So there I am, crouching behind a fallen tree in my full Raven Warrior get-up, beside a little-used path in the Berowra Valley bush reserve. I hear voices, but they're not the right voices. I crane my neck and, to my horror, see two middle-aged women manoeuvring bicycles along the path, towards the point where I have set a trap for the gallant group of adventurers who are due absolutely any moment now. I have no choice. Ditching my weapon, I spring up, smiling.
“Good afternoon, Ma'am! I'm sorry to intrude, but you're in the area of our live game.”
“What do you mean?” By her expression, she's expecting me to threaten her with a needle.
“It's a – a kind of orienteering thing, except we all dress up,” I say, thinking, didn't they see the players? They must be right behind them! “We have Council permission to be here, but that's the explanation for anything odd you might see.” Or the Rock Face. Five minutes walk behind them, there's a massive foam rubber puppet sitting on a cliff! “And we've set up one of our props just here on the path. Might I ask if it would be possible for you to, ah, just duck around this spot?”
“I don't think so!”
I drop back down and ram the snap-traps back into place.
They go off in my face.
I stand up, waving the smoke aside, and face the motley collection of people dressed in capes and tunics, and hefting latex swords. “Those were the perimeter defences of the Raven army!” I cry. “By defusing them, I betray my oath of loyalty, but at this very moment in our camp, Captain Cluthorn toys with forces beyond his or any other man's control. Come forward and see if I speak the truth.”
The definition of “game” in the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary contains repeated reference to courage. Call it what you will; LARP (that is, Live Action Role-Playing), Freeforming, Live or Wide Games, or even Interactive Theatre – whatever it takes to get the venue. But this kind of gaming does require something very much like courage.
Actually, that's a little harsh about theatre: companies such as Punchdrunk in Britain have taken over old buildings and invited their paying audience to roam around, stumbling into scenes from the tales of E.A. Poe (The Masque of the Red Death, Dir. Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk, October 2007). I imagine that this too takes courage.
But I'm into the idea of re-enchanting the modern world. The way I see things, startling people out of their everyday perceptions is a kind of public service. You have to be sensible about it, of course: that's why I was on guard at the trap site. There's a line that you just can't cross. But sometimes, a kind of slippage seems to occur. I've attended an otherwise ordinary twenty-first birthday party where each guest was provided with a hand of cards, endowing them with such powers as “Seduction” and “Alcoholism” for the duration. One guy was still bringing them out weeks afterwards.
I've seen an eighteen year-old boy, “stuck” playing the female character in a convention game, change body language completely over the course of three hours. From standing with arms folded and feet planted, rejecting the entire scenario, he went to hovering behind the shoulder of his male companion and swivelling, just slightly, to protect his chest from an intrusive gaze.
I've seen things no one else was ever meant to see. As a change from bush games, our group once ran a vampire hunt in a large and elderly house we had access to. The climax took place in a cavity beneath the floorboards and among the foundations, where a Bed of Earth had been constructed with charcoal and red candles. The owners of the house didn't know we'd done it and we never quite got around to dismantling it. The house was eventually sold and became the new wing of a religious school, I kid you not. As far as I know, the vampire's lair is still down there.
Staging full-on productions like that is intense, both time and resource-heavy. But our group was all about the mise en scène. Our puppets, head-enclosing masks, and our full-length monster suits were unmatched on the East Coast (I keep Hector the Shadowbeast in my spare wardrobe and can still zip him up, thank you very much). But they aren't essential to the project, as demonstrated by the eighteen year-old I mentioned above.
As said, that game took place at a convention. Although everyone was dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and milling around in an obvious classroom, it was still a long way from a tabletop game. It was a systemless horror scenario set in a hotel miles from anywhere, with two-page character descriptions that didn't include any stats, and three GMs acting out the resident NPCs. The characters were there to confront their fears, the game blurb carried a warning about concepts, and eighteen was the minimum age. The boy was transformed entirely through the role-playing of the other participants. Which was wise, because I've also seen an eighteen year-old girl turn round and tell the Gamesmaster that if he runs his finger up her spine again, she'll break his nose.
So we're back to the line again and the need to know it when you see it. Cross it, and you've not only lost all possibility of enchantment, you've probably sacrificed the game. That girl's ultimatum, as righteous as it was, disrupted the game for her team (most of whom were also on the verge of punching the GM, believe you me). The non-contact thing is a little different when you're all wielding latex weapons, but so help me, if those lady cyclists had called the police, it would have all been over.
