My journey to March 1914 and the world of Fairweather Manor began in the Spring. My mate Simon had been to Poland to be a wizard in the world of Harry Potter and come back full of tales of this amazing game. We don’t talk as much as we should, he and I, time and family always seem to conspire to keep us from it; but I could feel the enthusiastic vibrations emanating from him across the electron ether between the big city and my rural home. Thus when the organisers were crowdfunding another run of their College of Wizardry game we made the time to discuss attending. Unfortunately, the dates didn’t work, no CoW for me.
Then the people behind CoW announced their newest project, a game based upon the immensely popular Downton Abbey – Fairweather Manor. For those of you living under a rock (or consuming only genre TV), Downton is a Julian Fellowes written period drama set in post-Edwardian England and tracing the trials and tribulations of a noble family through the period. It is full of amazing characters with a strong visual identity, and has won fans the world over. The game aimed to capture the feel of that series, and to explore themes relevant to the time. Oh, and it was set in a Polish castle, with 300+ rooms!
Tickets were via a lottery, with demand expected to be high. Simon and I both applied, with my expectations of a place running low. I was very surprised when I got a place, and then equally disappointed when he did not. But it was settled. I was going to Poland to LARP, and I was going on my own.
As the weeks passed, I became more convinced that I’d made a mistake. I’ve had 30 years experience of the hobby in the UK, of plot driven action LRP, and no experience whatsoever of Nordic LARP. Not even the slightest inkling of what to expect, aside from some talk of Black Box games amongst my friends (which had not helped set my mind at rest). I was going to a foreign country, whose native language is not my own, to play a game in style I didn’t understand, with people I’d never met. The more I thought about it, the less enthusiasm I had.
We were to be cast into roles rather than generate our own characters and when the characters were published, I discovered that I had been cast as ‘Clayton Hoare’, partner in the private bank, Hoare and Co., and financial advisor to his Lordship the Duke of Somerset. This was a bit of a relief, as I’d ticked the box that said I didn’t mind what character I got, but the more I thought about it the more I was dreading getting a part as a servant. I’d probably have enjoyed service nonetheless, but I’m out of shape and get tired easily, and the intense physical demands would have mitigated my fun.
A significant difference in game style was exposed at this point, as we were informed that we should feel free to read any character sheet we wanted. Obviously we were told that this might remove some surprises, but the option was there. At the core of everything in the game was characterisation and in-game interpersonal relations and the idea was to enable this play. All else was is in service to this.
The experienced players jumped right in, at the very start just after casting, to arrange relationships between with one another. Their characters started knowing one another and having shared experiences ahead of the game. This felt a bit like cheating to me. After all, isn’t the game supposed to be about what happens “in the field”, not on Facebook? Well, yes, but no. I was utterly wrong to feel odd about it. In games where there is competition between PCs, using OOC contact to build a gang in downtime is a bit meta. But in these games there’s no reason not to. And every reason to do so. The more contact you have, the more relationships you have going into the game, the more likely that you are going to have stuff going on throughout the game.
I held back. Save for a short-ish Skype chat with my in game wife, I thought that I’d prefer to let relationships develop in play, to wing it as is my usual style. In hindsight this was a mistake. The couple of relationships that I did set up during the Thursday pre-game time provided some of the most powerful moments in my game.
The ‘weekend’ started on Wednesday. I flew into Wroclaw (pronounced something like frot-suave) in Poland and on that evening a bunch of us met up in the town. We were a truly international bunch, with ten different nationalities present at one point. There was heavy representation from Scandinavia and Finland; but Spain, Germany, Italy, the USA, the UK and, of course, Poland. The most striking part of the get-together was how friendly and welcoming everyone was. They went out of their way to make a lost and lonely Brit feel great about the upcoming game. As we ate Polish food in ‘Europe’s oldest restaurant’, we shared war stories from past games and bonded over beer.
On Thursday we boarded a bus for the journey to Zamek Moszna. It was another chance to get to know people and to catch up with my IC wife to hammer out the detail of our relationship. Excitement and anticipation grew as we approached the castle, and as it came into view a ripple of gasps ran up and down the coach. As we disembarked we were greeted by two lines of players, those who had already arrived, with the IC host family on one side and the primary servants on the other. We were shown to our rooms – as IC middle class I was sharing a room with the solicitor and his assistant; whilst some of the nobles had suites of rooms.
We were given strict instruction to be back in the grand staircase hall an hour and a half later, in costume. We duly assembled and there then followed a series of workshops covering the basics of the game – how to defuse IC situations (‘won’t someone think of the family?’); the use of ribbons to denote age (black for old, white for adult and blue for young) and attitude; and the general themes of the game (Suffrage, Service, War, etc). These were followed by some dinner, and then some workshops in our respective thematic groups. I was in the ‘experts’ group, and we dealt with good techniques for appearing to be expert, getting us to know each other’s names and characters and then a section where we got to stand around the room depending on our character’s views of some of the touchstone topics. This was immensely useful and quite good fun, as we got to see where we each fell on each topic.
