The Kuiper Belt Job audiobook is now available!

Today marks the release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT! It’s a full-cast production featuring the voice talents of Andrew Kishino, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Christa Lewis, Si Chen, and Sneha Mathan!

Kuiper Belt Job audiobook cover

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Kuiper Belt Job audiobook countdown 1: Andrew Kishino

Counting down to the June 18 release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT (@podiumentertainment) by giving you some information on the FIVE amazing voice artists they will be using for the different point-of-view characters! Continuing with number 1: ANDREW KISHINO!

Andrew Kishino, Strange, and Cayce

Andrew Kishino is best known for his work as Saw Gerrera in the Emmy Award winning series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “The Bad Batch”, Kevin in Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe”, Janja in Disney Junior’s “The Lion Guard” (for which he also composed and performed music), and a long list of others. His voice & performance capture work in video games can be heard & seen in “Halo Infinite”, “Jedi: Fallen Order”, “Ghost of Tsushima”, “Fortnite”, “Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth” and “Starfield”, among a multitude of other titles. He was a member of the English voice cast of the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award winning film “The Boy and the Heron”, and was the lead role of Ernest in the English voice cast of the Annie Award nominated “Ernest & Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia”. He is an Audie Award nominated audiobook narrator (Fonda Lee’s “Jade City”), and he has voiced national commercial campaigns for Adidas, Expedia, Metro, Walmart, McDonalds and EA Games, to name a few. His promo VO client list includes NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN. He is also a Juno Award nominated and Canadian Music Publishing Association award winning recording artist, and was the first hip hop artist signed to a major label in Canada. He has produced, engineered, mentored and written for several artists, and continues to lend his artistic and technical knowledge to up and coming musicians. He is a member of Mensa, and bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie.

Andrew reads the characters Strange and Cayce as well as the interstitial sections from the perspective of the whole Cannibal Club.

STRANGE is the planner and schemer. The “memory palace” in his mind contains every bit of information he’s ever encountered and every plan he’s ever made, and his plans are constantly in motion, adapting to changing circumstances.

CAYCE is Strange’s son. He has an adolescent’s gangly body but he carries himself like an experienced martial artist, which is slightly disturbing.

Andrew Kishino: IG: @big.kish
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Kuiper Belt Job audiobook countdown 2: Jaime Lincoln Smith

Counting down to the June 18 release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT (@podiumentertainment) by giving you some information on the FIVE amazing voice artists they will be using for the different point-of-view characters! Continuing with number 2: JAIME LINCOLN SMITH!

Jaime Lincoln Smith and Kane

Jaime Lincoln Smith has been in this industry for over 15 years. As an actor, he has gone from working on Broadway. to voicing characters in video games, to guest starring in some of your favorite TV shows & movies. Having worked with the likes of John Amos, S. Epatha Merkerson, Danielle Brooks, Michael Imperioli, & Kenny Leon to name a few.

As a coach, whether it be for auditions, dialects, or anywhere in between, Jaime’s main objective is organic truth. He has coached actors such as Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele), Tina Benko (The Avengers), Stephen Hill (Magnum P.I.), Morocco Omari (P-Valley), as well as many others.

You reap what you sow, so one needs to sow the seeds they want to reap. Be the seamstress of your life. Be tailor made.

Jaime reads the character KANE, THE HITTER. Impulsive, hot-headed, self-centered, also very emotionally vulnerable. He lacks self-confidence and tends to hit people when he feels uncomfortable.

Jaime Lincoln Smith: IG:
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Kuiper Belt Job audiobook countdown 3: Sneha Mathan

Counting down to the June 18 release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT (@podiumentertainment) by giving you some information on the FIVE amazing voice artists they will be using for the different point-of-view characters! Continuing with number 3: SNEHA MATHAN!

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Sneha Mathan is a voice actor and audiobook narrator. Her audiobook work has received several Earphones awards, and she is a three-time Audie Award finalist. She lives in Seattle.

Sneha reads the character SHWETA, THE GRIFTER… although she prefers the term “negotiator.” She looks like your auntie and you trust her implicitly, but she is, in fact, a master deceiver who can sell you your own helmet and make you think you got a deal. Don’t turn your back on her.

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Kuiper Belt Job audiobook countdown 4: Si Chen

Counting down to the June 18 release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT (@podiumentertainment) by giving you some information on the FIVE amazing voice artists they will be using for the different point-of-view characters! Continuing with number 4: SI CHEN!

Si Chen and Tai

Si’s voice is commonly described as soothing, intimate, playful, and coy, perfect for YA, mysteries, and romance. Si’s soothing voice will deliver your non-fiction from the desks of expert authors to the layperson listener with ease and finesse.

