I was really pleased with the catering I helped out with at Strange LRP, and my goodness there was some lovely play going on beyond the kitchen door. Jamie Hall was one of the writers, and when he wanted some space to put his story of later events; well, here’s episode 1 of 5.
A lot has happened over the last two and a half years. I wasn’t a founding member of the Strange LRP team, and the story starts before I joined. In 2015, the BBC broadcast the television series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Terry and Abigail started talking about running a live roleplay event. From a distance, I took an interest, having liked the series. I bought the book, and found it completely enchanting. I quite fancied playing a Derbyshire yeoman, with an interest in fairy paths, but in the end, I could not afford to buy a ticket.
Some time passed, and it was 2017. I wanted a summer project, and I offered to do some writing for Terry. Nothing major – I’m not sure if I was even planning to crew, at that point – maybe some newspaper articles. It’s funny, really, because I asked on a whim, and here I am, the writer of the most ambitious larp that I’ve been involved with.
It wasn’t my first rodeo. At the beginning of the decade, I was head ref for Carum Live Roleplay, which was a primeval fantasy, in a world with no history, run by Alex Graham and Mick Collins. That was where I evolved a lot of my ideas about larp design. Those ideas had emerged as soon as I became a live roleplayer, in 1999, and my first attempt to implement them was an airsoft larp called NEXUS, run with Nik Cook a few years later.
I’m not the sort of person who begins things. I just sort of get involved, and take over. This is a word of warning to future larp organisers. I am a troubleshooter and crisis manager, in the first instance. Passionate and opinionated, thereafter.
Strange LRP offered a real challenge. Not just a set of strong ideas, already in development, as the other larps were. This one was based on the detailed world of Susanna Clarke’s books, which itself referenced the Regency period of British history. It had to be a literary experience, as far as I was concerned, and feel authentic. Before I could write a newspaper…there was much to be done.
I should note, here, that I didn’t work on event plot, or even on rule design, at the first event. When I had the time to contribute, I didn’t have the authority. By the time I had the authority, the event was just around the corner.
Instead, what I focused on was the world, and how to implement it. The assumption was that the event would be a one-off, so the players needed to be surrounded by it, from the very beginning. As it happened, it became a campaign, but we didn’t know that at the time.
I think that I subconsciously treat everything as a campaign. I like the players to feel as if they are in a world which existed before they arrived, and will exist after they are gone. A world which is just out of sight, over the horizon. Maybe it wasn’t even subconsious; I might have secretly planned this all along.
So, what was this world? The TV series was a wonderful depiction, but like any adaptation to the screen, most of the detail was visual. This was in stark contrast to the book, which was overflowing with information, and riddled with footnotes, which sometimes contained entire stories. All of this resonated with me, in ways that I hadn’t expected. A mysterious England, with magic hidden in every glade, hill, and pond. Scratch the surface, and there is always something inside.
Since then, looking back on my life, it makes more sense. I have always had a solitary nature, prone to exploring, and imagining. I’ve loved books for longer than I can remember. The ones that stand out from my early childhood were a book of flower fairies (I loved the ones with thorns!), and a pop-up book by Brian Froud, which was all about naked fairies dancing around toadstools, and palaces hidden in hillsides. A few years later, I read the Chronicles of Prydain, and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Those are the formative books. I’m sure there were others.
I also read a lot during my teenage years, but the larp lessons from that decade were rather different. Tabletop roleplay was my first experience. I played a lot of Rolemaster, in that decade, and learned that rules can be too complicated. When I started larping, aged 17, I loved it instantly. I loved it before I arrived at my first event, although I found it daunting, as most people do. I played Curious Pastimes (CP), for a few years, but I became disenchanted with the way it was run. I became the worst sort of player, and I’m sure that it made everyone happier, when I left to attend the first Maelstrom event, run by Profound Decisions.
In that year, I went to lots of larp events. A couple every month, probably. Playing Maelstrom, and crewing for various events, because I wanted to be a larp organiser. I had literally no idea what that meant – at first, I thought it was writing better rules. What I learned, in my year of larp, was that there are several ways to skin a cat (but the cat always struggles).
Without a doubt, the single best experience I had was The Grand Design, which was amazing. I think there were 100 players, and half as many crew. That one weekend has completely shaped my approach to running larp events, and particularly on how to run crew. I was given a lot of freedom to play my NPC, and received a detailed brief at the start of the event (stop laughing, at the back of the class!). I was some sort of pod-person, trying to copy the clan that had adopted me.
After playing and crewing lots of events that ran along the lines of “now we’re going to attack the players, you have 3 hit points”, it all unfolded naturally, and it seemed that the event was very responsive to what the players were doing…almost as if the players were the important ones, and not a handful of heavily stage-managed NPCs.
At the same time, I was playing Maelstrom, which was a riot. We were a religious cult of Weaver worshippers, convinced of our piety as we aggressively targeted anyone that we thought was powerful. I only played for the first couple of years, so I can’t comment on what that larp became, but in the beginning, it was wild and free. It was not a perfect player-led game, but it really was a step change. “Player-led” is such an empty phrase now (and I alway’s preferred John Newton’s “character-driven”), but it was a fight that had to be fought, online and in the field. I remember being told that nobody would ever want to play a merchant, at CP. Players just want a pantomime with a battle at the end. I’m paraphrasing, but not by much.
What I really appreciated was agency. I like to do my own thing, and I much prefer to wander around, and discover things, than to have them brought to me. Maelstrom was like a playground, and the same year, I went to the play-test of a larp called NEXUS, which I then joined as head referee, where we tried to achieve the same feeling. Not always successfully, but I learned a lot along the way. But that is a story for next time…