Be-Con 2018

Last weekend I was in the Chicago area for Be-Con, weekend-long convention of theater LARPing. This was the first Be-Con; naturally, there was a fair amount of experimentation going on with the structure and logistics of the con.  I played in four LARPs, met lots of new LARPers, and had a wonderful weekend overall!

The system Be-Con used for LARP registration was very new to me. Most of the LARP conventions I attend/have attended (Intercon, the Bubbles, Festival, Consequences, Summer LARPin’, SLAW, etc.) use a First Come, First Serve system (or some minor variation), with multiple rounds of sign-ups. (That is, at a designated time, players sign up for one LARP and get into their preferred LARP based on who clicked on the sign-up button first, then some number of days later, the process repeats with players choosing a second LARP if they wish, etc.)

Be-Con, by contrast, sent out two options for forms to everyone who had registered for the convention. One listed all of the LARPs in a single category; the other had them grouped by time slot. Attendees could pick which form they wanted to use, and either rank all of the LARPs by preference, or rank all of the LARPs of each given time slot by preference. Then the staff ran the responses through an algorithm that assigned each attendee to a roster of LARPs.

I’m still a little unclear on the details of the algorithm (I’m hoping to be in contact with the person who designed it soon), but my understanding is that it selected attendees in a random order and assigned them to their highest ranked LARP that still had open slots. Once everyone had gotten their first LARP, a new round of assigning LARPs started, but the second round favored people who hadn’t received their highest ranked LARPs. (That is to say, if in the first round I ended up in my second choice for a LARP, in the second round, I’d be assigned to a LARP before someone who had gotten their first choice for LARP.)

This isn’t quite the full extent of the process — for example, I think the system also took into account people who requested to not be assigned into the same LARP as another attendee who makes them feel unsafe (either as a player or a GM).

Personally, I was not feeling too picky about the LARPs available; I was equally excited for a number of them, so it wasn’t really possible for the system to produce a disappointing roster for me. I asked around at the con — I don’t think anyone I spoke to personally felt disappointed with the schedules they wound up with, though some did express a desire for more control over their choices. I really appreciated that it was highly unlikely that some attendees would end up with none of their top choices in any slots while others ended up with all of their top choices for all their slots.

(By the way, I’m working on an article about LARP registration systems, and if you attended Be-Con and you’re reading this and are up for sharing some thoughts about it, I’d love to hear from you! You can post your contact info in the comments below or email me at fairescapelarp at gmail dot com.)

I quite liked the hotel chosen — fairly convenient to get to from the airport, with plenty of dining choices right next door. (I didn’t eat at the local restaurants, but I appreciated that others could easily and quickly gather for different dining options between and after LARPs.) The hotel rooms were fairly large suites, many with bedrooms separated from the kitchen/living room areas. They made it easy for attendees to host small groups to hang out, which is how I got to know a number of new LARPers better. I do think the hotel suites were a bit too small for the three LARPs I played in them, but it was nice to have them as an option, since (I believe) there were only two function rooms.

Be-Con’s social contract/safety policies were generally not unlike those of a number of other cons’ that I have attended, if a bit more detailed in some ares. The part that struck me as unusual was that the con had a set of safety mechanics as defaults for the community. GMs were able to override this for individual games, so long as it was clear in the game description. I have mixed feelings about this — I’m not a fan of all of the safety mechanics (in particular, I dislike the “OK Check In” for various reasons, and I’m uncomfortable with people either treating them as the default, or else like they should be), but I realize a lot of people do really like these mechanics, and I appreciate that GMs could opt out.

The four LARPs I wound up playing over the weekend were The Forget-Me-Not Hotel, Space Squids, Blackened Hearts, and The Witch of Thrush Hollow.

The Forget-Me-Not Hotel is set in 1938, and features an assortment of characters responding to mysterious invitations to a party at a hotel (along with some of the hotel staff.) Unfortunately, we hit a snag right away — out GMs were missing and no one was able to get in touch with them. (I think I later heard that they got lost and had no reception on their cell phones?) The players sat around the hotel room, debating what to do.

When a GM from another LARP (Thicker Than Water) that had some last minute player drops showed up and asked if any of our players would mind filling in. The Forget-Me-Not Hotel was designed to run easily without a full cast (with some characters being less crucial to the run of the game, and players taking on new roles if their characters die before the end), so a couple of our players left to ensure Thicker Than Water ran. (I would have gone myself, but my character was listed as one of the Forget-Me-Not Hotel characters that wasn’t optional to start with.)

Despite lacking our GMs, and a few players dropping out, we as a group decided to forge ahead. One of the players went online, bought and downloaded the game, skimmed it as fast as he could, and then GMed it/NPCed it for the rest of us. A little bit of the casting got shuffled around to accommodate the lack of some players. We might have messed up in some small ways (I know I personally got confused over some of my mechanics) but we all just kind of rolled with any confusion that cropped up. And I could easily understand players feeling unmotivated to try and get the LARP running without a GM, but the fact that most of us stuck around and made it work made this run something kinda special in my eyes.

On Saturday morning, I played in Space Squids. A few months ago, I spotted a post on tumblr seeking players for a playtest, which I shared in the hopes of seeing the game developed (and possibly boxed for other people to run?) and I was pleasantly surprised when it popped up on the Be-Con schedule. Costuming is entirely optional for this LARP, but a number of us players showed up in tentacle/cephalopod-themed shirts and skirts, there were some cephalopod-adorned hairbands, and even some scarves and hair braiding done to resemble tentacles. We made for a cute bunch of space squids.


I rather enjoyed the workshop, though we rushed through it, where we practiced some squid-like movement and learned the physicality of flirting and, er, “melding” with other squids. The mechanics for melding, which involve combining different hand configurations, are very cute and a lot of fun. The LARP itself mostly involves solving a series of puzzles (creating the most efficient combinations and configurations of group mind-melds), with a bit of roleplay around simple personality traits, relationship dynamics, and the impact of mind-melds.

The instructions for particular tasks handled through mind-melds (the puzzles) are varied, and that was one of my favorite aspects of the LARP. I do think the LARP might benefit from a little more variety in the puzzles themselves (or maybe just a little more constraint on the requirements to solve them?) but they were still a lot of fun and very silly. (In one mind-meld, we went briefly outside the function space, and I think we both confused and amused some random hotel guests, with our be-tentacled costumes and weird circle of hand-holding.)

The roleplay was a bit challenging for me; it wasn’t hard to portray my one-word descriptor (I was a Glum squid) but it was a little harder to insert my character’s interests (a low-tech, eco-friendly lifestyle) into conversations and put much effort into building relationships when the puzzles mechanics mostly dictated who melded with whom, and the melds were generally too large to meaningfully pick out and remember which personality traits and/or interests we might be temporarily acquiring. Nonetheless, I do think a few of us formed a potential pod with very compatible life goals and, ahem, mind-meld technique preferences.

There were also a couple of little surprise props that made me laugh. I hope this LARP ends up boxed — I could see myself running it at other cons, like the Bubbles.

Saturday afternoon, I played in Blackened Hearts, chosen for its potential for classic piratical fun. My character was the boastful sort, with a rather inflated opinion of themselves, and some lofty goals but rather doubtful plans on how to achieve them. So I decided to have fun playing up the personality and not worry about success. I talked loudly in front of just the wrong people and declined to use any of my mechanical abilities against anyone, but had a wonderful time gambling and throwing gold around to help my shipmates. I accepted every challenge thrown my way, no matter how absurd, and some highlights of my game included proving myself the best dancer and the best at talking up the cabin boy.

Sadly, my LARP for Saturday evening had been canceled because of some last minute drops, but I hope I will get the chance to play Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys some time in the future.

On Sunday, I played in The Witch of Thrush Hollow, a murder mystery game set in a small town haunted for over two centuries by the ghost of a witch. I was cast as a member of a mystery-solving gang, with some references to Scooby Doo in my background, so I brought some bandannas in the colors worn by the members of the Scooby Gang (I got brown for Scooby Doo himself), and we wore them to represent our group affiliation.

We weren’t able to solve the mystery, of course, but I had fun trying to interview the quirky townsfolk and piece together the clues into a timeline, looking for means, motive, and opportunity, all while trying to stay out of the sheriff’s hair. I think my favorite moment in the LARP was when, in the spur of the moment, I represented an illegal substance with powdered coffee creamer and got it under my nose and down the front of my sweater. (The sheriff then confiscated everything else I had on me.) Another highlight was a ukelele duel, represented by quickly finding some music on my phone and jamming on air-ukeleles.

