The weekend before Intercon R, I was back in the UK for Shogun, a weekend long theater LARP. Arguably, going on an international trip so soon before Intercon was not the most prudent of choices, but I have no regrets.
I’ve been playing weekend-long theater LARPs of a similar style for years now, (a number of which share authors with Shogun.) They’ve mostly run in university spaces, often with minimal to no set-dressing, and very lax attitudes towards costuming. Now, don’t mistake me here; I think there’s immense value in LARPs that run on restricted/minimal budgets, which is one way to increase accessibility significantly (for poor students in particular, in these cases), and also accessible for people to run. I could go off on a long, derailing tangent about the benefits of these LARPs and what I love about them, but I think I’ll have to save that for a separate post.*
That all said, I personally really like to acquire a wide variety of LARP experiences, and I’ve done the low key, minimalist versions of weekend long theater LARPs a bunch of times. I wanted to try one with a specified minimum standard for costuming, run in well dressed function spaces of a nice hotel (where players can sleep on site).** I was also looking forward to playing with a mostly new group of LARPers. (I knew very few of the likely players when I first signed up for Shogun; after attending Consequences in November, getting to see some of the Consequences LARPers again was another major plus.)
The UK Freeform Society (the group that put on Shogun, and has put on a variety of other weekend theater LARPs) has a lottery system to handle sign-ups, which is weighted in favor of new players. Despite this, I didn’t initially get in. But as luck would have it, there were two drops later on, and the female character that became available happened to suit my casting questionnaire rather well. (In their system, getting in off the wait-list after casting isn’t solely dictated by the order generated by the lottery or a first come, first serve system, but rather it takes responses on the casting questionnaires into account. I think there’s probably a blog post somewhere in there about the pros and cons and possible outcomes of different systems for admission into LARPs.) I really lucked out in that regard.
I wasn’t able to get in much touring on this trip, for reasons of tighter time constraints, but before the weekend began, I did manage to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I made sure to catch the Japan exhibit.
The hotel for Shogun, the West Rutford Hotel in Rutford, Nottinghamshire, is a beautiful location for LARPing, and the GMs really went to another level with set dressing. From what I understand, a fair amount of the set dressing was brought in by players, which I think worked out really nicely. I’m sure there’s always a risk of items getting lost or damaged, but I think using the players as a resource for set dressing and making the environment a communal effort is a strategy I’d like to see explored more often in the local community. (Local boffer LARPs have done it to decorate the in-game taverns, but the theater community has done very little of it, as far as I know.)
There were handmade banners (resembling nobori) hanging all around the game space, with hand drawn art and lettering to label the different areas.
There were pillows and lanterns and table cloths in various corners of game space. A tea house was set up in one of the side rooms. The geisha house in particular was something special, with bamboo floor mats, pillows, tea sets, a miniature rock garden, fans, kimonos, and other items.
The costuming was also, across the board, very beautiful. A large number of players ordered clothing from Japan. I particularly admired some of the armor I saw at the LARP, and one LARPer managed to style her hair in an impressive shimada. For my own costuming, I used the haori, kosode, and hakama I made for Fifth Gate. (A friend lent me some tabi to wear.) I also made a number of items for the friend I was traveling with. (There was a lot of last minute sewing involved for Shogun that got in the way of last minute Intercon projects.)
Shogun game play has a lot of elements in common with other weekend long theater LARPs that have come out of the UK Freeform community. I think they have a winning formula, so it’s not surprising to see some mechanical structures in common. For example, like in Torch of Freedom and Siege of Troy, the game space is divided into areas, some of which can only be freely accessed by certain sub-groups of players. (Mount Olympus can only be freely accessed by the gods and immortals, while the slums of Petronia were only safe for those of the lowest class.) This kind of structure may seem like it would stymie the flow of the LARP, but it also provides significance to secret alibis and sneaky abilities and encourages players to involve characters from other groups in their actions by requesting escorts.
The romance mechanic is also a version of a system that has popped up a few times before — characters can earn one another’s love by performing actions listed as their “heart’s desires.” I’m a fan of this system; I find it provides a convenient avenue for characters to get involved in one another’s plots and pick new goals throughout the LARP, as they like. It also provides mechanical support for playing concepts like a very charming suitor or a fickle-hearted object of effection.
