I’m old enough to remember borders.
Of having to show my dark blue passport to tired looking men wearing wool overcoats and clutching machine guns. Of passing through a demi-world filled with floodlights and dogs. It was always raining back then. It was always night when I crossed a border.
This time the sun was shining. The border was signified by a lack of vowels on the road signs; nothing more, and suddenly we were in Poland;
I sipped my water, and moved around the bus to try to get a feel for the sort of gamers I was travelling with. They seemed very intense, rather beautiful, and were more than a little bit frightening because of it. You can’t let this sort of thing get on top of you; if they get inside your head, you’ve had it. The bus started to feel like Christmas. Excitement bubbled over.
The light in the toilet was broken. I took my wand in with me to illuminate proceedings as it was loaded with a LED.
‘Lumos Maxima’ I said as I closed the door behind me.
The toilet lights came on.
I was so pleased with myself I almost forgot to pee.
‘I fixed the light’ I said.
The magic system is pretty simple in this game, you point your wand at a target for offensive spells, and you can either dodge, or cross your arms in front of you for defensive spells. You throw in a bit of suitable pseudo-Latin (or other magical sounding words and you are done.) The target decides whether it works or not. No points, no verbals, no ripping up cards.
On the whole I found it more interesting to start with the premise that anything I was targeted with would work up to, and including, a killing curse.
Time has no meaning on The Road. You follow it. Eventually you find the end. I did that once. Ten hours out of Marrakech, I took a horse out past the quiet places to try to find where The Road ended, and began. I rode out into the desert until The Road became a track and then little more than an avenue of skeletons half covered by the sand. And there, where the last footprint blew away in the wind I saw… But that is another story entirely.
I blinked back to the present. The bus had stopped. We had arrived at The Castle. It was a piece of fairy-tale in the woods. High up on a hill and overlooking a lake; once past the gates you leave the Real World behind.
How often does a chance like this come around? To rend reality, to mess with the here and now so hard that you get lost. Writing this, what a week later, I’m starting to doubt what I saw, and what I felt. I needed to do normal things, plant tomatoes, go to the supermarket otherwise I could not go through with this. Somehow it feels like writing it down will trap it somehow, steal the soul of the memories.
I checked in to my room, pausing to pick up a house tie and some robes. I’ve been more used to putting up a tent or two prior to an event, so this smacks of luxury. I come from a larping tradition where ‘en suite bathroom’ is synonymous with pitching the OOC tent near to a hedge. I took the time to unpack; hanging stuff in cupboards, laying out the various props on my desk, checking my text books. Then it was time for the workshops.
Workshops are a really interesting idea. They offer a quick way to build a character who then has the required relationship dynamics to start a game running. We were split into our houses, then into our classes and study paths so we met the players of the characters who we were supposed to have known for years. There were a series of quick exercises to determine social and academic hierarchies; you line up based on how clever you think your character is and talk to people at either end. We did some random exercises where you end up making some sort of relation with a stranger. ‘How do our characters get on? Do we have a shared story? Why did we fall out?’ As a stranger to this world it gave me a few steadfast IC friends (and enemies) who I could rely on for game when it all started to crash.
We created our ‘house’ and made up its traditions, initiation rituals, and a house chant. Our chant, still echoing around my head a week later, was a thing of visceral beauty.
Thus the real world ended. Not with a bang, but with a cheer and a call-and-response echoing around the floodlit courtyard. The students entered in procession, through the arch and across the bridge where the teachers lined the route. The game began.
Things blur here. The whole experience was weirdly psychedelic, but that only became apparent later – at the airport – when I kept seeing wizards where there were no wizards to see; like the peak of a phenethylamine trip – everything at plus three. I want to tell you all the details, day by day, blow by blow. But as the game will be re-run in November (in a modified form, stripping out all those references to Harry Potter along the way) it would not be right to share too many details. You might want to play. You should play…
At a class in physical defence we learned to disarm a wizard (anyone who has done any martial arts will appreciate there is something pleasingly surreal about using knife disarms against a wand). Faced with a shambling zombie, Morgan borrowed one of my techniques and dropped it with a roundhouse kick to the head. He tackled werewolves, challenged a minotaur to a test of strength, struggled with the intricacies of geomancy, and took a class in tea leaf reading whilst amped up on an ‘enthusiastica’ hex. (‘That was the BEST CLASS EVER AND I WAS AMAZING!’)
