Tuesday, June 15, 2010

WyrdCon: I Was LARPing With Larry Niven. What Did YOU Do Last Weekend?

Last weekend was the first ever WyrdCon, which was totally devoted to LARPing. Until last weekend I was almost completely ignorant of the LARP scene – I had never LARPed before, and, while I’ve been curious to try, it has never really been high on my list of priorities. When I learned that WyrdCon was going to be literally a few blocks from my house I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to give it a shot. I participated to some degree in four LARP games. The games I was involved with represented a pretty wide spectrum of LARP styles and I think offered a good glimpse into the genre. Here’s a rundown of the different sessions I participated in, and how I would personally categorize them :

Starship Valkyrie – AWESOME STYLE: This was one of the most amazing gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time! Starship Valkyrie was a highly intense simulation of being a crewmember of a starship. I really felt like I was part of the bridge crew on an episode of Star Trek or BSG!

Picture a large open penthouse suite in the Hilton transformed into the interior of a starship. There was a bridge area with a huge plexiglass hexmap/star chart and console stations for navigation, ship weapons, scanners, and communications. For communications there was a large flat-screen TV with a Skype connection to another hotel room where some players were on another disabled starship. In other parts of the main suite were consoles for things like sick-bay, engineering, science labs, etc. There was also a table set up in one corner to handle off-ship starfighter battles using a referee-run card-game mechanic designed by the GM. The GM had obviously put a ton of time into designing this game and hand-building the console stations, most of which had electronic timers and card-slots with damage and repair information, etc. Each player received a tiny booklet with a description of their character, including what they were skilled in and what consoles they were able to operate. I counted around 25 players, 3 NPCs, 2 assistant GMs, and 1 main GM.

The game mechanics were brilliant. At its core it played a lot like a cooperative boardgame (eg. Pandemic, Space Alert, or Shadows Over Camelot). Different players and/or teams had different assigned duties, and were forced to self-assemble into functional crews based on their expertise. The game was very intense as we were trying to deal with emergencies as the captain, a player, was trying to collect information and decide what commands to give in light of time and resource limitations. At one point we sent an away team to another disabled starship in another hotel room, and stayed in contact using the Skype connection. One of the best parts about the game is that it didn't REQUIRE people to take on goofy characters or accents - you could pretty much just be yourself and get into the game as a simulation.

It was beautiful! I'm dying to play again! I'm kicking myself because I didn't bring my camera to the session - I had no idea it was going to be as cool as it was! The GM / designer was a fellow called  Christian Brown who is associated with Enigma Live Game Lab, which sprung out of the UCLA sci-fi society. After the game I contacted Christian to see if he'd want to run a game for some of us later this summer. He said YES! Awesome! We're tentatively aiming for an August game here in Orange County - any of you blog readers who might be interested in joining in let me know!

Vampire: The Masquerade – RPG Style: I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never played Vampire before, despite it being one of the most popular and influential RPGs of the last 20 years. Although I’m personally not into the gothic vampire aesthetic too much, I really wanted to try this game. What better chance than to play in a session refereed by the original designer himself – Mark Rein-Hagen? Joining a nighttime game run by the designer was both awesome and horrible. It was awesome because he spent forever talking about the complex background of the game and helping us design characters. It was horrible because he spent forever talking about the complex background of the game and helping us design characters. I was really surprised he didn’t come prepared with pregens, a level-one no-no for con game referees. It was almost two hours before we actually got to start playing the game. After about 30 minutes of actual playing my companions were totally overwhelmed and burned out, so we skipped out of the game early.

I would like to say that I thought it was a great experience, however. Rein-Hagen was an excellent storyteller and narrator, and the players were very intensely into the game. If my companions had not wanted to leave, I would have stayed all night to play. The game system was definitely more like a traditional RPG, where everyone had a character sheet with different ability scores and specializations. Conflicts were resolved with a combination of ability point comparisons and spending, and paper/rock/scissors.

Another cool note about this session was that Larry Niven sat in on the first part of the game! Since I was a kid he’s been one of my favorite sci-fi authors. He was basically silent the whole time – he seems like a pretty quiet guy – but it was awesome to meet the man. I couldn’t resist weakening into a compliment-slathering fanboy and getting a picture with him…

Pieces of Hate – Combat LARP: This was basically a bunch of people in costumes hitting each other with foam swords. It was good goofy fun, even if the roleplaying and story elements of the game were paper thin. We started in a dark room that was set up like the deck of a sailing ship. NPCs portraying water and wind elementals were running around the outside of the deck trying to hit us with foam weapons and bags of rice (spells), and all of us PCs were trying to reach over the side walls of the ship to do the same to them. Eventually the ship “landed” and we transferred to another room with a cavern set up where our party battled a bunch of kobolds, and after that, with scary magical demons pouring out of a magical strobe-light portal. This last battle took place in a pretty big ballroom, and it was fun organizing team combat maneuvers. There was a really simple rule system (NERO) covering how to score hits and keep track of hit points. It was definitely a lot of fun and a pretty good physical workout as well. I’d surely do it again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get into combat LARPing as a hobby or use up future convention time I could otherwise spend playing real RPGs.

