Life has a habit of repeating on itself, only a little different. And so, several years since I last did it, I’ve signed up to help run a LRP (live roleplay).
This is going to be an interesting challenge for me in terms of balancing parts of my life. I’ll be writing plot for the event, which means I’ll be using similar mental muscles to the day job, but in different ways. I’ll be collaborating with other people in an act of creativity, which is great because I like people and my work can be quite isolating.
But the biggest concern is how I respond to the emotional pressure of it all. I don’t always respond well to stress (who does?) and my brain has a tendency to register what could be excitement as stress instead. This is particularly true when other people are involved or I care about the outcome, which is obviously going to happen here.
So how do I manage all that while ensuring that I do my part of the project and have fun along the way? I’ve got a few ideas:
Proper planning to tackle the tasks I’m responsible for.
Tackling them early to reduce background stress.
Looking at the excited and positive responses people will have to the project.
Stopping regularly to take deep breaths.
I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to be part of something awesome. I’m looking forward to it. And with a bit of care, I can fit this into my life without turning it into a major source of stress. But that care is going to be important.
And expect more details here as the project goes along…
Returning to live roleplay (LRP) has me thinking about immersion in fiction.
Immersiveness hs been a hot issue in British LRP in recent years. Profound Decisions have focused on creating rich, well-executed worlds for players to lose themselves in. The results are spectacular, beautiful, sometimes powerful. Players really get away from reality for a while. New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a fantastic smaller game in this tradition.
The contrast with the Lorien Trust, who run Britain’s long-running festival system, is striking. In and out of character elements are mixed together everywhere, from plastic tents next to in character ones through to the highly visible burger vans at the in character marketplace. The ritual magic system, intentionally or not, encourages jokes that punch through the fourth wall.
Conversations about this focus on quality and effort. Even as someone who’s chosen LT over PD, I see PD’s games as of higher quality. The thought put into them is greater, the effort better directed. This inspires the creativity of their players, creating a rich collaboration. Just the look of the game is a cut above its rivals.
But there’s a related thing that I haven’t seen discussed. These games have very different relationships with reality. PD’s leading game, Empire, isn’t just better at escaping reality. It’s a game built around doing that. The designers have gone to great lengths to create something that doesn’t directly engage with our world.*
The Gathering, the LT’s game, is very different. It’s full of deliberate references to our world, rich with in-jokes at the expense of reality and of other works of fiction. It’s a messy referential free-for-all.
Once I noticed this, I couldn’t help notice parallels with other works of fiction. Terry Pratchett’s early books are full of direct digs at our world, not to mention footnotes that pull you out of the story. Later books focus on immersion, on living within the Discworld and making the comparisons once you step back.
This isn’t an on/off thing. There’s a spectrum of engagement between fictions and reality. Levels of immersion can result from this aesthetic choice as much as from the quality of the work.
At the moment, I’m still mulling this over. In as far as I’ve drawn any conclusion, it’s this – how deeply you’re immersed in a world isn’t just down to the skill with which it’s been created. A story can be skillfully woven and still have you dropping out of its world all the time if it’s deliberately reminding you of reality, referring back to it as part of the text. Of course, this often happens by accident rather than design. There may even be a correlation between these causes of lack of immersion. I haven’t thought about it that deeply yet. But there are two different things at play here.
What do you guys think? Do you object to being pushed out of a world by the way the story’s told? Do you like your texts self-referential? Are good works always immersive? Let me know what you think.
* Of course, on some level, all art reflects upon reality. You could get a lot from thinking about parallels between Empire and our world. But that’s a conversation for another day.
It’s late on Saturday night in the heart of Leeds. I’m sitting in a deconsecrated church with twenty people I met for the first time today, staring at my phone and waiting for a call I know will never come.
Everybody here is going to die. It’s my fault and it was the right thing to do.
This is New Pathways in Lycanthropy.
New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a one-day live roleplay (LRP) event. It was run at Left Bank Leeds by Penn Tynan and her splendid team of volunteers. It was intense.
The concept for the game was that, in 2014, a strange new disease had emerged. Quickly labelled lycanthropy, it effectively turned people into werewolves. We were playing people whose work related to lycanthropes, from police specialists to the manager of a celebrity spa facility to an insurance executive struggling to understand the disease’s repercussions. We were all attending a one day training course on lycanthropy-related issues.
Or so we thought.
Meet Alan, He’s Out of his Depth
I was playing Alan Kirk MP.
A local independent MP, I’d got my seat as an anti-corruption protest candidate. I thought that getting involved in lycanthropy was the best way I could do some good with my new job, so I’d got onto the Parliamentary Select Committee for Lycanthropy. Most professional politicians didn’t want to touch lycanthropy with a barge pole because there were few votes and no easy answers. They were more than happy to let me drink from the poison chalice.