These hearts’ desires romance systems may seem on the surface like it’s a heavy handed way of mechanizing roleplay that should be emotional, fluid, and subjective. But in practice, I find it pretty easy to fudge to suit individual LARPers’ tastes. That is, the balance of power in the game isn’t going to be upset should I decide, on the fly, that someone performed one of my heart’s desires so spectacularly that it should count as ticking off two items on the list. The system is there if one enjoys it, or if one is feeling too shy or awkward or indecisive to engage with romance without a concrete system to engage with as a guidance, but it’s not in the way if one prefers not to engage with mechanics.
I also like how the system can direct players towards the characters that were written with the possibility of romantic relationships in mind, without cutting off the possibility of romance with other characters. (For example, “your childhood friend needs to perform only four tasks to win your heart, everyone else would have to perform six.”)
(Warning: some spoilers pertaining to my character, Ishida Kiri, below the image.)
In the case of my character, Ishida Kiri, I felt like the mechanics supported one of the most complicated romance arcs I’ve yet played through in a LARP. My character had two potential love interests, neither of whom were entirely right for her, and she struggled a lot with feelings of attraction conflicting with issues of personal honor and the interests of her clan.
I think it’s difficult to write a romance plot for a LARP in which family members and issues of politics and honor are meant as a foil for the romance — I think most theater LARPers at some point have played a romance where the resolution basically involved the relevant characters simply getting over it and accepting the relationship. (In fact, I recall a player once commenting that when cast in the role of disapproving older relatives, they simply decide before the LARP their character doesn’t want to interfere.)
But in the case of Shogun, it felt like a genuine source of internal conflict for my character, and when push came to shove, I felt inclined to put the interests of my clan first, even when it interfered with marriage plans. I’ve been reading a lot of A Song of Ice and Fire analysis blogs recently, which often discuss the politics of inheritance and titles, and how factors like the relative ranks of spouses or a lack of clear heirs influence such things; the content from these blogs inspired my stance when negotiating a marriage contract in Shogun. The negotiation turned out to be a lot of fun, all the more so because romance wasn’t simply trumping all other considerations.
There was a particular moment when my character’s motivations crystallized rather dramatically for me — the head of the Ishida clan, Kiri’s uncle, declared he was willing to support my character’s marriage, but it meant appointing someone else as the new Ishida clan heir. My character suddenly realized her clan was most important to her and was willing to call off the marriage, not just because she very much enjoyed her position as clan heir on a personal level, but also honestly thought it would be best for her clan if she remained the heir. (It was an enormous relief for Kiri when her ex-fiance announced his intention to marry another person he loved, though in theory this might have offended her.)
On top of this, my other romance plot developed into a rather satisfying moment when the character told Kiri her own expression of optimism and honorable conduct had pulled him back from falling to the dark side. It was a really nice and rather unexpected roleplaying moment for me.
Through all this, I felt like the romance mechanics never quite dictated what my character had to do, but provided support so that I never had to second guess my character’s decisions regarding her love life. For example, when I initially accepted a marriage proposal, but insisted on hammering out contract to protect my clan’s interests, it made sense based on the romance mechanics — Kiri was the process of being courted, but her heart hadn’t yet been decisively earned. Effort was still needed to make the relationship work.
On a side note, regarding my romance plots in Shogun, I want to mention that I particularly appreciated the player in the role of my character’s father, who played up their role as a foil to the romance, shouted at my suitor in public, and forbade him from speaking to me. Whenever we wanted to have a conversation, said suitor would bring in another character to pass messages between us even as we were sitting about a foot from one another (and pointedly not looking in one another’s direction.) I thought that was a nice way to involve other players in our roleplay and plots.
Shogun also has a lot of other mechanical systems to engage with, and my character’s driven, go-getter personality was channeled into engaging with them for the sake of the honor and prosperity of her clan. As a samurai and the heir to the Ishida clan daimyo, I was kept quite busy for most of the LARP, chasing after profitable ventures, acquiring land, and accruing honors for the clan as a whole and also for herself and other individual members (whose accomplishments reflected on the clan, of course), all the while exemplifying the virtues of Bushidō, the samurai code of honor.
