Afloat on The Isles – What Goes into Running a LARP – Part 1

The sport/game/interactive-theater activity called Live-Action Role-Playing or LARPing has been much on my mind recently, gentle readers. This is because, by the time you read this article, it will be less than a week until the launch of The Isles: Purgatory Station, the new campaign of the LARP I helped develop called The Isles.

Preparing a new LARP is no small amount of work. Even with the years of experience and the tremendous resources that the Plot Team, including myself, has at its disposal, we find ourselves incredibly busy as the 11th Hour comes round. When you’re running a tabletop RPG, you can simply state “There’s a monster over there by that cave entrance.” For the same thing to happen at a LARP, you need someone to be the monster, you need the monster to look like the monster you want it to be, and you need a cave entrance for it to stand near.

As I take a breath to write this series of articles, let me bring you on a journey, gentle readers, into the eye of the storm. Let me show you what goes into running a LARP, and perhaps you’ll be intrigued enough to give LARPing a try, or at least wonder where your humble narrator’s sanity has gone for taking on such a Herculean labor.

My History with LARPing

This is hardly my first time to the rodeo, as I started LARPing back in 1990 at Ravenholt, the flagship campaign of NERO, an international LARP and still going strong after all these years. At the time, the game was being run out of The Gamemaster, a nearby gaming store. I would often go in for D&D books, and I became intrigued by the props and photos I saw kicking around. The proprietor, Ford Ivey, and I became friends, and he would tell me about the game. It sounded very intriguing, and I rounded up a couple of friends and attended an event. Even though the game was still in its infancy, it was overwhelming to try and fathom it all at once. There were already power groups, mighty villains, and an ongoing storyline that you had to penetrate in order to get your feet and get going.

I did find my feet, and I got going. My friends and I became a fairly successful group, the Children of Morpheus (did I mention Sandman was our favorite comic in those days?) and our characters found ourselves gaining power in various ways in game. I became at first the Duke’s Herald, thanks to my booming voice and theater training. My loyalty and integrity got me named a Squire, then a Lord, then the Lord Seneschal , essentially second only to the Duke. Out of the reality of the game, I was asked to join the National Plot Committee, the group who helped coordinate events that affected more than one chapter of the game. I was responsible for developing characters and plots that would see light in chapters all over the world. Pretty cool, huh?

Unfortunately, LARPs are full of people with strong egos…you pretty much have to have one to put on medieval outfits and go into the woods to beat one another with swords made of plumping insulation and not feel silly. The leadership of NERO transitioned both in and out of game. In game, my character suddenly found himself supplanted off-screen by the movements of Ravenholt’s local plot committee. Out of game, a new group took over ownership of NERO’s international body, and I wasn’t called to join the new plot committee they formed. It wasn’t a happy parting on my part, but I decided I had other things to do with my time. My hubby Steve had moved to Massachusetts, and I was happy to have more free time to spend with him. I assumed my LARPing days were behind me.

But it was not to be so.

The Isles Cometh…and I’m Like a Deer in the Headlights

In 2001, Ford Ivey contacted me again about a new game he wanted to run called The Isles. The concept was sweeping…the story would revolve around a universe in which different realities, referred to as Isles, could be accessed by powerful Gates. Each reality would function differently in terms of technology, magic, and psionics, but you might have cowboys, futuristic cyborgs, and medieval wizards fighting alongside each other. The game would have a production system akin to the ones in an MMORPG, and players would drive the economy. Each chapter or campaign could have its own Isle, coordinated by a World-Builders Committee. And Ford basically appointed me the head of that committee. I agreed, provided I could put together the rest of the committee and not be involved in the running of a single campaign. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be that closely committed to the game.