Before I became an MP, I was a children’s TV presenter. As a politician, I was well-intentioned but completely out of my depth. It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling well.
Meet Andy, He’s Not Sure About This
As a live roleplayer, I don’t usually go in for anything serious. I find LRP incredibly emotionally engaging, but that can also make it very draining. So if I’m going to play, I normally play something silly.
My friend Jules convinced me to try New Pathways, even though it looked very serious. It was only one day and it was local, so there wasn’t a huge time commitment. Plus it was a one-off event, so I wouldn’t get into the energy drain of thinking about my character and the game between events. I was wary, but up for it.
This shaped the character I created. I needed to mostly be serious, so that I could engage with the game and its issues. The MP seemed an excellent choice. He was a character who would give me a reason to take on a role leading and enabling others, which is something I enjoy in a game. He was a nice guy, so I could be friendly and sociable. I also gave him an extra little emotional twist that I’ll come to later.
The children’s TV part was a concession to my inner fool. This way, if I got bored or things got too intense then I could dip into that background and start pratting about. If you’re going to LRP, make sure you’ve got a backup source of fun, because even the best events have lulls. You have to be prepared to take the initiative and entertain yourself.
Now you’ve met both my personalities, let’s see how they got on with the day…
The day started with a message from the local Lycanthropy Unit. There had been an incident in Leeds and we were on amber alert. Nothing to worry about, just slightly higher security than usual.
Given the public hysteria around lycanthrope attacks, this wasn’t uncommon. Certainly not worth causing a panic by telling people.
Following a brief charity meeting at a local café, I made my way to the New Pathways in Lycanthropy training course. There were a mixture of scientists, public servants, and people from the private sector.
It started off like any other training course. We couldn’t read the slides. The lunch was late. Stimulating conversations had to be cut short to keep the agenda moving. I met some nice people, though none of the scientists I was looking to make links with.
We had some fascinating conversations about the implications of lycanthropy. How it disrupted the lives of people and institutions. The different reactions everyone had to it. The lack of a cure and the different ways the disease could be prevented or managed.
Then rumours started coming in that lycanthropes were changing into their beast form around Leeds. This wasn’t meant to happen during daytime, especially as it wasn’t a full moon. Attendees with infected friends and relatives started looking worried.
The course organiser stepped outside to fetch something from her car.
As we would later realise, she was never coming back.
From what I’ve seen of LRP, there are two main approaches to the hobby.
There’s the approach that’s common in America and Western Europe, where it’s about an escapist experience. It draws mostly from tabletop roleplay games. It’s an exploration of culture in which the best games create immersive drama, action, horror, comedy, or whatever genre you’re in. Players might spend the weekend as wizards at a magical school.
Then there’s Scandinavian LRP. It’s much more strongly linked to art and improvisational theatre. It’s used to explore deep social and psychological issues. Players might spend a weekend as refugees crossing Denmark or as ex-members of a Scientology-style cult trying to recover from the experience.
The first part of the course felt very Scandinavian. Lycanthropy made a great metaphor for current concerns about refugees, health funding, disabilities, and gender divisions. Ten minutes of group discussions about werewolves got me looking at those things and their implications in whole new ways. How do insurers react to a new illness? How do we tackle prejudice when it’s grounded in self-preservation? How can you avoid stigmatising a community while still talking about limiting the spread of their illness?
So far, so interesting. And there were hints of something more coming down the line.
People working for the government received a red alert. There was a real lycanthropy crisis in Leeds and the city was in lockdown. We weren’t to leave the building.
Without the course organiser, we couldn’t carry on with our day as planned. People got bored. They got restless.
The scientists started investigating what was happening in the city. I made myself useful by calling in scientific equipment from the local Lycanthropy Unit, which was set up outside the hall. Some of the top experts in lycanthropy started working intensely on understanding why people were suddenly and unexpectedly turning into monsters.
Halfway through the afternoon, tragedy struck. Brother Simeon, a friend of mine who helped run a homeless hostel, had become infected. He turned into a beast and attacked people. The scientists tried to cure him with an experimental drug. They used too much and he died.
Along the way, he had infected another person.
I mourned for my friend and started making funeral arrangements.
Then I went back to being bored and restless.
This long stretch of the afternoon was when I had doubts about the game. The players of scientific characters had a lot to do. The rest of us, almost nothing.
In retrospect, it was important in pacing the event. It left us feeling helpless and vulnerable for later. But as I sat catching Pokémon and talking about TV shows, I wished I’d come up with an even sillier character. I really needed entertaining.
I needn’t have worried. I was about to be intensely “entertained”.
By half past eight, we’d identified three participants in the course who were infected with lycanthropy. The scientists had worked out what was causing them to transform and attack – a chemical compound released by terrorists. It was in the air. All we could do was contain people, stay safe, and wait for this to be over.
