This Gaming Life
... And It Involves Rubber Swords?by Ian O'Rourke (editor, Drew Meger)
June 6, 2001
This Gaming Life
... And It Involves Rubber Swords?by Ian O'Rourke (editor, Drew Meger)
June 6, 2001
I first heard of live role-playing not long after I got involved in traditional role-playing via an advert in White Dwarf - back all those years ago when it was a useful magazine rather than a Games Workshop rag purely for promoting its miniature lines. The idea of actually going to some remote location and dressing as your character, actually 'being' the character in person rather than sitting around a kitchen table in your mate's house was instantly appealing. I suppose the whole 'costume thing' that would seriously affect me later (during my convention years) was already in evidence.
Anyway, it is suffice to say that at this time I did not have the cash (I was still in comprehensive school - the equivalent of High School), and all my friends ridiculed the idea with great abandon. "They run round with rubber swords, beating up people wearing stupid masks?" "I bet they have people covered in sheets with leaves on as shambling mounds?" Much fun was had ridiculing the concept but deep down I wanted to give the role-playing version of 'reality TV' a go.
DEATH BY A THOUSAND SPONGES
I got my first taste of live role-playing when I was in college, due to having access to a stash of money provided by the government. The government provided money to each college and that money was spent at the whims of a student council. The problem was our college was so apathetic that the council consisted of a lecturer, myself and another person on my course. Since no one ever turned up for meetings we effectively raided the funds for a number of private trips, one of which was a trip to 'Spirits of Adventure', a live role-playing outfit.
We managed to get six other people to sign on for the trip (a total of eight), which was not bad considering none of them had any experience of role-playing in any form. We obviously didn't do that bad at selling an idea that even I think seems incredibly stupid to the uninitiated. We piled down to Manchester in a rented minibus, and even managed to find the obscure warehouse that was the home of 'Spirits of Adventure'.
Once at 'Spirits of Adventure', I learned my first lesson: just like many gaming stores, live role-playing outfits have the local regulars who pretty much hang out every weekend at the facility. They play in a high proportion of the adventures, either as their characters or monsters, and they also just hang around and try and engage you in boring conversations about the adventures of their characters. I should have expected this really, as why should role-players of the 'live' sort be any different to the majority of role-players of the traditional variety?
The local 'groupies' did prove useful though, as they took us through the various character options and helped us find loan costumes and weapons. They also explained the system to us, which was something the non-gamers among us seemed intimately interested in - repeatedly asking the question: 'So how do you know when you are dead?' This lead to a revelation that shocked the role-players in the group: it was revealed all monster weapons were covered in paint and referees after every combat stopped the game and counted the fresh paint marks. In my ignorance I'd always assumed it was just left to the player to count his hits and in the interest of fair play and the story he would fall when in trouble or take a more defensive stance.
What amazed me the most, is my idea that live role-playing would involve the plethora of elaborate monster and player costumes was immediately dashed as what idiot is going to invest money in such attire only to see it covered in cheap paint? The truth was even worse, as once we got into the giant warehouse they used as a location, which could be imagined as nothing but a giant warehouse, all you could see was paint, in a myriad of colours, sprayed across grey/white walls due to a thousand and one paint splattered battles. It was like being stuck in some sort of 'Rolf Harris' world, except the paint never turned into an artistic landscape.
I can't remember much about the adventure itself, other than it involving running around a modern warehouse pretending to be heroic adventurers and killing things. I did get off to a bad start as I took the name of my character's class, a scout, far too literally and started to scout ahead for traps. I crawled into one darkened room only to be jumped on by six people with white faces, and white sheets (covered in paint of course) who rapidly set upon me with twelve paint covered sponges. In other words, I was attacked by a fierce bunch of zombies, and should have let the fighters go through first. I never figured out what my class was supposed to do. Anyway they let me play another character, well the same character with a different name, under the theory that I was an imprisoned adventurer found later in the 'dungeon'.
I will always remember the day at 'Spirits of Adventure' for one reason, as we travelled home, covered in paint, the Hillsborough disaster was playing out over the radio. The crowd control had gone disastrously wrong at a football match and people were being killed and seriously injured as too many people flooded into the 'behind the goal' section of the stadium. I would later see the scenes on television, watching people being crushed against the railings, while others frantically tried to get their children lifted over the high fencing before they were killed. Surreal to think that while we were running around like idiots, other people were dying at a football match.
TROUBLE AT MILL
Despite not finding role-playing nirvana at 'Spirits of Adventure', though it was fun, I did start going live role-playing again, this time with a group of gamers that I knew. The place we went to this time was 'Trouble at Mill', and this outfit matched what I thought live role-playing should be. They managed to focus on the strengths of the medium; the 'being there' as the character element, ensuring you were awed and scared by the whole experience when necessary.
The whole ethos and set-up seemed different at the Mill; even the regular 'groupies' were less like 'annoying gamers' and more interesting characters who hung around in the area. One of the regulars played a very powerful Mage (Ambrose, I think) who was a major figure in the world the adventures took place in. The most interesting was a Goblin character, who had a costume that had to be seen to be believed, once he had it on there was not an exposed bit of white skin - and his mask moved with his face and everything. The setting was also excellent; the whole outfit was housed in a four-story mill of epic proportions, all wood and stone, that could be configured, via wooden walls, into myriad of different rooms and corridors. The place was pure atmosphere, all lit by naked flames, casting amber light and shadows throughout the complex. They even had a tavern set-up on the ground floor for characters just to hang out.
