Gaming at the Smoke – Designing a Horror LARP


This weekend we attended The Smoke, an international LARP festival in London, now in its second year. We were there to test the design of a horror LARP we have developed for people who have not experienced LARP before, and in the process encountered a range of LARP communities and types new to us both. Attendees at the Smoke had begun to refer to these as “LARP islands” and it seems that each has its own dialect and practices of LARP. The festival takes place over the weekend and offers an opportunity for attendees from a range of different “islands” to “try out the best of UK-based LARP design, with a mix of international works”, including “chamber LARP, blackbox and freeform” events. Even from this description we realised that our own LARP experience as players and game referees (what this community might call “larpwrights”) comes from a genre or style of gaming in the UK that is distinct from much of the communities represented at the Smoke, albeit with some overlapping memberships. It took some time to come to terms with the dialect and be able to communicate with these “islands”, many of whom now share a language with a range of European or North American practices on a continuum between theatre and strategy gaming.

What is “UK FreeForm”, for example, and why did people keep asking us about “boffer” LARP?

We learned that many of the styles unfamiliar to us engage in more directed play, incorporating a process of pre-game “workshopping” or explicitly using light and sound to stand in for directorial cues, rather than using the narrative structure of a heroic journey or an unravelling mystery. We are likely to reflect more on these aspects in future as it seems there is now an appetite to write about our own island’s LARP art and culture. If you’re intrigued, you might find further mysteries in the Peckforton Papers.

Translation issues aside, the festival was a great opportunity to meet a group of LARP enthusiasts with very varied ideas of what a LARP could be. It also gave us the space to experiment with our “chamber” LARP, as part of our project to develop an accessible horror game for the Manchester Gothic Festival. Developing a space-limited and short-running LARP with little input pre-game from players - a “walk-in” LARP if you will - is a very different order of task from our usual experience.

How to make a horror LARP accessible to those not familiar with the genre, style, or, even, hobby of LARP? How should we strike a balance between puzzle-solving elements (akin to the genre of “escape room” games) and the intention to evoke feelings of “cosmic horror”?

We hoped that feedback would allow us to refine our ideas. Laura also ran a “fringe” event, inviting festival-goers to playtest a new system she is devising for a Regency-era social LARP. Thus, we went from empire lines to Outer Gods in less than 24 hours…

Our premise for the horrorLARP, mysteriously titled “Superstition”, was very simple. Players would arrive at the game having signed up to attend a talk by a renowned Miskatonic University Professor about a collection of special artefacts, of relevance to folklore enthusiasts and those interested in early colonial histories of North America. Players received very limited “characters” – simply a few lines about where they had seen the advert for the talk and why they had decided to come along. We drew their attention to a fictional Twitter campaign associated with the exhibition, which had attracted some furore from ardent campaigners who thought the Miskatonic ought to give back the artefacts to First Nation peoples. #ReturntheTreasures.

Players were given a few minutes to peruse the strange objects before sitting down to hear a talk by Professor Hawkins (played by Laura). We even had some - very realistic! - issues with technology familiar to many a lecturer. And then things got Weird…

We won’t give anything more about the game here, but watch this space for details of the upcoming Gothic Manchester Festival / International Gothic Association Conference. We hope the Miskatonic Special Collections Exhibition will be on the programme...

Running “Superstition” at The Smoke prompted us to think about the LARP styles, themes and structures familiar to us, and how our planned “walk-in” game required us to modify those elements for a new audience. We learned, for example, that the type of LARP we were used to was often characterised as “boffer” LARP by those on different “islands”. (The term “boffer” denotes a cheap and DIY-fashioned LARP weapon.) It is true that combat elements are common in many of the games we have written and played, from large fantasy-themed LARP campaigns (such as those run by Curious Pastimes) to more intimate Cthulhu Horror-themed one-off events (such as those devised by the Dark Door). Yet, combat varies immensely in style and function from one game to the next and rarely offers an easy resolution. Furthermore, few such games are full of gaffer-tape ‘boffers’ now, with a range of independent traders and companies producing armour and weapons of quality for LARP games as well as movie and television productions. I doubt the BBC’s Merlin would have been as well produced without Norton Armouries, and if you check out the extras on Game of Thrones they might be wearing something a bit like Darkblade Armour with their IKEA-rug cloak.  Individual LARPers also love to craft their own props and costumes, despite their poor effectiveness against Cthulhu horrors. If you run events, a large attic or garage space for prop storage is an important home requirement.  While weapons may well appear to have a necessary function for resolving fantastical battlefield scenarios or skirmishes in the woods, many players in such games engage in no combat at all. Indeed, the ‘boffer’ games and systems we have experienced over the years offer an immense amount of variety in their themes, aesthetics, structures (ludic and narrative), play style and game mechanics, but most love their props.

“Superstition” borrowed from many of these different systems and styles. Most obviously, it made use of the Cthulhu Mythos for its aesthetic and setting. The Miskatonic University exhibition is our contribution to the open-ended and endlessly adaptable fictional world instigated by the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, but has grown far beyond his influence thanks to the “poaching” of fans and gamers ever since. Indeed, we were keen to complicate the racist ideological underpinnings of Lovecraft’s fiction, asking players to consider colonialism and issues of national belonging and outsiderdom during our game. We also drew on a range of narrative and ludic devices garnered from various LARPs over the years. Our game design aims for a satisfying combination of game and story elements, interrupting a structured narrative with puzzle elements that allow for different outcomes. Ludic mechanics also provide a pre-given structure in which characters develop. For example, we used a token system managing “sanity” or “willpower”, which affected players’ interactions with objects in the game. At the same time, we needed to provide space and time for players to devise their own character development, with minimal “direction” from a referee. During games, we also continually negotiate between game aspects that suggest a win/lose structure and seem to ask players to strive for mastery over the situation, with the negation of mastery that lies at the heart of cosmic horror. Are “win conditions” possible in an encounter with the Weird?

In all, the experience of designing and running a game for The Smoke intensified the conflicts and conundrums that lie at the heart of LARP. The compressed nature of the time and space of “Superstition” really emphasised the negotiations necessary in LARP: negotiations between game and story, between the necessity of system mechanics and the freedom for immersive character roleplay, as well as negotiations between showing and telling, which are often dictated by material factors. The Smoke, then, offered much food for thought, as well as a great opportunity to explore new and different perspectives on the form. A highlight, though, was when another festival attendee sidled up to Chloé and said, “Ah, I can see from your costume that you must be playing an academic in this game!” What can we say? We’re always in character...!

Laura Mitchell and Chloé Buckley