Their subject matter expertise spans classical music (violin and viola), scientific research (genetics, neuroscience, AI, robotics, software engineering, technology policy), and social justice (Asian American diaspora, queer, immigrant, and feminist issues).

Outside of audiobooks, Si is also a stage and film actor, appearing in Marvel shows such as She-Hulk and the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday special, recurring in Wolf Pack, and on the Off-Broadway production of Gumiho.

In their free time, Si is a (surprisingly competent) plant parent, enthusiastic cook, and proud owner of a dog who valiantly guards the VO booth by falling asleep in front of the door and trapping Si inside.

Si reads the character TAI, THE HACKER. They are nonbinary, proud of their curves, and omnisexual. They are vain, self-assured to a fault, and very very good at their job. In their spare time they are a DJ and sound engineer.

Si Chen: IG: @si.jpg
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Kuiper Belt Job audiobook countdown 5: Christa Lewis

Counting down to the June 18 release of the audiobook of my space opera heist novel THE KUIPER BELT JOB from PODIUM ENTERTAINMENT (@podiumentertainment) by giving you some information on the FIVE amazing voice artists they will be using for the different point-of-view characters! Starting with number 5: CHRISTA LEWIS!

Christa Lewis and Alicia

Christa Lewis and her pseudonym Pippa Jayne have narrated approx. 300 audiobooks between them. Christa is a conservatory-trained actor with a smart and funny vibe who can also meet the moment in non-fiction thanks to a 17-year stint as newsreader, an appearance in Call of Duty Black Ops 3 as Sophia, the murderously lovelorn Robot and 5 years as the lead in the podcast The Hotel. Think Catherine O’Hara meets Jenna Ortega. Christa speaks accent-free German fluently and offers a variety of accents and dialects. Magically, there have been 8 Audio File Earphones Awards in Non-Fiction/Biography & Memoir, YA, and Fiction—as well as a SOVAS Voice Arts Award, a Sultry Listeners Award, a Listeners Choice Award and two Audie nominations. Both Christa and Pippa pull out all the stops to create an audiobook unique to their author’s cadence, tone and style – with a lot of love, joy and delight thrown into the mix.

Christa reads the character ALICIA, THE THIEF. There’s no lock she can’t pick, no wall she can’t scale, no tiny opening she can’t shimmy through. She’s warm and caring, everyone’s friend, and hates it when people don’t get along.

Christa Lewis: IG: @liquidbelles

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A Villain’s Villain: “The Continental” LARP Report

I’ve just returned from Spain, where I participated in a Live Action Role Play event called “The Continental,” a game of international super-assassins set in the universe of the John Wick movies. This was the first international (English-language) run of the game, which has been run several times previously in Spanish. This report contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Continental.

If you’re American, when you hear “LARP” you probably think of a live-action D&D game, in which friends go to a park for an afternoon, hit each other with boffers, and fling tennis balls at each other while shouting “Fireball!” But in Europe there is a whole different LARP culture. European “Nordic-style” LARPS (there are also other names, indicating subtle differences in play style) focus on improv role play, deep immersion, and character development with the intention of creating a rich emotional experience — I often use the phrase “real emotions in fake situations.” My personal favorite style of LARP is often referred to as “Blockbuster” LARPS — these have an international player base, typically cost hundreds of dollars for a ticket, and involve anything from 50 to 200 players, all in costume, in a realistic setting, improvising a grand immersive theatrical experience together over the course of three or four days.

This style of LARP depends on the players being intimately familiar with their characters — their background, goals, priorities, and personality — so that they can improvise interactions with other players in real-time. Typically players receive detailed character sheets weeks or months in advance, and also have the opportunity to communicate with the organizers and other players over Discord or some other messaging platform to answer questions and work out details of the characters’ relationships before the game begins. In the case of The Continental, this “co-creation” process was raised to a higher degree than any other game I’ve yet played.

After our initial roles were assigned, which gave us our primary backstory, goals, motivations, and skills, over the course of several weeks we were invited to select four “secondary jobs” or subplots. In each round of secondary job selection we were presented with a broad set of scenarios, each with two or more “traits” (characters within the scenario), and asked to indicate which five traits we were most interested in adding to our characters. Many of these scenarios were based on pop culture; for example, a scenario called “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” involved two traits called Buzz and Woody, with the Buzz character being an overconfident newbie in a situation in which the Woody character was an old hand.

After we submitted our preferences the organizers distributed the traits among the players in a way intended to give people what they wanted, balance play, and provide an interesting experience for everyone. After four rounds of this we each wound up with four subplots; we were informed which players had been assigned the other traits in our selected subplots and given a set of questions to answer with them. For example, I wound up as Buzz in “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and I had to work with the character who’d been assigned the Woody trait to determine what situation we both found ourselves in and how much we knew about each other’s issues. We had to submit our answers to the organizers before the game so that they could be aware of all the subplots and help make the whole thing work; occasionally they would provide feedback such as “this subplot impinges on another one, would you mind making a few changes?”

