Posts Tagged ‘live roleplay’

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Dignity was never my top priority as a student

Preparing to head back to Durham for the Nerd East convention has me feeling all nostalgic. I lived and studied there for seven years in total, and though I didn’t do much writing it has really shaped me as a writer. Joining the live roleplay society got me back into fantasy and science fiction in a big way, as well as giving me lots of great friends and character ideas. My first published story was in the university Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s in-house fanzine, and won me a week’s worth of calories in chocolate form.

And as always, there were the lessons that weren’t directly writing related but have proved useful. I learned to work with others creating plots through LRP, as well as finding out how much chainmail weighs. I gained the confidence to put my stories and other creations out there. I watched a wide range of science fiction and fantasy films, making me better informed about the genres. And where else but a university game of killer could I have experienced what it’s like to stake out someone’s house? (I mean aside from the mob.)

Often the things we label as distractions provide useful lessons. Sure, that’s less true of all the time I spent drinking in the Student Union bar, but then I never needed my dignity all that much.

Or my liver.

If you’re in north east England then you can hear me talk on this more, as well as enjoying a day of geekery and gaming, on 30 May at Nerd East.

If, in years to come, my descendants go through my treasured personal possessions to understand their family, they are going to be massively confused.

Pocket watch given to my real ancestor William Jackson on his retirement in 1920.

Pocket watch given to my real ancestor William Jackson on his retirement in 1920.

My biggest adventure involving this watch: dancing so hard at a friend’s wedding that the watch flew out of my pocket and the glass got smashed. Sorry William Jackson!

Copy of Dickens's Christmas stories given to the fictional valet Jackson, my character in a long running roleplay campaign, by his employer Lore Buffington, aka my friend Jules.

Copy of Dickens’s Christmas stories given to the fictional valet Jackson, my character in a long running live roleplay campaign, by his employer Lore Buffington, aka my friend Jules.

Complete with inscription, written 100 years after its supposed date.

Complete with inscription, written 100 years after its supposed date.

My biggest adventure involving this book: The night Jackson’s history of insanity was revealed in an old smugglers’ cove, while Lord Buffington was busy staking his vampire sister. It turns out that sane people don’t carry cake and tea through gun fights, and vampire slayer references are inevitable for a character known as Buffy.

Many of my happiest memories are of games I’ve played in. I just hope for their sake that future family historians can disentangle the real from the fictional. Or maybe not – maybe it’ll be more fun to believe that their ancestors slew monsters as well smelting steel.

Sometimes a film comes along that, whatever its merits, so perfectly captures something about your own life that you love it. Maybe it portrays your job, or your family, or that awkward relationship you were in when you were young. I just found one of those films.

Knights of Badassdom is a comedy/horror/action/fantasy film about a group of live roleplay (LRP) gamers whose imaginary fantasy world gets invaded by a real and terrifying monster (if you aren’t familiar with LRP, there’s a good explanation here). As someone who’s spent years dressing up and running around hitting people with fake swords, and a Peter Dinklage fan, I was bound to watch this sooner or later. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Lets be clear – this is a film about geeks that laughs at the geeks. But that’s in the nature of comedy films – the characters are going to spend a lot of time looking foolish. What won me over, and convinced me that the film’s heart was in the right place, was the portrayal of LRP. The game we’re shown has the exact combination of naffness and awesomeness that has been the heart of most of my LRP experiences, and is why I love the hobby. There are cool costumes, but there are also t-shirts under armour, missing props, and coke cans weighing down the corners of the magical map. There are heroic speeches, and others that fall flat. There’s action and drama interspersed with pratting around. The conversations see in-game dialogue interspersed with out of character jokes. People’s real lives and their game lives intersect in messy ways. There’s even a jokey in-game name for the car park, in the same way that many people I know refer to a particular supermarket near a LRP site as Asgard.

I should be clear – not all LRP is like this. Go to a Profound Decisions event and you’ll see something far classier than in Knights of Badassdom. But that doesn’t detract from the joy I’ve taken over the years in those slightly naff games, where the out of character jokes were as integral to the fun as my sense of immersion in an imaginary world.

And the characters – they aren’t a perfect cross section of LRPers by any means, but they are a familiar bunch. There’s the guy who’s just there to hang out with his mates, and who’s really more interested in music and his love life than the game. There’s his buddy who spends the whole time high, drugs fuelling his intense and somewhat insane roleplay. There’s the one who’s more interested in the rules and experience points than acting out a role. The event runner who can see amazing and varied worlds in a bunch of nondescript clearings, and whose enthusiasm drags his friends along for the ride. The character who’s all about the fighting. The actor who’s there to play a role. Even the intolerant outsiders who mock the LRPers while indulging in their own obsessive and equally silly hobby.

If I have a problem with the film, it’s that women are under-represented in the speaking roles. But while the gender balance in the hobby is getting a lot better, there are still games where the cliché holds, with a bunch of blokes and very few women. And the film-makers balanced this up at least a little with the extras. On wider issues of representation, the presence of a dwarf, a character in a wheelchair and a couple experimenting with polyamory, all without comment or judgement from the other characters or the film’s plot, struck me as relatively enlightened by Hollywood standards, and representative of the accepting environment that LRP fosters.

I have no idea how LRPers in general have reacted to this film, whether it’s with excitement at being represented or horror at the way we’re represented. But for me, it was almost perfect. Even the slight naffness of the final act’s villain and conclusion, though not part of the LRP, felt fitting for a film set within the hobby. It would be hard to better capture what this hobby has always felt like to me, why I love it, and why for many years I felt embarrassed about it. Because LRP, like this film, is often a bit naff but almost always a lot of fun, and far better if you don’t take it seriously. Kind of like life, I guess.