The adventure was the complete opposite to the 'Spirits of Adventure' experience; it involved more role-playing, and more interesting locations - and even puzzles. The atmosphere of the location was perfect, due to its wood and stone construction. The mill did not use paint for recording wounds either, and sensibly they left it up to the players to be honest and fall down when necessary. I remember we spent a good twenty minutes just debating, before the final battle, the reasons for the bad guys actions (as he, of course, felt he was totally justified). I also remember actually feeling scared crawling through a long tunnel first, and when two large warriors attacked us from the shadows and we had to figure out they could only be damaged by certain weapons.
When our adventure was complete, we got to play the monsters in the next one, and I was surprised at how much fun it was throwing polystyrene rocks at people while pretending to be a Troll. I also got a malicious kick out of the fact the players were very new, and as such it did not occur to them to burn the bodies. Was it the height of role-playing? No, but it was fun.
We went back to 'Trouble at Mill' numerous times and each time was better than the first. We took part in a banquet that went into the early hours of the next morning on one visit, as well as taking part in a number of different adventures. It all came to an end though when they had to move from the mill, due to not being able to afford the rent on the place.
THE PUBLIC PROPERTY PROBLEM
I was never a role-player who felt he had to be embarrassed about his hobbies. I never went around advocating them to everyone with a religious zeal, but if people got onto the topic, or it 'got out' I never shied from the fact.
That does not mean I'm comfortable performing for an audience, I'm as likely to do any form of role-playing in a public forum, as I am to have sex with a crowd of onlookers. This lack of bravado ruined 'Trouble At Mill' when it ceased to be at a mill, held instead at an old farm on public land. The use of 'over land' locations rather than the perpetual 'dungeon' atmosphere, excellent though it was, seemed very appealing at first. This was before we experienced it though. The new location promised to offer a mixture of indoor and outdoor environments thus increasing the types of adventure the organisers could put together. It conjured up images of adventures at night, walking through forests with monsters lying in wait.
The truth was not as evocative as the imagination.
I still have flashbacks of the old woman, her daughter and then her daughter looking on as a group of strangely clad people kept backing away from a person crawling around under a sheet covered in leaves: a shambling mound. While three generations of English womanhood were looking at us incredulously I did not know whether to laugh or drop down in despair as I found out how embarrassing live role-playing could be when done under the watchful eye of the uninitiated.
The live role-playing sort of dropped off after that...
IT'S THE ULTIMATE IN ROLE-PLAYING?
I know a few people who believe this is true: live role-playing is the ultimate development of the role-playing hobby. After all, a version of role-playing that involves you 'being' the character physically, actually in the location and in the scene, just like an actor in a movie, must be better than sitting around a table? Indeed, it is even better than the movie analogy, as no script exists and all scenes are free flowing and relatively open-ended. You can have a dramatic conversation with your nemesis and actually be there, with him, debating the nature of morality. When it works, it works really well.
I don't hold with this philosophy that it's superior to traditional gaming though.
I think live role-playing is another form of role-playing, one that is just different, certainly no better or worse than telling your stories across the table. The reason for this is simple: the very reason live role-playing is so different, the 'being there' immediacy of it, is also its major downfall. As an example, it is hard in a live role-playing environment to play a character stronger than you are? What if you want to play a great swordsman but your rubber sword skills are crap?
The immediacy of the medium, the very thing that makes the experience exciting, also removes a layer of abstraction that sits between you and the game world. The fact that so much of the character is you, and your skills (mental or physical) ensures that while you are 'closer' to your character, your choices are more limited in terms of skills. I'm pretty crap at the rubber sword fighting, so being a great warrior is beyond me. In a traditional game the system would provide that aspect of my character. It's also true that sometimes, having the world, the characters and their interactions in your imagination is better than what can be done on a limited budget in reality.
EVOLUTION OF THE ART
I've had relatively little experience with live role-playing, and I'm lucky that the majority of it was so positive (Trouble at Mill, while at the mill, was very good), so I do find myself wondering how the hobby has changed since my involvement? My experiences so far have been 'adventure' oriented, none of them have involved complicated free form plotting methods. The traditional gaming world has changed a lot in that time, while the main concepts remain the same, the overall ethos on systems as moved in different directions. As an example, when I first went to 'Spirits of Adventure' the Star Wars role-playing game had just come out, bringing dice pool mechanics to the masses. How has the massive success of Vampire LARP affected the live role-playing scene? When I was seriously looking at getting into live role-playing I wanted to go to those 'new outfits' doing Cyperpunk, Star Wars or Call of Cthuhlhu adventures. The Call of Cthuhlhu one always seemed impressive as it took place in an old house over looking a lonely cliff. Regrettably, due to apathy on all but my part, and the fact I often seemed to be the only gamer I knew then who was not perpetually poverty stricken, I only got to experience the generic fantasy variety.
What does the community of rpg.net think? What are the relative merits of the two styles? How has live role-playing progressed? Is technology being used to add extra elements? Does anyone know of a live role-playing outfit I can sample (in the North East of England) for a follow up column? I'm honestly interested....