Be-Con seems to have been a successful experiment, so I’m optimistic that it will run again next year. For me, it was a nice blend of other some other con experiences — it was about the size of the smaller LARP cons, like Festival or the Bubbles, while running in a hotel, like Intercon and Consequences. Both of these factors made it easier to get to know a new LARPing community, and I hope I can LARP in the Chicago area again in the near future.

(Be-Con, by the way, was sponsored by the LARP Endowment.)

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Posted in conventions, LARP, LARP Reviews, theater | Tagged | 4 Comments

Pocket Monsters: The Hunted

This past weekend, I played in a one shot boffer LARP, Pocket Monsters: The Hunted. I have a sentimental sort of affection for the Pokémon franchise; I’ve played through Pokémon Blue and half of Crystal, and way back when, I used to watch the cartoon. Pikachu is one of my favorite Super Smash Brothers characters; I’ve cosplayed as the lightning mouse at a few geek cons. And anyone who has spent time in my presence over the last couple of years has likely seen me playing Pokémon Go.


So it probably comes as no surprise to say I’ve been very excited about this LARP ever since I heard about the concept, and every bit of information coming out from the staff had me looking forward to the LARP even more. It was billed as a comedic horror (or, more specifically, a dark comedy horror survival LARP), in which players play Pokémon, and NPCs play all of the humans, including trainers who would be hunting and chasing down the Pokémon to capture. I loved this concept.

Each Pocket Monsters player got to pick their own Pokémon to play from the original 150, excluding legendaries. (With the caveat that we had to begin as the first in an evolutionary line, e.g. we could start as a pidgey, but not as a pidgeotto or pidgeot.) I agonized over the decision for myself and a friend of mine for months, polling lots of people for opinions (particularly some of my fellow Pokémon Go enthusiasts who are likely now relieved they no longer have to hear about it.)

Factors included wanting to play something cute and recognizable (so that the costume could be reused as cosplay) and unlikely to overlap with other players’ choices. I also wanted it to be very flexible for the weather — I’ve played outdoor boffer LARPs in August before, with weather so hot and humid that even light, loose linen felt oppressive.

But I think my biggest consideration was costuming — I wanted something I felt I was capable of doing to my own satisfaction, without over-committing my time or money. I knew if I played certain Pokémon, I’d get a specific image of my ideal costume in my head, and I’d end up regretting it if I either couldn’t fulfill that image, or else fulfilled it and then found it somehow uncomfortable or impractical to wear. (I sometimes make myself a little nuts over costuming.) And I wanted to limit the number of costumes I made; I knew if I picked Eevee, I’d end up making four costumes, with two going unused.*

I ended up coming back around to Pikachu for myself, and Sandshrew for my friend. Since my old cosplay is a sweatshirt, I knew I’d be re-doing most of my Pikachu costume from scratch, along with a Raichu and Sandslash costume in case we evolved.


Of the four costumes, I’m quite happy with how Sandshrew turned out (and people really responded to it at the LARP, which was nice), and less thrilled with the other three. The Sandshrew costume was recognizable, and had a sort of practical, outdoorsy-adventurer vibe that I thought rather suited the armored, defensive Sandshrew. (I will save the details for a future post about my various costuming projects this summer.)

The mechanics for the LARP were relatively simple — the combat rules were not unlike a pared down version of Accelerant and a pared down system of elements from the Pokémon franchise. For abilities, each player got to choose one progression path — Offense, Defense, Buff, or De-Buff. (I picked Offense because it was the only path that got long weapons and ranged weapons, and had fewer calls to remember.) We also gained one hit point per hour. In practice, I felt like this system successfully captured the feeling of being Pokémon without overly complicating things.

I rather liked mechanics of capturing Pokémon — trainers could throw Poké Balls and declared a number (eg “Capture 10”). If the number declared was higher than your current hit points, you would be successfully captured by the trainer, who could then give you orders (and enter you into Pokémon battles and take you to gyms.)

And I particularly liked the communication rules — Pokémon were allowed to speak freely when only fellow Pokémon were present. In the presence of humans, we could only speak our names repeatedly, as the Pokémon do in the cartoons. I thought this sounded like it would a ton of fun (and I was right! It was one of my favorite elements of the experience.)

Overall, I think the staff did a fantastic job, and successfully accomplished what they set out to do. There was a bit of a genre/tone shift for me somewhere on Saturday, but Friday night and moments on Saturday captured the feeling of the horror genre better than any other LARP I’ve played, and horror is particularly difficult tone to capture in LARP.

Both PC and NPC costuming definitely deserve a mention here. We had a lot of leeway with our costumes — we were welcome to go simple or full detail/completion from head to toe, and span the spectrum from literal to representative. Some people had licensed onesies, others had drawn on t-shirts. Some people wore regular clothing that represented the Pokémon in color scheme and silhouette, some looked to Pokémon gijinka artwork online for inspiration, and at least one took inspiration from “what if Pokémon were real” artwork. (Ditto had a filmy pink layer over visible organs, on top of dozens of homemade accessories to represent various transformations. Way to go the extra mile!) The NPCs also trotted out so many different instantly recognizable trainers and Pokémon, I can’t imagine how many hours of work went into them. Special shout-outs to some of the custom boffers I saw, including Cubone/Marowak’s bone clubs, Farfetch’d’s leek, and Jigglypuff’s sharpie marker and microphone.

All of this costuming for an established franchise LARP had an interesting impact — I could instantly recognize and name over 30 characters right at the start of the LARP, and pretty much every NPC that came out. (No nametags required.) And this is from someone who can play campaign LARPs for years and still not know every PC’s name, let alone many of the NPCs. I think this had a really huge positive impact on my enjoyment and ability to feel immersed in the LARP. I might have thought there might be some meta-issues, moments where I wasn’t sure if my character had met another yet or if I was drawing on out-of-game knowledge, but this proved to be moot, thanks to the tone and structure of the LARP.

Of course, it also helped that for the one or two Pokémon I didn’t recognize immediately, they were still saying their names repeatedly, as I’m sure that was helpful for anyone less familiar with the source material. Also, many of the NPCs got their human role acting spot on (James and Jessie’s voices, Nurse Joy’s gentle kindness, Lt. Surge’s accent and derisiveness towards “da baby Pikachu”)… Some of the professor NPCs were brand-new to LARPing, and they did a great job. (I’m sorry to say I missed Brock making goo-goo eyes at Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny.)

As I mentioned above, Friday night was particularly successful for me in capturing the feel of the horror genre. We were lead into Pallet Town and to the Pokémon Center by an Oddish. Then I dipped out briefly to deal with my contact lenses, and by the time I got back, the Pokémon Center had been overrun by trainers, and everyone had scattered. It was very dark out, and there was a thunderstorm, with heavy rains and frequent flashes of lightning.

I caught up with Sandshrew, and we started searching the campsite for our fellow Pokémon, but until the Pokédex updated, we had no way of knowing which of our fellow Pokémon had already been captured and were under trainer control. Behind the bathrooms, we ran into Diglett, who was smiling oddly. He started praising Team Rocket and suggesting we join it, which set off alarm bells. (Diglett was dressed in a full body, hooded spandex suit and a bright red clown nose, which really enhanced the effect.) As we started backing away, he started shouting, “DIGLETT DIGLETT” to alert the nearby Team Rocket; Sandshrew and I bolted.

When I finally had to stop running to catch my breath, I realized I’d lost Sandshrew somewhere in the dark, but I was too scared to come out of the bushes. It was dark, I could hear far off voices of trainers and panicked Pokémon, it was pouring rain and thunder was rumbling. I couldn’t see much except for during flashes of lightning (which were having a negative effect on my night vision). I had a yellow poncho I’d made into a basic Pikachu costume when I’d heard there was going to be rain, but foolishly, I had given it to Sandshrew to hold during a brief gap between downpours, and I quickly became soaked to the bone. (The padding in my fleece tail and ears absorbed a lot of water, so I had to squeeze them out periodically.)

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Pika-poncho

I had no idea where to go — the place that might have been a safe haven (the Pokémon Center) was overrun. I decided I had to find Sandshrew and find out if he was still free or captured, so I started making my way slowly through the parking lot, ducking behind cars as flashlights floated by. I couldn’t see anything besides the bright points of light, and I didn’t know if it they were trainers or Pokémon, unless lightning flashes briefly lit them up. (It was very classic horror movie when the lightning revealed people.) At one point I really wasn’t sure if a light was approaching me or not as I hid behind a car, and my mind started racing. Maybe they would pass me by if I stayed silent? Or did they already know I was there, and I should I make a break for it, and risk getting caught as I ran?

This is what really captured the horror for me. It was brilliant.

