up an audio clip of a laugh track and played it on my phone whenever someone had a good quip and the moment felt right. Since the LARP is set at a Thanksgiving dinner, we ended the LARP by having everyone sit down and say what they’re thankful for. Most players went for a heartfelt sentiment rather than a quippy remark, so I quickly pulled up a sound effect of a studio audience saying, “awwww….” and played that after the various remarks.
I think it would be fun to run this LARP again, and I have a few ideas for how I might improve the way I handled the rules briefing . In particular, the way some of the open-ended magic went off in the game resulted in me as the GM having to repeat to players as they walked around the space, “here is what you see…” and I think I’d like to discourage players from creating that sort of situation. I also think I could have been smoother with the part meant to cover any changes to character pronouns,
If you’d like to run Spellbound!, it’s available on DrivethruRPG.
Now that Festival is over, it’s time to start thinking about the upcoming Summer LARPin’ and NELCO. (NELCO is now accepting bids for topics, by the way, and there’s a schedule up for Little Boffer Con!)