Musica Universalis

There’s a lot of musical talent in the local boffer and theater communities, and recently, I NPCed a LARP that made excellent use of that talent.

Musica Universalis is set in the Dust Bowl in 1935. The musica universalis theory “regards the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies… as a form of music…” and in the setting of the LARP, the universe is coming out of tune, and magic is fading from the world, while Static is creeping in. The PCs play the individuals finding themselves guests of the Circus Liminalis, a neutral spot for angels and demons and other supernatural things to gather in the face of an oncoming apocalypse. The LARP was mostly deep and introspective in tone, occasionally offset by moments of absurd humor.

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photo by Jaime DeCaro

The structure of the LARP blends a lot of the elements common to either boffer and theater in the local communities. It’s designed to run at an outdoor summer camp, over a full weekend, and much of the content is PvE, often in compartmentalized scenes (aka modules), with information coming in to the players from external sources (NPCs), and boffer mechanics for the combat scenes, all elements common to boffer LARPs.* But it’s also a one shot (i.e. not part of an ongoing campaign), has pre-written characters, and most of the content doesn’t revolve around combat, all elements common to theater LARPs.* In fact, I think it’s entirely possible to remain fully engaged with the LARP the whole weekend without encountering combat (or just dipping a toe in) and there was no climatic, town-wide battle either Saturday night or Sunday; the biggest moments were combat-free.

So unsurprisingly, this LARP successfully brought out a solid mix of boffer and theater LARPers, including, I think, a fair number of people who had only tried one form but not the other. It made me pretty happy to see more blending of communities. (For example, some of the New York theater crowd met a lot of Accelerant people and tried Accelerant combat for the first time.)

I’m not sure what the intent of the staff is currently towards the idea of future runs (I certainly hope it runs again, but I heard rumors that they have already nixed the idea), but as I highly recommend this LARP, if you’ve read the above and think this sounds appealing (I also recommend taking a glance at the introduction page on the website), then be forewarned — the rest of the post will contain spoilers. (Also, stuff will be described in past tense, though I have opinions about the use of past and present tense when discussing LARPs, or specific elements of LARPs, that may seem to contradict this.)

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Photo by Allison Danskin

The lowlight was pretty much the weather — it was nice at times, but at other times we had strong winds and heavy rain. Some of this atmospheric for a LARP set in the Dust Bowl with an impending apocalypse (not to mention the serendipitous appearance of a double rainbow, which made for a nice, and possibly ironic, omen), but the wind did destroy some of the tents intended for (I believe) the circus, which was a bit of a bummer. Also, the bugs were out in force for parts of the weekend, especially around dusk. I was crunching as a demon following a fallen angel at one point, and being accompanied by swarms of insects seemed very appropriate, but I just couldn’t stand them constantly in my field of vision, flying in my eyes, nose, and mouth.

The highlights included…

The way music was incorporated into the LARP. Well before the LARP, the staff sent out a list of songs for the PCs and NPCs to learn, so that at various moments, we could collectively burst into song, it made for poignant scene setting that had a well choreographed feeling. (Something LARP generally struggles with, or entirely lacks, as a medium.) The songs chosen had lyrics that lent meaning and took on new meaning to the scenes they accompanied. (I’m sad to say I only caught four of the songs over the weekend, but they were all wonderful moments.)

A number of PCs and NPCs showed off their abilities with various instruments. “The House of the Rising Sun” had two accordions, a guitar, a flute, and a keyboard accompanying it. (And possibly more that I’m forgetting.) There were also a few performances PCs and NPCs brought into the LARP (in addition to the LARP-wide playlist the staff created), including Lillith’s rendition of “Feeling Good”.

In particular, the closing scene of the LARP on Sunday was designed by staff members who are knowledgeable about music, primarily one who is a music teacher, and it showed. The entire PC and NPC base harmonized together to create a poignant sign off for the LARP.

My NPC role as La Llarona, the Weeping Woman. La Llorona is a figure from Mexican folklore with a penchant for drowning. I had some great roleplaying with both PCs and my fellow NPCs alike, especially those connected to the plotlines involving the genius locii of various rivers. I got to be the big bad Boss in a large fight, and improvised some mechanics to support the roleplay of La Llorona’s manipulation of the Rivers and attempts to corrupt some PCs, as well as improvise some mechanics to enable a PC to dramatically take her down.