I struggled with parts of this, especially early on. With a cast of more than 70 players, most of whom I was meeting for the first or second time, and a large hotel for them to scatter throughout, I had trouble tracking down the various characters I needed to speak to; Friday evening was particularly difficult for me. A few times people tried to help me find characters by giving me the real names of the players, and I was sometimes too embarrassed and shy to admit I wasn’t sure who that was, especially if it was likely a person I had met earlier in the day, or at Consequences, whose name I should theoretically have known. By Saturday afternoon, I got a bit more into the flow of things.
While I enjoyed engaging with the economy and systems of clan honor and martial combats rankings, my favorite parts of the LARP involved engaging with cultural activities. There was a schedule of events for the weekend, including things like a sumo tournament (the mechanics for which looked creative and fun, though I don’t have the details on that), a courtly debate, a poetry contest, tea ceremonies, a mah jong tournament, and a go tournament. (Plus a lot more; no one player could possibly do it all. …I do wish I’d managed to try flower arranging and calligraphy.)
There is also a system for putting out fires in the city which I really liked. If a fire is started, someone calls “kasai!” and everyone who hears it takes up the call. (We didn’t want to actually call out “fire!” in English for obvious reasons.) Then everyone available has to form chains to transport buckets of water from a source to the flames, which is represented by passing blue balls from player to player from a container to a bucket. This proved to be a lot of fun, and it was nice to have breaks in the politics and intrigue where the characters were forced to temporarily put aside their differences and work together to save the city, with a fun little cooperative physical challenge.
I’m very sad to say I missed the poetry contest, but I really enjoyed being one of the debaters over the most important virtue of the Bushido code. (Though I really do wish I had done more prep work and maybe written out something to read; I was pretty nervous doing ad-libbed public speaking, and it showed.) I also really enjoyed taking the tests to be accepted into the bakufu (the Shogun’s administrative officials), though I think I only made it through one stage. (I was eliminated on the rock garden arranging portion.)
The lowlight of my weekend was, sadly, accidentally missing the kabuki performance. I was distracted by a private family meeting behind closed doors (which involved some really wonderful roleplay — too bad my timing on it was less than ideal.) It wasn’t the first time I missed out on a mid-LARP performance, and last time that happened I had resolved not to let it happen again, so it was a bit of a sore point for me. I’d really been looking forward to it ever since I started working on the kabuki costume for one of the performers. I was given a detailed description later, but it wasn’t the same. But I heard great things about the actual performance.
I did get to see the head of the performing troupe attempt to create an oshiguma (an impression of the kumadori — make-up — made on a cloth after a performance, created as a piece of art and memento. It was done on a napkin; I rather wish I had thought to bring a better cloth for it.
On Sunday, the drama all came to a boil, as it does in this style of weekend long theater LARPs. For me, it reached a somewhat overwhelming point — multiple marriages and so many deaths and final confrontations against various evils, that I felt I just couldn’t properly roleplay an emotional response to all of the dramatic moments going on around me, and I slipped off to the beautifully decorated geisha house, which turned out to be empty. I sat down on a cushion on the bamboo mat floor, and tried my hand at some origami. It made sense to me that my character might seek somewhere quiet and engage in some meditative art forms while reflecting on the upheaval going on, especially the upheaval within her own clan.) This moment was another highlight for me.
When I came back downstairs, the LARP was concluding and the mechanics revealed Ishida clan in a position of great honor and power, with our daimyo being declared the new shogun. Honestly, I hadn’t realized this was a possible outcome, but I like to think a lot of the hard work Kiri did advancing the interests of the Ishida clan had something to do with it.
After the LARP, a number of staff members and players stuck around the hotel for another evening; we spent a lot of time hanging out at the bar, discussing Shogun and future LARP projects. It’s always nice to use the post-LARP hours to get to know the community players a little better. I’ve got my fingers crossed we can convince the staff to run the LARP here in the US, or at least box it for others to run. (I think it would go over extremely well at RPI.)
*I wrote and then deleted about three long paragraphs here. They have been saved in a draft for another post that’s actually meant to focus on production values.
** I been to a few New World Magischola events, but it’s a very different style of theater LARP.