How a UK larp’s take on dystopian cyberpunk is learning from Nordic larp design principles
“One day you will see the truth, you will learn to understand the patterns and numbers in the data. When God left the analogue world they left us a trail to follow, a path to enlightenment and a way to see the demons all around us.”
— Tales from the Tenements
As William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy was coming to an end, I was spending a fair amount of my time in underground nightclubs listening to angry electronic music. A lot of people wore black; there was a hint of illegal stimulants and the threat of violence that entails It was a world of rainy streets, strobe lights, and laser noodles from styrofoam containers. I once received a 1.44MB floppy disc with a pirated C compiler on it in a basement of a bar in central London; that same night a woman with a pet python tried to persuade me to run away and join the circus, and I learned why you should never let a friend attempt an intimate piercing with a piercing gun, whilst drunk, in a cloakroom.
My liminal relationship with cyberpunkCyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that tends towards telling the story of the underclass in a highly technological post-industrial dystopia. Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) is probably the most cited text, but John Brunner’s (1975) Shockwave Rider is arguably the first. fiction did not end there. One of the descriptions of Cyberspace in Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive runs like this,
“’That’s White’s,’ Tick was saying, directing her attention to a modest gray pyramid, ‘The club in St James.’ Membership registry, waiting list…”
…building that database for White’s of St James’ was actually my first freelance software contract after university.
As a result I have always steered very clear of cyberpunk larp. I worried that it would not have the razor sharp edge of what had come before. And so we must fast forward, like a console cowboy through the consensual hallucination that is cyberspace, through thirty odd years to the present day…
Broken Dreams is a UK larp company that has produced a number of games that have started to subvert the formula of UK LRPThe majority UK larp organisers use the acronym LRP — for Live Role Play — rather than the word larpsystems. T67: Tales from the Tenements (“T67”) is a rules light larp that rejects the hegemony of character development via skills or points. Instead, this larp focuses on the stories of characters living within a near future dystopia that is both cynical and slightly too close for comfort.
The fictional world of T67, written over the period of a few months by UK larp designer Rob Williams, exists as a series of short snippets of fiction. As an exercise in world building, he’s adopted a “sketch-based-design” approach. There is information that is canon here, but players don’t have to learn a whole new language or remember the details of a world. It is trope rich in places. T67 borrows heavily from the cyberpunk genre, but that makes the experience more comfortable and rounded for players. There is just enough backstory for the world to be defined and the result is an immediately accessible fiction in which to play.
It was this combination of easy access to both the game mechanics and the game world that attracted me to the larp.
The first event, set during a block party for one of the tenement buildings in 2040, featured a live DJ playing a soundtrack of industrial and electronic music. It was loud, and at times the music made conversation harder in the central parts of the larp site than was desirable. As a design feature, the loud music tended to force conversations out towards the edges of the site, which I found slightly isolating. I spent a lot of my formative years in and around clubs playing this sort of music and find that (in nightclub settings) the bleed from my misspent youth tends to detract from the larp experience. In this instance, however, the music was diegetic. Moving around the periphery fit both the character and the setting; I was not forced to go to an off-game space to reconnect with the larp.
I arrived about an hour after the larp had started. There was no pre-game briefing or workshop, and I was escorted from the lift in the warehouse where the larp was taking place to the game area and just started to play. The location is specifically used for airsoft, larp, and similar activities. A series of wooden walls — many painted black — formed rooms and corridors in the fictional Tenement building. There was limited scenography — I saw a bar, the dance floor area, and an operating theatre for cyber implants — so the setting was representational rather than going for the 360 degree illusion.
Characters were written by the players, but needed to fit into certain predefined groups. These were staples from the cyberpunk genre: gang members, hackers, street samurai, outlaw journalists etc. I was offered a high society (corporate) character. However, in an attempt to play low-status characters rather than high status ones, I ended up as “The Reverend,” a street preacher in the Church of the Digital Mother. The Reverend was a burnt out hacker turned religious leader. I wore a liturgical dog collar made from a reflective band and found that the agency this piece of costume gave me to talk to anyone, to be — up to a point — trusted, and to go anywhere was most liberating.