The lycanthropes had been locked in a room. They were getting agitated and battering at the door. We couldn’t contain them much longer.
Meanwhile, Alexander Smith, the government liaison sent to help the scientists, started freaking out. He was staring at his phone and talking about something terrible happening. I’d been trying to keep him calm during an earlier panic attack, so I went over to comfort him.
I saw the message on his phone. It said PURPLE ALERT. I didn’t know what that was, but nothing in capital letters is ever good.
Then the lycanthropes burst out. In ten minutes of chaos and panic, they were driven from the building. But along the way, they severely injured half the people there, leaving them infected with the disease.
One of the injured people was Alexander. With his throat half ripped out, it was doubtful we could save his life, never mind get him conscious to find out more about the purple alert.
Fortunately, as an MP, I had contacts. Going to a quiet corner of the room, I phoned the head of the Department of Lycanthropy. They were shocked to hear that I was caught up in the situation in Leeds. They explained the purple alert.
The contagion couldn’t be contained. For the sake of the rest of the world, in two hours time, the whole city of Leeds would be bombed with nerve gas.
We were all doomed.
And so the final act began.
Suddenly, the game had become intense and nerve wracking. There were werewolves battering at the door. Surviving and treating the injured gave everyone something to do.
We were a long way away from the reflective social scientific explorations of Scandinavian LRP.
I knew that the scientists on the course had made incredible breakthroughs today. That could save lives. I convinced my government contact that those findings needed to get out.
She agreed that, before the nerve gas attack, they would send a team to extract four uninfected people and any information they had developed. It was up to me to pick those people.
For me, this became about saving the most lives, not just in the room but in Leeds and the rest of the world. I had to keep everyone here calm and make sure that the science got out safely. I couldn’t tell everyone what was happening or there would be panic.
The four people I picked would live. Everyone else would die. It was on me.
The first pick was easy – the one uninjured scientist in the room. Anyone injured was infected, so they were out. I told Dr Lockheart about the situation, and he found two other people who understood the science. I took them quietly aside, told them the truth, and told them to be ready to leave when the time came.
One space left. One life to save. I didn’t want to waste it, so I found a group of creative types I’d been talking with earlier. I couldn’t risk telling more people the truth, so I started spinning a lie. There would be waves of extraction teams at five-minute intervals. There was space for one more person in the first extraction. Which of them would go?
In a touching moment, a couple who were novelists tried to convince each other to go, then decided to stay together. Their friend the artist would be the fourth person.
Then we got a call from some of the other scientists. They were hiding in the tent outside. They had developed a cure. They were coming in past the hordes of ravening werewolves.
In an intense and scary moment, they got in safely.
It was ten o’clock. We had half an hour left.
I got on the phone to the government and begged them to call off the attack. But without a method to distribute the cure, they wouldn’t do it.
And still, no-one else knew what I knew.
In thirty minutes, all but four of us would die.
These last two hours contained the most fascinating moral dilemmas I’ve ever dealt with in a game. I had to pick who lived and died. I had to decide whether to tell people the truth. Once the other scientists got back in, I had to decide whether I could change who was leaving. The more scientists involved with the cure got out the better for the whole world. But anyone I took off that list of four for extraction would die. Three of them knew that and might cause trouble if things changed.
By now, because I’d been helpful and authoritative, people were turning to me for information and direction. It was getting really, really intense.
Alan: Decision Time
Twenty past ten. There’s a knock on the door. Soldiers are here to take four people safely past the werewolves.
I call people over.
Dexter Lockheart, the first scientist I put on my list to live.
Libby, a museum worker who understands the science and knows the truth. Nice lady. Glad I got to save her.
Jessica, who runs a spa for wealthy lycanthropes. She was fun to talk with when I was bored. I’m not sure she’s the best human being here, but again, she understands the science, she knows the truth, and if I don’t let her out now I think she might cause trouble.
One space left. I’ve already asked the artist to wait for the “next extraction”.
I look at the other scientists. They’ve found a cure that will save thousands or millions of lives. They’ve worked incredibly hard under terrible circumstances. They’re a gift to humanity.
And I’m effectively killing all but one of them.
I grab the nearest one. I shove her at the soldiers. “This is your fourth.”
“You’re here for the first group?” someone else asks, wanting to know when the soldiers will be back for them.
“First group?” a soldier says. “What are you talking about?”
A vision flashes across my mind. A score of desperate people turning on each other for the sake of survival. Soldiers pulling out their guns. Scientists caught in the crossfire. The cure lost. All of today’s horror and tragedy coming to nothing.
“Just go,” I say. I’m a sickly MP who doesn’t get nearly enough exercise, and I’m shoving a gun-toting professional killer out of a doorway. I really hope they go with it.
Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I want people to hear the truth. Maybe I don’t want these terrible decisions to be mine.
The soldier turns and leaves, taking the four survivors.
Damn, that was close.
Andy’s not really in the picture any more. I’ve forgotten about Pokémon and TV. I’m just being Alan.
I sit down on the floor, staring at my phone. If it rings in the next ten minutes, then the scientists have convinced the government that we can spread the cure. Leeds will live.
If not, we all die.
“Are they really coming back for us?”
I don’t even see who asked the question. I’m too caught up in the fact that I’ve killed everyone here. I’m grieving my own lost innocence, the children’s TV presenter I once was. And honestly, I feel like shit. My meds, combined with the stress of the day, are taking it out of me.
“No,” I admit, to myself as well as them. “I’m sorry.”
I go around the room, apologising to people for not saving them. Most are understanding. One of them admires me for not saving myself.
I sit by the altar. Two people are there. I apologise. They say it’s OK. They thank me for what I’ve done today, helping everyone out.
I sink exhausted onto the floor.
“For what it’s worth, I would have voted for you next time,” one of them says.
“You wouldn’t have had the chance,” I reply. “I was going back for the next round of chemo next week, but we know it won’t work. I was going to be dead by the next election. That’s why I got into lycanthropy issues. Desperately looking for a cure for cancer in this new disease.”
The sound of helicopters approaches. I get up and try to call the government one last time. Not for my sake, but for all the good people in this room and all the other people across Leeds who are about to die.
It’s too late. The air smells strange. I’m choking on my own breath.
I collapse, phone in hand. I watch the world fade away. My last thought is that at least I won’t have to go through more chemo.
When I got home after New Pathways in Lycanthropy, I couldn’t sleep. I kept running over decisions I’d made in character. Had I made the right choices? What else could I have done?
Today is the morning after. I got up and took my friend to the station. Then, for the first time since I moved into my house, I sat on the doorstep. After everything I’d been through, I didn’t want to close myself into my comfortable bubble. I wanted to be out there for humanity to interact with. I wanted to see people, to exchange casual conversation with passing strangers, like I’d done with the people on that imaginary training course. Because I felt raw and vulnerable, and I remembered, in a way I hadn’t for a long time, that people are the only thing that truly matters.
I took a lot away from New Pathways in Lycanthropy. Some serious thoughts on marginalised groups, healthcare, and social issues. Some fascinating thoughts on game design. Some memories I’ll be dwelling on for weeks.
But what I mostly took away was the intensity of emotion I got from living Alan Kirk’s last two hours. It’s left me exposed to the world in the best possible way. I hope it’s something I can hang onto.
What greater tribute could anyone make to a fictional character than to go to the effort of dressing up as them? Of course that effort varies from a brief wardrobe rummage to building a giant cardboard robot suit, but it all comes down to the same thing – remodelling an existing character in the form of you.
Covers of Songs
A good cover version can transform a song into something entirely new and unexpected. From Guns n Roses making Paul McCartney sound metal, through to Postmodern Jukebox making Pitbull songs bearable, it creates some amazing moments.
Some computer game modders dedicate themselves to creating new locations, characters and weapons for players. Others just want to make monsters look like Thomas the Tank Engine. Whatever the approach, it’s another layer of play in a medium that’s already all about playing.
Painting Wargames Miniatures
Incredible craftsmen make the tiny sculptures that adorn toy battlefields and roleplay tables across the world, and they do so knowing that what they’ve made isn’t even the end product. There are whole competitions dedicated to the art of painting figures an inch tall, techniques and styles that have been developed just for this. The results can be breathtaking, if you take the time to look.
Yes, there are a lot of annoying, lazy remixes out there that just lay a dance beat underneath what was previously a passable song. But there is some amazing stuff too, like Girl Talk, whose music is made up entirely of samples, or the Heresy remix on Further Down the Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, a version that lifts a decent song into something pulse pounding.
Skilled writers like Naomi Novik have crafted entirely new stories from the inspiration they took from others – in the case of her Temeraire, combing Master and Commander with the dragons of Pern. And it’s something people enjoy for its own sake – imagining existing characters into different situations, and sharing them with like minded readers.
When I was a kid, a friend of my parents had a model train set in his loft. He had taken the components others had made for him, from the trains and tracks to the houses, plastic people and components for trees, and built an entire landscape. That stuff is amazing.
The LRP of the TV Show
Live roleplay (LRP) games, where people take on the role of invented characters, often take ideas from other stories, but some are entirely dedicated to them. From Warhammer 40K to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, there are people running around the woods living those universes for a weekend. What could be more exciting than being a Browncoat for a day?
What else is there? What have I missed? And which of these do you enjoy? Share your thoughts – that’s what the comments are for.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.