I haven’t LARPed before. I’m more of a descriptive roleplayer than an actor type; costume I find visually super-interesting but pragmatically too expensive and laborious; and I’ve long associated it with, well, the identity equivalent of gamer power fantasy, where the main reason to play is that you want other people to acknowledge you as a seductive vampire lord or elf princess. But a friend was running a theatre-style LARP at a convenient place and time, and a bunch of people whom I know as mature roleplayers in other contexts were taking part, and I think it’s important to try out things adjacent to your bailiwick, even if you don’t really plan to move there.
The game was Parliament of Ghouls, a oneshot scenario for Unhallowed Metropolis. (Discussion below avoids spoilers, in case you ever find the opportunity.) Unhallowed is, roughly, steampunk society rebuilt in an undead postapocalypse, with the depravity meter turned up pretty high. Parliament focuses on the politics of ghouls, cannibal tunnel-dwellers with a complicated clan system; it’s set at an arranged marriage between two clans, with assorted guests from other parts of London society.
The first obvious thing is that theatre LARP requires a giant fucking lot of setup, like an am-dram production without the group-solidifying effect of rehearsals or the long-term motivation of an audience. Lots of information needs to be crafted for every character and presented in accessible ways. People flake out at the last minute and leave yawning gaps that are awkward to fill. Picture hosting a game night, getting RSVPs from twenty or thirty adults, and then needing every one of them to show up. Also, they need to have done all the reading, and figured out more-or-less appropriate costume. How any of these things ever happen and succeed is a mystery. It’s more fun than you’re likely to have in, say, a Fiasco game, but the effort-to-fun ratio is worse even if you’re not running the thing.
On the other hand, all this prep makes damn sure that a oneshot will contain the kind of multi-layered, tangled, conflicting-motivations, established-relationships, character-development plot that normally is quite difficult to produce outside of multi-session campaigns. This is a really core quality of RPGs for me, which is kind of why the effort/fun ratio is a limited heuristic; some kinds of appreciation aren’t commensurate with others. (Or to put that more strongly: sometimes I am willing to sacrifice overall fun for the sake of interesting stuff.)
Again, I tend to play games in which there is no out-of-character hidden information, so playing a game that was mostly about secrets and lies, trading and fishing for information was a big change – and kind of awesome, really, because I really like that moment where one player reveals something that another was in the dark about. (The first game I ever felt really proud of, as a GM, was all about secrets and lies set between PCs.) It’s awesome to extract a piece of information that the other person doesn’t know is precious to you, or to drop a deadly little fact to the right person and watch the ripples spread, or to be led to your doom by a dangerous assumption about partial information – you can fake it in a no-secrets storygame, but it’s never nearly as satisfying.
My default style of roleplaying is more writer-y than actor-y: I tend to describe actions or speech as much or more than enacting them. And I’m moderately crap at mingling at parties. So I was pleasantly surprised that staying in character for four or five hours was OK – tiring, yes, but the sort of tiring that you don’t notice until you finally sit down, and just as in real mingling you can take a few minutes to collect yourself in between interactions. It helped that a couple of the characters I had the most reason to interact with were played by people I knew fairly well and had roleplayed with before. Also, beer. Definitely beer. (Whether I could have managed this before I started storygaming regularly… probably not.)
The seams showed a little bit where the game mechanics connected to freeform play – the bits where you step out of character and use the combat-resolution rules or the code-symbols or whatnot. I estimate that at least half of the room hadn’t played Unhallowed before, and maybe a third had never LARPed [edit: the host tells me that the real numbers were a good deal lower] – while the ruleset and etiquette we had was all quite simple, that’s not necessarily enough to get people using a system with confidence. I wasn’t sure whether it was okay, for instance, to murder characters and potentially take them out of the game: in retrospect it turns out, yes, Unhallowed can totally deal with this, but I didn’t have a feel for that. A fight at a big dramatic point fizzled a bit because we took a bit too long figuring out bonuses, and in the meantime other people started butting in. Some of this was that the GMs were overtaxed, but even a much larger GM contingent wouldn’t be a replacement for players who are confident with a system.
Another issue was that big, climactic, everyone-watching scenes – important both in terms of drama and narrative – tend to bog down. Having a roomful of people each with their own fervent little agendas is great for mingling and doing separate scenes of two to four characters, but makes it quite difficult when everybody’s in the same scene and wants to interfere in their own distinct way. If GMs hadn’t intervened these situations would have fallen apart; as it was, I felt there needed to be some kind of meta-drama system here, some kind of game structure to ration out the spotlight according to the needs of the scene. Freeform works great until you have a certain number of people at the table – which will vary depending on the kind of story and the personalities involved, but is typically somewhere around five or six.
Anyway, it was a very great deal of fun. My character had a lot of different mysteries to chase down and agendas to push, and either fell short or failed at all of them – he steadily got more desperate and tried riskier and riskier attempts until, having had his hopes torn to pieces right before the conclusion, he attempted to bring everyone down with him. And failed at that too. Tragedies are delicious.