Legion – Trans-Siberian Railroading

Legion – Trans-Siberian Railroading

The Great War, or the first World War, was a massive, horrible massacre on a truly industrial scale, and it is one of the wars I find most fascinating. I’ve read so much about it it, know so much trivia and still I had almost no knowledge of the Czech Legion in Siberia. Walking a few miles in the shoes of those legionnaires not only opened my eyes to a very important piece of history most of us probably have no knowledge of, but also brought me new friends and some very emotional memories.

NOTE: This article is purposefully vague on the actual events during the larp, in line with the organizers wishing to keep story and plot spoiler free for coming runs.

Legion, or Legie as it is called in its original language, is a Czech larp that had already had six runs by the time the international run was played, and is a game for 54 pre-written characters, both soldiers and civilians. The story is based on (very well researched) historical accounts of the Czech Legion as they found themselves in Siberia, unable to return west to their newly proclaimed state after the collapse of Imperial Russia. It is a rather complex history, one that I highly recommend you at least look up in Wikipedia, but basically they were stuck for years along the Trans-Siberian Railway fighting or negotiating to evacuate to Vladivostok and go home to Czechoslovakia.

The Story of the Legion

When signing up for the larp, players got to describe their views on what they wanted out of the game etc, even writing about a person that they would identify with or be inspired by, and I take it all of this was taken into account when the organizers decided on what characters to offer the different players. Once that process was done players were offered three characters (with a short synopsis) and told to rank them in preference, and down the line you were handed one of them to play.

Characters were really diverse and spanned thematically very well over the different aspects the organizers wanted us to relate to; there were soldiers naturally, both idealistic volunteers and less enthusiastic ex-prisoners of war, there were nurses and civilians, wives and followers, and a few local guides. The character material was hefty, quite a few pages of back-history, motivations, relationships etc and you could tell the organizers had spun a very thick and wide net of relationships, potential drama and friendships (and animosity). All in all I think I had some 80 pages to print in total, including history, character, player notes, practical info etc, so quite a lot to read but very well produced and meaningful.

As stated earlier, the organizers asked us to be mindful of the game not being transparent, and since I don’t want to spoil the game for players who have not yet played it, I’ll just say that the plot itself really felt cinematic but at the same time realistic. There were all kinds of emotions and motivations flying around – love, hate, community, survival, morality vs pragmatism, democracy vs chain of command etc – and I found that it worked really well, especially since the journals pushed most characters into changing or evolving during the game, sometimes in grand ways, sometimes very discreetly. The game has really grown on me once I had time to process it, there was just so much going on and so many emotions to handle that it took time to process it once out of the grueling march.

Photo by Hana Maturová

Dial up the Hardcore

Right from the start we knew Legion was going to be a hardcore larp. Uniforms and gear would be provided. Blank firing guns too. It would be played in the dead of winter in the Czech countryside (one night march the temperature was twenty below zero centigrade), we were going to be marching quite some distance (as it turned out, 25 kilometers through snow and ice, up and down some pretty steep and slippery slopes), we were going to be hunted and harassed and boy, did the larp deliver. For many of us, it was the most physically challenging larp we have ever played, and some players (myself included) came close to the breaking point at one point or another – but I don’t think anyone actually reached the point where they had to stop. I must say I was very impressed by the preparations and care given by the organizers here, which made us feel very safe and able to keep going.

The focus on the physical – the marching, the cold weather and the rest – really brought you into the mindset of being a soldier (or nurse, or prisoner) in a really shitty situation, a taste of what it must be like forcing yourself to go on taking one step after the other or just falling down and giving up. Many of us found the marching and physically challenging environment really helped getting “inside the head” of your character.

