“I wanted the full Nordic LARP experience, so I played a character who was effectively unplayable and doomed from the start” I explained; “So I spent Saturday afternoon crying uncontrollably and covered in my own blood.”
We were at the after-party, the bar had just run out of beer so we were drinking shots of whisky out of coffee mugs.
“Congratulations and welcome, you are one of us now.”
Everyone looks for that moment when the wave breaks; but they usually look backwards as it slides away from the beach; all I could see behind me were the broken bodies of wizards I had tried to persuade to form a human pyramid to Destiny’s Child. They should have known the wise saying never let an old goth get drunk, alone, two thousand years from home.
Most of you won’t know who I am. I think it is fair to say that. I used to be a larper. I stopped. I found solace in a very specific form of rock’n’roll. The type with black hair dye, snakebite, smoke machines, drum machines, amphetamines. The character I played there levelled up. Lost some fights, won a war, and eventually became less and less fun to play. Eventually I drifted back in to a field. Wrote some plot, played a couple of taciturn NPCs, one angry god, and a big scary blue cat thing. But my heart was not really in it. I just like telling stories; I love the way that the story we think we are telling as we hunch over a keyboard in a damp tent – chair slowly sinking into the mud – is not the story that is actually received.
On Wednesday morning I was in the business class lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5, having a slow breakfast and leaching Wifi to download a Harry Potter film from iTunes when up walked an old work colleague. He was a corporate lawyer; his suit cost more than my car.
Our conversation was stilted, confused; I no longer work in his world, and I was working hard at getting my mage on and leaving all of it behind.
“Fuck off Mark” I told him, “I’m a wizard now.”
“You always were, Simon” he told me before sadly walking away into a world of writs, tort, and European competition law.
I was going to the worst place in the world, and I did not even know it yet.
Berlin has always had a special meaning for me. It was a fictional city; inside East Germany and the first place to fall when world war 3 broke out. Found in the southeast of that city on the edge, the Kreuzberg of the 1980s was my spiritual home. It was my 1968. My political anarcho-heart, and it did really good kebabs. SO36 tattooed on my heart.
We met in a hotel lobby, players – strangers – from different countries. Some still broken from the weekend before, others wide eyed and excited for their first fix. We drank beer in Alexanderplatz, ate pickled pig knuckles, talked about Buckfast tonic wine.
Later, or perhaps it was the next day, I wandered around the airport waving a plastic straw at automatic doors, making them open and close for my own amusement.
“Hello, are you with the larp?”
“Yes, we’re all over here,” I told them and led the way.
“That’s not a wand, its a plastic straw!”
“It is made from dinosaurs, and has a core of void.”
The bus came. Here and there faces I recognised. One from every photo of every nordic larp I have ever seen, one from the past. A few from facebook here and there. People moved like rockstars meeting their fans backstage. Already this was something special, but I didn’t know why. Not here, not yet.
I dry swallowed a couple of sudafed and an antihystamine and got on the bus. Five hours on The Road, watching Germany turn into Poland, through bat country, and towards The Castle …
It was pointed out to me, by no less than seven people of my acquaintance, that there are other ways to resolve conflict in larp that do not involve daggers. They are, of course, correct. There are poisons, axes, dropping someone with magic and then teleporting them away, immolation, impaling, and – if you are proper old-school – touch of death. Some of these are more subtle than others, but all are backed up with some sort of game mechanic.
The game I am off to play this week comes with no daggers, and no way to kill another character. (You cannot be killed, but you can choose to die.)
I should point out that my preferred style of play is post-traumatic angst. I play to lose. My characters are all deeply flawed. I once role-played myself into a state where no one would interact with my character because having someone crying at you was … ‘A bit much.’ I dealt with this isolation by standing out in the rain and talking to the raindrops until someone from St John Ambulance took me inside and made me drink sweet tea. I mention this only to offset the dagger story, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.
So anyway, I digress. I was nervous. Not the excited butterflies I would associate with pre-performance ‘stage fright’; but more a ‘I am sure I had fingernails once, chronic insomnia, and why am I doing this?There is no way out; no way home. If this game doesn’t work for me I shall be stuck in some fairy-tale castle in the woods until Sunday with nothing but a book on ethnography to occupy me. What the fuck am I doing?’
But I had decided to play. Life is a Cabaret, old chum and all of that. My character is called Morgan Troxler, and he is … A wizard.
College of Wizardry is set – for the last time, and with the grudging approval of the Warner Brothers (Wakko, Yakko and presumably, their sister Dot) – in the Harry Potter game world. The characters are attending a sort of magical university. For example, as I am from England my character attended Hogwarts. However he is now in his final year at Czocha, studying Magizoology.
We were given characters; a one pager with some suggested backstory (you can change it if you want) a blood status, a year and a path of study. Morgan is the son of a pureblood witch – whose family can trace its lineage back to Morgan Le Fay and a muggle. So ‘mixed blood’ or ‘blood traitor’ depending on which side of that particular divide a character sits. Using a forum and then the loathsome ‘facebook’ we’ve built our own relationships with other characters. Friends, enemies, lovers; created dark secrets and shared back-stories. None of which I could remember once the game started of course, but the process of weaving a plausible web of narrative is quite beautiful, and it has helped to shape my character and take him in a rather unexpected direction.
He’s basically the magical equivalent of a trustafarian. Wealthy enough never to need to worry about anything he’s absolutely unaware of his privilege and driven by rage. “Like an angry vegan with a wand.” Combined with agonising self-doubt, an affected louche arrogance, and an unwillingness to take the easy path, I could not see him making it through to the end of the game on Saturday night in one piece.
And that is what victory looks like, you see. I’m was playing a character so riddled with hairline cracks that he would shatter in the wind. I had high hopes for an explosion.
There were around 140 players. We’d be talking over the Czocha Castle hotel in Poland and spending three nights and two days being wizards. People came from all across the world to play. Some were experienced larpers representing all sorts of different traditions; others were fans of Harry Potter who had never played a game like this. I am told that it sold out in two minutes.
I was about to strap rocks to my legs and jump into the sea. I was out of my depth.
 One American woman from the mid-west explained that she’s not even tasted alcohol until she landed in Britain. We were trying to sell Bucky as a beverage that should be acceptable because it was brewed by monks.