After action report: Daemon

Daemon was a larp set in the world of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, after the events of the books. There’s heavy spoilers in the post, which might matter because there will be re-runs, and you might not want to know much of Professor Rowan McMillen; with Cecilia his snake daemon. 

There’s more at the Narrators Inc. website, here.

What was it, basically?

Daemon was my most Nordic larp to date. I was expecting everyone to play-to-lift, open book style, and no plot to solve. That’s what I got – play was between the artfully set-up interlocking loyalties and objectives. We were 15 pairs of players; human and daemon; variously nobility, scholars, military, nomads, former Magisterium folk, or some combination of those, and one witch. The character sheets were open, and if you wanted you could read them all. I didn’t, some did. We were all aiming for good scenes and whatever helped was OK. It cost a lot, and you could see where the money had gone. A stunning setting, excellent food, and an inspiring place to dive into good, solid, character play.

It was held here at Broholm Castle, which was unbelievable.

Our room. Yes, I know. Peak. Goth

What prep was needed?

Not much, really. Character briefs were a very acceptable size – 2500 or so words, some of which were questions to ask yourself. I made a little network of relations as a primer. We had a couple of check-in calls for core relationships, which were really handy; at least we knew what we looked like, and we had a network of key relations.

Rowan’s network – yes, I should have done it in landscape, but I had it printed for the event…

However, Rowan McMillen was a professor of psychology, a subject about which I know almost nothing. Luckily – beyond lucky, really – my daemon’s player was a professional educational psychologist. Hence, my character’s work was heavily based on Piaget. Also, I know a lot of folk who like to doodle character info, so I sent out a request on Facebook for papers and a load of my friends found themselves cited in the literature of my field. All collated before the game, and printed out to go in my little black bag.

That “literature” is over here – the second paper there was written with other characters during the event. Obviously, if anyone comes across this who ends up playing the game – help yourself.

I used the excuse of an event to buy a new hat. It is a very good hat. The rest of my gear was out of the cupboards: white tie and black tie for dinners, silk pajamas and smoking jacket for late night lounging, and my glorious green coat and waistcoat for “work attire”.

Professor in work attire: before the event, of course.

How did daemons work?

You played in a duple: one human, one daemon player. You didn’t have a telepathic bond; you spoke to each other. You stayed close all weekend: two metres was a long way to be away from each other. You were always around each other, in some duples very close. 

Why am I calling it a ‘duple’? Partly because that’s the in-game term we ended up using; mostly because any other term has connotations of a sexual relationship. It wasn’t that, and I wouldn’t have gone if it was going to be to be honest. That makes no sense in the world either. This is your external self, not a romantic partner.

Representative makeup and costume was the thing. As it happens, they were very reminiscent of the designs my wife did for Toad of Toad Hall at her theatre. There was a hare daemon in waistcoat and flat cap, with the players hair poking through as ears. There was an antelope daemon of a soldier human in military green, facepaint stripes and prosthetic horns. There was a witch’s peacock daemon in a long, long coat he’d made. Not peacock feathered, but suggested a tail. There was Rowan’s snake daemon in snake-skin patterned dress, facepaint and hair pinned into a cobra-hood. Everyone “got the memo”; no fursuits. 

If you ever get to play, choose your daemon very carefully. Some folk played with off-game partners, some did not. I can’t speak to the experience of those who did, although there were happy faces all over the de-brief. I didn’t play with my real-life love, and my daemon player and I talked over what was OK and what wasn’t before even booking. We’d played alongside each other a few times before, hung out at afterparties, and were pretty sure we’d be comfortable being in close proximity all weekend. It worked out that way too.

What did we do at the event?

Essentially – we simply existed. There was nothing like the plot you’d expect in the UK larps I am used to. It wasn’t 24-hr time in, which turned out to be a mercy given how much concentration it took. The structured elements were mealtimes, a couple of scientific presentations and a memorial service for the fallen of the war against the Authority. Meals were an excuse to put unsuitable combinations of characters next to each other, scientific presentations were a place for scientists to perform with each other, and the memorial was a load of sadness and set-up for some emotional scenes the next day. We followed our character’s objectives, with a healthy side of looking for good moments. For us, that was: do well in the community of scholars and find a future with the secret love of Rowan’s life; Lady Hazel Wiltshire. Somewhat awkwardly, we knew Lord Richard would have disapproved, and he was our funder.

