Tag Archives: larp

London Under: The Aftermath

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Blind Justice, photo by Tom Garnett, http://www.tgarnett.com

Three weeks ago I – with a group of glamorous assistants – ran the second London Under event, in an ‘urban decay chic’ hall tucked in an alley behind Angel Tube Station. As promised, here are the lessons learned and (in business speak) key take-aways from trying to tell a story with 50-odd protagonists (some more odd than others), where the characters are not under my control and the best I can do is roll with the curveballs.

1) You can’t tell one story with 50 protagonists.

I’m not sure that works in any medium. Each of them has their own drives, fears, objectives. I deliberately wrote eight main plotlines, and there were a dozen more minor ones tucked in along with whatever the characters developed for themselves. Which means chaos, to a greater or lesser extent.

This is pretty standard for LARP events. The applicable lesson for writing is that every character – whether your protagonist, or 3rd Soldier From The Left – has individual desires and agendas. What the hero does will impact in some way on 3rd Soldier, so why shouldn’t what 3rd Soldier does impact on the hero? The hero may be chasing down some dooming piece of apocalyptically evil jewellery; 3rd Soldier may be looting a farmstead for food because he’s starving, or money because he’s a thief. If they come into the same immediate environment, what will each action mean for the other?

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #1: Everyone’s a hero in their own story. What happens when these stories intersect?

2) When transferring this theory to the page, don’t get too carried away.

I struggled to keep all the plot lines for London Under straight in my head, and I wrote them. Pity the poor reader (or, in the case of London Under, the poor assistant ref) who is trying to catch/keep up! This is, to be honest, pretty much the exact reason I stopped reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Yes, have plots and sub-plots, but keep it down to a reasonable number. If you reach a point in your manuscript where your characters need to stop and plot-dump, just to get everything clear, you may have overcomplicated things.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #2: No plot dumping! Keep It Simpler, Stupid.

3) Planning the flow of knowledge is important.

If your protagonist(s) need to know a certain piece of information in order to tackle the problem, you need a feasible reason why they would know that, or a believable and non-deus-ex delivery mechanism for the information. In game, NPCs (Non Player Characters) can do this, although it’s better if they don’t have to as it takes an element of agency away from the Player Characters.

On the page, having a handy librarian gnome turn up with the right book of prophecy, or your trusty sidekick suddenly develop an impressively detailed knowledge of royal lineage / magical blacksmithing / plastic surgery is a bit… well, rubbish. For the same reasons – it removes power from the protagonist and invalidates both the characters and the storytelling credentials. This is very similar to the Chekhov’s Gun principle – if you know you’re going to need it, introduce it early and naturally.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #3: Organic information is better for you.

4) Running a LARP event is hard.

Running a game with 50 inter-connected protagonists working on 12+ stories is not entirely unlike watching a firework display whilst spinning on a merry-go-round. There’s lots of beautiful colours and unexpected explosions, and then you get dizzy and fall over. It’s exhilarating and exhausting.

  • KEY TAKEAWAY #4: Don’t do that again.

And finally…

I owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who helped bring London Under to life. I hope it will live on in the pages of my next book, and I hope I’ll do it justice there. For a sneak preview, here’s how it will start:

It began with death.

Or at an intimate dinner in luxurious surroundings, where certain suspicions were confirmed and a course of action decided upon.

Or it began on a foggy February morning in Hyde Park, with sunlight gilding the cobwebs and the dawn chorus easing down from their finale. A boy and a girl – though they would not refer to themselves in such terms – met by a young oak tree and reached for each other’s skin. It was not the first time, but it was the surest.

Love is at the root of all stories. Let’s say it began with love.

Tell Me About Yourself

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I’m running Part Two of my London Under event tomorrow. *gulp* As with my stories (or at least, as I attempt to do with my stories), the game is very much character-driven. I don’t write the plots until I have the majority of the character backgrounds in front of me, so I can tie everything closely to the people that will be interacting with them.

Note to new LARP event runners: don’t do this. It’s insane.