Messina - Cosplay Style: I think this pretty well represented the stereotype of LARPing I've always had in my mind. It was basically a bunch of people in random costumes, including elves, steampunks, goth vampires, etc. running around, hamming it up with goofy fake accents, playing jenga, and basically having a no-holds-barred geekout party. I definitely respect this and think it’s cool and fun, but my companions and I had a hard time getting into the spirit, so we left pretty quickly.


  1. Very interesting - I've never really investigated LARP and had always thought it was all like the Cosplay Style as you describe it (and thought I wouldn't be able to get fully into it either.) The Starship game and set sounds pretty wild. Thanks for sharing your experience, I'm a little more educated now.

    Did you talk to anyone about table top RPGs? If so, were there a lot of people into them as well? Offhand, would you say the majority were into both or one of the two?

  2. Excellent post. While I've never LARPed myself, my wife was a LARPer (Vampire) before we met. I introduced her to table-top and it never really stuck with her. She never could get into sitting around a table and rolling dice.

    But wow, that Starship Valkyrie event... that sounds mind-blowing.

  3. @ze bulette: Good questions... I didn't really chat with others about their gaming background, but I had the strong impression that many of the older players (i.e. 30+) and all of the GMs/Referees had backgrounds in table-top gaming. I am basing this on them dropping terms like "hit points" or "magic user" (a dead giveaway!).

    I got the impression there were two main types of players. A large contingent of the attendees were REALLY into the foam weapon combat stuff. I think a lot of these people were cosplyers and rennies (Renaissance Faire people) without a strong background in tabletop RPGs.

    Another smaller (and older) contingent seemed more like gamers - many of these people did not wear costumes at all. Their games felt more like normal roleplaying games, but were very large, included groups of players merging and separating, and obviously stressed first-person interactions.

    I also noticed another very small group of attendees who seemed to be very interested in hardcore experimental psychological "gaming", with intense late night roleplaying sessions. I tried to peak in at one of these session in a private hotel room, and I briefly saw two people sitting on a couch crying, a man crouching under a table, and two people in the kitchen hissing at each other while they were going over a list of something. Totally weird. I was immediately kicked out of the room and told it was a "private game"!

  4. Sounds like a lot of fun, despite my admittedly irrational anti-LARP prejudice.

  5. Mixed feelings. I have an irrational anti-LARP prejudice too - I guess because the thought of grown-ups playing make-believe (okay I know that's what RPGers do, but we use paper, books and pencils and talk about it goddamnit, we're sophisticated!) makes me cringe.

    I'm glad you put the good stuff first with the space ship scene, after that it seems to get progressively worse with each description. That Starship Valkyrie session sounded like it was a lot of fun. I suppose you feel less silly if everyone else is playing along.

    I imagine taking part in the other games must feel like witnessing the practises of a secret cult, or what respectable people pay services for behind closed doors.

    Thank you for experiencing this, so I don't have to!

  6. @Dungeonmum and Trey: LARPing is definitely not for everyone, and I can easily empathize with people who would never go near it. The point I wanted to make in the post was that there is a lot of diversity in LARPing, it's not ALL foam swords, cheesy costumes, and horrible fake Scottish accents (although most of it is!). There are a few interesting things happening in the scene.

    Also, I purposely ordered the game reports with the best first. The first game we walked into at the con was the goofy cosplay party, and I was thinking to myself "Oh my god, all the stereotypes are true! What have I brought my family to...? Maybe this was a big mistake!"

    My favorite game - Starship Valkyrie - felt less like a typical LARP and more like a (military?) simulation exercise. I'd hesitate to even call it a "LARP" because it had none of the rennie / wayward thespian vibe of the costume "games".

  7. I'm glad you enjoyed the WyrdCon. As you've already pointed out, there are several different LARPs represented at the convention. The idea is to present a scene where all kinds of styles are presented for players to figure out what they like.

    There are the heavy combat groups. The heavy combat group is represented by the Belegarth group at UCI. This is the group that is focused on heavy physical exertion with little to no role play at all.

    There are the light combat groups with a large amount of role play. These groups are represented by NERO and Realms of Conflict.