The co-creation process was intended to assure that everyone had a rich set of relationships with the other characters so that there were a lot of opportunities for game play when we all arrived in Spain. In a few cases I even wound up in multiple subplots with the same person, which is actually pretty realistic for a close-knit international criminal community. On the whole, I thought it was successful, but I have to say that it was a lot of homework to do for a LARP and, when push came to shove, some of my secondary jobs didn’t get a lot of my attention during the game because I was too busy with other things. I also found that I was involved in two additional subplots because they intersected my main plot, which increased the complexity still further. My suggestion to the organizers would be to reduce the number of secondary jobs from four to two.

This game also had a lot more in the way of “mechanics,” or defined mechanisms for game play, than other LARPs I’ve played. Many LARPs divide the players into “factions,” which are groups of characters having ally and/or enemy relationships with other factions as well as having interpersonal relationships within the faction. In The Continental, the factions were eight criminal families — mine was The Red Circle, an Eastern European / Russian gang specializing in human trafficking — plus the Administration of the High Table, the staff of The Continental, and a fairly large number of independent operators. In addition, family members and independents had specific roles within their group: The Boss, The Slayer (specializing in combat), The Aid (specializing in healing and drugs), The Fisher (specializing in hacking and communications), and The Supplier (specializing in logistics). Each of these roles came with particular abilities and responsibilities within the game.

Slayers were assumed to be wearing Kevlar at all times and to have a higher chance of success on a physical attack against a non-Slayer player. Aids could create “drugs” in-game by combining certain defined substances. For example, anything red and sweet had a calming effect, while bitter brown substances were stimulating. By combining these substances in different proportions we could create truth serums, poisons, stimulants, and knockout drops as needed. To fulfill my role as Aid I brought a selection of flavor extracts and food colors from the grocery store. Players were never required to actually consume the substances, but the colors and flavors were intended to allow other Aid players to guess as to the composition and effect of a “drug” if they encountered it in-game.

The game had a custom app (which was Android-only, requiring a few of us iPhone bigots to rent Android phones for the weekend) which was used for in-character messaging, financial transactions, and resource management, and the app was particularly important to the Fisher role. Fishers had the ability to attempt to hack another player twice a day. The hack attempt involved guessing the answer to the character’s security question, which in some cases could be determined by a web search on the character’s code name (each of us was named after a mythological figure, such as John Wick’s code name of Baba Yaga) and in others could only be determined by social engineering on the player. A successful hack would allow the hacker to view the victim’s messages and transfer money and resources out of the victim’s account. Bosses and Suppliers also had special capabilities within the app, used for inter-family warfare.

I will admit that this all sounds really complicated, but in my opinion it worked well, and most of the time we were just improvising our interactions with each other as in any other LARP. To me, the mechanics added a dimension of realism and interest to what was already a very engaging and interesting game.

David as KhorsMy character, codenamed Khors, was The Aid of The Red Circle, but shortly before the game I was given the option to also add the role of The Fisher because they needed more Fishers. I made good use of both roles and really enjoyed the game play opportunities they offered. My character also had a peculiar quirk of doing people favors and demanding repayment in minutes of the person’s time. These minutes could be demanded at any time and place of Khors’s choosing, and reneging on the deal would risk sanction from The High Table. Khors sat at the right hand of The Boss of The Red Circle — played by my real-life partner Alisa Wood-Walters — and was extremely traditionalist and family-focused.

My character’s main backstory point was that, six months earlier, a promising young Slayer named Poludnitsa had decided to leave the life of crime completely, marry her sweetheart, and live happily as a civilian. Poludnitsa had been the beloved protegee of The Boss, and Khors had also been a mentor to her; we were both disappointed with her decision but she went ahead and did it anyway. And then, at the wedding, gunmen had burst in and slaughtered Poludnitsa, her fiancé, their daughter, and several members of the wedding party — including, interestingly enough, some Red Circle members whose untimely death allowed the current Supplier to assume his position. Strangely, no other members of the family had been present at the wedding.

Unbeknownst to anyone but myself and one other player, Khors was the one who had called in the hit.

When I read this in my character sheet I immediately knew that keeping this secret, especially from my Boss, would be vitally important to my survival. But the situation was even worse than I thought, because a couple of weeks before the game I noticed on Discord that Poludnitsa was a player character! I messaged the player and she confirmed that she was indeed that Poludnitsa, and that she would be out for revenge on whoever had done this to her. After quietly panicking, I decided that my best strategy would be to get out in front of the situation by declaring “Poludnitsa! I’m so glad you aren’t really dead! Let us work together to find the guilty party!” and then use all my resources to pin the crime on some scapegoat.

