This past Saturday, I was at WPI’s lovely Alden Hall (one of the better university function spaces the New England theater community uses for LARPing). I was there to help run Lover and Madmen’s dark historical pirate LARP, Devil to Pay, and play in The Prince Comes of Age, a high fantasy LARP inspired by a tabletop RPG game.
I think Devil to Pay went fairly well, despite starting fairly late because we were missing some players. People seemed pretty busy, which I always think is a good sign. And I was really impressed with the costuming.
One of the major plots of the LARP involved looting and pillaging and/or conquering various islands in the Caribbean, either in the name of one of the major naval powers (England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands), the East India Company, or the pirates themselves. Some pirates were privateers loyal to one country or another, some were just trying to earn a writ of marque and reprisal, which would help them avoid the noose at the end of the LARP. I ran the mechanic that let them loot or conquer, which kept me fairly busy. Players had to demonstrate that they had all of the necessary requirements- a ship, a crew, provisions, a flag to sail under, gunpowder (if their ship didn’t have a high enough firepower rating to defeat those of the islands they were attacking), and at least one pirate on board with the right set of skills to succeed.
Each of the islands had a little description to explain why the various pirate skills were necessary. (For example, some islands had particularly dangerous rocks in the waters around their ports, which required someone with the special skill of piloting in order to successfully attack the island.) They were up on the wall by the map of the Caribbean, but I didn’t have a full printed copy, so I wasn’t able to really make the trips into little narrations. The requirements were basically treated like a checklist to go through in order to pick up a treasure and a supply card. There would have been downsides to trying to narrate the little trips- they would have taken longer, which would have resulted in people spending more time waiting in line to do them, and many of the islands were hit repeatedly, so people would have had to go through the same narration a few times. Still, I wish I’d been able to make the looting and conquering mechanic more flavorful.
The mechanics of the LARP (conquering islands and looting and pillaging, pistol dueling, hunting for treasure, battles between ships, etc.) occupy most of the players’ time. There’s a strong motivation to engage with them, because if players can’t successfully get their resources to outweigh their infamy, their character gets chased down by some country’s navy or another and hanged for piracy. While the LARP has a lot of very interesting complex relationships and heavily emotional situations, they don’t always get roleplayed out to the fullest extent because of the time consuming nature of the mechanics.
Despite this, there were some really fantastic moments that I got to witness as a GM. One was a confrontation when two groups of pirates sailed to the same coordinates. Calico Jack Rackham, along with Mary Read and Anne Bonney tried to demand their treasure back from Black Sam Bellamy, who didn’t have it. It had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and other pirates had already found it and been collecting it in the meantime. It was pretty exciting. Another exciting moment had Charles Vane dueling the person responsible for the massacre of Port St. John, where he lost his wife and child. The first shots both missed, so they dueled again, and Charles Vane was shot dead. Very tragic.
But I think my favorite moment was when the East India Company took over one of the islands. When Alexander Delzeel saw their flag go up on the map, he waved his fist and shouted, “those tea-mongering jackals!”
Those tea-mongering jackals. That was one of the best improvised lines I’ve heard in a LARP. I loved it.
One other thing that I think is worth mentioning- I was standing by the door when I noticed a little girl peeking in, looking excited. Her family was behind her, and they like they were very curious about what we were doing. A young boy (I’m assuming the girl’s brother) looked so impressed, that he came into the room to watch the pirates, and then started sneaking around beneath the table. I think he both wanted to be able to watch what was going on from up close, and to feel like he was part of the event and pretend to be a sneaky pirate himself. Very cute. I know some people feel uncomfortable being watched by non-LARPers, but I’ve had mostly positive experiences with it. Mostly people being very confused but also intrigued, like they thought whatever we were doing looks like a ton of fun.
That’s ‘cuz it is.
Different LARPers have different policies on what to wear as a GM. Some people dress casually, some in all black, some in matching t-shirts bearing the logo of their group (if they have one). I’ve seen one GM group wear matching tabards for an Arthurian LARP bearing their logo as the sigil on the center (a foam brain… not very traditional, but effective in that it both fit the setting and made them readily identifiable as GMs.) And some GMs come in costume appropriate to the setting. The GMs of Lovers and Madmen considered Devil to Pay a fine excuse as any to costume as a pirate, so I took the opportunity to wear my pirate coat again.
After a break for cleaning up, dinner, and setting up, The Prince Comes of Age ran in the same location. It was advertised as having some politics, some adventuring, and a lot of teen angst. My personal experience with it was a lot of adventuring, some teen angst, and a little bit of politics.
I could definitely sense the inspiration from the Dungeons and Dragons game. There were a group of five adventurers who were guests of the prince at his sort of debutant ball, known as the Fairview Five- clearly the PCs of the tabletop game. There were some attacks during the LARP, with the attackers roleplayed by the GMs that felt like classic random encounters from a D&D game, and the nature of the magic in the setting also felt quite like D&D.
I don’t want to spoil the LARP (as per usual) so I won’t go into too many specifics, but I will say that I had some regrets with how I played my character. My character was quite cool and had a secret identity, and I refrained from revealing myself to two other characters who were looking to talk to the alternate identity. I think I was waiting for the right moment, but between taking too long to do a costume change and discovering most of the doors into the building were locked (I was trying to find a side door so I surprise everyone with a dramatic entrance), I pretty much missed my chance. Meanwhile, other players guessed my secret, but I was somewhat put off by the fact that they’d jumped to the correct conclusion thanks to meta knowledge. For example, one person determined my secret identity by process of elimination- he went through the room, eliminating all the males, people of grossly different heights and body types, all females in elaborate costuming that would take too long to get in and out of, etc… Except that starts with the assumption that the alter ego was one of the guests of the party. For anyone who plays LARPs a lot, if a mysterious masked stranger is mentioned in the setting description, it’s pretty much a guarantee that they are among the PCs. But from an in-game perspective, why would anyone assume it was one of the guests? This is the sort of character who breaks in to secured buildings, scales walls, climbs in through the window. They could easily have been some random person in the city who crashed the party. It’s very hard to successfully pull of a secret identity in a small LARP, and I think I missed the mark.
However, I did have one scene that I really enjoyed. My alter ego was dashing across rooftops (actually across the stage in the back of the room) and one of the Fairview Five gave chase. We had a conversation about someone we both had known in which I was mostly silent, using gestures to communicate so he wouldn’t recognize my voice, and I ended up giving him something he’d been searching for. That was a great scene and a really nice bit of roleplay, I thought.
I also really liked the scavenger hunt, which was both fun to pursue, puzzling out the riddles along the way, and cleverly provided a nice excuse for those of us trying to break into various locked rooms and containers for secret purposes.
For costuming, I needed a reasonably fancy dress (it was taking place at a prince’s birthday celebration, after all) that would be easy to take off and put on for quick costume changes. So I picked the dress from my Grecian princess costume, without the white sash so it wouldn’t scream “Greek”. It has no zippers or buttons- just a loose draped top and an elastic in the waist.
And here is the mask I created, kinda last minute with a white drama mask and a silver marker, for my alter ego. It’s not my best work, but I still kind of like it. One of the GMs said that with the mask and big hooded cloak, I had taken the character, visually, in a more mysterious direction.
Between Devil to Pay and The Prince Comes of Age, I had a really great day of theater LARPing. I like these little one day events; I think having these more low-key, less demanding LARP events between the major ones (like Intercon and Festival of the LARPs) helps strengthen the LARPing community. Happily, this event brought in someone who wasn’t new to LARPing, but was new to LARPing in this area, and even one newbie to LARPing over all. And I just love it when I see a newbie enjoying LARPing.