At some point, I ran into Zubat and Rhydon, who were both still free. We quickly exchanged what little information we knew on who had been captured, and decided to try the Pokémon Center again, as there was no where else in-game to get out of the rain. (That we knew of.) But the Poké Center was still crawling with trainers. We thought about trying to get in the back door, but the trainers on the porch spotted us. Rhydon and I made a pact to split up — he’d go left, I’d go right, and hopefully they’d only chase one of us, so the other could make it. I got about halfway across the yard before they came at me, so I turned and bolted back the way I came, hoping Rhydon had gotten safely by.

At this point, I was so utterly soaked by the rain, I had to go back to my cabin and change clothing and shoes. (This is where I joined back up with Sandshrew.) Luckily, I had a backup tail that came with my ears, because the padding in my original tail had absorbed too much water. But we weren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves at this point, since there was no where to go and it didn’t seem sensible to just hide in the rain for awhile. Eventually, we decided to search for more free Pokémon, and this involved getting briefly lost on the paths through the woods (very appropriate for a Pokémon storyline) before heading to bed.

This is about where this post gets particularly spoiler-y. I have no idea how likely this LARP is to run again — it’s seems unlikely, but I think it really should. (Would be a shame if so much of the NPC costuming never got any more use!) I would definitely leap at the chance to NPC if it did. But maybe my wishful thinking isn’t enough… all I can say is spoilers below. Caveat lector.

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Pika, pika.

On Saturday, there was a lot less hunting going on — trainers largely had their teams. For awhile we focused on earning badges at the gyms. Some of them involved battling, some involved puzzles, others involved just helping out the gym leader with some problem. (Which is pretty true to the cartoon.) I particularly liked the dodge-ball mechanics of the Water gym (where we uncovered a love note from Misty to Ash — a cute little detail) and the Poison gym, which involved balancing on boards in combat before two of our number succumbed to poison. (Sadly, the Poison, Fire, and Psychic gyms all went off at the same time, so I missed Fire and Psychic.  I hear they were a lot of fun, with the Fire gym involving a game of The Floor is Lava.) In between gyms, the professors showed up and hosted a few contests, and invited us to try out different candies, and took notes on the results.

The second point of the LARP which I feel really captured the horror genre took place Saturday afternoon, when Professor Oak gathered us all into the Pokémon Center for an announcement, and clarified that once we were all inside, the doors were locked. (Gastly stayed outside and watched through a window. His mask was downright creepy, so having that scary face floating at a window actually added something to the scene.)

The professors had been acting pretty sketchy all along — the purposes of the contests were unclear, but they were clearly taking notes and quietly making plans for the winners. Additionally, there was also a pretty weird scene earlier in the day (which was pre-empted by announced content warnings) where the professors welcomed the PCs to the door of the basement, where we met a Ditto in a sexy dress. They invited us to go inside with the Ditto one at a time. As Pikachu, I was much too freaked out to go inside, but the Pokémon who did emerged with eggs. The professors were later trying to coerce us into giving up the eggs, even trying to prevent Nurse Joy from healing Pokémon who refused.

For those unfamiliar with the video games, some of the later editions have systems for breeding Pokémon, and Ditto is sometimes referred to as “the breeding stud of the Pokémon world” because it can cross-breed with any Pokémon, which makes it very useful for producing rare eggs.

(Shout out to the Ditto, whose body language and tone when they leaned on the doorway and said “ditto” in a tired, perfunctory sort of way, clearly meaning “next.” The acting in that tiny moment spoke volumes.)

It was as unsettling as it sounds. I couldn’t trust the professors after that, no matter how friendly they seemed. Pikachu participated in the contests both because they appealed to its pride** (which was pricked by Lt. Surge and his more powerful electric Pokémon) and because they were a primary source of Revive and Full Heal potions. (And on an out-of-game level, they were fun!)

Also, notably, there were mechanics preventing Pokémon from attacking humans.

We knew something was about to go horribly wrong when Professor Oak told us to gather for his announcement. And we were right. There’s a long standing joke among Pokémon Go players that when you trade Pokémon to Professor Willow for candy, the Pokémon are actually getting turned into candy. And at the Pokémon Center in Pocket Monsters, there was a large candy-dispensing machine prop made out of a cardboard box large enough to hold a person.

You can see where this is going.

Professor Oak announced that none of us had stood out by winning enough contests… I couldn’t quite hear the whole thing, but at the end of the speech his pulled out a gun and shot an NPC Clefairy who had been cooking in the kitchens. When Nurse Joy protested, he shot her too. Then he stuffed the Clefairy in the candy machine, and offered us the handfuls of candy that came out.

The entire room erupted into screaming, with Pokémon clawing at the windows to get out.

A number of Pokémon had already eaten candy at the instruction of their trainers, because it provided a boost in combat ability and enabled evolution, though it also muddied up one’s memories a bit. I hadn’t yet, neither had Sandshrew. (Actually, earlier in the day in a moment of unintentional foreshadowing, I had given my candy to the Clefairy.)

Now you know why neither Pikachu nor Sandshrew ended up evolving that weekend.

It got worse — as we were unable to communicate properly to the trainers, some of the trainers, ignorant of the source of candy, gave orders to their Pokémon to eat more. I literally knocked out Ivysaur twice because it was the only way I could see to prevent her from having to obey Brock’s order to eat another candy.

Mechanically, the death of Nurse Joy had a very interesting effect. Typically, in boffer events, whether one-shots or campaigns, healing is limitless, especially the slower forms of healing (as opposed to instant healing) which can be performed during downtime. There’s lots of good reasons for this — notably, when you limit healing, you provide incentive for people to avoid plot hooks and events; people want to conserve their hit points.

However, I do think it’s worth playing around with the concept of healing being significantly limited resource, especially for dark and/or horror settings. With the death of Nurse Joy, who had been providing limitless, instant full healing in the Pokémon Center, suddenly the only source of healing we had outside of combat were the Revives and Heals, which were mostly coming from Professors and as prizes from Gym Leaders. (During combat, the Pokémon who had chosen the Buff path had some limited healing.) Downtime no longer meant automatically returning to full health. We had to think about how to conserve our hit points and healing as a resource, which changed the feel of the game significantly.

Not too long after, we learned why Pokémon were unable to properly communicate with humans or attack them — there were chips implanted in our heads, and we needed to find a safe way to remove them and obtain and publicize evidence of the professors’ crimes. We had to defeat the remaining gyms to obtain an HMO1 in order to unlock Oak’s lab, where we would find the evidence and the means to remove our chips.

We ended up burying some evidence in the woods to retrieve later, and also publicizing the professors’ crimes by forcing a captured scientist to alter the online Pokédex. (It has since been corrupted; amusingly, we’re all listed as Missingno now.)

This is about where the LARP shifted away from the horror genre for me, and more towards a sort of dystopian heroic rebellion genre. The themes of justice vs. revenge, and holding the moral high ground vs. stooping to the level of the enemy, were brought to the foreground in interesting ways. In particular, the themes were reinforced by an odd little side-plot involving a crazy Mr. Mime who had declared himself the king of a nearby Pokémon-only country, free from humans and their control over us, only to become a tyrant. We had to treat with him and his fanatical Pokémon followers. (Eventually, we imprisoned him in a Poké-ball. Oh, the irony.)

I also hear that at some point, when I was not in the Pokémon Center, a human got stuffed into the candy machine. I don’t know if candy came out (“Randy-Candy”?), but sometime later, a bunch of Pokémon had the cathartic experience of smashing the candy machine.

A major highlight of the LARP for me was when a professor realized we could attack humans, and fled in a panic. Despite the protests of my fellow Pokémon that it was too dangerous, I went pelting after him. He thought he was safe on the path back to Monster Camp (the NPC building), but Pikachu was still hot on his heels. I thought for sure he heard me coming, but I somehow managed to catch him by surprise and lit him up with electric attacks (“PIKA PIKA PIKA!!!”) until he managed to reach the safety of the NPC building.

What can I say, Pikachu was slipping towards the dark side.

The final moments of the LARP involved us essentially slaughtering a bunch of helpless professors and scientists (who had been expecting to slaughter us, to be fair), which was an interesting choice. Usually, boffer LARPs that end in combat design the combat to be a difficult battle, so that winning feels like a climatic accomplishment. But this sort of thing nearly always involve the best combatants getting the spotlight in the final moments while others looked on. The one sided massacre at the end of Pocket Monsters had a perfectly shared spotlight for the entire cast of PCs. I didn’t participate in the slaughter (I guess Sandshrew kept me from falling entirely to the dark side), yet I didn’t feel overshadowed or irrelevant, as I often do, even when I’m active combatant in final battle scenes. To me, that’s a notable achievement.