The details of the Church were shaped by the players via pre-game emails and conversations. Much of it we made up as we went along. Indeed I spawned two new religions along the way, the Reverend being there to provide platitudes to those that needed them in whatever form was most appropriate. The character creation process relied a lot upon players writing backgrounds and creating relations themselves, which is normal for UK games. But beyond a Facebook group where everyone seemed to know each other, there was little support or guidance for players on how to develop characters and connections. It may be that less experienced players got more input or guidance from the organisers, but the assumption that this process would work without organiser input was a slight weakness in the larp design.
Traditional UK larp would have skills — a hacker would have some things that they could do, or not do, specified in some detail by the system rules. In T67, we could — via a role-play process — do pretty much whatever we wanted. In some cases, actions required the input of a game master; in other cases, they gave us access to a laminated card that could be torn open and a code revealed inside. However, in most cases, if a player said they were doing something, everyone went with it.
Part of what the hackers needed to do was to break a code. In doing so, and by interfacing with various bits of cyber-technology found within the game location, the game plot was revealed. This process was slightly unwieldy. We unearthed sequences of binary code numbers by hacking into things and opening up the laminated cards attached to them. We then had to work out which letter of the alphabet the binary number referenced. By decoding the entire sequence, we got a meaningful message in English. Typing sequences of binary into a spreadsheet and then converting them to a letter in the dark was time-consuming, and yet still strangely satisfying. We broke the code very quickly, but needed to validate and confirm it was right. The job felt edgy and slightly dangerous, mainly because of the risk of discovery. Its flaw is that it is not scalable or repeatable. Subsequent T67 larps using the same mechanic risk an arms race of cryptology and a group of players locked away trying to break codes rather than role-playing. However, the original plan for this part of the larp was going to use an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) server with backchannels for hacker characters, so I’d expect something very different for subsequent events.
However, via some shady deals, clever hacking of implants, and some binary maths, the Church made some important discoveries. I learned that crouching in shadows frantically writing (VBA) code to help decrypt binary messages was fun.
Other rules were very light. The larp used an escalation and opt-out meta-technique for physical interactions and a simple “largest group wins” for conflict (with a modifier for characters with cybernetic implants). The escalation mechanic was the “Is that all you’ve got?” phrase that originated with Black Friday. The opt-out mechanic was the Lookdown, devised by Johanna Koljonen and Trine Lise Lindahl. Workshopping these mechanics would have been beneficial — particularly to those who have never used them before in other larps — because it is a very different approach to what most UK players are used to. Death and injury were up to the victim, but with a strong suggestion that players should let their characters die where appropriate. Alternative pre-written characters were available to those players whose characters died early.
Overall, the style of play was very generous. It mixed a “play for maximum drama” style with the desire to stay on trope. Particular kudos to “Zee,” the insufferable corporate clone who everyone wanted to punch, but nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of their bodyguard. This was a larp that balanced character driven narrative with carefully interwoven organiser seeded plot. There was a crew of NPCs, but they were seamlessly integrated into the larp and it was never clear whether a character was a player or an NPC.
I am not a fan of campaign games, i.e. those with a continuing storyline where players play and develop the same character, often over a period of several years. T67 is episodic, but has been designed in a way that the stories are not necessarily chronological; whilst they may be linked, there is no imperative to play the same characters from one game to another, and no material benefit for doing so. Nevertheless, I can feel the setting getting its hooks into me in a way that a UK game has not done for a decade or more.
Does this larp mark a turning point in the style of game offered in the UK? The “system” based larp — with points/skills based character creation — has been popular since the early 1980s and shows little sign of decline. There seem to be more larp systems in the UK than there are players to sustain them. Some fail to run even one event because of a lack of players or the NPC “monster” crew that they inevitably require. With that in mind, Tales from the Tenement makes a brave choice to try something different and it does it well. If other larps follow the lead. I think it will lead to an overall growth in the number of larpers in the UK simply because this style of game is collaborative rather than competitive, and that is significant.
I no longer sport the battered leathers, mohawk haircut, and mirrorshades of an early 1990s cyberpunk, but it was interesting to both revisit my past and also to play in a dark future that seems to be getting ever closer. I didn’t even have to get on a plane!
T67: Tales from the Tenements
Location: Grange Live Gaming, Birmingham, UK
Duration: 6 hours
Designer: Rob Williams
|↑1||Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that tends towards telling the story of the underclass in a highly technological post-industrial dystopia. Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (1984-1988) is probably the most cited text, but John Brunner’s (1975) Shockwave Rider is arguably the first.|
|↑2||The majority UK larp organisers use the acronym LRP — for Live Role Play — rather than the word larp|