The workshops are something that I would definitely steal for any future game that I run. Giving players a time to meet one another and to learn a bit about others characters is a great idea, and really helped the transition from player to character.
Thereafter we had a short intro scene, where we all trooped out of the house, around to the grand entrance and into the Manor past the greeting line of the main family. Then there was a short speech by his lordship and her ladyship and we were timed out. I didn’t feel that this worked particularly as a mechanism. 20 minutes of roleplay and then a stop to the game left a few of us felt a little short changed. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind it, as we could quite easily have continued to play into the evening with little disruption.
After a few glasses of wine and port with some fellow players, it was off to bed and when we awoke, the game proper was in session. I’m not going to go into any character detail here, there is a plan to re-run the game and I don’t want to inadvertently spoil anything. I will however, publish a personal account of the game (which will include spoilers and emotion) on my own LJ account.
I had so little idea of what to expect, so many questions and confusions, and so few ways to anticipate it. It would have been easier to be coming to the hobby for the first time. But years of UK LRP accumulates clag and baggage, expectations of the constituent parts of a LRP game and its players. Our language is of gamist and simulationist, of freeform, LRP and LARP, of OOC and IC, meta and immersive, player-led and story-driven. And that language and its associated mindset got in the way for me. Trying to imagine this game from a UK perspective made it all the harder to understand.
In the end it turned out to be just a really fine game. Different from any other fine games that I’ve played, but not a different species. Gravlax rather than cod and chips. Still fish, you still eat it, it still tastes amazing, but it’s different.
What it was, for sure, was character-driven. The players had poured effort into their characters from the very start. Their clothing, their mannerisms, their language; all of it was consistent and creative. With little (what we in the UK would traditionally consider) plot, the emphasis was on the interactions between the characters. No NPCs (although some of the players seemed to end up having to take on more organisation than I’d have been comfortable with in their shoes); very little organiser driven occurrence (though a telegram arrived part way through that shook up my bit of the game); and certainly no great mystery to unravel. But mysteries were still there, dark (and not so dark; and some really, really dark) secrets shared by characters, new secrets formed as pacts were sworn and bargains made on balconies and in drawing rooms.
It was an organic experience. A game for people not groups, to be consumed in pieces, savoured and enjoyed. Conversations over dinner became scenes of surprise and delight, as exquisitely realised individuals got on with the business of talking to one another. A disagreement about investments proved as engaging and dramatic as any battle in which I’ve participated.
When you strip out all the ‘plot’ all you are left with is character. Pure roleplaying.
The word that was used in the build up, when I talked to those that had experienced Nordic games before, was immersion. And this had it in spades. The venue was at its core, of course. It is so easy to be in 1914 when you are in a house from that time. And the costumes, so sumptuous and detailed; so beautifully realised that you looked around and it was as if you were there. And then there was a period car, a period carriage, songbirds in cages in the Orangery and a vast array of beautiful rooms. When I made it downstairs, the character of the house was different, yet still perfect. Bare and functional, I really believed that this was the hub of downstairs service.
Activities were organised for our enjoyment. The politician gave a talk on the politics of the day; the suffragettes and sympathisers held their meetings; we had poetry workshops and the theatre troupe conducted an open rehearsal of their daring interpretation of Mr Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest(a)’. We had two balls, the servants’ ball and the grand ball – I even learned to waltz (sorta). We lived the lives of our characters, and loved their loves and cried their tears.
It was over too soon.
And when it was over there was a formal debrief, and then an after party. The debrief was an excellent idea, and I found it pretty useful in beginning to process what I’d experienced. The party was great, and an opportunity to let my hair down with some of my new friends.
The following morning there was breakfast and then the coach journey back to reality. Hearts and minds were reluctant to leave, and it felt strange, travelling through the Polish countryside, gradually losing the buzz to have it replaced by something deeper, more potent and more lasting.
A few of us were in Wroclaw the following couple of evenings, clinging to fragments of the game, and sharing stories and hopes for the future. Some of the players are heading to another Polish castle in a couple of weeks for the latest run of the College of Wizardry. I’m jealous of them, but simultaneously pleased to have the time and mental distance to process all that happened in 1914.
I’m sold on this type of game. I still love our games, with their mysteries and opposed player struggles (and God Rest Ye Merry is still my favourite game of all time), but Nordic LARP has won yet another fan. I am resolved that this should not be my last Nordic game, nor my last international game.
TLDR: Fairweather Manor was brilliant.
They are running it again in April. You should definitely go. Sign ups are at http://fmlarp.com
All photos by Jean-Paul Bichard.