Pretty Pictures: GenCon LARP Review
Elder Entertainment, known for its homebrew Cthulhu LARPs with spooky plot and easy-to-learn rules system, has developed its own con cult following. They’ve developed popular LARPs including (but certainly not limited to) The Victim’s Ball I-III, Bedlam Carcosa, We Who Are About to Die, and—the LARP which I am about to review—Pretty Pictures… among many others.
The main writers for Elder are Eli and Mayghin (married) and Kevin, but the gaming group basically consists of a large group of friends who help each other out. Elder has been running games for quite a few years now, and they’ve collected a large number of eerie props (second-hand and handmade) and a bunch of costumes for LARPers to wear and get into character. They’ve also managed to attract a growing number of diverse players—young and old, male and female, parents and children, couples, and friends of all varieties and walks of life.
The rules for their LARPs are simple—you are given a character sheet, and that character has a specific background and a list of goals to accomplish. This information is provided for the player to have an idea of who they are playing, and then the player can take it from there. Props are given to characters who immediately begin the game with props; the props can be as simple as candy cigarettes, but some even manage to obtain prop knives or guns… or mysterious objects of power (depending on their background or how lucky or unlucky a given character happens to be). Once the setting has been explained and you receive your characters, Eli, Mayghin, Kevin—and/or anyone else involved in the game’s setup—go over the game rules:
No Touching!—there is a strict no-touching policy… unless you receive permission from another player to touch them. The touch could be as simple as a handshake, a pat on the shoulder… or sneaking up behind them and asking, out of character, if you may pretend to strangle them with a necktie. The rules about touching are pretty basic courtesy, but it is a reminder to be conscious of other players’ boundaries when you’re swept up into your character.
Safe Word—In a horror LARP with mature themes (violence, etc), it is important to give players an out if they need it. If a player becomes uncomfortable during gameplay, there is a safe word, and that safe word is “kiwi.” If a player says “kiwi” under any circumstance of stress, gameplay immediately stops, the player is taken out of the scene, and a GM is called to help the player regain their calm. Elder Entertainment is very clear that they want their players to feel comfortable at all times—it is only the character who should feel fear, danger, and madness. J
The BANG System—conflict is simplified with the bang system. This could be used for social conflicts or for representation of physical conflicts. All you have to do is point your finger to your target and say “bang!” first. The louder the bang, the greater the impact. Targets can be other characters or even inanimate objects (“I’m gonna bust down that door!). It’s as easy as that! Just make sure your character will be able to pull of the intended effect if you are gonna make a bang!
Damage/Sanity Loss—damage goes hand-in-hand with the bang system. Once damage is done, the player is given a red ribbon to wear. One ribbon signifies that you’ve been hurt; two means you’re hurt badly. There is no third ribbon. I think you can guess what happens when you take a third wound… mwahaha.
As for Sanity loss, Sanity is not tallied with points. The GMs trust the players to determine just how much Sanity you start out with and lose over the course of the game. Generally, things will occur in the game that will result in a Sanity Loss; Elder folk call it the PING system. A character may read something, see something horrible, or the GM may whisper something in your ear at a crucial moment after you do something or something happens to you… and PING is the sound of something coming loose in your head. Knock out enough screws, and it gets to be a wild ride! The LARPers are usually really good about portraying subtle or speedy losses of Sanity.
And finally… aside from developing the setting, characters, and goals… Elder Entertainment does not really create a set plot or endgame. Elder Entertainment also seeks to minimize the number of NPC characters needed to construct the game’s flow. The motto frequently repeated by the GMs is that they don’t need to think of horrible things to do to the players…the players themselves will often do worse to themselves and each other. That’s a fact. Give them all the power to drive the action and watch how the madness unfolds. I’ve never been to an Elder Entertainment LARP that didn’t turn out to be an astounding success.
So, those are the rules. It usually takes about five to ten minutes to establish rules, distribute characters, and flesh out the setting.
Here’s my own experience with “Pretty Pictures,” the LARP.
First off, it was a complete stroke of luck that I managed to buy a ticket for Pretty Pictures. As I stated earlier, Elder Entertainment’s games have steady gained its own con cult following, and there were quite a few players who actually planned their GenCon around these LARPs. As a friend of Eli, Mayghin, Kevin and many others who help at the LARPs, I usually try to make myself available to help out with the LARPs as possible. This year, however, I figured I wanted to just play, relax, and enjoy the con with my boyfriend, Ari (his first GenCon, yay).
It was slightly problematic at first because we didn’t have tickets.
Imagine my delight on con Thursday, at lunch at the Ram, when players appeared with tickets in hand looking to sell them off. Lucky!
A lot of other players got lucky finding character spots in-game too. Apparently, there was a thing going on with GenCon’s online registration…a thing that allowed players to sign up for spots that didn’t exist. A thing which Mayghin and Eli dealt with in a very prompt, professional and inclusive manner—everyone got to play that day whether they received pre-gen character sheets or they filled out a Dread-esque character questionnaire.
My incredible luck scoring a ticket as a con attendee did NOT transfer to my character in-game. The rule that players will do worse for themselves and to others held true. I waited and let the other players pick characters first, and I chose the option of generating a character via questionnaire. As I answered my questions and showed them to Mayghin to make sure they were accepted for gameplay, she cackled. I adore Mayghin, and when she cackled like that I understood that a) she appreciated what I had done to my character and b) I’d probably royally borked myself over. As the night unfolded, I came to realize what I’d done to myself.