What I’ve found quite interesting in this process is how best to get a handle on characters that I didn’t invent. Yes, I ask the standard questions like ‘where do you come from’, and ‘describe your personality’, but those result in summaries that don’t tell me much about how the character actually works. For that, I use six little questions which result in 1-2 sentence answers.

Tell me:

  1. One thing your character loves
  2. One thing your character fears
  3. One thing your character regrets
  4. One thing your character hopes for
  5. One thing that makes your character angry
  6. One goal for the future

The brief responses I get to these questions are the keys to the kingdom because a) they make the player really think about who their character is, and b) they are about emotion, not events. Characters – and people, for that matter – are not the sum of what has happened to them. They are passions and thoughts. Sure, most of those passions and thoughts were formed by past experience but the character is far greater than just ‘I did this’.

I hadn’t realised how powerful these questions were until this game. It got to the point where I was basically skipping over the character background and just concentrating on the six sentences that came after. Imagine how much more important they are for characters in your story, who readers will get to know inside and out, passions and all.

I need to give credit where it’s due, here, as they aren’t questions I came up with. Thank you, Tigermoth, for letting me plagiarise your LARP plot generator!

Next week… nothing. I’m going on holiday, to a land where there is no wifi – Cornwall. The week after that, though, I’ll tell you all about what happened in the world of London Under.

Three LARP Writing Lessons

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Today Andrew Knighton is kindly joining me again and, in complement to my last post, he’s sharing the things he takes away from our mutual hobby. This man has a gift for creating memorable characters – his Stoneburgher mentioned below is still remembered more than 6 years on, and he’s the person the raptor goes to for brainstorming. Listen up, kids!


For many years one of my biggest creative outlets has been live roleplay (LRP), a hobby I’ve heard described as a type of free-form theatre, Dungeons and Dragons with costumes, and even cross-country pantomime. With such a creative hobby it’s hardly surprising that I, like Everwalker, have taken some lessons from it over into writing.

So here, in no particular order, are the three most important of those lessons.

Set your own agenda

A lot of my LRP has been at large festival systems involving thousands of players. Within those systems, people create their own groups representing communities or organisations. It’s a fun exercise in shared world-building, leading to such grand institutions as knightly orders, wizards’ covens and noble families.

The first time my friends and I created our own group it was called Stoneburgh, and it was a reaction against serious groups where everybody had a grand title and their father’s ancestral sword. We became, for a weekend at a time, the inhabitants of a small, inbred mountain community who believed their town to be as big and important as the rest of the world put together, and who approached every situation with the question of ‘how can we fix this with mining?’

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

We instantly had a reason to meddle in any situation. We weren’t achieving the same noble ends as the dozens of heroes fighting the golem menace, but we were the only ones who knew it was made from granite. Our skewed perspective brought the ridiculous to any situation. We gave lip to kings and princes if they couldn’t recognise quartz. We played combat croquet through great centres of government. We ‘mined’ anything with a rock on it.

We had enormous fun.

And the lesson for writing? Actually, this is two lessons in one.

As a writer, setting your own agenda will be far more satisfying than writing like others do. And if what you write is good then setting your own agenda, your own style of story, will help you to stand out from the pack.

And for your characters, make them look at the world differently from everybody else. Part of the appeal of Crispin, the protagonist of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, is that he sees the world through the eyes of a mosaicist. This affects his understanding of, and interest in, the politics around him. It makes his agenda far more interesting than if he were one more noble jockeying for power.

Combine humour and tragedy

LRP isn’t all wizards and warriors. I used to play in a small Victorian fantasy / steampunk system called the Crimson League, in which I was Jackson, the valet to Viscount Buffington. Jackson was a dedicated servant capable of providing tea at any opportunity. Any opportunity including the middle of a firefight, when I walked around calmly with a tray full of cake and bullets.

Jackson1

But this absurd figure had a serious side, as his employers found out on the dark night when, having met an old acquaintance from a mental asylum, Jackson had a breakdown. Because of course no sane man carries a tea tray calmly through a gunfight. Jackson had seen terrible things in his past and he was not a well man.

