Living On The Edge
We spent a lot of time getting the players off balance before they even arrived, and then when they stepped into the game we tried to unbalance them even further. We used a whole variety of tricks to achieve this, and it’s our opinion that the mix of all this both served to put the players far more on edge than they otherwise would have been, and served to immerse them more deeply in the characters and their situation.
All of these went towards reinforcing one of our basic design principles: “Scare the player, not the character.”
Before the Event
On the booking form we asked the players to list their phobias. We had no intention of using them – we’d even try to avoid them – but it starts people thinking about what might happen.
We were intentionally rules-lite for this game as we wanted to maximise immersion. However, we did include one standard LARP idea in the rules we sent out to players – that the players would have ‘hit points’ and could be wounded or killed, and that they could use weapons. We knew that the ghosts couldn’t hurt them, although they didn’t know that. The main reason we included this system was so that the players thought that they could be hurt.
The Safe Word
We also emphasised the existence of a Safe Word – the idea being that if the players got too terrified by what happened they could use the Safe Word (‘expelliarmus*’) and we would stop the game and make sure they were all right. We never intended to use this, and never expected it to be used. (Internally we didn’t even really discuss a player using it.) It was in the rules entirely to make players think about how bad things could get, how much they could stand.
*The idea was to use a word invented since the 1950s.
There Will Be No Breaks
When we advertised this event, we made sure the players knew that they would be in character 100% of the time for the entire weekend. Many LARP events allow you a break to sleep – for this, we would have no let up.
There Will Be No Safe Spaces
Likewise, at most LARP events people have a safe space where they can drop out of character, even if that space is only the toilets. We told the players up front that there would be no safe spaces – we promised that we wouldn’t spy on them in bathrooms, but we told them that things could still happen there.
The event started like this: the players turned up at the Lodge at the end of the road from the main house on the Friday afternoon. They got changed from their normal clothes into their character’s clothes. And then they locked in their cars everything which wasn’t an In Character item – so they were carrying everything they needed for the event in 1950s luggage into the house. So we had a bit of time in the Lodge where players were getting changed, briefed, and thinking about getting into character, before we sent them off.
In the background of the Lodge we played music. Modern horror film and game music; deep rumbling tones and eerie strings. This was something we borrowed from the stage play Ghost Stories, and was designed purely to start putting the players on edge.
When the players were dressed and ready but before they were allowed to step into the game, I took each one aside into a room on their own, made sure they had all the information they needed, and then got them to draw a Tarot card from a deck of Arthurian Tarot. I looked at the card and wrote it down. Then I took out a camera, got them to close their eyes, and took a photograph of them with their eyes closed.
There was no reason for any of this at all. It was entirely to set them off balance.
So, in groups of around half a dozen, we took them from the Lodge and set them on the road to the house carrying their luggage. We told them only that the car which had brought them up from the station had had to stop due to flooding, and they’d made the rest of the way here themselves. And then we stepped away from them and let them walk into the darkness with no light.
This was the moment where they stepped out of 2015 into the 1950s; the last time they would be themselves for the whole weekend.
They were met on the road by a servant from the house sent out to find them, bearing a lantern. He led them up the road to the house, as a mist rose around the path. (The effects crew in the trees with a portable smoke machine!)
Upon arrival, they found the house in darkness. There had been a power-cut, said the staff. So they left their luggage in the hall and were invited through to the living room for a sherry; candles were lit in here and a fire burned in the hearth.
While they drank sherry, unbeknownst to the players the chambermaids and servants took their luggage up to their rooms and unpacked it. This was another unbalancing feature – firstly, modern players probably didn’t expect it, so it was a scene-setter that made them think about the way a house like this worked. Secondly, it was a violation for the player – someone else going through their things. Thirdly, it was a violation for the character, since we knew that several of those cases contained blackmail material (we’d sent it out as part of the briefing documents).
Alone in the Dark
When the bags had been unpacked, the staff would pick one or two characters from the group in the front room and would lead them – by the most circuitous route possible – through the dark corridors of the house up to their bedroom. There they’d leave them alone with a very dim candle. In the pitch darkness, in unfamiliar rooms.
Dotted around the house were several ‘safe’ (constructed from foam) weapons – mostly of the Cluedo variety, e.g. candlesticks, knives, pipe wrench etc. These were for the players to find and use, but once again were entirely to make the players think that they could be hurt.
During the first evening there were several events designed to unbalance the players as much as possible. These were based around our ‘stooge’ players. On the run up to the event, after bookings came in, we contacted several friends and asked them to pretend to be players. We added their names to the player list, we created player packs for them, we added them to the Facebook group, and to all intents and purposes we treated them as players. They turned up with the others, they started to take part in the game as everyone else did. It meant we could steer them completely. But one was a little different…
Aunt Sophie is one of the things we’re proudest of. Immediately after the bookings came in and we issued the list of players, we added another player, Rebecca South. We added her to the Facebook group. We listed that she was playing the character of Sophie Northmoor, aunt to many of the player characters.
Rebecca South didn’t exist. We created a fake Facebook account and profile. We had that account take part in discussions about costume and lifts and asking the organisers questions, as if she were a real player.
Then we carefully designed the character of Sophie to play a supporting role to many of the other characters; we wrote friendly, supporting, sympathetic letters to other characters (these arrived in the briefing packs), we ensured that for a handful of players she would be their comfort and support.
Then, in the Lodge, we told the other players that Rebecca was late – bad traffic on the motorway. She would arrive later on and join in as soon as she could.
About two hours into the game the players got a phone call (on our 1950s phone system) from a police inspector in Oxford, telling them that Aunt Sophie had had a tragic accident and was dead.
This devastated several characters and ripped away a large chunk of emotional support from them, unbalancing them further. Undoubtedly at some point some of the players thought ‘Oh, it’s just that Rebecca couldn’t make it after all, and the organisers have improvised’. But then they started to hear news reports about her death on our 1950s radios, and found details of her murder amongst another character’s gear, and so on and so forth.
The Death of Edgar
Edgar Northmoor, the industrialist head of the family, was one of our stooges. As head of the family many other family members looked up to him. They thought he was a player character, just like them. On the Friday evening, late on, he was found dead, a chandelier having fallen and crushed his chest.
Needless to say characters who were emotionally close to Edgar were devastated. And suddenly characters who had been minor players in the family hierarchy found that both Edgar and Sophie were now gone, and they had to step up. Yet another unbalancing effect. And this opened up to them the thought that any of them could die.