Railroading and Larp Culture

Going to an event where there is another larp culture than you’re used to is an interesting experience. Culture clashes will inevitably happen, and I think most of us had that in mind going there. We were not sure exactly what the conventions were or how the play style would be, but the organizers were very clear on two things: the larp would be heavily railroaded and there would be very little transparency and lots of secrets. This is, coming from the nordic larp sphere, a bit unusual but I think most of us just accepted the premise and went along with it – when in Rome…

Photo by Hana MaturováAs it turned out, the format of Legion was in some ways similar to what you’d expect a nordic larp to be, and in other ways contrary to current nordic larp trends. One example of the latter is players not being aware until mid-game that their characters had a scripted death scene and that they would be given an new character for the remainder of the game. That the game was heavily railroaded made sense; if we’d just been let loose in the icy countryside the larp wouldn’t have worked, and some other aspects were both interesting and useful, like the fateplay instructions in players journals or the combat/damage/healing system, but some design issues felt like they could use some improvement.

I think the biggest problem, at least for me, was the sheer amount of stuff to be done once the legion was stationary at a location. There was a conflict between playing soldierly duties (standing guard for instance), resting and recuperating, larping with your co-players and playing out the suggestions or orders in your journal. For some of the locations it felt as if you either had to drop the soldier character to do relationship drama, or vice versa – this however got better once we got deeper into the story. There were other things in the written suggestions that felt a bit weird or off track compared to where you were in the game as well, which kind of made me “hack” the game a bit (even though I tried respecting the rules and vision of the game). Unfortunately, for me and a few other players, the plotlines that had to do with romance came at a time when I was just physically too exhausted to really play them out.

As usual, we had some problems with what I refer to as “larp democracy”, the situation in which your game can become bogged down in debate and making compromises and making sure everyone gets to speak up. We also had the all too common problem of players (as a collective) smoothing over or trying to solve conflicts arising, instead of letting them play out to their conclusion. This was however not the fault of the organizers per se, but a common occurrence at almost every larp (regardless of where), and I think there needs to be instructions, workshops or just talks about it before the game unless that concept is actually part of your design.

In hindsight, the game could have really benefited from an hour or two workshopping how to act as a soldier (lining up, saluting, chain of command, passing orders down the line, marching etc). Because of delays in transporting players to the site etc time ran a bit short.

Czech Your Privilege

Having said all that, I realize I was a guest at one specific event with its own history, norms and culture, and I come from a larp scene where we just have different experiences, different dos and don’ts, so instead I’ll end this short summary with the things I think the organizers did really well. The logistics, information and production values were very, very high – some of it much better than I’m used to from the nordic scene. The organizers had a huge, committed team and they really inspired trust and enthusiasm in me and my co-players. There was so much cool gear, everything was so well planned and executed, and we felt really well taken care of. Very inviting and hospitable atmosphere. I can imagine just how much work went into creating this experience for us. Also, I have never seen a more beautiful larp site than the one we trekked across, and some of the locations were just marvellous.

The NPC team did a marvellous job as well, keeping the pressure up and really populating the locations we visited. You really felt as if the entire team gave their very best performance for us to enjoy. But, maybe the biggest takeaway from Legion is that we were given a story that just grows on you, and makes you realize there is a whole country and its history that you know so very little of smack in the middle of Europe. I now have a burning interest to learn more.
Brothers, sisters, if there is another international run of Legion, don’t hesitate. Sign up. I’ve had maybe one the most powerful and interesting larps I’ve had in a very long time.

Photo by Karel Křemel

Legion: Siberian Story

Date: January 18 – 21, 2016
Location: Czech Republic
Length: ~38h game time
Players: 55 players + NPCs
Website: http://legion.rolling.cz

Cover photo: Soldiers of the legion charging over a field (play, Karel Křemel). Other photos by Karel Křemel and Hana Maturová.

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Sebastian is an occasional larp organizer, amateur archivist and science fiction buff. He regularly needs his dose of flashing lights and pounding basslines to feel alive. He has organized larps like Ingenmansland, Lotka-Volterra, Terra Incognita and Simbelmynë, and produced a couple of issues of the larp fanzine Sanningen. If at all possible he wouldn't mind seizing the means of production.