The teachers were also players, who had constructed elaborate classes to teach; five classes a day, with homework. They were well-conceived, malevolent bastards. I adored them. I feared them. I believed in them. It was going well.
But poor Morgan, my broken, sad character had a terrible time. On the first evening, outside a ‘mixer party,’ he fled when a young witch flirted with him – probably making her think he was not interested – then confused, he ran into another, with whom he had history.
‘If you had asked me, I would have said yes’ she said. ‘But it is too late now.’
His teenage angst bullshit had a body count… of one; elsewhere, between the solving of curses and chasing down dark magic, it was all getting a bit ‘Heathers.’ Morgan was called in to a chat with the school counsellor. She asked him to tell his story, and I watched him break apart.
It was an amazing experience. Being that close to a tragedy. Close enough to taste the tears and feel the sobs. Morgan cried, and he cried hard. I felt like someone had cooked up a batch of catharsis and offered me a fat line on a first folio edition of Hamlet; a mixture of jubilation and despair. Sure I’ve cried in larp before, but this felt different. Somewhere along the way he’d bitten his thumb, enough to make it bleed. He’d got blood all over his face; smeared it down the side of his cheek.
‘You’re bleeding, Morgan’ said the counsellor. ‘We should get you cleaned up.’
Back home I used to notice that gamers steered clear of emotional intensity. So many times I’ve seen an epic and emotional scene destroyed by a ‘comedy character’ delivering an amusing one liner. In other cases I certainly ‘checked-back’ with players to make sure they are okay. But here people fed off it, ran with it and pushed it as hard as they could. Here is a place where you can leave someone in floods of tears, and after the game they come and thank you for it.
‘There is no honest way to explain the edge because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.’
Saturday night, the grand ball, and every professor and student was dressed in their finest dancing the night away in the oak panelled hall. My character was alone in the dark, on the bridge outside of the castle. The only student not to attend the ball, he was too brooding, too broken. Yet even here, ostensibly isolated and freezing, the game found me. The NPC crew adapted their role-play to suit the character. I think that had my character wanted an excuse to come back inside, they would have given it to me, but as it was they were simply willing to sit in the fog and share their stories, offer words of wisdom and even a job.
There were epic moments too. Later that same night, having been told that The Dementors were coming for him, Morgan waited – alone – for their arrival. I think he thought it was Messianic, to protect the others so they could enjoy their dance; but given that he was too sad to cast the charm that would drive off a Dementor, you could also argue that he was a fucking idiot. Either way, a Dementor came, and a death eater, and then a second Dementor.
(This was the first and only time all weekend, I think, that I recall hearing my own thoughts. ‘The game ends in an hour, I’ve had a pretty good run, I guess this is it for me, he’s had it…’)
Morgan stood on the end of the bridge, pulled out his wand, and waited. He was not dressed for the ball. He wore a long black duster coat, leather trousers, a dusty black shirt, a battered black hat, and a sneer. Anarcho-magi, punk sorcerer – Never Mind the Horcruxes, it’s the Hex Pistols.
‘One wand’ laughed the death eater. ‘Two Dementors… What are you going to do, little boy?’
In an epic second, as his life flashed before him, Morgan realised that he still had the capacity for love, and indeed probably was in love with a particular young witch – one who had been kind to him. The Patronus Charm flashed into his head, he knew he could cast it again. He paused and pulled back the left hand side of his coat like a western gunfighter to reveal… a second wand.
‘Amateur hour is over’ he said and, for the first time in two years he smiled.
Now I don’t want you to think Morgan’s story has a happy conclusion. I can assure you it did not. An hour later, as the event ended, he was alone, broken, probably expelled and on the run. Convinced he has no future to speak of, and probably having alienated most of the people who might have saved him. It was, as I tried to explain later through the tears, exactly what I wanted.
I have strange memories of this nervous night in Poland. Six days later? Seven? It seems like a lifetime— I fear it is the kind of peak that never comes again. But I am going to try. Even now, those of us who survived this strange experience are clinging together – via the internet, via google hangouts, via facebook – desperate to find out what happens next.
‘The sequel – if it happens –‘
‘– When it happens, dammit, when it happens.’
No explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and that world. Whatever it meant…