I learned a lot in 2004. Enough to give me a larp ego. If you haven’t experienced your larp ego…you have, and just don’t realise it. I was quite certain that I had all the right ideas, if only I could put them into practice.
I had started by thinking about rules, in the preceeding years. Unsurprisingly, having started with fest larp, I spent a lot of time thinking about fest rules. The rules were the most obvious thing about Curious Pastimes (CP) – the huge logistical effort to make those events happen was…not invisible, but obscured from the players. I think it’s a sign of success, when your players mostly just turn up, and get on with it.
So I spent time thinking about CP, but with different rules. Eventually, it became clear that ‘different but equally complicated’ rules were not the answer. What mattered more was principle, and something I really liked about Maelstrom was the open discussion about those principles, on Pagga.net, which was a larp forum, consisting of equal parts trolling, flamewar, and serious debate.
Design and theory was a niche topic, but there was a hardcore of people eager to debate it. An occasional game was “rules haiku”, in which a combat system would be described in three lines. If you look in the Strange LRP rulebook, you will see that the combat section is headed by a 3-line description.
At the same time, the Nordic larp scene was evolving at a phenomenal rate. I’m not sure that we paid much attention to it – from time to time, a Scandanavian larper would join to tell us, in perfect English, that everything we did was shit. At the time, this was mostly a matter of immersion, and it’s fair to say that UK larp was kind of shit, in terms of immersion.
The UK scene is heavily influenced by the tabletop tradition. There were other influences, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, how many of us started in larps that didn’t have all the tropes of a Dungeons & Dragons game?
We struggle to escape from ‘classes’ and ‘levels’. I’ve been involved in a lot of design meetings, and it’s amazing how quickly everyone drifts into “yes, but we definitely need a rule for how many concealed items a thief can carry”. I am as guilty as everyone else.
When I joined NEXUS, it had some rules. I don’t think I removed anything from the rules, but I did reorganise them. I’m still kind of proud – we had a professionaly printed rulebook, which was rare for small larps – but it was clunky, and the players cried if we tried to simplify anything. Whatever rules you start with, they can only grow, or people cry. This is called ‘bloat’, and it is horrifying to behold.
NEXUS was a post-apocalyptic larp, using airsoft weapons. We had the unique position of being loathed by the larp community, and by the airsoft community. The playtest event was really interesting, for that reason. On the Friday evening, the larpers sat on one side of the room, and the airsofters sat on the other. By Saturday evening, the boundaries were starting to blur, and everyone realised that we were all doing the same thing.
The most amusing difference was pace. The airsofters stormed every building, and run up every hill. The larpers trudged. The airsofters were broken by 2pm; the larpers were just getting into the swing of things. But otherwise, the differences were minor. We had a lot of fun.
Over the winter, the playtest (which was mostly linear) was developed into a fully fledged game.
This is where the principles kicked in. They were:
- Everything should be player-led. There should be no plot.
- The organisers should be fair and consistent. They are there to administrate, not control.
- The environment has to be immersive, and allow freedom to explore.
The idea behind player-led games, of Maelstrom was the most famous example, was to make the players the protagonists and the antogonists, and to give them agency. There was less plot, and the plot was usually non-linear, or at least, it didn’t interfere too much with player agency. This was in stark contrast to traditional larp, in which the players, even at a fest event, were spectators and extras for organiser-led plot.
We take player-led for granted, but it really was a big debate, in the early 2000’s. Maelstrom, for all its faults, made clear that a player-led game was possible, but it had hundreds of players – enough to reach a ‘critical mass’. The challenge with NEXUS was to run a player-led game with less than 100 people (I think the biggest event was 70, including crew). A lot of people told us that you couldn’t do it with less than 100 people, and at the time, they were right.
I think Strange LRP is testament to the fact that you can achieve critical mass with about 50 people, but NEXUS was a different game, and it didn’t work that well (although a lot of people had a lot of fun). The problem was that we didn’t know what we were doing.
For player-led to work, players need more than agency. They need authority, they need ambitions, and they need consequences. NEXUS had a very effective economy built around scarcity (ammunition, in the form of sticks of BB’s, was particularly valuable), which drove a lot of activity, but the activity was repetitive, and lacked a personal, emotional connection (even gun bunnies are sentimental, at heart). It was a vending machine economy – put tokens in, and something comes out.
There player characters in their settlement just weren’t big enough to affect the world, which was large. We did run plot, including some excellent set pieces, and tried to avoid undermining the players, but it always felt like it would be easy to kick over the player’s sandcastles with a set piece that went out of control (we did a night assault on the settlement, smoke, floodlights, tracer rounds, which was jaw-dropping). Nothing lasts if it is built on weak foundations, and I’m convinced that was part of the reason that NEXUS didn’t grow enough to continue beyond 3 or 4 years.
We need manage to be fair and impartial. I learned to be a referee, at NEXUS, and something I made a point of was “Admin”, instead of “GOD”. According to some, the latter means Game Organisation Desk, or something, but I think that’s always been a joke. GOD is where the gods live. It is the source of all power in the world, and the players travel there to make their supplications! Whereas Admin is a room with some tables, and a computer, and a couple of crew there to assist the players with their needs. The rules were over-complicated, but they were applied consistently. Perhaps too consistently – nowadays, I like “some structure, and some flex”, but it’s more difficult to be impartial, when you’re being flexible.
Where NEXUS was strongest was the environment. I’m very lucky that I’ve never run a larp event on a scout camp. NEXUS was run on a disused farm, with sheds and barns made from concrete and corrugated steel, and a half-mile walk to the wilderness area. The layout of the site had a huge impact on how the players interacted; there were dead spots, and bottlenecks. The players quickly established a medical room, and various other facilities, while the crew ran the bar, which was in the largest barn. It looked very industrial, and they played a lot of industrial music in the bar.
In this environment, we ran groups of free-roaming NPCs, including a tribal camp during daylight hours, which provided adversaries to some characters, and trading partners for others. I’m immensely proud of what we did, because even if some of it didn’t work out, it laid the foundations for my later efforts, and it was knowingly run as a bit of a social experiment – we took risks because we wanted to understand how people interact.
Nothing lasts forever, and after NEXUS, I took a break from larp, got married, had a child, and developed my career (I’m a goldsmith). Then, one evening in 2012(?), I received a phonecall….