By Chris Casselman
When I was fifteen years old – long before I was performing Star Trek improv – I started Live Action Role-Playing. I had already been playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (second edition) with my high school friends, and was no stranger to the realms of fantasy, replete with elves, dwarves, mythical monsters and undead creatures. In addition, one of my favourite classes in school was drama. Is it still called ‘drama class’? I feel like that would have such a different meaning today. Anyhow, a LARP was right up my alley.
For those that don’t know (or haven’t seen the film Role Models), a LARP is a game where you assume the role of a character, usually one you’ve made up and that character interacts with other characters; some are players like yourself, others are part of the game and exist as quest givers or adversaries to overcome. In some LARPs, (okay, most) there are rules governing combat for when your best role-playing isn’t enough to solve a problem and you need to resort to swords or magic spells to solve a problem. Like Dungeons and Dragons and many video games, the more you play the more powerful your character becomes. In practical terms, this means access to more powerful spells or dealing more damage with each sword strike.
My pre-Star Trek improv days
The LARP I joined, Nero Canada, would run their events over the course of a weekend throughout the spring to autumn months at a campsite outside of the city with cabins, open fields, and a dense forest with snaking paths that lead to arena-like clearings. Usually, they would have an event every third weekend and I can still remember the look on my manager’s face back in my retail days when I asked him for every third Friday, Saturday, and Sunday off during the summer so I wouldn’t miss an event.
My friends and I played a lot. It was something we could always talk about together; remembering a heroic adventure, funny interaction, or narrow escape from a previous event. It became a secret language of sorts, as those around us were often confused when we would enthusiastically recount tales of monsters we’d defeated, evil wizards we’d outsmarted or magic items we’d obtained. More than a table-top game like Dungeons and Dragons or a video game we’d played, these were things we felt we had actually done together in real life and so we would talk about them as though real; which makes sense since running away from a powerful monster meant actually running away, or besting a foe in sword combat meant actually fencing with our padded weapons. I have memories of standing with thirty or so brave warriors and wizards, we the only thing standing against a horde of vicious orcs and ogres who wanted nothing more than to crush our skulls and pillage our fair town. It may have been just a game, but there were stakes; there are consequences to your character dying. We were motivated to win the battle, not just for competition’s sake, but because we wanted our character’s stories to continue and to grow more powerful. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to participating in the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers, and though not life-threatening, the excitement, fear and adrenaline were definitely real.
I started when I was fifteen years old (actually a year younger than was allowed at the time, shhhh!) and played into my early twenties. This means I played through the end of high school and into my early working life. As my friend’s and my paths in life diverged, we always had Nero in the background, something in common to keep us together. Our adventures survived graduation, romantic relationships, post-secondary school for some, and working life for me. Some time just before my mid twenties I stopped playing. I still don’t recall why. I can’t ever remember making a conscious decision to stop but I do know the game was losing some of its lustre. There were a few newer players who had been changing the game, treating it almost as a competitive sport. It was always a joke among us that parents, who just didn’t get it would ask after an event, “Did you win?” “Noooo mom”, I would reply with an eye-roll, “You don’t win, stuff just happens and you keep playing… like in real life.” But these new players… they wanted to win. I even got caught up in the hype for a while, too; what was the best way to play, how could you most efficiently defeat a foe, what was the most practical costume you could wear (these guys even traded their swashbuckler boots for football cleats so they could be more nimble on the field). It was fun for a while, but then I realized that like many joys in life, when taken overly seriously, the joy fades. So I stopped going, and the world of Nero continued on without me.
Although I stopped LARPing, I never stopped being a nerd. Video games, cosplay, table-top games like Dungeons and Dragons and (ahem) Star Trek improv… Last year, I joined a new group of D&D players through my partner; she has a group she’d been playing with and they were gracious enough to let me join them. At some point, some of the players (my partner included) mentioned they would be interesting in giving a LARP a try. Well, it just so happened I had a few tales to share and it wasn’t long before they said they wanted me to take them so they could try it out. I’ll be honest, returning to Nero had always been in the back of my mind, but I could never find the time or the people to go with. Jackpot, I guess.