    Then there are of course steam punk and many other different type of LARP and each type deserving their own respect.

    I'm more of a combat fighter. I am into martial arts so I'm not into the whole role playing aspect as much. When I larp, it's all about the fighting and looking cool. And so I will wear full armor and fight. While you may believe the costume may be "goofy" it's actually worn for practical reasons.

    As far as gaming backgrounds, alot of players at the conventions are video gamers. They've played World of Warcraft, and other RPGs and naturally they like to play it realistically and not be confined to a dimly lit basement.

    So while some people may think that LARPers are nerdy, I think people who only play video games and paper RPG are nerdy. If they are really gamers, they would pick up a sword and experience it for themselves instead of hiding in a basement pretending to be great generals behind a video game screen.

    I invite people to come join us in a day of live combat. No need for costumes, no need for accents. Just fighting with medieval weapons. The swords are foam not because they're sissies... The swords are foam because I doubt anyone would want to fight with real swords.

    Like what CYCLOPEATRON said, come try it for yourself. LARPing isn't at all what you guys think.

    Come fight, break a sweat, meet new people and you might actually learn how to fight in the process.


  8. You can ask further questions about Wyrd Con directly via the Wyrd Con website at www.wyrdcon.com or catch us on facebook at facebook.com/wyrdcom

  9. @WindsPast: Thanks for the insider's view of the LARP scene! I definitely had a great time at WyrdCon, and I'm happy to hear it's going to be at the same location again next year. I respect all the different types of LARPing - I think they all add fun and color to the world. Everyone has their own gaming preferences, which is natural, but I think we can all rejoice in our collective nerdiness.

  10. Honestly when I walked into the convention I had the same kind of "oh my god i can never do this..." mentality. I was scared that I was going to mess up or get yelled at for not doing it right...
    But Star ship Valkyrie totally changed that, as a Star Trek addict I totally got into my character and rapidly became absorbed.
    I had a lot of pre-assumptions walking in, and a new respect walking out.
    I would very much like to participate if you get the summer thing set-up :)

  11. Hello

    I am one of the members of Enigma Live Game Labs (ELGL), a group that ran Starship Valkyrie among other larps (we ran six larps).

    I've been gaming for about 30 years, and all types: board games, card games, video games (was a designer for a brief period), table top role playing games (published a few things, mostly for Call of Cthulhu), and of course, larps.

    I'm glad you (Cyclopeatron) came out and tried some larps, and had fun. Yes, Christian is crazy. One of the first larps he ran for us, years ago, was a starship game where he turned his entire apartment (except for a closet) into an alien spaceship. He covered every wall with black trashbags, and had biolabs, engineering rooms, communications consoles, an A-I, and at least five old school computer terminals giving data...all in alien language. He's one of our best GMs, and I'm often inspired by him for my games.

    FYI, Christian is running Valkyrie TWICE: August 21 and August 28. The 21st is in LA County (two blocks from my place near Venice, CA), the other will be somewhere behind the Orange Curtain.

    Also, ELGL will be running a Lovecraft larp at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 26. It will be simple, for almost all ages (kids under 12 will need an adult companion), and be a combo scavenger hunt/interactive role play game. People can drop in and out show up late or leave early.

    If anyone is interested in Enigma Live Game Labs and our activities, check out our website: http://www.livegamelabs.com/

    Thanks again for playing with us.


  12. PS-I am also one of the GMs (not the lead) for Messina, but I didn't have anything to do with the Wyrd Con session (game #3 in the campaign), because I was too busy being the NPC bartender for the ELGL speakeasy (1920's) larp. Photos from that game were taken for Pierce College's sudent magazine, The Bull: http://www.thebullmagazine.net/escape/monsieur-beauregard-s-1920s-speakeasy-1.1494968

    FYI: The next Messina game will be a speakeasy one in Venice, and I'll be back on the GM team for it. Sept 18. More info here: http://www.onlineeffects.com/le/

  13. Thanks for the excellent review of Starship Valkyrie. I did indeed work very hard on that game in order to come up with enough moving parts to make it interesting for all the participants.

    Starship Valkyrie is running again in August 2010. The dates are:

    August 21st, 2010, in Culver City, CA.
    August 28th, 2010, in Burbank, CA.

    Skeptics and enthusiasts alike are welcome. Please contact me to join either game, or if you have any questions.

    Christian Brown
    cdsbrown at ca dot rr dot com

  14. Thanks for the review cyclopeatron! I hope you can make it to Two Wyrd! Wyrd Con 2011 will be running June 10-12, 2011.


    Please come out again this year! We would love to have you come back!


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