Review

Event One: The Pillars

Organiser: Falling Down

Location: Consall Scout Camp, Stoke-on-Trent

Falling Down - Event Review

Written by Sarah Cook on 08/12/2014

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(Cross posted from my own blog at sarahcook.net) At the end of November I went to the first event (in a series of five) for Falling Down a new LARP based on Tribe 8 - the tabletop game, not the San Francisco based dyke punk rock band although I will give a shiny pound to someone who can come up with an amusing list of similarities between the two. In fact, no, I'll keep my shiny pound and start off with the obvious, before my usual slide into the less obvious. It's a punk game - Punk aesthetic and political punk are anti-establishment / authority and focus on individual freedom. You play one of "The Fallen", kicked out from your tribe, and from the love of your Fatima and the powers they granted you, you have been cast out into the wilds to starve and die. Except you didn't. You kept some power. And found a new power, a new outlook and have joined up with others like yourself to make a life outside of the tribes. Looking back on your former home you start to ask some serious questions about why the world is they way it is. And what you are going to do about it. Punk gives a fine sense of rag-tag style (thanks, Viv Westwood, we salute you). The latter was much in evidence with a range of clothing options from rubber tyre and numberplate armour through to corsets and shabby chic frocks; a place where classic fantasy smocks met re-purposed tents used as ponchos via cowboy hats, plate armour, a beautifully re-configured Captain America duvet cover and the patched up remnants of combats. Oh and everyone has facial tattoos. Facial tattoos are very in, in Vimary (where the game is set) you know. It's how people are recognised. Clothes might or might not maketh the man, but they *do* make a LARP aesthetic. Here the disorder and confusion of different clothing styles showed off the central themes of punk quite nicely as well as revealing a lot about the different characters. I love asking people about what they are wearing at games - where did you get that necklace, why are you all in blue, what does that symbol mean? And there was plenty to go at here, all revealing a series of lovely character background stories which I could sink my teeth into. Dream a little dream of me - the central conceit of the game mechanics is a power called Synthesis which is an intuitive, reflexive and subtle form of magic focused mostly on delivering roleplaying effects. I coined the term "awesome roleplay is indistinguishable from Synthesis" in the van home. The Fallen have one foot in dreams, and one foot in the "real" world. They receive visions within their dreams, are able to walk in dreams and interact with people and things whilst there and their power feels very dream-like. As those who know me will know I am terrible with rules and (as usual) got the system wrong in my character build so ended up with a lot less uses of a particular dream-skill than I had expected, but it didn't really effect my game because I only ended up using my skills twice in the course of a weekend - I just didn't need to. I roleplayed, and got what I wanted on the basis of that. Not another post-apocalyptic game We talked about this a lot before and after the game. There has been a spate of Post Apoc games recently - it's part of the issue of LARP as a medium for telling stories: you end up only telling the stories you can fit into a Scout Site, Youth Hostel or affordable stately home. And "random hut in the woods" does have a rather post apocalyptic theme. But here's the thing: Falling Down isn't actually post-apocalyptic. Not really. Or rather, there was an apocalypse, but it was so long ago that it doesn't form part of your current day-to-day. In the same way that the English Revolution doesn't sit large in our field of consciousness, and in face, the establishment created by it is exactly that: an establishment. In this case, the horrific entities known as the Z'bri came to our world (future Canada) many hundreds of years ago. There *is* a group in the setting for whom the game is post Apoc, but they are NPCs. For the players, this is the world, for as long as anyone can remember, and for much, much longer than that. So - what's the difference then? Well, it's about whether a game harks back to What Happened Before, and Dealing With the Apocalypse, or if it is about The World We Live In and The Future We Can Build. Falling Down is very much the latter, as a group the players very much hold the decision making. We were left to our own devices to decide what our key problems were and how we would solve them. I held a lot of small meetings and had many quiet "little chats" as my vizier / go-between / friendly face character (who may or may not have been described as snakelike a number of times to my deep and everlasting joy). People are strange, when you're a stranger I really enjoyed the theme of strangeness that came through the game, partly because it was new, so everything felt a bit odd and I wasn't settled into character or the setting. I loved the uncertainty of how using Synthesis felt: the way that it was not predictable because it relied on how other roleplayers chose to respond to what you were doing. As players more used to point-and-click fireballs or the more dramatic and overt use of magic performed by classic mages I think that the group as a whole, and future new players, have some settling in to do in order to make this work. The collective aspect of gaming is massively interesting to me, and this is a great example of how a new system and setting offers us a challenge to rethink how we roleplay magic and especially magic that has effects which cause your character to think or behave differently. How do we deliver this in a way that makes people know you are using a power without breaking immersion? In this case a series of "show me" lammies where used, or in a few cases, shouting the name of the power which I don't think is ideal, but am struggling about how you might do it otherwise. I like any effort by games designers to remove the structure of game and push character and story to the forefront. A good way in which Falling Down did this was to embed their refs into the world as Guides (a role which exists in the original tabletop). Guides are there to answer your questions, about this potion, or about this ritual or about what this bit of your dream might mean. It enables you to ask things in an in-character way and receive a more in-character response. It also gives you a springboard for thinking through problems - although the Guides are not there to do your homework for you and so you might get more or less helpful replies depending on how annoying you are being. Spirituality, Intrigue and Horror This was part of the tagline and I certainly felt some of these things at some times, but they were not my overriding experiences: I'd very much like to see more of both. I think the game team were hampered by a lighter than I'd have expected number of crew. The crew they did have were wonderful and worked very hard (Consall