I left the Clorkwork Skies opening evening a bit early on Sunday in order to get to Ex Ignorantia, a LARP written, run and played by HRSFA, or as I’ve been calling them, the Harvard crowd.
Ex Ignorantia is a Lovecraftian LARP, i.e. based on the horror stories by H. P. Lovecraft. For those unfamiliar, wikipedia gives a pretty good description of his style, “Lovecraft’s guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle was what he termed ‘cosmicism’ or ‘cosmic horror’, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind.” Lovecraft is fairly popular in the geek circles I run with, and his most famous creation, Cthulhu, has been known to pop up in theater LARPs from time to time. My own familiarity with the Lovecraftian mythos primarily comes from playing a weekend long theater LARP called Secrets of the Necronomicon. I prepared for it by checking a collection of Lovecraft’s short stories out of my local library and reading through a handful of them.
Ex Ignorantia felt similar to the excellent Be Not Afraid (another HRSFA LARP that I played at Vericon.) Like Be Not Afraid, it had both strong emotional components, and extensive and involved mechanics. Ex Ignorantia‘s primary non-combat mechanical system involved characters having a quantifiable resource, “Research” which represented the amount of time and effort they could put in to studying various topics, in the form of reading books in the library. The library contained a catalog of books on various Lovecraftian and scientific topics. Longer, more complex, more informative books cost more Resource, and studying some books reduced the amount of Research needed to study others. Studying the books provided a variety of rewards, which I won’t go into for spoiler reasons. Characters could also study books then teach the contents to one another at reduced costs of Research.
Like the mechanics of Be Not Afraid, the system looks fairly complex on the surface but is actually straightforward in principle, once one becomes familiar with it. However, it did involve a lot of mental juggling to keep all of the Research costs and classifications in mind in order to manage your resources as efficiently as possible. The Librarian NPC shushing anyone who talked around the library book catalogs, while injecting a dose of real library atmosphere into the LARP, made collaboration particularly difficult.
What I particularly liked about the mechanic system was the way it simultaneously fostered an enormous amount of cooperation and competition. There were various in-game rewards and goals that ultimately could only be achieved by one character, but it was near impossible to do much without at least some help from other characters, which forced us to rely on one another to help find the right books and teach one another the content. My character was a motherly, encouraging sort of professor, so I decided not to worry too much about spending my own Research with ruthless efficiency on personal goals, but rather made sure my various students accomplished their own academic goals.
Besides, as their adviser, I could always put my name on their published articles and projects, right?
Ex Ignorantia also made liberal use of “side-adventures,” the sort of thing where characters go off and quickly work through a short side-story in a way that is more akin to tabletop roleplay than LARP. (The main LARP took place at academic conferences- an easy thing to represent in LARP, whereas the side-adventures typically involved exotic travel, which is much easier to represent with tablestop-style roleplay.) It reminded me a bit of the adventures the pirates could go on in Devil to Pay, in that certain knowledge and skills produced different results. The Ex Ignorantia adventures were written Choose Your Own Adventure style, and I thought they were extremely well done. The writing sounded like it came straight from H. P. Lovecraft, and deciding how best to proceed made it feel like how we prepared for them and interacted with them really mattered.
Speaking of the writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if this LARP referenced every H.P. Lovecraft story every written.
The emotional roleplaying side of the LARP is a bit harder to get into without spoiling, but like Be Not Afraid, I thought it was very well done. I particularly liked the way the authors described how characters felt about one another- the relationships were frequently complex in very interesting ways. After the LARP, the GMs made all of the character sheets available to all the players, and I’m enjoying going through them and reading the bits where characters describe how they feel about one another.
Another remarkable aspect of this LARP- I didn’t realize it was a solid eight hours long when I first signed up. But it kept me busy the entire way through, which is no mean feat. When the first four hours were up, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem possible for there to have been enough time for a typical theater LARP to have run to completion.
One thing I found puzzling- a lack of name tags. I think name tags are fairly uncommon in HRSFA LARPs (if HRSFA uses them at all, I haven’t seen it.) I suspect it’s less than necessary in their group, because it’s a relatively small and insular group. Everyone knows everyone, and combined with their propensity for “pre-gaming” (interacting in character prior to the game, usually online), name tags aren’t nearly as helpful as they are for other LARP groups. I have mixed feelings about name tags. While they help mitigate the issue of a player being unfamiliar with who’s-who even though their character would be familiar with everyone present, I often find they’re visually distracting and feel out-of-game… Except when the setting is a conference where people very likely would be wearing name tags. And as this LARP took place at an academic conference, it seems like nametags would be perfectly plausible and therefore not an out-of-game distraction. However, as the LARP was only 18 people (a bit smaller than most LARPs I play) it didn’t prove to be too much trouble. I can only hope the two players playing my character’s male students weren’t put off by me confusing their names from time to time.
Overall, another great LARP experience with the HRSFA crowd. I hear their summer LARP is already full- pity! but I’ll be sure to pounce on any other LARPs they run on the future that have room for me.
To end with, here’s a shot of a prop made by a friend for Ex Ignorantia. You’d think a LARP set in a modern academic setting wouldn’t inspire as much in the way of costuming as other LARPs, but she modified a lab coat and created buttons and stickers and made up a clipboard for her notes that represented her character’s medical background and cheerful personality. I thought it was a very cute, clever way to express her character through a prop, not to mention a convenient way to tote around her LARP sheets in-character.