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.)