Taking a break from Star Trek improv to return to LARPing
There was an event happening in early October and we had about a month to prepare. We went to work creating our characters and building a loose story about how we all knew each other. Since I would be returning as my old character, I was to be the captain of our mercenary company the Nighthawk Society, a name I choose primarily because I thought it sounded cool. We ventured to Value Village to find items for our costumes and armour (wearing real armour has the benefit of making you harder to kill in the game) and had some crafting nights for weapon building – a skill that had lain dormant in me for nearly two decades. I even created little Nighthawk emblems we could all wear so our group was easily identified. Everything was shaping up nicely, but I was starting to get nervous.
You see, with age comes the wisdom that some of the things we used to enjoy might not be enjoyable anymore, and our tolerance for being uncomfortable diminishes. At Nero, the game doesn’t stop, it’s ‘always on’ all weekend. You play your character from Friday night until Sunday afternoon – that means that while you’re asleep, the game continues, and it could continue right up to your bunk while you lay there dreaming of all the work you have to do at the office on Monday. I remember when I was a teenager sleeping in my armour with my sword by my side because you never knew what might happen. I remember running around in the woods until nearly dawn, chasing goblins, or being chased by werewolves. When I was eighteen, this kind of immersion and commitment was taken in stride, but as an adult would my friends, new to adventuring, and I be up for this form of wanton disregard for personal comfort and denial of a healthy eight-hours- sleep? Oh, and did I mention my friends (experienced campers at least) turned down cabin rental and opted to sleep in a tent. In October, when it was forecast to be about 8 degrees Celsius?
I’m happy to report that Nero had changed for the better. It turns out that the current general manager of the company is actually a long-time player from back when I used to play. He told me how the player base had grown up and had recognized what I was afraid of: we’re not all a bunch of teenagers anymore (although back when I used to play, there were plenty of ‘grown-ups’ playing who either must have gone to sleep early or really were gluttons for punishment). The game is a lot more player friendly than it used to be; it makes allowances for the fact that we’re all there to have a good time and doesn’t sacrifice comfort for immersion. For example, there is a designated feast time on Saturday for players to socialize with each other (in character) and eat hot meal without fear of interruption; the story team ensures that dinner is not when the dragon will attack. Although we played fairly late into the night on Friday and Saturday, nothing ‘important’ happened after about 2:30 AM, meaning those of us that valued sleep weren’t missing any major events of the weekend.
The other thing that pleasantly surprised me was how welcoming everyone was to my group. I was worried that my group hadn’t studied the rule book enough to grasp everything that could happen in the game. For example, there are at least thirty different magic spells and, even if you aren’t a spell caster, you need to know what to do if one of them is cast on you. In the old days, when the game was becoming hyper competitive, hesitation from a newer player who needed clarification on a rule in the heat of combat would garner sneers from the experienced players who had no time for noobs. In this new era of Nero, everyone was very patient and helpful toward anyone who was unfamiliar with the multitude of spells, powers, and effects that can take place in the game, helping them to understand and never condescending or over-explaining.
Also surprisingly, in a space usually dominated by the male gamer, there were at least as many women and female identifying players at the event than there were male players. It was a refreshing and welcoming game space and every member of the Nighthawk Society thoroughly enjoyed their first experience LARPing. We’re all stoked to return for the first event of the spring season. Seventeen years later, I’m out of retirement like an Old-Man Logan and planning another break from Star Trek improv to get back chasing goblins through the woods with my friends.
Want to learn more about what The Dandies do when we’re not performing Star Trek improv or in our other geek comedy shows? Check out Zach Mealia’s collecting tips and some of Josh Henderson’s favourite sci-fi horror films!