Did I mention that none of us at The Continental were nice people? To quote from the Player’s Handbook: “This is a story about villains meeting in a hotel to be even more villainous. It’s a story about hierarchy, violence and fear. A story about people who believe themselves beyond good and evil, doing terrible things to stay where they are. They’re also people with conflicts, relationships, and emotions, but most of all, they are assassins.” So I grinned, rubbed my hands, and prepared to Be Evil.

You may recall that in my write-up of the Fairweather Manor LARP I mused on the question of what makes the difference between a good and an evil character and reflected that I could have played my character there as more evil than I did. This was my chance to try evil up to the hilt, and I feel that I did a good job; Khors was cold and calculating and self-centered, willing to lie and cheat and smile at his friends even as he plotted their demise. But, interestingly enough, I also managed to be friendly and engaging and funny while I was doing it. I think that’s just how I am, and I’ll try to keep that in mind as I write villains going forward.

Castle of Sant MoriAfter a few days in Barcelona recovering from jet lag and enjoying the city, the cuisine, and the Gaudi architecture, Alisa and I caught the LARP bus to the 15th-century Castle of Sant Mori which would be portraying The Continental of Girona. It was a beautiful, character-filled, and luxurious locale and the beds, bathrooms, and food were all first-rate. As is fairly typical for European LARPS, Thursday afternoon was spent in workshops: orientation to the space, consent and negotiation, how to simulate violence and sex, and the use of some objects specific to this LARP such as “drugs” and weapons. Then we got into our costumes (and we were a very sophisticated-looking bunch indeed) and were mostly in-game for the rest of the weekend.

Of course the first order of business for me was noticing that, to everyone’s surprise, Poludnitsa was back from the dead. Not unreasonably, she was suspicious when everyone in the family greeted her return with happiness — we all knew that we hadn’t wanted her to leave the family — but everyone else was sincere (to the best of my knowledge) and, for myself, I genuinely liked the player, which made it easier for me to smile and lie convincingly to her face.

I’m usually a terrible liar. I wear my heart on my sleeve; indeed, often other people can tell my feelings better than I can myself. For this reason I’m always one of the first people killed when I play Mafia or Werewolf. Or perhaps I just have a suspicious face. But in this game I was able to maintain the deception completely. Perhaps it’s because player-me really liked player-her so it was easy for me to be generous and kind to her even though character-me had tried to have character-her killed. Or perhaps it was because the whole situation was fictional — everything we did and said was a lie, so the lies-within-lies were emotionally the same as the surface-lies. But for whatever reason, I was able to carry off the lie and was not found out by Poludnitsa or the Boss until I got sold out later in the game.

Dealing with Finding The Real Killer was only part of my agenda for the game. For one thing, the Adjudicator had just shown up, with her Four Horsemen, saying that the Girona Continental was rife with “rats” loyal to the Bowery King, and determined to ferret them out. Also, John Wick was out there somewhere and kept leaving taunting messages. (The game took place between John Wick 3 and John Wick 4; Wick was known to have fallen from the roof of the New York Continental, but his body was never found and he was widely believed to have survived.)

In addition to all of our personal plots and subplots, there was the business of inter-family warfare and attempted territory grabs. When we had a family meeting to discuss how we would defend our territory, our Supplier proposed a genius idea based on the strategy of John D. Rockefeller: use the Red Circle’s existing transportation networks (given that the family’s main business was human trafficking, we had extensive and highly secure routes all across Asia and Europe) to negotiate mutually beneficial deals with the other families in which we would transport and protect their cargo in exchange for a share of the profits. His negotiations with the other families were extremely successful and we were never involved in any attacks. What he did not tell them was that Rockefeller’s strategy had eventually left him in control of a railroad stranglehold that let him milk every other company in the country for everything they were worth. Brilliant!

I met with the character Tsukimi, who was the one who had actually done the hit on Poludnitsa and was the only other person in the game who knew I was responsible (he had hired the other gunmen, but they didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who they were). But, given that we knew that if either of us sold out the other we would both die, I felt I could trust him to keep our secret. We discussed who best to scapegoat for the crime and settled on Ares, an NPC (non-player character) who was the Continental’s bouncer — a frightening psychopath whom my character also had other reasons to want to get rid of. Also, he had facial scars, which was the one thing Poludnitsa remembered about the gunman who had (nearly) killed her. We both started spreading rumors about his involvement, and I worked with other close allies to tighten the net.

On Friday, the first full day of the game, I came up with a truly evil plan of which I am inordinately proud. As Fisher I had already hacked a few people, a fun little mini-game in the Continental app, and so knew that being able to see and screenshot another person’s private messages was a thing. So I took some screenshots, downloaded the official Android font, and photoshopped up a message from Ares to a person unknown (the recipient of a message was not visible in the screenshot, which was perfect for my purposes) saying “The wedding job is ON. Leave no survivors.” And then — and this is the piece de resistance and something that only my character could have done — I called in one of the favors Khors was owed to launder the evidence.