I enjoyed wearing my costume for the role of La Llorona. I looked over some pictures the staff sent me for inspiration, then put together an outfit of a black lace top and skirt. I also hot glued together a hair band of some fake forest/river-like plant life I found that looked appropriate  — pussy willows and leaves turning brown at the edges. (I felt the flowery hair wreaths I already owned were too pretty and sweet.) I used some blue makeup to try and created a cold, dead look, with red contact lenses, and draped a floor length black veil over my head. Just before I went out each time, I soaked my hair in water to look recently drowned and dripping. I also froze a cup of water and held the ice in my hand just before talking to PCs, so that my touch would feel icy cold and damp. Lots of people told me I looked creepy, which made me rather happy.

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I failed to get a full length photo of the costume, and I don’t think my rushed selfies quite captured the drama of the veil, but I definitely intend to include floor length veils in more costumes in the future.

The Wonder Walk. The way some of the staff members were talking about it made it sounds like this sort of thing might have been done before in our community, but I’ve personally never seen anything like it. I’m not even sure what it meant within the context of the diagesis of the LARP (was it meant to be a collective dream of the PCs? A physical manifestation of meditation? I don’t know.)

At some point, the staff went out and created a enormous tangled web of glowing lights, both from glowsticks scattered on the ground in looping paths and strings of light hung between trees, with various surreal, interactive way-points throughout. PCs could take solitary quiet walks along the paths, late at night, and read snippets of hopes and dreams strung up in a tree, try on masks, blow bubbles, read memories from their old love letters and telegrams, create bits of artwork and music and leave messages for one another… I only wish I could have experienced it as a PC, I’m sure it created wonderful, introspective, internal roleplay.

Please believe me when I say my photos don’t do it justice; I just don’t know yet how to get my camera to capture the countless glowing and twinkling lights.

 

 

The Module in Hell. This was a relative little thing, but I think we pulled it off with panache. We blocked off the stage in one of the module buildings, and filled it with flame wall paper, braziers of (fake) flames, casting red light over the space, and tons of fog. Some of the NPCs played demons torchering the souls of sinners; I played a sinner in chains and spent longer than we had expected the module to last wailing in agony. The PCs came by to bargain with the angel in charge of hell. It was a rather thematic little scene.

Video Does Not Kill the Radio Star. Late Saturday night, I volunteered to crunch for a module in which the PCs had to battle there way through beings of Static to retrieve various movie reels of famous old movies from the era. For each movie reel, the creatures of Static would take on aspects of the movie, and compulsively play them out while attacking. Meanwhile, the NPC hook who gathered the PCs put on his best deep, booming announcer voice narrated the scenes throughout. (“And so our intrepid heroes gathered their weapons and gathered their wits…” “A viscous blow was struck but our brave heroes were not deterred…!” etc. He was excellent.)

Playing the creatures of Static was a lot of fun, and evoked a lot of laughter. For The Bride of Frankenstein we staggered around as Frankenstein’s Monsters, or cackled like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. (I laughed when voice of Dr. Frankenstein chased the PCs out of the room with a shriek of “I AM LIKE UNTO A GOD.”) For Treasure Island we shouted stereotypical pirate phrases (“ye’ll walk th’ plank, ye scurvy dogs!”) and “Arrr!”ed a lot. For Top Hat, we danced as fought. Two NPCs twirled in the center, ballroom dance style, and spun out their boffer swords to strike the PCs as they tried to dodge by. (“Little did our intrepid heroes realize, despite their elegant dance moves, the creatures of static were still very dangerous...”)

Between the retrieval of each reel, the NPCs reset the props and prepared to play out the next movie. When we got to David Copperfield, we came up blank. Someone asked, “…has anyone here actually read the book? Or seen the movie?” and got silence in response. …So we stooped to English stereotypes. (“Tally-ho, wot wot.”)

My favorite was Cleopatra. It’s long been on my bucket list to be presented as some sort of royal NPC to players while carried aloft on a palanquin. For this scene, just before the PCs entered, my fellow NPCs draped a piece of the set dressing around my shoulders and lifted me up on a chair. When the PCs came through the door, one NPC proclaimed their love for me as Marc Antony, and I imperiously called “By My Voice, Short Repel Until I Am Safely Back on the Ground.” (Not an Accelerant-legal call, but it got the job done.) So it was very brief and very silly, but I’m ticking it off my list.

The Accelerant combat system uses verbal flavor tags to indicate the nature of attacks. (E.g. “5 Damage by Fire might accompany a flaming sword, “Paralyze by Poison” would indicate a blade coated in a toxic venom that affects the nervous system.) For this scene, the tags reflected and reinforced the absurdity and humor of the module; we struck PCs with things like like “Two Damage by High Fashion” and “Maim by Thinly Veiled Allegory” and “Agony by Creative License with History.” It was special.

Blowing up the hoover dam. In another comical module, the PCs fought a battle to blow up the hoover dam. A handful of us NPCs tried to stop them as Evil Bureaucrats taken up to 11. We had a grand time attacking “By Bureaucracy”, insisting on mid-combat coffee breaks, and demanding the interns put themselves between the bosses and harm’s way.