“Pretty Pictures” was set in an orphanage run by a priest and a nun (the Prioress) in 1893. The game was run in two rooms at Union Station—one room represented the orphanage, and a second room represented the mortuary. Outside both rooms, Eli and Mayghin set up a graveyard area with plastic Halloween paper and plastic gravestones. Tables and chairs were arranged in such a way that helped distinguish different rooms. The Priest’s bedroom had a “bed” made of a bunch of chairs with a sheet over them to create the right appearance. The Prioress’ room was created by sticking a few more sheets on the ceiling to make walls.
Most of the players (myself included) took on the personas of various children who had ended up in the orphanage, others portrayed the priest and a few other adult characters.
I played a fifteen year old girl named Ruth Maclroy. In her back story, she witnessed the grisly murder of her parents and was placed in the orphanage. To repay the love and kindness of the priest and the nun at the orphanage, she decided to become a nun. On her first night as an initiate, she heard the voice of an Angel who told her, “You are not alone, and We will guide you.” She also discovered the grave of her mother, Sarah, in the graveyard neighboring the orphanage… but her father was not buried beside her mother. The Angel came to Ruth once more and stated that her father was not at rest; he had entered the lost city of Carcosa; Ruth understood this to be true because she was aware of the existence of the King in Yellow and viewed him as the Usurper, the enemy of the One True God; I put this in my character sheet as a response to a question, overall, probably a bad move haha. Determined to rescue her father, Ruth decided to follow the Angel’s instructions—“You must help the Prioress, Sister Mary Elizabeth, in all things she will do.”
These instructions threw Ruth into a state of madness and mental/spiritual conflict; her motivation to save the soul of her father was born out of fear and selfishness and lead her astray… she then found herself in a crisis that resulted in death, betrayal, and endless torment for all of eternity. Her father was never saved. Everything she did was for nothing.
I tend to play my characters one of three ways: the completely nuts/evil character that wants to take down the whole world, the character who valiantly tries to save everybody (but usually is mistaken for the nuts/evil character and is killed) or the character who is punished in the most severe manner.
Returning back to the plot a little, it also turned out that Ruth wasn’t the only orphan who could hear the Angel. The results of the Angel’s whisperings had a wide range of effects on the children who could hear it. (The whispers were often established by Mayghin or Eli, pulling a character aside or relaying something quietly in a player’s ear.)
Without revealing the plot of this game (because it may very well be re-run at future cons much like other games have been), orphans are creepy. Nuns are creepy. Priests are creepy. Mortuaries are creepy. Graveyards? Creepy. Trains. Creepy. Even the corners are creepy, which is why some of the characters developed a plan to flee to Canada where, as “we all know,” there are no corners. That became a quote of the night—there are no corners in Canada.
All of the LARPers who played children did a phenomenal job. One did an exceptional job of playing an older, disillusioned teen. Others played impressionable small children, fearful yet hopeful. Another did a great representation of a small girl with a terrible fear of fire. An older gentleman—someone who had been present at prior Elder Entertainment LARPs—played a young orphaned boy who was crippled in a train accident; a mere mention of “train” and he was on the floor screaming. In his back story, which we learned about during the post-game circle discussion, he was not only crippled in the train accident, but both of his parents were decapitated before his eyes when a rail violently came up through the train car (apparently, this used to happen). In fact, all of the players playing orphans seemed to experience one kind of exceptionally gruesome event prior to entering the orphanage; this undoubtedly affected Sanity as determined by the players in-game.
One of the children (perhaps more) also possessed some supernatural “gift;” one kid was able to use his thoughts to inflict “punishment” on others. Possessing a “gift” was a double-edged sword; on the one hand, the character wanted to be “good” and “help others,” but he was also told by the Priest’s character that he “had the Devil in him,” which served to isolate him and make him resentful of some of the other characters. This character also claimed to hear the voice of Ruth’s dead mother Sarah whenever he stopped at her grave; this made Ruth wonder why her mother wouldn’t speak to her, and she started crying (I actually figured out how to cry on demand—acting skill level-up!) The guy who played this character roleplayed really well.
In fact, everybody did a fantastic job in-game. The Prioress, Sister Mary Elizabeth (played by a friend, Kasi), appeared to be a kind woman overseeing the well-being of the orphans… though she did tell odd stories from her “Bible.” The Priest was simultaneously intimidating and afraid… there were moments when he tried to be kind and teach valuable lessons about good and evil, about truth and lies and taking things at face value… and there were moments of utter loneliness and despair.
There were a couple of characters I didn’t interact with too much; I became too invested with interacting with very specific characters. Apparently, there was a plot going on involving the lawyer who tried to draw up phony documents allowing another character to adopt all of the children at the orphanage and whisk everyone away to safety. It was pretty clever, and it was the type of move characters do when they are “unaware” of any supernatural horror occurring in-game. It was a very good roleplaying moment where the player knows they are in a hopeless supernatural horror situation but the character still believes in the dream, the prelude to the waking nightmare, and they still try to do things with human logic and reason…there is still a character belief that things can be explained rationally. The transition their characters must have experienced—living in the mundane world, to questioning and doubt, then fear, then the mad scramble to fight for survival or succumb to madness or death—is a part of the game that drives the feeling of terror home.
At the end, when characters descent into madness and start dying like embers in the harsh cold of the game world’s reality, when the hounds circle ever inward, you know that you’ve truly experienced a good horror LARP.