Before the game I had negotiated with a few other players to go into the game owing Khors minutes, and one in particular was the Boss of a completely unrelated gang for whom I had quietly treated an embarrassing sexually-transmitted infection in exchange for five minutes of his time. So I took the screen shot I had just forged to him and said “show this to me and the other members of the Red Circle, and tell everyone you received it as an anonymous txt and have no idea of its source or authenticity. Do this and your debt to me will be discharged.” It worked beautifully; the messenger was completely neutral (indeed, clueless about the whole situation) and there was absolutely no reason for anyone to suspect that I was the source.

Using the forged message as evidence, we got authorization from the manager of the Continental to bring Ares in for interrogation. We gathered in a small upstairs room well equipped with LARP weapons, sat him in a chair, and pounded him with questions. “Who did you send this to?” I demanded, showing him the forged message. “Who put you up to it?” Of course he denied all knowledge. The Boss told me to give him a truth serum, which I did, but I explained that there’s no such thing as a true truth serum and a sufficiently dedicated psychopath will continue lying as long as they believe their own lies. And Poludnitsa did a fabulous job threatening and eventually torturing him. She got right up in his face with a full load of vitriol; she punched him in the face, dislodging a tooth (it rattled on the floor, a great moment; I have no idea how long the player had been holding it in his mouth); and she broke his kneecaps and shoulder with a (foam rubber) hammer and crowbar. Throughout this the Ares player stayed perfectly in character, laughing and saying that he couldn’t have done it, because if he had been the one pulling the trigger she’d be dead. It was a magnificent scene.

But eventually the whole thing kind of petered out. It was clear that neither drugs nor torture would get him to confess, and furthermore it seemed that he had in fact not done it. So the Continental staff took him away and patched him up (he wore a sling for a while but we all kind of agreed to ignore the broken kneecaps) and we were back to square one in the Search For The Real Killer. I assured Poludnitsa that I would not rest until justice was done.

And then on Friday night: disaster. Both Alisa and I spent the whole night terribly sick, with horrible vomiting and diarrhea. I was certain it was food poisoning — the food had been absolutely delicious but there’s always the possibility that something sat out unrefrigerated too long — but in the morning the organizers assured us that we were the only ones who had gotten sick. Lots of people asked me if I’d drunk the tap water, which I had; I’d had no idea that it wasn’t safe. And though the water was potable, I guess that the bacteria in the well water in rural Spain was too unfamiliar for our American stomachs. The organizers and other players were sympathetic and helpful, bringing toast and Gatorade, and we both slept most of Saturday. Indeed, Alisa, who had had it much worse than me, missed the entire last day of the game, but I managed to haul myself out of bed on Saturday afternoon. I felt I owed Poludnitsa some closure.

By the time I found her and caught up with what I’d missed while I was sick (and boy howdy had it been a lot) the jig was completely up for me. She had managed to follow the trail to Tsukimi, who had pulled a rabbit out of his hat: he had not, in fact, shot Poludnitsa’s daughter at the wedding, but had saved her, and she was alive and safe. He offered to return the daughter to Poludnitsa and tell her who had called in the hit, in exchange for safe conduct for himself and one of the other gunmen (the actual one with the scar). She took the deal and Tsukimi sold me out. Bastard. So Poludnitsa and I talked out-of-character (in the LARP world we call this “calibration”) about how our end game would play out, and then we did it.

Our final scene was absolutely beautiful. I had earlier given Poludnitsa a poison tablet and the corresponding antidote, for her to use in extracting information from someone. (I had not realized at the time I’d given it to her that the “someone” was Tsukimi. Oops.) However, she had not wound up using it, and still had it in her pocket. So she took me aside for a drink, told me that she knew I was the one who had been responsible for slaughtering her family, and then looked me in the eye as she dropped the poison pill I had given her in the drink and handed it to me.

I drank it down without hesitation.

The poison took about half an hour to work. We stood chatting for a while until I started to get shaky and — for real — my Apple Watch warned me that my heart rate was elevated. (Remember what I said earlier about “real emotions in fake situations?”) Did I want to sit down? Yes I did. She led me to a chaise longue by the pool and lay me gently down in the sun. I was starting to get a little incoherent, and honestly I don’t remember everything I said — I remember I said “murder is a young man’s game” and “I only did it because family is more important than anything, even my own life” — but I was crying real tears. “Are you scared?” she asked me. Yes, yes I was. I was shaking and crying and choking and she looked me right in the eye and said “I will burn The Red Circle to ash, I will destroy everything you have worked your whole to build, and you will know as you die that it was me who did it.” And I went “gkk” and died.