Now, I’m home with a case of the post-LARP blues. There was another LARP that ran this past weekend, a musketeer and pirate themed event called A Wicked Wind, which seems unlikely to run again. (Despite my impassioned pleas to the head writer. I went through a phase of acute obsession with The Three Musketeers around 6th grade, and never really got over it.) I have no regrets over my choice to play Pocket Monsters — I had a wonderful weekend and I got to meet LARPers from another local community that I’ve been hoping to LARP with for ages, but it does breaks my heart that I couldn’t be in two places at once. (My kingdom for a Time Turner.)

I also seem to have developed a bad case of poison ivy from stumbling through the woods in the dark in a desperate attempt to avoid capture by trainers.

Totally worth it.

*Theoretically. It turns out, during the LARP, a vaporeon was able to become a flareon.

** Most people used he or she for their Pokémon pronouns, but I feel pretty strongly, based on the cartoon, Pikachu’s pronouns are it/it/its.

Posted in boffer, LARP, LARP Reviews | Tagged , | 2 Comments

NELCO 2018: Co-Creating Characters

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The first topic of discussion I participated in at NELCO 2018 was Creating, Customizing, and Integrating Co-Created Characters. The intention was to focus on character creation for live action campaigns. This is a topic I was particularly interested in and excited to brainstorm over, because I feel I’ve been struggling with character creation for the last few campaigns I’ve PCed.

Generally, the character creation process for the local Accelerant community (the live action campaign community most people present were familiar with, though there was also a writer for NERO at the discussion) involves the staff putting forth setting and mechanical information for the campaign. Then players read through it and individually design character histories and stats according to the staff’s guidelines, submit it to the staff, and receive approval. Sometimes there are minor variations — a staff member might suggest an edit or two (and occasionally, rejections happen if the proposed concept doesn’t fit in with the staff’s vision for the campaign.) But often there is little to no back and forth with the staff (or between players) unless a player takes the initiative to send a specific question or request to the staff.

During the discussion at NELCO, we talked a lot about additional information that could be provided by staff to help guide character creation. Players are often offered descriptions of elements of the setting — species characters could be, nationalities they could have, career paths they might follow, institutions they might belong to, etc. — but the written materials often don’t go into detail about what kind of experiences players might expect to get out of selecting options from these categories. For example, if I sign up to play a priest, in one campaign this might mean uncovering cosmological secrets, because the priests are often in contact with the divine elements of the setting. In another campaign, this might mean dealing with the bureaucratic or political inner workings of the church.

If that kind of information — what sorts of plots one might expect depending on the various selection one makes off the creation menu is available — were made available, it might be very helpful to players, though it’s entirely understandable if it isn’t available at the start of a campaign. Writers may not have all of the specifics planned out in advance, and the writers assigned to different parts of a setting may change over the course of a campaign. Additionally, staff may not want to spoil players on potential content, but some staff might be comfortable with allowing players to opt-in to additional information that might otherwise be hidden from players before a campaign begins.

We also discussed ways in which character creation need not be completed before a campaign’s first event. (Or rather, the first event any given player plays, as it’s not uncommon for new players to join in the middle of campaigns.) I suspect a lot of staff members of the various local campaigns are open to the idea of players adjusting to their backgrounds mid-game, but it might help to provide an explicit channel for it if staff are supportive of the idea, or even make it a standard part of the process.  We often have avenues for building an entirely new character should a player decide mid-way through a campaign that the setting elements connected to their character creation choices aren’t working out for them, but I haven’t yet seen much in the way of enabling official ret-cons. (Threshold has something similar — not quite a ret-con, but an option that essentially allows for a diagetic resetting of stats.)

Obviously, there might be some downsides to allowing ret-cons for characters, but I think there are benefits that might be worth exploring. For example, a staff might have players deliberately leave blanks in their character creation process, and have players fill it out a year into the campaign, once they’ve had a chance to get a glimpse at some of the options. Say academic type characters have a choice of which in-game universities they might have attended, but players are welcome to retroactively choose after having met a few of the alumni in-game. This might require a bit of steering to avoid in-game contradictions (PCs and NPCs alike might need to know not to ask “where did you go to school?” until after players have decided.) But it would also allow for players to make informed decisions about which NPCs they’re most interested in interacting with in-game.

Much of the NELCO discussion focused on integration along the course of the campaign. We talked about feedback forms (such as Post Event Letters, or PELs) as the primary means of communication between players and staff, and how flexibility and enabling players different options for structuring feedback could be helpful. Allowing players to respond in short answer surveys, long answer surveys, or maybe even in-person dialogs if possible, could be useful in producing more actionable feedback, as everyone has different preferences for communication styles.

I do wish we’d had a bit more time to brainstorm different ways to involve additional people in the character creation process, which is what I was most excited to discuss. I think there’s an assumption that players want complete control over their character creation, within the bounds of the setting and mechanics the staff presents, but I’d be very open to allowing staff more control over my character creation.

Some options might be:

— Players create basic frameworks for characters and allow staff to fill in the details, some of which could be kept secret to discover in game
— staff creates frameworks for characters and players fill in the details (New World Magischola does something like this)
— staff creates the entire characters and casts players the way many one-shot LARPs do (possibly allowing for minor tweaks, just in case some aspects really don’t suit a player)
— staff creates an opt-in system for players to create connections with one another, including secrets (for example, “click here if you’d like to discover a long lost sibling among the other PCs during the campaign”, with staff secretly assigning two players to be long-lost siblings.)

Some of these things do happen to a certain extent already (common examples include characters with amnesia in their backstories) but I would jump at the chance to play a campaign where it was officially built into the character creation process. Some of these ideas also necessarily involve more work on the part of staff upfront, which is a hard thing to justify encouraging, but maybe it could make writing easier in the long run. What if it ensures all plots will have at least some characters interested, so that no plot writing goes to waste? Or perhaps it might go a long way towards ensuring an even division of players get involved with each of the in-game institutions, preventing issues of different institutions getting disproportionate “screen-time” in game?

We also ran out of time before I had a chance to mention the workshop from Unheroes, a Golden Cobra game in which players create a shared backstory thanks to a series of prompts about their relationships and a shared mission that went wrong. Prompts include things like, “one other player is angry with you, what did you do and why?” or “you gave the order that caused things to go wrong. What order did you give?” In Fifth Gate, one member of my warband lead the others through a similar series of prompts, and together we created a shared piece of backstory about an attack on an enemy stronghold, during which the warband’s previous leader was lost, and a couple new members were gained. We ended up referencing this story throughout the campaign, and I often wished we had gone through the process a few more times together, to develop our in-character relationships and create more shared memories to reference and inform roleplay.

I’d love to see a campaign include something like this as a, perhaps optional, part of character creation, especially if the campaign encourages players to form groups like the warbands in Fifth Gate. (Even better if some of the prompts encouraged players to involve characters in other groups.) Co-created content between players also need not be restricted to the beginning of campaigns. I think players can actually be a really great writing resource for a campaign LARP. For example, my favorite personal moments in Cottington Woods came from content created and introduced by one of my fellow players. PCs often have connections with one another and insight into one another’s characters that staff may not have, so why not enable and encourage them to create content for one another?

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NELCO 2018 and Little Boffer Con

This past weekend, NELCO 2018 ran (with yours truly as the conference coordinator), accompanied by two tracks of six one-shot boffer LARPs in an event titled Little Boffer Con. The first of it’s kind, and if I have anything to say about it, not the last.
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NELCO stands for New England LARP Conference, and it’s been running annually since 2012. It’s the first LARP conference in the US, and it features discussions, panels, workshops, and presentations, all about creating, running, and playing LARPs. This year, it featured two tracks of content all day Saturday, as well as informal socializing time on Friday evening and Sunday morning.

In recent years, a new format of LARPs has been developing — one shot boffer/live combat LARPs with pre-written characters. (Similar forms have existed, but I do think there’s something unique about what’s developing in our community, primarily through Intercon.) They’ve become quite popular, which spawned the idea of running a bunch of them at their own standalone(ish) event, with the idea that they would be available for people who can’t make Intercon (or perhaps are turned off by the idea of attending a primarily theater LARP convention.) The hotel that has been hosting NELCO for the last few years has an enormous ballroom, divisible into two rather large function spaces, and we’ve been trying to bring more of the boffer community into the NELCO discussions, so this seemed like a very good fit. And so Little Boffer Con was born.

I think, overall, NELCO went pretty well. As coordinator, I definitely made some mistakes, but at least I learned a lot through them. There were issues with the website (not the fault of the website; it just wasn’t designed for how we ended up handling sign ups and payment for PCing the boffer LARPs.) I forgot to print a couple different things, and there were a variety of ways I should have made Ops a lot smoother.