I’m about to launch my first e-books, a steampunk short called Mud and Brass and a collection of my previously published steampunk shorts titled Riding the Mainspring. Those of you on my book mailing list will receive a free copy of Mud and Brass on Monday, and anyone else who’s interested has until the end of the weekend to sign up and get the free story. I am very excited, and more than a little tense.

In the meantime, and to celebrate the occasion, here’s a list of some of my favourite steampunk things…

That really is quite a different engine

That really is quite a different engine

Favourite steampunk book

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was the first steampunk book I ever heard of. I was fascinated by this transformation of Victorian history. From steam powered computers to aerodynamics inspired by dinosaurs to battles in the smog, this sold me on steampunk.

There's nothing gentle about that boat

There’s nothing gentle about that boat

Favourite steampunk comic

The second volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was still coming out when I first got into comics. While the first volume of League is great, this is the one that really excites me. Featuring icons from my childhood such as John Carter’s Mars, Rupert the Bear and H G Wells’s alien invaders, this is an incredibly vivid, incredibly exciting, and incredibly warped tale. The detail of O’Neill’s art is extraordinary, and this is some of Moore’s finest writing.

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Favourite steampunk music

My friend Will is part of Pocketwatch, a great steampunk band. But before they were Pocketwatch they took part in The Clockwork Quartet. The Quartet‘s gig that I saw in London was fantastic. The whole room was decked out in steampunk style. Half the audience was in costume. The bar served espresso and absinthe. The show featured a sword fight, a dancing conductor and a virtual orchestra of performers, far more than the four of a traditional quartet. I love Pocketwatch, but that Clockwork Quartet performance is one of the best gigs I have ever been to, and I love my souvenir CD.

Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I

Oh the adventures we have seen, this hat and I

Favourite steampunk event and costume

I was privileged for a few years to be part of a small steampunk live roleplay group called The Company of Crimson, in which I played the valet Jackson. Thanks to a player’s family connection we once played an event at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire, during which we stormed the castle on Sunday morning, leading to a gunfight in the back garden. I roamed the grounds serving tea and bullets, while Rasputin and his evil minions leapt out at us from the undergrowth.

It was a fantastic experience, and my bowler hat, which saw occasional use by Jackson, remains one of my all time favourite pieces of costume.

What are your favourites?

Those of you who dabble in steampunk or alternate history, what are your favourite examples?

And remember, if you sign up for my mailing list by the end of the weekend you can get that free e-book on Monday.

Writing about working with the core of your world has got me thinking again about world building. We talk about this a lot in fantasy and science fiction literature, but one of the best examples I’ve seen doesn’t come from books. It’s a wiki for a live roleplay game. So today I’m going to enthuse about Empire.

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A damn fine game

Empire is a fantasy live roleplaying (LRP) game run by Profound Decisions (PD). It’s a game designed for thousand of players, set in the high fantasy world of an empire on the verge of collapse, with barbarian orcs battering at its borders, the empress dead, and internal machinations capable of tearing the whole thing down.

To support the game, PD have written and published a huge background wiki. This gives the people playing their game an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the world, creating something that’s complex, consistent and completely engrossing. For a LRP, this is great for creating immersion and atmosphere – a point Matt Pennington, PD’s founder, talks about so eloquently that I’ve cited him when writing about teaching.

The aims of a LRP background are somewhat different from those of world building for a novel, but there’s also a lot that’s the same, and that’s what I want to look at here.

Working from what’s known

As long as there has been fantasy literature it has taken features from the real world and from established mythology, using them as shortcuts to evoke atmosphere. If an author shows you a world of samurai and ninjas, you immediately fill in a lot of the gaps around them – geisha, robes, minimalist furniture, translucent partition walls, whatever says medieval Japan to you.

Empire uses that. By creating nations that seem familiar, such as evoking Medieval English yeomanry in the earthy Marchers, they let your brain fill a lot of gaps.

But they don’t just present you with real things. Where would the fantastic be in that? They mix it up, showing how these countries are different from the ones we know, how their magic and history make them distinctive. It’s not some hotchpotch re-enactment of the past – it’s something fresh derived from it.

Working out the detail

One of the things I most admire in China Miéville’s writing is his clear grasp on the deeper structures of his worlds – the economic, social and political elements that hold them up. This applies in Empire as well. Each nation has its own culture, costume, magical traditions, social hierarchy, military structures, and so on and so on. You can even hear what sort of music they like to make, and read about how they treat children. It’s an extrapolation from the starting point of each nation, just like Chew extrapolates from food super-powers, and it’s fantastic. It’s a depth and richness of background that’s pretty much incomparable in its detail.

Which results in…

Of course, by running a game for all those people, PD stop being the sole authors of their world. Every single player contributes. And it’s those players who take this material and, like Layman and Guillory in Chew, push it in all sorts of logical but crazy directions, bringing the world to life.

As a player, I initially found it intimidating. But then I realised that, as with the background to a well written fantasy novel, I didn’t need to know it all. In the same way that a novel can give you just enough information to be getting on with, and let you learn the rest as you go along, this wiki let me learn just enough to get started, then soak up the rest from the atmosphere other players created.

Even if you’re never going near the game of Empire, give their wiki a look. It’s a great example of world building, peeking into what’s hidden behind many authors’ story telling. If you’re the sort of person who likes to read guides to Middle Earth, or who buys D&D supplements just to read about the cities and monsters, then you’ll love this.