I put together a committee with Fran Moore and Tim Gile, two of my colleagues from NERO’s Plot Committee, and we began forging the universe, taking the nascent idea Ford had given us of an Empire that spanned multiple Isles, and running with it. We invented crazy ideas that we assumed would never see the light of day, such as a numerology, a Cthulhu-like threat called the Void that would only be encountered via its cultists, an enemy Mageocracy that plunged from world to world via control of naturally occurring rifts…

Eventually, though, we hit a point where nothing more could be done til there was an actual chapter, and we stalled. Ford was originally planning on running the game down in Virginia, because that’s where he’d moved. Then he formed a group in Massachusetts, due to the strong LARPing community already in place. He contacted Jet, a woman who’d played NERO with us back in the day, and made her head of the local plot committee. Tim agreed to be the liaison to this new campaign, which would be called Asylum and would have a somewhat Aztec feel.

Slowly, I got drawn into the workings of the local plot committee. I had experience, and they wanted more input since I’d been working with Ford from the beginning. I found myself helping to develop Asylum and its plots, and I developed a persona, Will deCanta, a bard who would help run the local tavern, along with Ford’s gypsy NPC, Boris. We launched the game in 2005, with a schedule of 3 events. And to cement my involvement, my hubby, Steve, tried playing and loved it. Now it was something we could enjoy together!

Sadly, egos struck once more. After two events, everything ground to a halt. Ford called an emergency meeting, to which I was invited, along with a bunch of people he was close to who were playing the game. The theme of the meeting was essentially that Ford was giving up The Isles, because of the stress it was causing him and a lack of funds to keep it going. I was sad, but there was no way I could afford to keep it going on my own. Much to my shock, however, some of the players who’d loved what we’d started and saw the potential in it stepped up. They purchased the game from Ford, asked me to officially join the local plot committee, and we began to rewrite things and take them in our own direction.

That new beginning for the campaign was launched in 2006. The game ran very successfully for five years, and I remained part of the plot team throughout that time. In 2009, we began to discuss an ending for the campaign, and, almost simultaneously, discussions of a new campaign began. I had assumed that I would want to just be done with things when The Isles: Asylum wrapped up, but I found myself unwilling to give up my attachment to Asylum and to the Empire and all the other parts of the game I’d helped to create. After all, I was the only person who’d been involved as part of staff continually since 2001. That’s ten years of my life! At the closing event of The Isles: Asylum, Ford, who came back for one final appearance in the game, described me as the game’s Spirtual Godfather…and I guess I am. So, I signed back up to at least help get the new campaign off the ground.

A Rough New Beast Slouches Towards Bethlehem

That’s how I find myself back here, gentle reader, close to the end of the beginning. A lot of work has gone into preparing for The Isles: Purgatory Station. Backgrounds have been written, although we’re using what was already written as a springboard. The campaign is again taking place on the Isle of Asylum, but 70 years later and far from the original campaign location in the Great Dogreni Valley. Our players have new monsters, new native peoples, new alien creatures, and new mysteries awaiting them. Some of the people who were integral to running the Asylum campaign are now players, and some people who were players are now helping to run things. I’m not the only member of the old plot committee who stayed on, but I’m the one with the longest run, for sure.

One thing that’s going to be a lot of fun in this campaign is playing off of peoples’ expectations based on what they learned in the last campaign. I can’t give any specifics, as I know some Isles players read my columns, but I expect there will be some surprises and rude awakenings for people who think they understand how the world works.

So What’s Next?

I was originally going to just write one article, but as I wrote this one, I could immediately see that I had a lot to say about LARPing in general before I got into the specifics of running Purgatory Station. So I’ll close this article and will talk next time about things like working on plot by committee, making props, casting NPCs, and more.

In the meantime, gentle reader, some questions to ponder…

Have you ever played a LARP?

Did you start at the beginning of the campaign, or did you come in later on? Beginnings are cool, because you get in on the story right from the start, but they are usually when the kinks in the game are being ironed out, too. If you started later on, did you have trouble getting involved? If you started at the beginning, did you experience any weird wrinkles as things settled into place?

Share your experiences!

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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