Despite the issues, we had two solid tracks of NELCO events, on a diverse array of topics. The Hour of Controversy ended up totally filling, as people were inspiring one another to share their controversial opinions about LARP. We sold a few copies of Game Wrap, and inspired a few possible ideas for future Game Wrap articles. (Game Wrap is accepting articles for volume 3, by the way.) LARP Box set out a few foam launching muskets and rifles for people to try out. (They were so much fun!)

In previous years, filling out the schedule hasn’t been easy, but this year, we received enough ideas for topics to run that I ended up cutting all of my own ideas out of the initial schedule to make room for everyone else’s. We did have a few last minute drops, so one of my topics made its way back onto the schedule in the last couple days before the conference. I’d had the idea of prepping a list of questions for each of the topics and blurbs and questions for a few additional backup topics, just in case there was a last minute drop, but someone else present was willing to step in and run the topic as a discussion, or else run a discussion on an alternative topic. (This is how a discussion on Climaxes in LARP ended up on the schedule at the last minute.)

Our topics for NELCO 2018 were, Avoiding Erasure in LARP; Beyond Gender in Casting: Changing Cultural Norms; Climaxes in LARP; Consent and Negotiation in Low-Transparency Designs; Creating, Customizing and Integrating Co-Created Characters; Genre Theory; The Hour of Controversy; Litform LARP: Strengths of the Form; The Permission Space of LARP; Queer Narrative in LARP; Running PvP/CvC Content in Live Combat Campaign LARPs; Welcoming New People; Workshops and Foreplay; and Writing LARP for Kids and Adults. (About half got recorded.)

I personally attended discussions on Creating, Customizing, and Integrating Co-Created Characters, sat in the audience for the presentation on Genre Theory, co-ran the discussion on Climaxes in LARP, sat in on the Hour of Controversy (and gave a very abbreviated version of my own controversial topic in the last minute and a half), and participated in the Workshops and Foreplay workshops. For the last four hours, I PCed one of the Little Boffer Con LARPs, Rabbit Run.

Little Boffer Con went very well overall, I think — members of the boffer community who had never tried this format attended, people really enjoyed the LARPs, and post-event chatter indicates that people are inspired to write more LARPs in this new genre, which is exactly the sort of outcome I hoped for. We hit some snags in the process and some logistics would have to be adjusted to ensure a smoother Little Boffer Con 2 (for example, the pricing structure might have to shift a bit), but the important thing is, coming out of this experiment, Little Boffer Con 2 seems like a real possibility.

One of the major challenges for Little Boffer Con was prepping the room dividers necessary for the LARPs to run. NEIL has the components for about 30 simple room dividers (piping with plastic tarps taped on) that have been primarily used for Intercon LARPs (upon request), and GMs use them to subdivide the single rectangular rooms our hotel affords most of the LARPs that run there. Lots of the boffer LARPs, in particular, use them to section out part of the room as “Monster Camp” and change up the layout of the space for different combat.

Ensuring that all of the room dividers for two tracks of boffer LARPs were assembled in time for Saturday morning’s first games, and disassembled around the time we needed to vacate the hotel ballrooms was no mean feat. Many of the attendees who arrived early to socialize on Friday and stayed late after the last discussions and LARPs of Saturday night donated their time and effort to putting the dividers together and then taking them apart and packing them up again. (For which I am extremely grateful.) If the hotel hadn’t granted us early access to the hotel room (or had been around to demand we vacate the rooms exactly on time) the whole process would have been so much more difficult and time consuming (and I suspect the LARPs would have had to make do with a lot fewer.) Certainly, for the next Little Boffer Con, another logistical element that will likely need adjustment will be a plan for a volunteering system, to ensure we have the space and manpower to repeat this feat.

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LARPers, Assemble!

Over the next few posts, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the various topics and my experience playing Rabbit Run.

 

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Summer Projects

Thought I’d do a short post about the various LARP-related projects (mostly sewing) I’ve working on this summer.

First of all, this upcoming weekend, I’ll be at the Summer LARPin’ event at WPI, where I’m playing a Peaky Midwest LARP, Dungeon Owners’ Association. (In addition to Winterhorn, but that does not require prep from players.) As one can probably guess from the title, Dungeon Owners’ Association is about a group of monsters who live in a Dungeons and Dragons style dungeon, at a Home Owners Association meeting, arguing about topics such as how the zoning laws apply to the ogre’s den.

I’ve been cast as Bobbie the Beholder, and I’m going to fight my natural costume diva instincts (I admit I enjoy a good reveal for new costuming pieces at LARPs) to share my progress so far. The hood is sewn from fleece and lining, the eye stalks are made from carved up styrofoam cones (intended for floral arrangements, I believe), styrofoam balls, and plenty of hot glue. It’s not quite finished — I’m planning to add velcro closures, possibly one more eye stalk, teeth, and eyelids to the big center eye… and maybe some flappy pointy bits out of fleece… but here is my beholder costume thus far.

 


The week after Summer LARPin’ is NELCO 2018. I’m coordinating NELCO this year, and in addition to our usual two tracks of discussions, panels, workshops, and presentations (plus social time on Friday and Sunday), Little Boffer Con is running! It’s an experimental structure, with five LARPs of the 4-ish hour, one-shot boffer variety that have been increasing in popularity lately at Intercon. We’re kind of learning and figuring out the logistics of this kind of event on the fly, (as far as I know, this is the first event of its kind) I’m hoping this will be the first of many Little Boffer Cons.

This is happening in two weeks, you can check out more information about the event here.

I will be playing in Rabbit Run at Little Boffer Con. We received casting a little while ago, and I’ve finally settled on a design for my costume. The PCs are a ragtag bunch of survivors in a cyberpunk world taken over by the evil robotic PryMor Corporation. My costume plans involve a pattern for a hooded pullover and some black scuba knit/mesh combo fabric, and possibly some iron-on applique numbers.

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this is futuristic survivor, right?

I’m also trying to finish a tote bag by NELCO so I can hand it off at NELCO– it’s for a charity auction run by Incantrix Productions, the organization that puts on events like Winter’s Revel, which I attended two winters ago. It charity event run in MIT’s rather atmospheric hunting lodge-like Endicott House, in which guests danced with fae and ghosts and solved puzzles and threw their support behind one fae court or the other. It was a lovely evening.

For the upcoming raffle, I decided to make a tote bag. I find they’re pretty universally useful, and not too difficult or time consuming for me to make, as I’ve become very familiar with the pattern. Plus Jo-Ann Fabrics has tons of fun character cotton prints to make them appealing to a geeky crowd. I’ve done Star Wars, Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Marvel comics, Dr. Who, and now I’m making a black one with a Harry Potter themed pocket, featuring the Marauder’s Map.

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How do you not love this Marauders’ Map print.

And lastly in August, I’ll be playing a LARP that I think might be the dream LARP I’ve always been waiting for, which is Pocket Monsters: the Hunted, a dark comedy survival horror parody LARP, in which players play the Pokémon of their choice (from the first generation of Pokémon) and NPCs play trainers, professors, gym leaders, and members of Team Rocket, chasing them through the woods, throwing pokéballs at them, trying to catch them all. (If you were ever a fan of the cartoon, you simply must watch the trailer for this LARP.)

Trying to settle on a Pokémon for me was a very long, drawn out decision process. (And I’m still second guessing my choice.) Factors included what kind of costuming I would like to make, would it be comfortable if it’s very hot (we’ll be running around and boffer fighting outdoors in August), what would make a decent costume to reuse as cosplay at geek cons, what the evolution process might mean, and what other people are choosing to play. I also thought about how various Pokémon concepts might translate into LARP and boffer combat. (I’m still tempted to switch to lickitung and make myself a giant boffer polearm resembling a tongue.)

I know it’s kind of a cliche, but I settled on pikachu. (…Probably.) I do have a homemade pikachu sweatshirt, but I’m worried it will be too warm, so I’m making a much lighter version from scratch. I also plan to make the ears and tail such that I can swap them out for a raichu ears and a tail, in case I evolve. I’m also working on sandshrew and sandslash costuming for a friend. This is mostly in the planning stage, which involves googling images of cosplayers and gijinka art. I do have a sewing pattern and some yellow knit fabric ready to go.
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Also, it took more searching than I expected, but I finally found yellow nail polish.

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I’m changing the name of this polish from “Mellow Yellow” to ‘Pika Yellow”

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Shogun

The weekend before Intercon R, I was back in the UK for Shogun, a weekend long theater LARP.  Arguably, going on an international trip so soon before Intercon was not the most prudent of choices, but I have no regrets.