The tragedy of Jackson was all the stronger for coming from the same place as his calm and his absurdity. It was a lesson we’d learned in Stoneburgh too – anger and tears are all the more powerful when they come unexpectedly from a comedic character, comedy all the sharper when it emerges from darkness.

Give all your characters light and dark sides, serious and silly ones, and try to make them come from the same place. It will make them more interesting.

Turning up is winning

One summer we played a group of chivalric knights called the Chevaliers D’Or. We joined an established nation in a huge game, and we only played those characters for two events, but years later people were still asking about them because we stood out. We ran headlong into every opportunity for death or glory. We got in people’s faces. We drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of cheese, killed a small number of monsters.

We were just one more knightly order in a nation full of swords and swanky tabards, but we got noticed.

Chevalier

Sir Jacques thought he looked like a dapper man around town. Everyone else thought he looked like star-spangled tit.

Here’s the dirty little secret, both for you as a writer and for your characters. Most people don’t turn up. Most people don’t make the effort. Just by committing to what you’re doing, by following through no matter how people react, you will stand out.

To the writer I say this – make the effort, write the book, publish it, tell people about it. That puts you ahead of most folks who want to be writers.

To your characters I say – if you just turn up and do something different you will stand out. Turning up and acting up is a form of winning. Committing gets you somewhere, even if that somewhere is in trouble.

And now to the drinking

Live roleplayers risk turning into terrible bores, droning on and on about how great their own characters are, what brilliant things they’ve done. It’s only natural given how fun the hobby is, but it’s also somewhat annoying, so we invented a drinking game to shame people into shutting up and giving others a turn to talk.

After an article like this I am duty bound to go drink my own body weight in scotch.

I hope my liver’s sacrifice has been worth it, that I’ve at least provided some food for thought. But now it’s your turn. What writing lessons have you learned from your hobbies, whether live roleplay or something else? Share your thoughts, let’s all learn from each other’s experiences.

Writing Plot for Roleplay: Lessons Learned from London Under

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Last Saturday I ran the first Live Action Roleplay event that I’ve written plot for. It went rather well, judging by the number of people asking for another one. Here’s a couple of things I took away from it:

Story Vampirism

Isn’t it great when someone likes your work? When they get in touch to say how much they enjoyed reading a story you wrote, it’s such a wonderful, buzzy feeling. Now imagine watching them read it and hearing their thought processes. Listening in as they discuss it with other people whilst the story unfolds. It’s awesome, and hilarious, and inspiring. I wandered around most of the day with a giggle bubbling in my chest, whilst I eavesdropped on players going ‘but what if it means this?’. The raptor describes this as story vampirism – feeding off other people’s enjoyment of stories.

My name is everwalker and I am a story vampire.

The downside, of course, is that whilst you’re much closer to your audience’s reaction – literally within arm’s reach – you still can’t interfere. You can’t jump in and say ‘that’s wrong’, or ‘the clue is clearly meant to be interpreted this way’. And because they are not just your audience, they’re also your characters, they carry on regardless of your carefully laid plans and vision for the plot arc. It can be difficult. It can also lead you to a place you never expected, and which is frankly better than the one you intended.

Unexpected Plot

This is what happens when multiple creative brains look at one story. They see connections that you never necessarily meant to put there, or had even thought about. They draw conclusions your single mind could never have come up with. They postulate wild theories, some of which even make sense. Then they behave as though those wild theories are real.

Because they are people, they also create inter-personal dynamics that you never saw coming, and that is plot in and of itself. Sometimes it’s crazy, or illogical, or downright weird, but that’s how people behave. It’s a very valuable reminder to a writer like me, as I have a tendency to make my book characters behave in a fairly logical manner. Justifying an action with ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ or ‘because I felt like it’ can be perfectly acceptable.