Being dead is boring. Eventually Continental staff showed up and took my body away — obviously a heart attack, so sad, but not a violation of the rule “no killing at The Continental” — and I was led backstage for the final phase of the game. We’d been told to bring an all-black outfit to wear in case we died before the end of the game, so I changed into it, and then I and about a dozen other early decedents were issued bulletproof vests, gas masks, and machine guns. We would now be anonymous minions, coming in at the end of the game with the Adjudicator to excommunicate this Continental for being an unredeemable nest of rats loyal to the Bowery King. Our instructions were to die quickly at first, but to keep coming back stronger and stronger until everyone was dead.

David as minionThe final slaughter was magnificent. We fanned out through the castle and killed and killed and killed, and almost everyone got a nice dramatic death. One — the same Boss who had laundered the evidence for me — stood behind a door with a hammer and bopped each incoming minion on the head, over and over, until eventually he was overwhelmed. Bodies were piled everywhere. A few characters, including the Red Circle’s Supplier, had obtained safe-conduct tokens and survived, and a couple, including Poludnitsa, had joined the Administration during the game and were now on the minions’ side. (This was, in fact, the worst possible outcome for her character — instead of dying with the knowledge that her little girl was safe, she was now even more deeply embedded in the system she had tried so hard to escape.) And so the game ended.

After the thank-yous and the applause and the requests to please return all borrowed props and costumes over here, we stood for a group photo. Instead of “Cheese!” everyone said “Weak!” which baffled me until I realized that’s the Spanish pronunciation of John Wick’s last name. Later, on Discord, Poludnitsa’s player posted “Oh god I loved the wedding plot so much … and that Khors was the one ordering the wedding massacre .. my poor heart! Ha. I had an amazing game!” One of the organizers replied “Khors was very very smart in this run, he was able to make it very complicated for Poludnitsa. In other runs, everyone spills the beans too soon XD”

I was so happy. Still dead, of course, but happy.

The Final Act of a Shakespeare Comedy: A Fairweather Manor LARP Report

As I write this, I am on a plane returning to Portland after attending the Fairweather Manor LARP held at Moszna Castle in Poland. If you’d like an introduction to the concepts of European-style Live Action Role Playing, please see the Conscience LARP Report I posted last week.

Whereas Conscience was a LARP pretty closely based on Westworld, Fairweather Manor was more loosely based on Edwardian family dramas such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs. A gigantic, sprawling game involving nearly 150 participants, it explored concepts of class, power, romance, and interpersonal politics in Europe in the tumultuous year 1912. Although the LARP took place in a castle in Poland, it was set in a castle in England, where the head of the fictitious Fairweather family had called together all of his friends and relations to celebrate the family’s impending voyage to America on the spectacular new ocean liner HMS Titanic.

The characters of this LARP represented the extended Fairweather clan, including delegations from the English, Irish, French, Belgian, American, and Russian branches; their friends and relations, including bankers, lawyers, townspeople, actors, and artists; and their servants. The relationships and tension between the “upstairs” characters (about 2/3 of the players) and the “downstairs” characters were a major driver of the game’s drama.

And oh what drama there was. Every character had agendas, secrets, and a rich backstory, and the braided intersections of all those stories guaranteed plenty of tears, heartache, scandal, disappointment, betrayal, and joy. Much of the drama involved romance one way or another, in particular the search for a suitable spouse for those of marriageable age, but there was also plenty of drama around money, reputation, status, and art. Fairweather Manor didn’t have a strong overarching plot like Conscience’s “the robots are gaining consciousness” or Meeting of Monarchs’s “Henry VIII wants to divorce his queen and found a new church;” instead, it was a huge pile of subplots which were loosely collected into a three-act structure of “A Blissful Reunion” (characters renew existing relationships and form new ones), “Out with the Old and In with the New” (characters explore and question their place in society), and “Before We Say Goodbye” (characters act on their feelings).

I played Baron Piotr Maximilian Petrov, a powerful and very conservative Russian Baron, a retired captain from the Russian Navy who had suffered a traumatic defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. His wife Baroness Anabelle, sister to the head of the French branch of the Fairweather family, was played by my partner Alisa. She was charming and bubbly and could be counted on to light up any room… possibly by setting it on fire. The Baron and Baroness brought with them their five adult children, one widowed aunt, and three servants. Dimitri, the eldest son and heir, was a dilettante artist who could never seem to finish anything he started. Next in line were twins Arkady and Anatoly; Arkady was a military man with a hot temper, while Anatoly was a bon vivant and a bit of a rascal. Tatiana, the older daughter, was brash and bold and always the center of attention, while Anastasia, the youngest child, was shy and flirty. And aunt Wilhelmina, widow of the Baron’s abusive younger brother, was intelligent and witty and actually rather enjoying being out from under her late husband’s thumb. The two ladies’ maids, also twins as it happens, were dreamy and hopeful Manya Guseva and her more practical sister Dunya, a secret communist. And the Polish valet, Pavel Bakowski, was cold, efficient, and eminently practical. At least, that was how the characters were written. But, as the Baron often said, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