If the premature explosion, in the game with the Raven army, had been perceived by the players as an embarrassing accident, there would have been another kind of disruption. I'm quite sure the majority of the players did see it that way, but I gave them an out and they played along. Immersion can only be created by consent. “I know what you're trying to do,” her prospective Childe says to my Malkavian vampire, “And it won't work. But if the story needs it, I'll pretend.”
That was a strange moment I experienced during another convention game. I was assisting a friend as a secondary GM, and you should be aware that under World Of Darkness rules, Malkavian vampires are all totally insane. By contrast, my regular character (in the Sydney By Night live campaign), was a Euthanatos mage, and the most charming necromancer in the inner west. Sydney By Night was conducted according to the official Minds Eye Theatre rules and lasted over a year of month by month interaction. With their streetwear aesthetic, such games were notorious for being conducted in the full view and sometimes hearing of the general public. The systemless horror scenario was at least restricted to a classroom: now picture a group of people, dressed perhaps a trifle eccentrically, with jewellery tending a little towards skulls and pentacles, seated in a busy cafe and having an intense discussion about the local werewolf problem while people not three feet away are eating dinner.
I didn't notice any stares or nervous shifting, as I suggested warding our chantry with lupine blood. But strange things happened in Sydney By Night. A fellow mage once missed a session because he, the player, was attending a performance of the Jim Rose Circus. I went to the session and it turned out that the presence of the circus in Sydney at that time had been incorporated into the game. It was all completely unofficial and nothing actually happened there. But you see, I told the GMs where my friend was and so the next day, he received a detailed report on what his character had witnessed under the big top.
Then there was the convention that featured evening sessions of Sydney By Night, which was all well and good, until people began playing their World of Darkness characters in between the sessions of the other games. Sometimes during the other games, as though their vampires and werewolves were kicking back and relaxing with a little D&D. And there was no ignoring the presence of the LARP when the campaign's apocalypse began on the Sunday night. It sparked a kind of riot in the convention venue which, I have come to understand, both those who were and weren't playing remember pretty much the same. Preoccupied with their own segments of the storyline, very few of Sydney's mages and changelings had even started putting together the uber-plot, and those that had were still insufficiently prepared for angels to appear and start battling it out in the sky. Screams began to ring out, “The End! The End of the World is at hand!” Doors began opening, people emerged into the night demanding to know what was happening. There was no property damage, I hasten to add, no assault; just a large group of confused and upset people milling around together, with GMs shouting to make themselves heard.
I have to say that, for the climax of a campaign, it was awesome. People were actually scanning the sky: I saw some on their knees with hands raised. It was also testament to the emotional force that can be generated by a crowd: now, there's some intensity for you. It's a dangerous thing, that force; right or wrong, real or mistaken, it creates momentum. It's hard to stand in such a crowd and not respond as part of that crowd, and impossible not to feel the emotional rush. Especially when you think you've just failed to save the world.
But gradually, the real story filtered out. The shouts subsided into grumbling, the vampires took out their fangs and the mages went for coffee. It was over. And although it wasn't a global apocalypse and most of the characters in fact survived, the various efforts I was party to, to continue the story, never really got off the ground. Such campaigns are very time and resource-heavy, and capable of generating their own end points.
It's all just a game. Obviously! Otherwise, what would a mild-mannered author like myself be doing with weapons, traps and plots to open an extra-dimensional gateway in the Milwaukee Hilton? Do you think I'm crazy? Probably yes, if you were staying in the Hilton that August weekend without knowing about Gencon 2000. And if you were the person who had to clean up the magic circle that we drew on the carpet in white flour, my sincerest apologies.
That game didn't really summon Yog-Sothoth, any more than Sydney By Night really initiated the apocalypse. But LARPing takes the game off the table and out of the monitor's frame. It enters the world physically, bringing with it a story and characters, and a definite element of display. What we did do on those two occasions and in every single Yseda game, was to mark out a portion of the world that, just for a little while, obeyed slightly different rules to the rest.
It takes something very much like courage. At the very least, it demands a lack of self-consciousness. But maybe, just maybe, once in a while there is slippage. One of those unique moments where someone glances sideways and asks themselves, not whether something is real or not, but whether this is a situation they can respond to. Can interact with in a way they have never done before. If they can, perhaps, join in. Now that is what I call enchantment.