What happened?

We did science!

The Scholars were a dream. Eight excellent players, totally bought in to collaborative play and making our professional rivalry into good scenes. A bit of performance at the presentations, but the bestest bit was the experiments. The organising team had made prop scientific equipment. Thanks to electronics and at least one Raspberry Pi, they actually gave results.  Not *meaningful* results, but you’d manipulate the equipment, lights would go on and off and noises would happen. And then you’d make up what that meant, or if you were us, you’d ask the subjects to role-play it. 

(Aside: Simon Rogers had some cracking advice about “science larp” of this style. As the scientist, you are asking the experimental subject to role-play the results you’ll then use to build some All-encompassing Theory Of Everything. It helps if you tell them what to expect, and give them some choices as to how they might act. That way they don’t have to make it up entirely on the spot; they have a little notice and time to think. “This is the Attachment Meter. It enables us to visualise the connection between human and daemon. You might find a strong link, or it might be weak. This might be typical, or it might be different today. It might be a single connection, or a cloud of several smaller lines. I and my daemon will now demonstrate… See, we felt no pain, although it is theoretically possible you might. Please now place your hands on the device, and tell us how you feel.

Because I am an awful person, I also plagiarised the Princess Bride.

And remember, this is for posterity, so be honest.

We did love!

Rowan’s relationship with Hazel was a glorious train wreck. They were in love, and every stolen moment away from the attention of Lord Richard and his wolf daemon Aniiki  was beautiful. And then Rowan blurts out the truth to Lord Richard, and it all goes horribly, dreadfully wrong. Ending in a proposal scene over dinner which Rowan and Cecilia had a conversation about beforehand – “Do you think she will say yes?” ‘No, but we’re doing it anyway.”  It was Hazel’s daemon “Atlas the otter”’s player who suggested it, and Cecilia who cued me in. Just after dessert, down on one knee, the works. And Hazel hands the ring back, rips Rowan’s heart into tiny bits, and it was *glorious*. I was a bit guilty of grabbing a lot of spotlight there. Hazel’s player was absolutely amazing and both characters ended the game broken hearted, which was entirely appropriate for them.

Because I am an awful person, that speech was plagiarised from these two…

One Day I’ll Fly Away (From “Moulin Rouge” Soundtrack)

Elephant Love Medley (From “Moulin Rouge” Soundtrack)

(And also from Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury “You say you have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but you have the heart and soul of a lion.” which someone noticed. I think they approved.)

Do this again…

Workshops.

Many of the characters knew each other – to some degree. Every human/daemon duple knew each other *inside out*. I guess you could have worked all that out in text beforehand, or in bigger character briefs, but I am *appalling* at doing that kind of prep. The duple relationship was physical, and that really needed a workshop with both of you there. Simply the questions of space: “Is this close OK? Can we do this and feel comfortable?”. My daemon’s player and I knew each other. We’d checked in about boundaries before booking. Those couple of hours to work out how you moved together were really useful.

Daemons.

I don’t think I can be the only larper who finds slow moments in play; spends time working out what to do next. This is generally OK in a group – you’ve got peers to run ideas past. But in what could have been a solo-play larp, it was so super-handy having someone to talk to who was also you. Not only that, but those human-daemon interactions were audible to others. That meant your internal monologue was a performance too, and that was glorious. I am sure I have seen a quote from Philip Pullman suggesting *a* reason for external daemons was that inner monologue became nice dialogue instead. I hope that’s true. Simply spending time watching a human and their daemon analysing a situation, or sharing an opinion. Gold. On top of *that*, having a conversation with a human while the two daemons were talking. Marvelous. It was like the Upstairs/Downstairs play I’ve seen done so well – but with more opportunities for externalising it. I know there are many who are quite happy internalising their characters’ thoughts, and I’m sure they’d have found much to love here too – but I am a performer at heart, and golly it was *amazing*. 

Impose awkward situations.