The Baron and Baroness’s primary goal was to find suitable spouses for all five children by the end of the weekend. (The timeline was, of course, artificially compressed by the real-world constraints of the game, but it did raise the stakes quite nicely.) There were also a few secondary goals, including resolving a situation in which a portrait of the Baroness had been paid for but not yet delivered, but almost everything else revolved around the children and their romantic lives. Of course, all negotiations and deals around the courtships had to be handled during and between the manor’s busy social schedule. There were cards and croquet, music and theatre performances, shooting and fencing, and most importantly three meals a day.

Breakfasts were rather informal, being served buffet style, but lunch and dinner were two- and three-course affairs with a seating chart — the guests were shuffled around for each meal and the question of who sat next to whom was subject to considerable debate and negotiation with the Fairweathers and their staff — and were served to the upstairs characters by the downstairs characters. (The food was prepared by the castle’s staff and was excellent.) These meals lasted an hour and a half to two hours and were fabulous opportunities to form relationships, negotiate betrothals and business deals, and engage in witty conversation. The dinner conversations in which the players, an extremely intelligent bunch from all over Europe and the US, improvised discussing the issues of the day (the day being 1912) in character were actually among the most enjoyable parts of the game for me. And just as Conscience had a “sex mechanic” by which players could play their characters having sex without any actual sex occurring, Fairweather Manor had an “etiquette mechanic.” There were just three things to remember: elbows on the table, pointing with silverware, and tucking of the napkin under the chin. Do any of these things to signal “I have poor manners;” avoid them to signal “I have good manners.”

In addition to having their own lives and agendas, the players of the downstairs characters had real work to do. They rose hours earlier than the upstairs characters; they had to do all the fetching, carrying, obtaining, cleaning, delivering, and any other tasks delegated to them; and they were responsible for dressing the upstairs characters before breakfast and dinner. As we were informed by a historian at the beginning of the game, upper class Edwardians were fundamentally useless — literally incapable of tying their own shoes or opening a window because they had simply never been taught how to do so — and so as upstairs players we were requested to permit the downstairs characters to assist us with every step of donning our rather complicated outfits and arranging our hair. The intimacy of the act also encouraged close relations between the characters, of course, and the dressing hour was critically important to exchanging gossip, information, and plans between upstairs and downstairs. My own valet, Pavel, was absolutely essential to my game, as without him I would not only have been unable to maintain my magnificent double-decker quad-stache but I would have been woefully ignorant of all the rumors and gossip surrounding my family.

As I mentioned above, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and as it turned out just about none of us Petrovs played our characters exactly as written. Dimitri, who was written as a dilettante artist and poet, was played as a drunkard with a fierce temper. I found him very distant and desultory; I saw him rarely, never got to spend very much time with him, and got little out of him when I did. As such, trying to get the heir married off proved to be one of my biggest frustrations. Arkady, the angry military man, was played as a person on the autism spectrum; he didn’t really understand emotions and had no tolerance for ambiguity. At one point I tried to get him to understand love by using a metaphor of keeping a horse under control, but he came away believing that horsemanship was somehow necessary to romance. Anataoly, the bon vivant, proved to be the child whose judgement I trusted the most, if only he could be persuaded to stop tormenting his brothers. Tatiana, the bold daughter, unfortunately spent much of the game in her room due to day-job issues and so most of her plot was conducted via rumor and innuendo. And Anastasia, the shy one, invented a plot involving a stolen (or perhaps inappropriately gifted) brooch which provided quite a bit of interesting game play. I had expected that most of my game would involve fending off my children’s inappropriate relationships, but as it turned out none of them seemed particularly interested in getting engaged at all, and so their mother and I spent a lot of time trying to find appropriate spouses, pushing them together as best we could, and hoping they would click.

I myself did not play my character as he was written. Baron Petrov was supposed to be a loud and angry man, an extreme conservative devoted to pushing back against modernity, and a man with severe shell shock which he was medicating with vodka. But… I didn’t want to be that person. So I played him as a lot more compassionate. In particular, I kept saying “I don’t want to be like my father and force you to marry someone of my choosing. I want my children to be happy.” At one point Tatiana and I planned out a scene in which she would wear an inappropriate dress to the grand ball and we would have a huge screaming argument on the dance floor, but as the hour drew nearer I found I was reluctant to go there. I was concerned that too much visible drama on my part could jeopardize my children’s developing engagements, but more importantly I wasn’t certain I could even play that scene. As it happened, for a variety of reasons it didn’t come off at all, but I wonder if the game could have been even more interesting for everyone if I’d been willing to engage with my negative emotions. Perhaps at the next LARP I will try wearing the black hat.

