The Brandeis Voyage of the Mary Celeste

At the end of Festival of the LARPs 2016, I volunteered to coordinate Festival for 2017, and it’s been in the back of my mind since then. Festival was the first of the local university-based small theater conventions, and Brandeis use to be a pretty active locus in theater LARPing. But over the years, as the population of LARPers at Brandeis graduated, fewer and fewer new students got involved, until we reached the point where there were zero current students attending Festival, or something very close to it.

It’s not, as of yet, actively a problem. The coordinators of Festival of the LARPs simply reach out to the Brandeis Society for Creative Fantasy, or BSCF, the gaming club, and request that they reserve space for us, and so far, they always have. But I think if we want to ensure future presidents of BSCF will want to help Festival run, we could benefit from involving some current students.

To that end, I decided to try and run a theater LARP for some students in early November, and see if I couldn’t encourage them to attend Festival. Maybe a single small LARP would seem more accessible than a weekend of LARPs?

I had a number of conversations about which LARP to run. What elements make up a good theater LARP to introduce to new players (some of whom have a background in tabletop RPGs and other forms of gaming) is an interesting topic that should probably be its own post. The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste came up as a suggestion a number of times, and I knew Lime Shirts had a collection of props for it (which they graciously let me borrow)

Written in 1992, The Finale Voyage of the Mary Celeste is a LARP inspired by the story of a real ship that was found in adrift in 1872, with her crew and passengers and a life boat missing, but all of their personal belongings and cargo intact. There are a variety of bizarre theories about what happened; this LARP asks the question, what if they were all true?  There have been a few different versions of the mechanics of this LARP created over the years. (I used one of the later ones.) And it’s something of a staple in the local community; it’s run so many times, a huge percentage of the local theater LARPers have played it. One of the nice perks of running this for new LARPers — it gives them a common experience to talk about with other LARPers should they attend Festival of the LARPs. (It’s available to run online for free here.)

Before running the LARP, I attended a couple of BSCF meetings to introduce myself to current students and try to drum up interest in the LARP. In the end, I only got eight students to sign up, through the LARP requires a minimum of thirteen. Luckily, a number of local LARPers (with much more experience GMing than I have, some of whom have even run Mary Celeste a number of times) offered to help. I ended up asking a number of them to step in for the roles that didn’t get cast.

Printing and prepping the LARP took much longer than I expected; I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone feels this way the first few times they GM a theater LARP.  Fortunately, one of my co-GMs was up late printing and stuffing with me. He got all of the item cards done.

Unfortunately, two of my players never showed up. I tried to contact them a few times, but never got through. Still not sure what happened, but the same co-GM who had printed the item cards stepped in to fill one missing role, and I tried to fill the other, in between playing the other uncast PC role and NPCs who pop up during the game.


I acquired quite a few name tags

Overall, I think the run went fairly smoothly, despite my nerves and the no-shows. I had been worried that if I did a particularly terrible job, I might actually drive away a few players who otherwise might have considered signing up for a LARP at Festival. But I think the players seemed to be having fun, and all of the LARPers who had stepped up to GM with me really smoothed over the various mistakes I made. I think there’s a solid chance at least a few of them will sign up for Festival. Here’s hoping!


I drew kitchen equipment on a blackboard, the ship’s cook added a menu and dinner cooking

Festival of the LARPs 2017, by the way, is running April 28-30. (And we’re already accepting game bids.)


About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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5 Responses to The Brandeis Voyage of the Mary Celeste

  1. Tara Halwes says:

    Good job!

    What does it say on the blackboard under “Dinner”, before “(unfortunately)”?

  2. Balioc says:

    Serious question: do you think that Mary Celeste continues to be a good introductory LARP? I haven’t actually played it myself — and I know it’s a well-beloved classic often used for that purpose — but I have some sense that it’s discernibly old and clunky in a lot of ways, and that game design technology has advanced to the point where some of the un-fun things about the experience are likely to be much-better-ironed-out in some other easily-available LARPs.

    • Fair Escape says:

      To continue the conversation from this weekend (and to avoid leaving a comment hanging in case others are reading this)…

      For those who aren’t familiar with it, this might be somewhat SPOILER-y!

      This is definitely a topic that could be it’s own very long wordy post about what makes a good game for an introductory LARP (and how that is affected by the intended audience), but basically, Mary Celeste has a few advantages.
      – Character sheets of a reasonable length. Long enough to include interesting detail and not require players to come up with any development on their own if they don’t want to, short enough such that flaky players who want minimal investment will read it. (Being able to absorb it last minute is good for players who simply didn’t do it and/or are replacing last minute drops.)
      – Concepts are pretty broad and basic — they use tropes that people are familiar with and easy to costume if they choose.
      – Kitchen sink-y nature of the genre means there’s something for everyone, whether they want sci-fi or fantasy or swashbuckling adventure.
      – (Nearly) every character has some neat secret that makes them special, which is easy to get excited about. I think most of the players felt like they had at least one moment where they got a dramatic reveal, which had a big impact.
      – there are two built-in PVE scenes where all PCs, bad guys and good guys) can work as a team and contribute and demonstrate their nifty special abilities, which provides opportunities for secret-revealing, should players need it.
      – while it is possible for the bad guys to kill off a huge chunk of the cast if they’re very sneaky and ruthless, odds are still good that most players will come away with a happy ending
      – I think the tone of the LARP strikes a decent balance in that it’s unlikely to make people uncomfortable by feeling like it’s too silly or childish, or too dark. I think there is a character who might offend people and another character a player could play insensitively and offend people, and ideally, I’d do a little rewriting before running it again to nix those elements, but otherwise, I think it’s unlikely to scare people off with tone.
      – It’s decently representative of the typical LARP at Festival (and by extension, the other similar events).

      And then on top of those things, there are several huge convenience elements: it’s free, available online, I had several offers of help from people who had personally run it before (and run it well — one of my GMs had GMed it when I played it and I had very fond memories of that, so I knew he could make the PVE combat successful), there was a collection of props readily available for me to borrow, I knew it could run fine in the space available, printing and stuffing it was pretty time consuming, but it was something I could prep in one night (with help) etc.

      I agree that it’s old and clunky in some ways, especially in mechanics (which have been redone more than once… I would probably want to do them again myself if I ran it again). But I’m definitely open to other suggestions (especially free and easy-to-run ones!) and would love to hear from more people about what makes a good LARP for first time players. Clearly I should write that post…

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