is a punishing site for crew, everything is forever up hills), but it would have been better with more of them. I love horror within games, especially personal horror, rather than the jump-out-and-shout-boo kind. I had a brilliant scene on Friday night where a particularly nasty part of my background walked off the page and sat down at a table with me to offer me something I really should have refused. I didn't. It was deliciously creepy. A lot of effort had gone into sourcing character backgrounds, motivations, hopes and fears and these were played on and "rewarded" - everyone loves trauma right? For me, the most horror I gained within the game was either delivering it by pulling other players into confessing their fears and personal lives to me then turning the tables or by letting them slowly realise that I wasn't just a pretty face. But shhh! Spoilers. Other horrors were unfurled by other players as they told me stories of their past, things that haunted them. And perhaps that is as it should be - after all, these are the people with whom I am meant to be building a wonderful future, and what could be more horrific than trusting those who turn out to be monsters? The game absolutely hit the mark with "intrigue". The world is mysterious and full of unresolved questions, the way our character's powers work is vague and poorly understood, a lot of knowledge and certainty has gone from the world and everything is framed within biased perspectives, intuition, dreams. Nothing is concrete, nothing is entirely explained. I really enjoyed seeking out people's opinions, trying to work out the different ways in which they could be interpreted and especially loved a world where what you saw in a vision was just a real, just as much (if not more so, for the mystically inclined) a part of your understanding of yourself and your world as what you see with your waking eyes. The game was political, with a small "p" and social. It was more about people and their stories than about round-the-clock combat encounters, and about the interactions between characters than between factions. There *are* factions, called Outlooks, but they are much more points of view than other game factions - they determine how you might see a particular issue but not everyone in the faction will have exactly the same perspective. There are many, many other things that could colour how a character behaves, and the game is tilted towards those. Essentially, It is a world of individuals. The world in which the characters inhabit is very small, and their enemies are powerful and vast. But not unassailable. Which is where we come in. Spirituality is a harder theme to unpick. The game was not religious in the sense that there were no overt gods to call upon and the spiritual leaders are all absent or in some part the enemies of the players. I'm struggling to say how the game is "spiritual" which could mean that it wasn't or it could mean that it was too subtle for me (entirely possible). Having scooted to Wikipedia for a handy definition to aid my thinking I've got something along the lines of: personal transformation, meaningful experience, subjectivity and psychological growth. Which feels a lot like "character development" to me, and certainly the game had that in spades: my character was changed by her interactions with other people and experiences, and it is this process of change I'm looking forward to continuing. I think that some of the spirituality will come through via mechanics and roleplaying these mechanics, so it is as much in the hands of the players to deliver as the design team. The keywords or names for the different types of Synthesis a character can perform are descriptive like "Fury" or "Smothering" or "Vengeance" or "Sensuality", one interpretation could be that these powers work *because" they are part of who you are - your character weilds the power of "Fury" because they are very, very angry. So powers are intrinsic to behaviours, which links well with the idea that Synthesis is heavily roleplay driven. Synthesis is a spiritual form of magic involving trances, dream-states and some beautiful singing based rituals performed by other players which were a joy to watch and to take part in. The game was very moody (helped by the fact we had approximately 1,000 hrs of darkness) and would benefit from being more moody, but my jury is still out on the "spiritual" front. I like it as a concept for a game, however I think that ultimately this is the theme that is going to be the most difficult to roleplay and to deliver. And some practicalities... Some final bits for people who like bits like this! Remember, this is just my experience of it, your mileage may vary. I think you should come along and play if you like: Games that are character-driven and player led. You'll need to think about your character motivations, goals and desires when you are designing them. There are no NPCs around to tell you what to do, or to make decisions for you. It's all on you. Not having to fight. I only got into one fight, right at the end and only because it ended up coming to me. There were forays for the foolhardy out into the wilderness, but you didn't have to go on them to get involved in plot. I didn't go to the big "collect the monster heart" assault, and instead had a fantastic candlelit conversation with some other characters which really changed how my character thinks about a few things. And in the end, the monster heart came to us, so everyone got to be involved with it. 24hr games. We started on Friday evening and ending in the wee hours of Sunday with a lovely out-of-character breakfast. I'm very much into this way of running a game as I extremely dislike getting up and into kit for four hours of roleplay on a Sunday morning. Roleplay effects and getting yourself into emotional trouble. Plenty of scope for the trauma-gowners among you, this is a game for reacting and interacting with other characters and the pervasive, invasive effect of a world which is not as it should be. These people breathe strange air, and it changes them. Subtle magic that plays on your nerves. No tick-tick-boom of a magic missile here or neatly drawn ritual circles where you shrug it off with 2 points of WTF. Instead you will benefit massively from roleplaying through slower, boiling-frog "have I left the gas on?" responses to the way magic works in this world. In all instances where it was up to me how I thought my character would react to a stated effect which meant I could roleplay her in the way that felt most right to me (yes, this did include a mad cackle at a particular IC realisation, but it made the character next to me jump in fright, so it was all good) Group based co-operative games You are encouraged to book as a group, though group sizes varied from 2 to 8, and some groups stayed more cohesively "together" whereas others moved around depending on what was happening. Rather than having factions that were working against each other, the player-base is broadly co-operative. We have distinct thoughts on how we might achieve these goals, and we don't all have the same individual aims for our characters but we are all Fallen, and in this world, that means a lot.