The dinner seating arrangements.  Oh, my sweet lord, the seating plans. Yes, you could move. It wasn’t that merciless. But the social setting gave the host (and event  producer)  the license to sit anyone anywhere, and she took full advantage. Such beautiful impetus for such excellently stilted conversations – and glorious awfulness. Before our proposal, Rowan found himself between Lady Hazel and Lord Richard, turned away to start his speech to her quietly, and he *didn’t notice* until Rowan got louder. All the time, others were watching it happening. I wish I had had the other viewpoint at the proposal scene somehow, because it must have been like watching an oncoming train wreck. 

For science!

Loads of folk know how much fun science at a larp is. I’d never really done it before. *This* science was wholly unlike the UK play I’d seen, though. There was no Truth to be discovered. What there *was* were experiments which were simply something else to role-play about. It was so cool to be part of a scholastic community who came up with a theory for “Magisterium powder” purely inferred from experimental results *which were just other folk roleplaying”. Or, to put it another way – making shit up. They played their characters’ responses, we duct-taped them into a hypothesis, and then did more experiments, and iterated!. And the hotel printed it out for us so we could critique it! Would a ‘real’ Professor Rowan have given his student Vanessa first author? Maybe not – but there were reasons and roleplaying and her contribution was so solid so there it was. Listening to the other professor – Rowan’s rival – critiquing the paper in conversation with his excellent raven daemon was a beautiful moment.

The words I variously wrote, borrowed and outright plagiarised are here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1U2Whc3Rd1FxAQzpFV9cxMXT2tVuG4U0O6rtb-xY0X9g/edit

Play for your scenes.

Rowan and Hazel were in love. It was hugely unlikely to end well. Rowan could have just accepted the obvious.  Hazel and he weren’t going to end up happily ever after, or if we did it was going to be secretive and silent. Why would you let an opportunity for a dramatic scene slip through your fingers? Dinner was the right time. I did play for maximum attention for that moment, but I’m not sorry, and I’d do it again.I’d help get play to a scene we wanted to happen. 

Do this better…

Relationships

It’s well outside my comfort zone, and I could have done better. Don’t get me wrong, the actual play at the event had *the best* moments of the event. No question. My co-players were *amazing*. As it happened; awkward academic was fine for the character and we got some great moments out of it. However – I could have understood more about *why* Rowan was in love with Lady Hazel, and that would have helped me show it. Lady Hazel *shone* when Rowan presented her with a book of stories, and that was *beautifully* played. She gave Rowan the book back with the ring when she turned his proposal down. Heartbroken. I’m a fan of getting better at stuff, and do not for a moment think this is a criticism of any one else.

Working out what to do next.

Our big scene was at dinner, for a whole range of reasons, not least an audience. (Have I said I am a bit of an attention-seeking performer?)  That did mean that after we’d done, we were a little at a loss. I got punched by Lord Richard, lost a couple of teeth. (Tic-tacs – thanks, ElinaI) We drank a *lot* of no-alcohol beer quite fast. Moping about in Heartbreak Corner of the central lounge, over-sharing with Cecilia, and sympathising with the other heartbroken character was good. Notably, Josephine, Professor Schnieder’s student had also been “let go” by a member of the nobility, was also cut up about it, and excellent company. We caught a lot of passers-by in the fallout, but… I couldn’t have done that for much longer. We had an excellent end-credit scene with Lord Dormer and his fox daemon which bookended the game nicely – with them analysing us. However, I think I should have tried harder for one more big scene. That said – larp is all about “coulda, woulda, shoulda, didn’t”, which is why I love it as a medium. Only the smallest of regrets for things not done – nothing for what was.

Prof. Rowan’s ephemera. Relationship diagram, scientific papers, transparencies from a presentation, neckerchief and That Hat.

Afterpiece

There were many reasons why you wouldn’t have enjoyed this larp. First and foremost, there was no objective truth to uncover, little in-game structure, and it wasn’t pvp. But by golly I loved it, and it created some glorious stories. Really, truly loved it, and thanks to all who made those moments with us.

(See? I’m still saying us… Thanks in particular to Cecilia’s player, who was part my self, part snake, part larp coach, and all fabulous.)

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