The Hell on Wheels larp is a dramatic game for 54 players that takes place in Stonetown, a western settlement in the Czech Republic. It draws its inspiration from the US AMC TV series of the same name. It borrows certain characters and introductory plots from the series, but handles them freely and places them into a broader context of the transcontinental railroad construction in 1866. The game takes approximately 20 hours and is preceded by roughly 5 hours of pre-game workshops and gun handling training.
Our journey to the western-like larp started in 2013 and went through different concepts. Eventually, we chose to convey a dramatic, film-like experience to the players. We decided to make a genuine western stuffed with all the clichés, character archetypes, and scenes people remember from their favourite movies.
There were gun fights, duels, brawls, prostitutes, Indians on horseback galloping across the plain, boxing matches, cancan in the saloon, whiskey… all emphasised by dramatic music, both recorded and live. On the one hand, the game was based on visually interesting dramatic scenes: on the other, it gives the players room to experience relationships, intrigue, powerful stories, personal dilemmas, and intimate scenes.
Since realistic scenery and the visual aspect were our priorities, finding an appropriate location for the game was crucial. We managed to find a western town: it is small, but perfect for our purposes since it is period enough. There is a saloon with a brothel, an office, a telegraph station, a store, a barbershop, a sheriff’s house. At the same time, there are sufficient conveniences: Players are accommodated in themed log cabins and modern sanitary facilities are available.
By establishing a balance sheet, we found out that if we incurred a moderate debt, we would be able to overcome the chief obstacle and get realistic-looking, working guns that we found essential for the game. Horses are also involved. They are mainly mounted by the NPCs and their presence greatly contributes to the movie-like ambience of the larp. The ambience is also significantly enhanced by the use of pyrotechnics. It makes wells blow up and covers the town in smoke and fire after shoot-outs. Players had to get their own costumes and an overwhelming majority of them prepared their costumes with care and improved the overall visual level of the game.
The first run was successfully held in the autumn of 2013. Visual promotion turned out to be crucial for a dramatic genre larp; stunning photos were one of the reasons why the game got plenty of the hype that enveloped the following Czech-language runs. When our game even started being mentioned abroad, we decided to risk additional time and resources and have an English-language run. The international run gave rise to several difficulties following from the blending of various larping cultures and different views of some of the delicate topics, namely racism and the gender question.
We decided to make minor concessions in depicting racism – instead of dark make-up, the freedmen were marked symbolically – and to expand the pre-game workshops that allowed us to better transmit our notion of the game‘s principles, topics, and modes of playing. The players came from 12 different countries, mainly Italy, Denmark, and Sweden. For many of us, hearing English in the Hell on Wheels western town was the one last thing needed for our movie-larp dream to come true.
By now, one international and four Czech runs have been played, endowing us with enough experience to assess the mechanics and topics employed. In the following sections, we will mention the principal ones.
Topics of the Game
The game is set in 1866 in Nebraska, USA, and revolves around the construction of the transcontinental railway by the Union Pacific Railroad company. The tent camp of the workers and those who follow them – appropriately called the Hell on Wheels – is slowly turning into Durantown, a new settlement. Some of its inhabitants are getting ready to follow the construction when it moves further: the company is hurrying to build the railway line up to the target point before its competitor. Others, though, prefer to start a new life in the town, and there are also strangers whose intentions are unknown. On top of that, the company leadership abounds with intrigues, the threat of an open war with the local Cheyenne tribe is growing, and everything is influenced by a number of personal relationships ranging from love, faith, and friendship to revenge, racism, and madness.
Upon the preparation of the game, we decided to make a single main story that involved everybody in one way or another. We worked together with a group of people who are involved in Native American re-enactment: they represent a major external danger that became a thread of the story. The main storyline was naturally densely bound with other plots – such as “the Indians know where the gold lies,” or “there is oil on the Indian land” – and with personal stories of individual characters, such as “a specific Indian killed my husband.”
Animosity between different nations and ethnic groups constitutes a source of internal tension. Germans hate the Irish; Americans hate the Germans and the Irish; everybody scorns prostitutes and hates freedmen and Indians. This includes racism, the most controversial feature of the game for many players, specifically the play of the freedmen group and the Native American characters. It was not so much about enjoying a western movie, but rather about an inward experience of a racist environment. What was our goal? To transmit through personal experience the concept of racism and the way it works, and to stress its negative effects.
Focus on Drama
Before describing the game mechanics we employed, it needs to be stressed that we decided to subordinate almost everything else to the effect brought about by drama and ambience. We aimed at creating a profoundly convincing atmosphere of the Wild West for the participants, so that they would – as one of them said – “go home with the feeling that they know what the Wild West was all about.”
This is why we chose realistic guns – gas guns with acoustic ammunition – that behave like the real ones and also legitimately give the feeling of danger. For duels, we chose to base our game mechanics on body stances. Every gunslinger is given a number that determines the initial posture they start the fight in. The stances are known to all players, so each of the fighters knows before the duel whether they are going to win or lose. The shoot-outs were based on a dramatic acting out of the injury, according to the players’ own preferences with regard to the logic of a particular scene. Brawls and fights with padded cold-steel dummy weapons worked in a similar way.
The larp also included a group of prostitutes and a number of romantic plots. Obviously, we had to find a way to act out sex scenes. We eventually chose the symbolism of pressing cheeks against each other and unbuttoning or removing a part of the costume or a costume accessory. We also set a mechanic for how both players can agree on a different and more daring way of acting out the scene without going off-game.
The game is structured into four chapters. The first chapter starts with scripted scenes and for each of the following three chapters, several major events are prepared in which almost all the characters can be involved, actively or passively. These events are usually related to the main storyline or some of the smaller storylines of particular groups or characters. When we were writing the personal stories of the characters, we made sure that each character has a specific issue to tackle in every chapter: every player had a meta-game booklet with instructions for the beginning of each chapter that offered them ideas on what and how to play or simply assigned them a specific scripted scene.
During the creation, we intertwined the storylines and prepared NPCs to intervene in the story if necessary. At the same time, there were several NPCs acting as normal player characters, serving to push the story forward or to help move plots that became stuck.
We also used the mechanic of “barbers”: two organisers were available for players throughout the whole game to consult about their characters, the development of the story, etc. If a player needed to consult an important in-game decision with the organisers, did not know what to do, was bored, or needed to access a new plot, they could “go to the barber’s.” There, they could go off-game and discuss the matter with the organisers.
Finally, I would like to mention one more concept: double characters. Some players’ characters were intended to stay in the game only for half of the game. In the second part, the players arrived to town as new characters. The aim was to make some conflicts escalate in the middle of the game and, at the same time, enable some players to play two different characters, somehow indirectly, but meaningfully related to each other, thereby offering the player the opportunity to approach an issue from two different points of view. The idea received a favourable response, and it turned out that it might be an interesting alternative for players who don‘t mind a limited space for developing their plot and a scripted end of their first character.
Hell on Wheels
Credits: Filip Appl, Tereza Staňková, Tomáš Dulka, Ondřej Staněk, Jan Zeman, Jaroslav Dostál, Veronika Dostálová, Tomáš Felcman, Jana Isabella Růžičková, Jan Teplý
Dates: 5 runs in the years 2013-2015
Location: Stonetown near Humpolec, the Czech Republic
Duration: 2 days
Budget: €3,600 for each Czech-language run, €6,200 for the international run
Participation Fee: €60/€80 Czech-language run, €145 the international run (due to translation of the texts)
Game Mechanics: Body postures in duels, meta instructions in players’ booklets
All photos provided by the Hell on Wheels organizers.