The Power of Narrativium

I spent most of the night after the event lying awake, thinking about what would naturally happen next in the story we told together. There were masses of things left unfinished, consequences to be explored and secrets still to uncover. I had originally stated that the event would be a one-off and, despite the number of people asking for another (and the ego boost that undeniably offered), I’d intended to stick to my guns. But the story isn’t finished and my writer’s brain can’t handle it.

So I am hereby officially saying that London Under: Part 2 will happen. Not because it was fun (and it was), not even because it was requested, but for the sake of the story.

Event 2

Click for the website

Balrog in the Boardroom: LARP and Real Life

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Yesterday I did a guest post for Lair of the Jiggy Beast. It’s a little off topic for this blog but I thought I’d share it anyway:

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Today I’ve got a meeting with the CEO of Orange and the Vice President Technical of Vodafone. Both men are lions in their industry, and both of them know it. I, by contrast, am an unimportant market researcher trespassing on their valuable time. I ought to be quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots. But I’ve faced up to a balrog. Compared to that, these guys are nothing.

It sounds like a ridiculous comparison but confidence is one of the most important life lessons that LARP can teach you. Yes, one is pretend and the other isn’t, but the feelings and personal development that you experience in the fantasy world are entirely transferable. Don’t hesitate to make those ridiculous comparisons, especially when they help.

There was an advert for Playstation a while back which talked about double lives:

“I have commanded armies, conquered worlds.” Well, LARPers really have. The people you were commanding, or fighting, or saving may have only been pretending but they were still people. You still faced them, inspired them and worked with them.

Public speaking is one of the most intimidating things you can be asked to do in your professional life. Addressing a faction muster is a safe and forgiving environment in which to practice your public speaking skills. People will heckle and tell you to speak up, but that’s okay. You know they’re really all on your side. Transfer that to the boardroom, or podium, and then tell yourself you’re talking to your faction, bunch of jerks that they are. You can handle them. You know you can, because you already have.

It goes beyond self-confidence, too. I have landed more than one job on the basis that I have experience in organising large logistical events. I’ve talked down angry customers using the same skills that I employed to handle a hostage crisis in the field. I’ve managed an office team in the same way that I’ve managed a LARP group.

So any time your inner critic starts to whisper that you can’t handle a situation, tell it to sit down and shut up. Because you’ve handled far worse than this.

Your boss only wishes he was this scary

Your boss only wishes he was this scary

Romance Without Romeo: Telling a Love Story sans Soppiness

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I often tell myself that I can’t write love stories. Deliberately building that kind of delicate, ephemeral sentiment on the page in solid ink is something that seems utterly beyond me. Not only that, it makes me feel ridiculously self-conscious, both about the words I’m choosing and about the skill with which I’m deploying them. Writing love is sodding difficult. This should be no surprise, since living love is pretty challenging.

The thing is, the scenes that flat-out say what the emotions are tend to be awkward to read as well as write. That’s due at least in part to the fact that they’re unbelievable. Seriously, who really goes around gazing wide-eyed at their beloved and exchanging tender devotions? That isn’t how people work. Love is occasionally shown in words, but far more often in actions and the silences around other words. To quote M. Night Shymalan’s The Village:

Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so that others won’t know we want to do them.      ~ Ivy Walker

Not an obvious couple

I have been playing my way through The Wolf Among Us – a point-and-click adventure by Telltale Games, featuring all your favourite characters from Bill Willingham’s Fables graphic novel series. In both the novels and the game, one of the central threads to the story is Bigby Wolf’s love for Snow White. It’s never ever stated in bald words, but he tries to reign in his bad behaviour around her. He does his best to protect her, both in body and reputation, and to support her whenever it’s needed. No one else gets anything like that sort of treatment from him, so it makes his feelings blazingly obvious. And the understated nature of it makes it beautiful.

Love stories happen around other things. They might be the central point of the story, but they cannot exist in a vacuum and they read much better if the majority of that plot line is subtext. Even in Romeo & Juliet the central action is about murder and feuding families, with love hanging from those hooks. Once you realise that, writing a love story becomes… well, still not easy. But marginally more approachable.