I’ve been playing weekend-long theater LARPs of a similar style for years now, (a number of which share authors with Shogun.) They’ve mostly run in university spaces, often with minimal to no set-dressing, and very lax attitudes towards costuming. Now, don’t mistake me here; I think there’s immense value in LARPs that run on restricted/minimal budgets, which is one way to increase accessibility significantly (for poor students in particular, in these cases), and also accessible for people to run. I could go off on a long, derailing tangent about the benefits of these LARPs and what I love about them, but I think I’ll have to save that for a separate post.*

That all said, I personally really like to acquire a wide variety of LARP experiences, and I’ve done the low key, minimalist versions of weekend long theater LARPs a bunch of times. I wanted to try one with a specified minimum standard for costuming, run in well dressed function spaces of a nice hotel (where players can sleep on site).** I was also looking forward to playing with a mostly new group of LARPers. (I knew very few of the likely players when I first signed up for Shogun; after attending Consequences in November, getting to see some of the Consequences LARPers again was another major plus.)

The UK Freeform Society (the group that put on Shogun, and has put on a variety of other weekend theater LARPs) has a lottery system to handle sign-ups, which is weighted in favor of new players. Despite this,  I didn’t initially get in. But as luck would have it, there were two drops later on, and the female character that became available happened to suit my casting questionnaire rather well. (In their system, getting in off the wait-list after casting isn’t solely dictated by the order generated by the lottery or a first come, first serve system, but rather it takes responses on the casting questionnaires into account. I think there’s probably a blog post somewhere in there about the pros and cons and possible outcomes of different systems for admission into LARPs.) I really lucked out in that regard.

I wasn’t able to get in much touring on this trip, for reasons of tighter time constraints, but before the weekend began, I did manage to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I made sure to catch the Japan exhibit.

 

The hotel for Shogun, the West Rutford Hotel in Rutford, Nottinghamshire, is a beautiful location for LARPing, and the GMs really went to another level with set dressing. From what I understand, a fair amount of the set dressing was brought in by players, which I think worked out really nicely. I’m sure there’s always a risk of items getting lost or damaged, but I think using the players as a resource for set dressing and making the environment a communal effort is a strategy I’d like to see explored more often in the local community. (Local boffer LARPs have done it to decorate the in-game taverns, but the theater community has done very little of it, as far as I know.)

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hotel grounds

There were handmade banners (resembling nobori) hanging all around the game space, with hand drawn art and lettering to label the different areas.

There were pillows and lanterns and table cloths in various corners of game space. A tea house was set up in one of the side rooms. The geisha house in particular was something special, with bamboo floor mats, pillows, tea sets, a miniature rock garden, fans, kimonos, and other items.

The costuming was also, across the board, very beautiful. A large number of players ordered clothing from Japan. I particularly admired some of the armor I saw at the LARP, and one LARPer managed to style her hair in an impressive shimada.  For my own costuming, I used the haori, kosode, and hakama I made for Fifth Gate. (A friend lent me some tabi to wear.) I also made a number of items for the friend I was traveling with. (There was a lot of last minute sewing involved for Shogun that got in the way of last minute Intercon projects.)

 

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Cricket costume from Fifth Gate

Shogun game play has a lot of elements in common with other weekend long theater LARPs that have come out of the UK Freeform community. I think they have a winning formula, so it’s not surprising to see some mechanical structures in common. For example, like in Torch of Freedom and Siege of Troy, the game space is divided into areas, some of which can only be freely accessed by certain sub-groups of players. (Mount Olympus can only be freely accessed by the gods and immortals, while the slums of Petronia were only safe for those of the lowest class.) This kind of structure may seem like it would stymie the flow of the LARP, but it also provides significance to secret alibis and sneaky abilities and encourages players to involve characters from other groups in their actions by requesting escorts.

The romance mechanic is also a version of a system that has popped up a few times before — characters can earn one another’s love by performing actions listed as their “heart’s desires.” I’m a fan of this system; I find it provides a convenient avenue for characters to get involved in one another’s plots and pick new goals throughout the LARP, as they like. It also provides mechanical support for playing concepts like a very charming suitor or a fickle-hearted object of effection.

These hearts’ desires romance systems may seem on the surface like it’s a heavy handed way of mechanizing roleplay that should be emotional, fluid, and subjective. But in practice, I find it pretty easy to fudge to suit individual LARPers’ tastes. That is, the balance of power in the game isn’t going to be upset should I decide, on the fly, that someone performed one of my heart’s desires so spectacularly that it should count as ticking off two items on the list. The system is there if one enjoys it, or if one is feeling too shy or awkward or indecisive to engage with romance without a concrete system to engage with as a guidance, but it’s not in the way if one prefers not to engage with mechanics.

I also like how the system can direct players towards the characters that were written with the possibility of romantic relationships in mind, without cutting off the possibility of romance with other characters. (For example, “your childhood friend needs to perform only four tasks to win your heart, everyone else would have to perform six.”)

(Warning: some spoilers pertaining to my character, Ishida Kiri, below the image.)

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Ishida Kiri

In the case of my character, Ishida Kiri, I felt like the mechanics supported one of the most complicated romance arcs I’ve yet played through in a LARP. My character had two potential love interests, neither of whom were entirely right for her, and she struggled a lot with feelings of attraction conflicting with issues of personal honor and the interests of her clan.

I think it’s difficult to write a romance plot for a LARP in which family members and issues of politics and honor are meant as a foil for the romance — I think most theater LARPers at some point have played a romance where the resolution basically involved the relevant characters simply getting over it and accepting the relationship. (In fact, I recall a player once commenting that when cast in the role of disapproving older relatives, they simply decide before the LARP their character doesn’t want to interfere.)

But in the case of Shogun, it felt like a genuine source of internal conflict for my character, and when push came to shove, I felt inclined to put the interests of my clan first, even when it interfered with marriage plans. I’ve been reading a lot of A Song of Ice and Fire analysis blogs recently, which often discuss the politics of inheritance and titles, and how factors like the relative ranks of spouses or a lack of clear heirs influence such things; the content from these blogs inspired my stance when negotiating a marriage contract in Shogun. The negotiation turned out to be a lot of fun, all the more so because romance wasn’t simply trumping all other considerations.

There was a particular moment when my character’s motivations crystallized rather dramatically for me — the head of the Ishida clan, Kiri’s uncle, declared he was willing to support my character’s marriage, but it meant appointing someone else as the new Ishida clan heir. My character suddenly realized her clan was most important to her and was willing to call off the marriage, not just because she very much enjoyed her position as clan heir on a personal level, but also honestly thought it would be best for her clan if she remained the heir. (It was an enormous relief for Kiri when her ex-fiance announced his intention to marry another person he loved, though in theory this might have offended her.)

On top of this, my other romance plot developed into a rather satisfying moment when the character told Kiri her own expression of optimism and honorable conduct had pulled him back from falling to the dark side. It was a really nice and rather unexpected roleplaying moment for me.

Through all this, I felt like the romance mechanics never quite dictated what my character had to do, but provided support so that I never had to second guess my character’s decisions regarding her love life. For example, when I initially accepted a marriage proposal, but insisted on hammering out contract to protect my clan’s interests, it made sense based on the romance mechanics — Kiri was the process of being courted, but her heart hadn’t yet been decisively earned. Effort was still needed to make the relationship work.

On a side note, regarding my romance plots in Shogun, I want to mention that I particularly appreciated the player in the role of my character’s father, who played up their role as a foil to the romance, shouted at my suitor in public, and forbade him from speaking to me. Whenever we wanted to have a conversation, said suitor would bring in another character to pass messages between us even as we were sitting about a foot from one another (and pointedly not looking in one another’s direction.) I thought that was a nice way to involve other players in our roleplay and plots.

Shogun also has a lot of other mechanical systems to engage with, and my character’s driven, go-getter personality was channeled into engaging with them for the sake of the honor and prosperity of her clan. As a samurai and the heir to the Ishida clan daimyo, I was kept quite busy for most of the LARP, chasing after profitable ventures, acquiring land, and accruing honors for the clan as a whole and also for herself and other individual members (whose accomplishments reflected on the clan, of course), all the while exemplifying the virtues of Bushidō, the samurai code of honor.

I struggled with parts of this, especially early on. With a cast of more than 70 players, most of whom I was meeting for the first or second time, and a large hotel for them to scatter throughout, I had trouble tracking down the various characters I needed to speak to; Friday evening was particularly difficult for me. A few times people tried to help me find characters by giving me the real names of the players, and I was sometimes too embarrassed and shy to admit I wasn’t sure who that was, especially if it was likely a person I had met earlier in the day, or at Consequences, whose name I should theoretically have known. By Saturday afternoon, I got a bit more into the flow of things.