Nametags. In the opening scene of the LARP, the NPCs of the Circus Liminalis greeted the PCs with a rendition of “Come On Up to the House.” There were tables set out with nametag patches, each embroidered with a different PC’s name for them to wear throughout the weekend. I liked that they looked like they were nice quality and diagetic. I heard a lot of positive feedback from PCs over this (it also often made things easier for me as an NPC) which goes to show they can be a positive element even in large boffer LARPs. (Though I know some people feel very strongly otherwise. To head off arguments at the pass, I’m still not saying that this means every single boffer LARP should use them.)

A send-off for my barbell. A little over four years ago, I played a LARP called Cirque du Fey, and I was cast as the strong woman of a circus called the Umbral Fete. Inspired by images of real Victorian-era strong women, I created a costume with a Greco-Roman flair. I also created a giant vintage-looking barbell prop out of two styrofoam balls, the cardboard tube from some wrapping paper, and paint. I have a bad habit of getting attached to LARP props and costuming, and after Cirque du Dey, even though the barbell was pretty cheap and easy to make, I couldn’t bear to throw it out.

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Morgan Tamm, strongwoman of the Cirque du Fae

There sat the barbell in my living room, occupying a chunk of space, for four years. Then I heard that Musica Universalis had the Circus Liminalis as part of its setting, and NPCs were welcome to create circus characters if they needed a non-specific role to play while hanging out amongst the PCs. (Say, during meal time.) So I brought the barbell.

At one point, I went out to hang out with some PCs. One came over to see the barbell, and I introduced myself as the Circus Liminalis’ strong woman, and she said, “but I’m the strong woman of the Circus Liminalis. Were you just hired yesterday?” I realized at this point I had misunderstood one of the staff members, but I said yes and ran with it, and we had a nice little showdown, where I acted out struggling to lift the barbell (the PCs applauded), and she casually plucked it off the ground with one hand.

At this point, the cardboard tube playing the role of the bar collapsed and ripped. (It had already been bending. Lesson learned — if I actually care about these kinds of props lasting, I should reinforce the cardboard tube.) But we rolled with it and roleplayed that she was so strong, she’d accidentally bent a metal tube in half.

It was such a little moment, just a bit of playful off-the-cuff roleplay that came out of a misunderstanding and then a minor prop failure, but I thought it was really nice, and I got to help highlight something that made a PC cool and unique. And it was really nice to validate my excessive sense of sentimental attachment/hoarding tendencies towards LARP paraphanelia in a way that made me glad I kept the barbell, while still having a very good reason to throw it away after. These kinds of things make me weirdly happy.

I came out one more time as the not-as-strongwoman to try and make a play for the PC’s job. We arm wrestled, and I conceded to her superior strength and accepted the role of her assistant for future shows.

The Death/Ressurection module. I actually can’t say too much about this, as I only saw the set-up after the LARP was over, but I peeked into the camp’s nature cabin (which is chock full of things like animal skulls, which gives a nice extra oomph to the atmosphere for lots of different scenes in a number of LARPs that run at this campsite.) There was a carefully curated playlist, glowing lights, and tons of different antique looking boxes, bottles, and hollow books, each one with a different PC’s name on it, and something personalized written on paper within (Some sort of choice, I think, and PCs had one song off the playlist to decide.) I wish I knew more about how they worked out, but I loved the idea of the process of death being personalized for each individual PC, and the sense the room created that Death was prepared for each and everyone one of them.


Here is the playlist. There’s a lot of good music here. Enjoy.

Come On Up to the House” (Sarah Jaroz)
This World Can’t Stand So Long” (Uncle Sinner)
Lungs” (Townes van Zandt)
At the Crossroads” (Those Poor Bastards)
House of the Rising Sun” (The Animals)
Old Devils” (William Elliot Whitmore)
Don’t Want to Die in the Storm” (Anna & Elizabeth)
Sixteen Tons” (Corb Lund Band)
Nothing but the Water” (Grace Potter & The Nocturnals)
The Angel of Death” (The Devil Makes Three)
Help Yourself” (The Devil Makes Three)
May Be the Last Time, I Don’t Know” (Ndidi O)

*In the local communities. I realize these trends differ a lot from community to community. MET LARPs are a particular example I have very little personal experience with, and I know they often run as campaigns.

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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
This entry was posted in boffer, LARP, LARP Reviews, theater. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Musica Universalis

  1. So much fun, and thanks for the details on how you managed the icy grip effect as La Llorona; I’d heard about that and wondered!

    I also played the big harp on House of the Rising Sun!

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