Now, many people who know me will be somewhat surprised by this post. The stories that I’ve written – and those that I tend to play out in LARP – are, at base, driven by fairly devoted (indeed, an argument could be made for ‘fanatical’) love, whether that be for a god or a family member or a partner. Surely that means I know how to tell them? No, it means I know how they feel. They feel powerful. This is pretty much my biggest worry as a writer – how to convey the power that I feel onto the page so everyone else can feel it just as strongly. Words can do that, but they have to be the right words at the right time in the right way. Silences can often do it better but that involves putting even more trust in your readers to join the dots. Not a bad thing, but a scary one.

The upshot is that I’ve given this some thought and I’ve got a couple of tips for conveying love without actually writing it:

1. Changing behaviour: just like Bigby Wolf not being a violent psychopath around Snow White, an alteration in personality and behavioural patterns can be used as a silent flag for conveying one character’s opinion of another. Are they making an effort, trying to impress or acting with rare respect? Best of all, they might not even realise themselves that they’re doing it. That way the audience gets the added smugness of knowing more than the character.

2. Not saying it: I don’t mean double entendre. I mean awkward lines, clumsily corrected by the character. Mundane conversations that clearly aren’t about the topic being discussed. Shared jokes and interests and all the little exchanges that make a real relationship… real. For an excellent demonstration of this, I recommend Georgette Heyer’s A Civil Contract, which is basically about how to build a marriage.

3. Character priorities: as Conan Doyle said via Sherlock Holmes, ‘it’s amazing how fire exposes our priorities’. In a crisis, what do your characters care about first? Is it each other? You don’t need to mention anything about romance – unveiling love through violence or desperation is far more powerful.

Nothing says romance like the living dead

Nothing says ‘I love you’ like the living dead

4. A fact of life: if this isn’t a story about falling in love, but about an existing relationship, you still don’t have to say it for the reader to get the point. The relationship is a given for the characters. They don’t talk about it because what is there to talk about? This may sound a little dull, but I’m going to blow my own trumpet for a moment and say that it really isn’t. This pretty much sums up the central love story in Spiritus, and is the foundation for the events of Corpus. The best example I can come up with right now is Rick and Evelyn in The Mummy Returns (I love that film). There must be better ones but I’m writing this late at night so I can’t bring them to mind.

5. Physical contact: obviously this ties into body language, but it can be used much more strongly. I refer you again to the quote from The Village above. Because we are naturally such hands-on creatures, restricted physical contact can be very telling and the moments when it does happen become correspondingly more powerful. This is something I’ve played with in the LARP field. It may sound simple but it can carry an astonishing amount of impact.

6. Other problems: like I said, love stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Concentrate on writing an adventure, or a mystery, or an apocalypse. If your characters are in love, it’ll come out naturally in their responses to everything else. And ‘naturally’ is very much the point.

Anyway, I hope that helps. It certainly isn’t something I’ve got totally cracked so if anyone has any other tips they’d like to share, I’d be very grateful!

Time Out

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time out

This week I confess that I haven’t actually done any work on Corpus. I’m poised at the beginning of the editing process, all raring and ready to go, and then I got distracted by a different idea. This happens a lot and I’ve become increasingly better at ignoring them or at least putting them on hold until the current project is done. But this idea had a short-term end point – it was something I could do most of in a week. More importantly, it was completely and utterly different to Corpus in every way. So I decided to take some time out before Corpus: Stage 2.

The lesson I’ve learned is that my brain stores up a massive number of ideas in its subconscious when I’m concentrating on one thing. Give them a small window and they will come flooding out. I’ve written up the basis for a whole LARP system in the space of about four days and am genuinely excited about running it. I’m also feeling revitalised about getting back to Corpus editing. Well, they do say a change is as good as a rest. Thank you to Dr. Nick for the inciting spark. With a little bit of luck, London Under will be going ahead in July this year.

And on Monday, I will once again immerse myself in the world of Gallia with renewed enthusiasm.