While I enjoyed engaging with the economy and systems of clan honor and martial combats rankings, my favorite parts of the LARP involved engaging with cultural activities. There was a schedule of events for the weekend, including things like a sumo tournament (the mechanics for which looked creative and fun, though I don’t have the details on that), a courtly debate, a poetry contest, tea ceremonies, a mah jong tournament, and a go tournament. (Plus a lot more; no one player could possibly do it all. …I do wish I’d managed to try flower arranging and calligraphy.)

There is also a system for putting out fires in the city which I really liked. If a fire is started, someone calls “kasai!” and everyone who hears it takes up the call. (We didn’t want to actually call out “fire!” in English for obvious reasons.) Then everyone available has to form chains to transport buckets of water from a source to the flames, which is represented by passing blue balls from player to player from a container to a bucket. This proved to be a lot of fun, and it was nice to have breaks in the politics and intrigue where the characters were forced to temporarily put aside their differences and work together to save the city, with a fun little cooperative physical challenge.

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water for putting out kasai

I’m very sad to say I missed the poetry contest, but I really enjoyed being one of the debaters over the most important virtue of the Bushido code. (Though I really do wish I had done more prep work and maybe written out something to read; I was pretty nervous doing ad-libbed public speaking, and it showed.) I also really enjoyed taking the tests to be accepted into the bakufu (the Shogun’s administrative officials), though I think I only made it through one stage. (I was eliminated on the rock garden arranging portion.)

The lowlight of my weekend was, sadly, accidentally missing the kabuki performance. I was distracted by a private family meeting behind closed doors (which involved some really wonderful roleplay — too bad my timing on it was less than ideal.) It wasn’t the first time I missed out on a mid-LARP performance, and last time that happened I had resolved not to let it happen again, so it was a bit of a sore point for me. I’d really been looking forward to it ever since I started working on the kabuki costume for one of the performers. I was given a detailed description later, but it wasn’t the same. But I heard great things about the actual performance.

I did get to see the head of the performing troupe attempt to create an oshiguma (an impression of the kumadori — make-up — made on a cloth after a performance, created as a piece of art and memento. It was done on a napkin; I rather wish I had thought to bring a better cloth for it.

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oshiguma

On Sunday, the drama all came to a boil, as it does in this style of weekend long theater LARPs. For me, it reached a somewhat overwhelming point — multiple marriages and so many deaths and final confrontations against various evils, that I felt I just couldn’t properly roleplay an emotional response to all of the dramatic moments going on around me, and I slipped off to the beautifully decorated geisha house, which turned out to be empty. I sat down on a cushion on the bamboo mat floor, and tried my hand at some origami. It made sense to me that my character might seek somewhere quiet and engage in some meditative art forms while reflecting on the upheaval going on, especially the upheaval within her own clan.) This moment was another highlight for me.

When I came back downstairs, the LARP was concluding and the mechanics revealed Ishida clan in a position of great honor and power, with our daimyo being declared the new shogun. Honestly, I hadn’t realized this was a possible outcome, but I like to think a lot of the hard work Kiri did advancing the interests of the Ishida clan had something to do with it.

After the LARP, a number of staff members and players stuck around the hotel for another evening; we spent a lot of time hanging out at the bar, discussing Shogun and future LARP projects. It’s always nice to use the post-LARP hours to get to know the community players a little better. I’ve got my fingers crossed we can convince the staff to run the LARP here in the US, or at least box it for others to run. (I think it would go over extremely well at RPI.)

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custom printed cards for some of the mechanical systems

*I wrote and then deleted about three long paragraphs here. They have been saved in a draft for another post that’s actually meant to focus on production values.

** I been to a few New World Magischola events, but it’s a very different style of theater LARP.

Posted in LARP, LARP Reviews, theater | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Musica Universalis

There’s a lot of musical talent in the local boffer and theater communities, and recently, I NPCed a LARP that made excellent use of that talent.

Musica Universalis is set in the Dust Bowl in 1935. The musica universalis theory “regards the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies… as a form of music…” and in the setting of the LARP, the universe is coming out of tune, and magic is fading from the world, while Static is creeping in. The PCs play the individuals finding themselves guests of the Circus Liminalis, a neutral spot for angels and demons and other supernatural things to gather in the face of an oncoming apocalypse. The LARP was mostly deep and introspective in tone, occasionally offset by moments of absurd humor.

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photo by Jaime DeCaro

The structure of the LARP blends a lot of the elements common to either boffer and theater in the local communities. It’s designed to run at an outdoor summer camp, over a full weekend, and much of the content is PvE, often in compartmentalized scenes (aka modules), with information coming in to the players from external sources (NPCs), and boffer mechanics for the combat scenes, all elements common to boffer LARPs.* But it’s also a one shot (i.e. not part of an ongoing campaign), has pre-written characters, and most of the content doesn’t revolve around combat, all elements common to theater LARPs.* In fact, I think it’s entirely possible to remain fully engaged with the LARP the whole weekend without encountering combat (or just dipping a toe in) and there was no climatic, town-wide battle either Saturday night or Sunday; the biggest moments were combat-free.

So unsurprisingly, this LARP successfully brought out a solid mix of boffer and theater LARPers, including, I think, a fair number of people who had only tried one form but not the other. It made me pretty happy to see more blending of communities. (For example, some of the New York theater crowd met a lot of Accelerant people and tried Accelerant combat for the first time.)

I’m not sure what the intent of the staff is currently towards the idea of future runs (I certainly hope it runs again, but I heard rumors that they have already nixed the idea), but as I highly recommend this LARP, if you’ve read the above and think this sounds appealing (I also recommend taking a glance at the introduction page on the website), then be forewarned — the rest of the post will contain spoilers. (Also, stuff will be described in past tense, though I have opinions about the use of past and present tense when discussing LARPs, or specific elements of LARPs, that may seem to contradict this.)

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Photo by Allison Danskin

The lowlight was pretty much the weather — it was nice at times, but at other times we had strong winds and heavy rain. Some of this atmospheric for a LARP set in the Dust Bowl with an impending apocalypse (not to mention the serendipitous appearance of a double rainbow, which made for a nice, and possibly ironic, omen), but the wind did destroy some of the tents intended for (I believe) the circus, which was a bit of a bummer. Also, the bugs were out in force for parts of the weekend, especially around dusk. I was crunching as a demon following a fallen angel at one point, and being accompanied by swarms of insects seemed very appropriate, but I just couldn’t stand them constantly in my field of vision, flying in my eyes, nose, and mouth.

The highlights included…

The way music was incorporated into the LARP. Well before the LARP, the staff sent out a list of songs for the PCs and NPCs to learn, so that at various moments, we could collectively burst into song, it made for poignant scene setting that had a well choreographed feeling. (Something LARP generally struggles with, or entirely lacks, as a medium.) The songs chosen had lyrics that lent meaning and took on new meaning to the scenes they accompanied. (I’m sad to say I only caught four of the songs over the weekend, but they were all wonderful moments.)

A number of PCs and NPCs showed off their abilities with various instruments. “The House of the Rising Sun” had two accordions, a guitar, a flute, and a keyboard accompanying it. (And possibly more that I’m forgetting.) There were also a few performances PCs and NPCs brought into the LARP (in addition to the LARP-wide playlist the staff created), including Lillith’s rendition of “Feeling Good”.

In particular, the closing scene of the LARP on Sunday was designed by staff members who are knowledgeable about music, primarily one who is a music teacher, and it showed. The entire PC and NPC base harmonized together to create a poignant sign off for the LARP.

My NPC role as La Llarona, the Weeping Woman. La Llorona is a figure from Mexican folklore with a penchant for drowning. I had some great roleplaying with both PCs and my fellow NPCs alike, especially those connected to the plotlines involving the genius locii of various rivers. I got to be the big bad Boss in a large fight, and improvised some mechanics to support the roleplay of La Llorona’s manipulation of the Rivers and attempts to corrupt some PCs, as well as improvise some mechanics to enable a PC to dramatically take her down.

I enjoyed wearing my costume for the role of La Llorona. I looked over some pictures the staff sent me for inspiration, then put together an outfit of a black lace top and skirt. I also hot glued together a hair band of some fake forest/river-like plant life I found that looked appropriate  — pussy willows and leaves turning brown at the edges. (I felt the flowery hair wreaths I already owned were too pretty and sweet.) I used some blue makeup to try and created a cold, dead look, with red contact lenses, and draped a floor length black veil over my head. Just before I went out each time, I soaked my hair in water to look recently drowned and dripping. I also froze a cup of water and held the ice in my hand just before talking to PCs, so that my touch would feel icy cold and damp. Lots of people told me I looked creepy, which made me rather happy.

