Starting Slow and Switching Gears

David Kibblewhite

Another guest post, this time from David Kibblewhite. Recently promoted to “Head of Plot Team” at Empire, David has also just run his first independent live roleplaying game along with co-conspirators Clare Evans and Martyn Sullivan. This is the first of hopefully several essays about the experience of running that game – 90s nostalgia and fairy horror game Fairyland.

Initial Information

We advertised Fairyland as something that could broadly be described as a horror. We also told everyone it would be set at a rave in 1996. We could easily have had players arrive at the rave and then immediately started messing with them. However, we had the sense that a lot of people booked our event primarily because of the setting and thus we wanted to deliver the dance party itself, without a lot of disruption from plot and so on. Either approach is OK in my opinion if it fits the story you want to tell; it’s just a case of being up front with players about the style and structure of your event so they know it’s something they want to do or not. On our website we said:

“Friday night is going to be the rave itself. We hope that there will be dancing, waving of glowsticks and that this will be enjoyable in and of itself. There will also be some distinctly weird shit going down.

Clearly the whole weekend can’t be one long dance party so there will be a change of pace on Saturday, which will be about dealing with the aforementioned shit that has gone down. Without giving away the plot, this will be about party-goers trying to deal with a situation for which they are woefully unprepared.”

Which was about as much info as we could give without ruining it.

Something Bad Coming

People who know OOC something bad is coming but IC are getting ready for a pleasant evening. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Normality

We were advised that if we wanted to do horror then we had to spend a while establishing what normal looked like before subverting it. We knew that Saturday would be the meat of the event, where all the plot took place. We knew that the rave itself was going to somehow transport the players to Fairyland. We knew we were going to subject the players to three things:

  • Personal, private, psychological horror
  • The existential threat of not being able to return home
  • Constant threat of physical violence

We decided to put only a very small amount of weird in on Friday, and so the whole night became about foreshadowing. We were told by a few people that horror shouldn’t time out overnight, and we ignored that advice for a few reasons.

Firstly, we wanted an intense, pacey Saturday (there was some pretentious theming here about the relentless beat of EDM, heartbeats and so on) and believe that well-rested players and crew help facilitate that.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that the overnight part of horror events is always good value for effort, and finally we weren’t running a haunted house with creeping dread and things that go bump in the night; we wanted a clean break between happy festival atmosphere and nightmare hellscape.

This Is Normal Now

Mildly sinister – show, don’t tell. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Friday plot, therefore, was a very light touch. Al Bevan, playing our disguised Puck organising the rave, was present with the players from time in. Our DJ, sound engineer and two photographers were also IC, and had briefs that contained a bit of interesting information that could be teased out (they were instructed not to blurt this stuff out).

There was some slightly sinister stuff going on. For example, there were posters up that said “Robin shall restore amends” in blue (the colour of fairy blood in this game world), which doubled as a promise of revenge and a gratuitous Sandman reference.

There were suspiciously high-quality E’s being dealt that were causing people to go a little bit loopy, and when a PC chemist analysed them he was told they were 50% methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and two other compounds that he couldn’t identify without a point of comparison.

Do Not Trust This Man

NEVER TRUST THIS MAN. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Vision Things

We wanted to run some non-interactive vision encounters, as people started to slip out of reality and into Fairyland. Therefore we had all our Fairyland locations set dressed already, but restricted the players to the barn where the rave was taking place, and the little festival campsite they’d built next to it, then strategically parked our van across the bottom road so the players couldn’t go the wrong way and see stuff they shouldn’t.

We had established a mechanic called the figure in white, where if such a figure tapped you on the shoulder you would follow it, and onlookers would rationalise this. The rave started at 7:00 (we tried to do a soft time-in but it didn’t really work and I had to do a pre-game brief and call time in so people would all go IC).

At 8:30 I ran the first vision and we sent the figure in white to find the most wasted PC he could and bring them to it, where they witnessed some NPCs interacting in Fairyland. We did this 5 times, over the night for one player each, introducing different NPCs and previewing different information each time.

Hilariously, the players tended to not take in the information in these encounters, because they were roleplaying being off their faces on drugs. We also hoped that these would encourage players to do the drugs as a route to cool plot stuff.

Inside, Magic

Outside, normality. Inside, magic. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Storytelling

We were reliant on Puck to drive a lot of interaction on Friday. He had two real objectives: get as many players as possible to take his magical Ecstasy, and make sure people danced, as the dance and drug taking was basically one long transportation ritual. He played a blinder, doing things like buying up the downers that were on sale from players and flushing them down the toilets, and using movement to get people on the dance floor (our NPC has theatrical experience and it showed).

Other than that we had two main ways to tell the story. The first was the music; if you listen back to John’s DJ set in the context of the event, it is very obvious that it’s a ritual. Thankfully, escapism is a key theme of dance music and it’s replete with songs about literally travelling to another dimension, but in the final hour or so it becomes really overt.

The second thing we had was pick up and play roles for our crew. We were expecting a great deal out of our crew on Saturday, so we wanted them on Friday to be able to experience the party, but as with many of our players, many of our crew had no frame of reference for how to enjoy a rave. Therefore we wrote a few archetypes of a couple of bullet points each for people that might be at the rave, which gave them a starting point for RP.

We were careful here to send out some stuff that would provide interaction for our players who were not physically capable of dancing for extended periods. Using a combination of Puck, the music and these pick up and play NPCs, we were able to put our thumb on the scales to get the outcome we wanted out of Friday, which otherwise ran basically like a freeform.

