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.