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I failed to get a full length photo of the costume, and I don’t think my rushed selfies quite captured the drama of the veil, but I definitely intend to include floor length veils in more costumes in the future.

The Wonder Walk. The way some of the staff members were talking about it made it sounds like this sort of thing might have been done before in our community, but I’ve personally never seen anything like it. I’m not even sure what it meant within the context of the diagesis of the LARP (was it meant to be a collective dream of the PCs? A physical manifestation of meditation? I don’t know.)

At some point, the staff went out and created a enormous tangled web of glowing lights, both from glowsticks scattered on the ground in looping paths and strings of light hung between trees, with various surreal, interactive way-points throughout. PCs could take solitary quiet walks along the paths, late at night, and read snippets of hopes and dreams strung up in a tree, try on masks, blow bubbles, read memories from their old love letters and telegrams, create bits of artwork and music and leave messages for one another… I only wish I could have experienced it as a PC, I’m sure it created wonderful, introspective, internal roleplay.

Please believe me when I say my photos don’t do it justice; I just don’t know yet how to get my camera to capture the countless glowing and twinkling lights.

 

 

The Module in Hell. This was a relative little thing, but I think we pulled it off with panache. We blocked off the stage in one of the module buildings, and filled it with flame wall paper, braziers of (fake) flames, casting red light over the space, and tons of fog. Some of the NPCs played demons torchering the souls of sinners; I played a sinner in chains and spent longer than we had expected the module to last wailing in agony. The PCs came by to bargain with the angel in charge of hell. It was a rather thematic little scene.

Video Does Not Kill the Radio Star. Late Saturday night, I volunteered to crunch for a module in which the PCs had to battle there way through beings of Static to retrieve various movie reels of famous old movies from the era. For each movie reel, the creatures of Static would take on aspects of the movie, and compulsively play them out while attacking. Meanwhile, the NPC hook who gathered the PCs put on his best deep, booming announcer voice narrated the scenes throughout. (“And so our intrepid heroes gathered their weapons and gathered their wits…” “A viscous blow was struck but our brave heroes were not deterred…!” etc. He was excellent.)

Playing the creatures of Static was a lot of fun, and evoked a lot of laughter. For The Bride of Frankenstein we staggered around as Frankenstein’s Monsters, or cackled like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. (I laughed when voice of Dr. Frankenstein chased the PCs out of the room with a shriek of “I AM LIKE UNTO A GOD.”) For Treasure Island we shouted stereotypical pirate phrases (“ye’ll walk th’ plank, ye scurvy dogs!”) and “Arrr!”ed a lot. For Top Hat, we danced as fought. Two NPCs twirled in the center, ballroom dance style, and spun out their boffer swords to strike the PCs as they tried to dodge by. (“Little did our intrepid heroes realize, despite their elegant dance moves, the creatures of static were still very dangerous...”)

Between the retrieval of each reel, the NPCs reset the props and prepared to play out the next movie. When we got to David Copperfield, we came up blank. Someone asked, “…has anyone here actually read the book? Or seen the movie?” and got silence in response. …So we stooped to English stereotypes. (“Tally-ho, wot wot.”)

My favorite was Cleopatra. It’s long been on my bucket list to be presented as some sort of royal NPC to players while carried aloft on a palanquin. For this scene, just before the PCs entered, my fellow NPCs draped a piece of the set dressing around my shoulders and lifted me up on a chair. When the PCs came through the door, one NPC proclaimed their love for me as Marc Antony, and I imperiously called “By My Voice, Short Repel Until I Am Safely Back on the Ground.” (Not an Accelerant-legal call, but it got the job done.) So it was very brief and very silly, but I’m ticking it off my list.

The Accelerant combat system uses verbal flavor tags to indicate the nature of attacks. (E.g. “5 Damage by Fire might accompany a flaming sword, “Paralyze by Poison” would indicate a blade coated in a toxic venom that affects the nervous system.) For this scene, the tags reflected and reinforced the absurdity and humor of the module; we struck PCs with things like like “Two Damage by High Fashion” and “Maim by Thinly Veiled Allegory” and “Agony by Creative License with History.” It was special.

Blowing up the hoover dam. In another comical module, the PCs fought a battle to blow up the hoover dam. A handful of us NPCs tried to stop them as Evil Bureaucrats taken up to 11. We had a grand time attacking “By Bureaucracy”, insisting on mid-combat coffee breaks, and demanding the interns put themselves between the bosses and harm’s way.

Nametags. In the opening scene of the LARP, the NPCs of the Circus Liminalis greeted the PCs with a rendition of “Come On Up to the House.” There were tables set out with nametag patches, each embroidered with a different PC’s name for them to wear throughout the weekend. I liked that they looked like they were nice quality and diagetic. I heard a lot of positive feedback from PCs over this (it also often made things easier for me as an NPC) which goes to show they can be a positive element even in large boffer LARPs. (Though I know some people feel very strongly otherwise. To head off arguments at the pass, I’m still not saying that this means every single boffer LARP should use them.)

A send-off for my barbell. A little over four years ago, I played a LARP called Cirque du Fey, and I was cast as the strong woman of a circus called the Umbral Fete. Inspired by images of real Victorian-era strong women, I created a costume with a Greco-Roman flair. I also created a giant vintage-looking barbell prop out of two styrofoam balls, the cardboard tube from some wrapping paper, and paint. I have a bad habit of getting attached to LARP props and costuming, and after Cirque du Dey, even though the barbell was pretty cheap and easy to make, I couldn’t bear to throw it out.

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Morgan Tamm, strongwoman of the Cirque du Fae

There sat the barbell in my living room, occupying a chunk of space, for four years. Then I heard that Musica Universalis had the Circus Liminalis as part of its setting, and NPCs were welcome to create circus characters if they needed a non-specific role to play while hanging out amongst the PCs. (Say, during meal time.) So I brought the barbell.

At one point, I went out to hang out with some PCs. One came over to see the barbell, and I introduced myself as the Circus Liminalis’ strong woman, and she said, “but I’m the strong woman of the Circus Liminalis. Were you just hired yesterday?” I realized at this point I had misunderstood one of the staff members, but I said yes and ran with it, and we had a nice little showdown, where I acted out struggling to lift the barbell (the PCs applauded), and she casually plucked it off the ground with one hand.

At this point, the cardboard tube playing the role of the bar collapsed and ripped. (It had already been bending. Lesson learned — if I actually care about these kinds of props lasting, I should reinforce the cardboard tube.) But we rolled with it and roleplayed that she was so strong, she’d accidentally bent a metal tube in half.

It was such a little moment, just a bit of playful off-the-cuff roleplay that came out of a misunderstanding and then a minor prop failure, but I thought it was really nice, and I got to help highlight something that made a PC cool and unique. And it was really nice to validate my excessive sense of sentimental attachment/hoarding tendencies towards LARP paraphanelia in a way that made me glad I kept the barbell, while still having a very good reason to throw it away after. These kinds of things make me weirdly happy.

I came out one more time as the not-as-strongwoman to try and make a play for the PC’s job. We arm wrestled, and I conceded to her superior strength and accepted the role of her assistant for future shows.

The Death/Ressurection module. I actually can’t say too much about this, as I only saw the set-up after the LARP was over, but I peeked into the camp’s nature cabin (which is chock full of things like animal skulls, which gives a nice extra oomph to the atmosphere for lots of different scenes in a number of LARPs that run at this campsite.) There was a carefully curated playlist, glowing lights, and tons of different antique looking boxes, bottles, and hollow books, each one with a different PC’s name on it, and something personalized written on paper within (Some sort of choice, I think, and PCs had one song off the playlist to decide.) I wish I knew more about how they worked out, but I loved the idea of the process of death being personalized for each individual PC, and the sense the room created that Death was prepared for each and everyone one of them.


Here is the playlist. There’s a lot of good music here. Enjoy.

Come On Up to the House” (Sarah Jaroz)
This World Can’t Stand So Long” (Uncle Sinner)
Lungs” (Townes van Zandt)
At the Crossroads” (Those Poor Bastards)
House of the Rising Sun” (The Animals)
Old Devils” (William Elliot Whitmore)
Don’t Want to Die in the Storm” (Anna & Elizabeth)
Sixteen Tons” (Corb Lund Band)
Nothing but the Water” (Grace Potter & The Nocturnals)
The Angel of Death” (The Devil Makes Three)
Help Yourself” (The Devil Makes Three)
May Be the Last Time, I Don’t Know” (Ndidi O)

*In the local communities. I realize these trends differ a lot from community to community. MET LARPs are a particular example I have very little personal experience with, and I know they often run as campaigns.

Posted in boffer, LARP, LARP Reviews, theater | 4 Comments