Hole in Reality

Dancing their way through a hole in reality. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Dance

11:30 I had finished running the visions and was able to get up to the rave to dance a little myself, and get ready to ref the pre-time out scene. The atmosphere in the barn itself was amazing by this point, and everybody was having a great time.

At midnight we had some static and radio tuning noise come in over the PA – our first indication that something was seriously awry. Players reacted well, knowing that time-out was nearly upon them and playing into the fact that we clearly had something up our sleeve.

The music then changed into a down-tempo acoustic cover of one of the songs that had played a few minutes previously (sung by Daisy Abbott and Jude Reid), the lyrics of which were key plot points for the event.

I then proceeded around the room showing players a piece of A4 on which I had written “SLEEP”, and they then slowly got comfortable and pretended to sleep. Other refs caught the players who were outside in various groups; this part also went relatively smoothly.

The song played for a further five minutes, throughout which the players were timed in, asleep, and then I called time out only after silence descended. This was a really powerful moment for our players; to be gradually amped up over the course of five hours and then be made to sit still and listen to a lullaby moved several people to tears.

And thus the stage was set for the next day, they had danced themselves unconscious in standard fairy-tale fashion.

Sleep

SLEEP. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Characters

What we didn’t really plan but that worked amazingly well was the Friday night rave as character workshopping. Everyone knew their character and some people had established links via Facebook, but over the Friday they had two communal activities to bring them together; dancing and doing drugs.

Dancing is a great group activity, but some players will always find it difficult to cut loose with that kind of thing. The drugs helped, as they came with a roleplaying effect of extreme empathy and a loss of inhibitions. This gave players the excuse they needed to have fun, and because we weren’t pestering them with plot they felt safe to do so.

Thus Friday was incredibly effective at allowing them to build up their IC relationships with each other; relationships that would be put to the test on Saturday when we put them under pressure.

Mostly, They Just Danced

Mostly, people just danced. Photo credit Beth Dooner

Tonal Shift

On Saturday morning we wanted a sudden and dramatic tonal shift. We wanted the players to be scared, and we wanted them to know in no uncertain terms that they were on enemy territory, that they were unwelcome interlopers and and that they were profoundly unsafe.

We achieved this through shock and awe.

I started with the pre-brief, by reiterating our procedures for both non-combatants and mental health safety calls, then I also told them how they should go about getting phys-reps done for any grievous wounds they might incur over the course of the day (we had Anna Reid doing FX makeup for this). Then I got them back into the positions in which they’d ended the previous night and briefed them to keep their eyes closed on time in, until I made a second call.

This couple of minutes was partly so we could move a large prop (the sword in the stone) into sight. On time in, we had the PA play Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness (Original Tweekin’ Acid Funk Remix); a piece of music that starts chilled, but with a deep bassline that they’ll have felt in their toes, and that gradually builds in pitch and urgency.

After a couple of minutes, when it felt like the right point in the music I woke them up and they spent a couple of minutes wondering what was going on, and trying to draw Excalibur while a ref patiently said no many times.

Maybe We Can Reason With Them

Maybe we can reason with them? Photo credit Tom Garnett

A couple of minutes after they woke up however, we rolled in the redcaps. We had an idea that we wanted the event to look a little bit like an old-school sanctioned event (this, in combination with running in Candlestone was meant to increase the nostalgia factor of setting in the 90s), but that if you tried to play it like one it would chew you up and spit you out. Hence why we started with a camp attack.

In a traditional fantasy LARP, a camp attack is a bit of a staple; it is generally designed to give the players a fight to keep them entertained; done well it’s exciting and fun. If your player characters are not knights and wizards however, if they are weekend partygoers with very few weapons and no combat experience, then a squad of people advancing on them with axes is suddenly not exciting and fun, it is downright terrifying.

Our redcaps were dressed in matching knock-off Kappa T-shirts with Killa on the logo and GOBLIN ARMY written on the back. They had matching red bucket hats. They were armed with axes, clubs and bits of pipe. They looked, in short, like particularly well armed football hooligans, and had been instructed to act like them.

They got into an altercation with an NPC who had blood packs to release and hacked him down with axes, then the one of them with a white hat started dying it red in his blood. Two of the protestor characters had spades and fronted up to the monsters, so they also got brutally hacked down, and refs were primed to apply blood to faces and such.

Several of the other goblins were then swaggering around shouting things like “Does anybody else want to be a fucking hero?”, and the music was still playing throughout, loudly.

The whole scene was incredibly unpleasant to watch, even for me, and I wrote it. It was an allegory for every attack by an in group on an out group ever, every act of oppression by the state on someone whose face doesn’t fit.

This wounded NPC served as an in-character demonstration of the game mechanics we couldn’t explain in advance without spoiling the twist; you couldn’t die as long as you remained in Fairyland, and the fairy Ecstasy would heal you at the cost of your sanity.

Maybe Not

As it turned out, no, reasoning with them did not work. Photo credit Tom Garnett

End of the Prologue

This moment was essentially the end of the prologue. Everyone knew who their characters and each other were because we’d allowed them the evening ball gowning, and now their agency had been nuked from orbit. Of course the site was now free for them to explore, and they spent the rest of the day learning, and gradually rebuilding that agency until they became the rulers of the realm. We didn’t do everything at that event right, but that night of workshopping and foreshadowing, followed by that massive, sudden, tonal shift – I honestly don’t think we could have done it better.

Whose Spade Is This Anyway

Nora’s character realising this is not going to be the carefree weekend away she planned, while behind her, who gets to carry a spade becomes suddenly quite contentious. Photo credit Tom Garnett

Music and Setlist

John Newton’s music including (Daisy and Jude’s original piece at the end) and the setlist can be found here.

Come back tomorrow for part two.