I dunno, maybe it was the end of 2011. It was the end of summer, and I got a phone call from Alex Graham and Mick Collins. They were running an event in a week or two, and wondered if I could have a look at their rules. The larp was called Carum, and I ran it with them for two or three years (the campaign continues to run, without my involvement, although I’ve been back to play it with my daughter recently – her first larp experience).
My memory is a bit fuzzy on the details, but I don’t think I was particularly planning to run the larp with them, until I spent a day at the site. They had leased a patch of ancient woodland, near Uttoxeter/Stoke, totalling 15 acres. Not all of it was usable, and it wasn’t a huge site if you really needed to run from one side to the other, but for larp, it was perfect.
We carefully cut paths, and opened up glades, but the site was a warren. You could hear people in the next glade, which was only a few metres away, but by the time you have followed the path, they were gone.
What the site lacked was infrastructure. There was a single chemical toilet, supplemented by portaloos when they ran events their. There was no running water, which had to be brought onsite, hundreds of litres at a time. There was no gas, electricity, or phone line.
What I was there for, on that day, was to talk through the rules, while we cleared the site in preparation for the event. In an ideal world, you have months to talk about rules. I’m sure that they did talk about it for months, but I had a few days.
The process starts with a lot of questions. What is the setting? What should the game feel like? Who is coming? Because there is no perfect rule system, or perfect larp, it is important to understand the purpose of the system, and the intentions of the other organisers.
The pitch went something like this: There is no history. The player characters are the firstborn creatures in a primal forest, recently awoken. They will develop their own cultures, and name their own gods. The larp had to have a back-to-basics D&D feel to it, but not too many rules.
There was the typical stuff you expect from a larp – hitpoints, armour, some damage calls, but all of it fit on one side of a sheet of A4 paper. The rules were a bit more complicated than that, because the players were given the rules that they needed to know, ie. Which things could be done to them by others.
The character creation process was a bit different. Characters started with no skills, and minimal equipment (no ‘metal’ weapons or armour), but they had some Statistics. As they played the game, they had opportunities to gain Skills, usually from a teacher. They could be taught any Skill, but to use it, their Statistics had to be high enough. They could only teach the Skill, if they could use it.
For the gamist players, who loved getting XP and building up their characters, this allowed them to collect a personalised skill tree (ad hoc, based on the Skills they had been taught). More interesting, though, was the effect on groups of players.
Very quickly, the players began to specialise. Rather than share everything, they shared within groups, or were selective on what they would share, so that over several events, characters and cultures developed a reputation for certain sorts of knowledge. Because it was a primaeval fantasy, we made a big thing about metalwork, or the scarcity of it, at the start. That was challenging for the players, as they needed larp weapons that looked as if they were made from bone, or wood, or stone. The result was a lot of debate about the new technology, and people having moral opinions about it.
That’s a complicated cluster of rules, right there, but it supported the ‘fundamental conceits’ of the game – ie. It allowed us to combine some D&D style character development with a system that let cultures dynamically.
There is more to any larp than the rules. I like rules, because they provide some objective truths that the participants can play around. If I have rules for combat, then every interaction could include combat, but often it is the threat or fear to violence – instead of the violence itself – that drives the game. When I talk about cultures evolving, there is so much more to it than the rules and skills…etc, but those rules and skills provide a foundation for objective statements – “I can turn that piece of bone into a ritual mask”, “I know a spell that can kill you where you stand, but I will never teach it”, “It is immoral to discuss poisons, let alone teach them to others”. Most of the time, people aren’t using the rules at all – but they are responding to them.
It didn’t take long to sort out the rules. The bigger issue was how to run the event, in terms of plot. Logistically, we were off the grid – meaning that anything we did would have to be on paper, as there would be no laptops, printers, or laminators. Anything that need to be prepared, had to be ready before the event.
This involved a great deal of effort, mostly because of NPCs. After the first event, every NPC was issued with a folded sheet of A4, which was their character booklet, and included their skills, and their personal background and ambitions. It was intentionally limited to that format – if there was more info than that, we made it into two characters, instead of one.
In addition, groups of NPCs had a folder containing a Group Brief, which told them about their cultures, and any shared aimed or responsibilities they had. This was a worthwhile approach, because it allowed us to hand over the folders to the crew, and let them pick character roles that suited their strengths, and discuss their character objectives. All of the preparation meant that the events themselves were very relaxed, for me. More relaxing than NEXUS. Definitely more relaxing than Strange!
Carum was not a big budget production – it was run on a shoestring, and the tickets were cheap. Mick and Alex have a lot of larp kit, so we were able to field a lot of different NPCs without spending much money. It was a great discipline to work with – writing and briefing the NPCs becomes much more important. With 10-20 players, and about 15 crew, we would put out 30 to 40 NPCs characters over the weekend, individually or in small groups.
On your average larp site, this wouldn’t work that well – a bunch of NPCs turn up near the player camp, and have a conversation, or a fight. Our site made a huge difference. NPCs would be released into the game area, and would have to find their way to their objective, meaning that they sometimes had an easy walk to the other side of the site, but other times, they would encounter other characters (player or NPC), and roleplay with them. Whenever possible, they would return in- character to the referee area. In this way, we were able to populate the environment with local tribes, feral creatures, and travelers.
We had mixed results running permanent NPC camps. When it worked, it was excellent, as the players could scout the area, spy the camp, and start diplomacy or conflict. When it didn’t work, it was hard to keep the crew engaged, and in-character (I think we managed quite well at Strange Event 1, but that was through sheer number of crew members)
Overall, the environment was full of possibility – the ingame economy was based on foraged items, which had to be searched for, and many NPCs were in competition for those resources. The strength was also a weakness – the game was very spread out, so the actions of one player would usually affect the actions of another player (one-to-one), but rarely would the actions be one-to-many, which is essential for reaching ‘critical mass’.
It wasn’t a game that suited everyone. The players were left to develop their character concepts, and there was no downtime. A bit of pre-event blurb was all they got, which was based on the outcomes of the previous event. The characters didn’t have very detailed backstories, as they were newly awoken, and the players were expected to go and poke things. When the players came together to focus on a problem or moral question, it worked really well, but afterwards, people would drift off, and the energy would dissipate.
It was a non-linear environment. Maybe not a sandbox, but close to it. |The first event was very linear…but I soon resolved that. The plot timetable would be half a side of A4. The NPC briefs provided the detail, and we sent out NPCs when it suited us, or when crew were available to play them. Very little time spent stressing about being on time, and much more attention paid to briefing the crew, and giving them agency.
It was almost impossible to know what was happening across the site, and therefore we learned to cope without. A black box approach, where we didn’t see what was inside the box, but instead used the inputs and outputs, ie. the briefing and debriefing of the crew, to guide us. It’s essential to trust your crew, if that is going to work.
So we had this black box, and provided a simulation of the wider world, but the box was too big, and there was not enough inside it. Carum has turned out to be a very effective engine for creating myths, but the individual player characters could have done with more support – freedom is not always the same as agency. As with NEXUS, the world was a bit too big, and the player characters were a bit too small.
Life – and writing fatigue – got in the way, after my second child was born. I took a break from organising, with no particular plans to do anything else. It was good fortune that the next project contained the solutions to my problems – a very small box, with interesting things inside it. The box was Treowen, and the interesting things were the detailed player characters. The project, of course, was Strange LRP.