This past Friday, I went to RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy, NY to play in a weekend long theater (or “freeform”, as they say in the UK) style LARP, Once Upon a Time in Tombstone, run by Lime Shirts (plus one of the authors who flew all the way from the UK to help run it.) Tombstone was written by a British team of LARPers, and I was particularly excited about it for three reasons. First, I’d heard great things about it from its previous run in Maryland. Secondly, two of my favorite weekend long LARPs, Torch of Freedom andKing’s Musketeers were both listed as games the writers had played and considered good references for the game’s style. And third, the Brits are known around Intercon (the annual LARPing convention) for writing and running great games. They’re in high demand.
Here is my spoiler-free review.
I had an amazing weekend.
Tombstone‘s cast of characters included a slew of larger-than-life characters from history and Hollywood- Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill, etc., all gathered in the Arizona territory for ranching, gambling, and gunslinging. We didn’t have a full cast, but the LARP ran remarkably smoothly despite some missing characters and a couple unfortunate last minute GM drops. (There was often a bit of a wait by the GM who ran the mechanics for anything out in the land of the county outside of town, but he was actually pretty efficient and kept people moving. He also did some great improvisation with a scene on Sunday when some players decided they wanted to meet with Chief Two Bears.) Also, typically at RPI, the space we get isn’t ideal for LARPing. The LARPs typically run over many floors, which makes for a lot of walking and stair climbing (trying to find other characters can be great exercise but very tiring!) This time, we used mostly one floor and a couple rooms on the lowest floor, which I think was much better.
I was cast as Speaks With Nations, a Native American medicine woman who had come to negotiate a treaty and protect the secrets of her tribe, and I was very happy with this casting.
Speaks with Nations
Some side comments on the costume- I’m a beginner sewer, and made some huge mistakes with this. Live and learn. But it received a few compliments, so I’ll try not to get hung up on the horrible construction issues. I think the dramatic beaded necklace helped distract from it, and I found a red wool shawl with a sort of Native-like design last minute (one of those it-just-came-out-of-my-closet kind of costuming boons) that covered some of it. I also had a bow (a gift from a relative who makes them as a hobby) and forgot it last minute… can you believe it? I’d been waiting for an opportunity to use it. And then my ride to the LARP said to me, “oh, you forgot your bow and arrows? No problem, I’ll bring mine.” The kind of thing that you only hear among LARPers.
I think this was possibly the busiest I’ve ever been in a weekend long theater LARP, which I consider the mark of a great LARP. As far as I can tell, most other players were pretty busy too, from Friday at game start all the way to the end on Sunday. There were tons of fun mechanical systems to interact with, including systems for running your ranch, building the town, gambling, competing in shooting and horse racing contests, exploring the surrounding land, executing law and order, and of course, gunslinging. In retrospect, I realize I actually used very few of those and still had more to do than I had time for.
I particularly liked the “Pardner” system, which was an excellent adaption of a common trope in classic Westerns into a mechanic that encouraged cooperation and provided fodder for roleplaying. (Excerpt from the rule sheets: “Butch and Sundance. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. They’re more than friends – they stick with you through thick and thin. They’re people you can rely on. We call them Pardners.”) Players could choose to become pardners whenever the moment seemed appropriate, and exchange cards that granted one another abilities. I actually became pardners with someone who had greatly wronged my people in the past, which made for a rather interesting dynamic, and one of the more amusing moments of the LARP came when he taught a very public (and violent) lesson to someone who disrespected my character.
The romance system actually fit the genre of the LARP pretty well- though I think I prefer the one used inTorch of Freedom and King’s Musketeers. Characters had hands of five cards, and drew from one another hands whenever they decided to court one another. There was no given prompt to use it- players were encouraged to just find an appropriate moment. Matching suits meant love. Matching cards meant true love. Having the (approximately) one in four chance of drawing a matching card meant that control over love was out of the players’ hands (though hypothetically, one could just use it over and over until they matched… though that would sort of violate the spirit of the rule.) It worked for some of the romance plots (one female character was trying to decide between two lovers, so they both were probably trying to create moments which would allow them to have an opportunity to make her fall in love) but it worked out a bit oddly for me. I had several reasonable moments that resulted in failed romance attempts, and then wound up falling in love with my pardner (the same man who had greatly wronged my character’s people in the past.) Hypothetically, I could have refused the card draw, I suppose, though I think it would make more sense if there was some way to alter the odds of success. If two players decided the moment was very romantic, it would be nice if they could decide to increase the odds. Of course, that would require altering the system a lot (maybe letting players remove one of the suits first?)
Actually, there was an alignment system that described characters as white hat (good), light grey, grey, dark grey, and black hat (evil.) (Alignment systems are always an interesting challenge for LARPs- they tend to describe the characters as they are in their histories, but how does one deal with redemption or a fall from grace?) But it’s not what actual “hat color” a potential lover might have that would affect the odds of you falling in love with them, but rather what hat color you think they have that would affect your attraction to them. (For example, a very good person who thinks another person is good is more likely to love them, but less likely after they find out they’re secretly an evil bandit.) Maybe characters might guess one another’s hat colors, and if they match (whether or not they’re correct) that would let them remove a suit from their hands, making the odds closer to 1/3 instead of 1/4? It’s a bit more bogged down… but interesting to think about.
I spent quite a lot of time solving puzzles, searching for missing items, and negotiating on behalf of the Natives. There were some rather emotional bittersweet moments, some hilarious moments, and dramatic tense moments when guns everywhere came flying out of holsters. There were treasure hunts and life long grudges and on Sunday, when the moratorium against killing was over (a concept foreign to boffer LARPers, but not uncommon in theater LARP), there were quite a few shootouts a high noon- some deaths, some dastardly escapes. Game wrap revealed a whole slew of surprising twists.
Overall, I really hope this LARP runs again- it’s a very solid LARP, tons of fun, and I highly recommend it, especially to fans of the Western genre, since it captured all the classic characters and tropes and plots. The best part was that I spotted a high number of new faces (which is great because we always need current students to help provide university space to run these LARPs in.) And it’s always very gratifying to see new LARPers having a great experience.