At lunch on the second day I found myself seated next to the matriarch of the Wayward family, the American branch of the Fairweathers. She was extremely interested in joining her family’s fortunes with mine — indeed, her daughter Scarlett wore a series of magnificent Russian-style fur hats specifically selected to attract Petrov attention — and together we hatched a plan to hitch my twin sons with her two daughters in a spectacular double wedding. We planned to get the two families together at a picnic to push the unsuspecting young people together.

Arranging an event with four people, never mind two entire families, in the sprawling castle and jam-packed schedule was like herding cats. But with the help of the amazing Pavel and the twin ladies’ maids, we actually managed to get almost everyone together for a half-hour tea in the orangery (the weather having turned drizzly). It was delightfully awkward and, wonder of wonders, the four children did indeed go off in pairs at the end of it as we had hoped. But though I had planned to pair the strong-willed Scarlett with angry Arkady and bookish Tiffany with bon vivant Anatoly, the attraction actually ran the other way. Whatever, I thought, as long as they get engaged by the end of the Grand Ball.

The Baroness and I did what we could to encourage our surprisingly reluctant children to get engaged. When queried as to their romantic interests, both Anastasia and Dimitri said “that’s your job, dad, just tell me who and I’ll marry them.” But the first candidate we selected for Anastasia — an eminently suitable young man from an excellent family, with whom she was already close friends — was rejected because “it would be too weird.” “This house is full of young people crying because their parents are forcing them to marry someone they hate,” I said, “and you’re saying no to someone because you like him?” But she was intractable, and when she extracted a promise from him to never, ever marry her we had to look for someone else. Dimitri we pointed toward the Fairweathers’ eldest daughter, a bit of an ambitious reach but, given that the Baroness and I had both been seated at the head table on the first night, we thought it was not out of the question. But Dimitri seemed uninterested in actually pursuing her, and according to rumor he was not among her top candidates. Arkady spent time with Tiffany but seemed oblivious to her charms. Tatiana, because she was unavailable for out-of-game reasons, seemed destined for maiden aunthood. And Anatoly… I found that I really liked him, and trusted his judgement, but his dissipated lifestyle seemed to portend a life of happy bachelorhood. So I decided to bribe him.

At the beginning of the game we were informed that none of us would have any misgivings whatsoever about the Titanic. A Titanic ticket was a pure boon, one of the most valuable physical items in the game, and we were free to buy, trade, gamble away, or steal them as we wished. Many of the upstairs families, including the Petrovs, had enough money to just buy one from the ticket office, but in order to obtain one we had to go to the organizers’ room and make a case that it would improve the game in some way. So I went there with a plan: I would offer Anatoly two first-class tickets if he became engaged to a suitable young lady by the end of the weekend. The organizers said that this was an excellent plan, commended me for my generous play, and presented me with two tickets forthwith. I showed them to Anatoly and he seemed delighted by the challenge.

One other Titanic ticket passed through my hands. As I mentioned earlier, the player of Anastasia had decided on her own initiative to run a subplot involving a diamond brooch, a family heirloom which she had been given by her grandmother at birth. On the second day of the game I was informed by my valet Pavel that Anastasia’s brooch was being flashed around by a no-account layabout artist named Guillaume. And so Pavel, our maid Manya, and I broke into his room to steal it back. But it was not in its accustomed place! I wandered the halls looking for Guillaume, not sure what I would do if I found him… and then I saw him wearing the damn thing on his lapel! Furious, I stalked up to him and demanded its return. “It was a gift from Anastasia,” he replied mildly. “That is family property,” I steamed, “not hers to give away, and if you were a gentleman you would return it to me this moment!” “All right,” he said, and handed it over, along with an incriminating note in Anastasia’s hand saying that it was a gift to express her thanks for extracting her from an extremely compromising situation. That, I thought, was something Anastasia’s mother and I would have to discuss with her later, but after I picked my jaw up off the floor I acknowledged that Guillaume had behaved as a gentleman should and offered him a favor — not an heirloom-brooch-sized favor, but something reasonable — to keep quiet about the whole situation. Later that day I was passed a note requesting a single first-class Titanic ticket. This, I thought, was entirely reasonable, and the organizers agreed, so I presented the ticket to him and we shook hands like gentlemen. (But he was still a no-account layabout artist, and I was secretly glad that he would eventually wind up on the bottom of the Atlantic for his trouble.)

As the clock ticked toward the grand ball which would be the end of the game my life resembled the final act of a Shakespearean comedy. I felt like I was riding a unicycle, balancing a pot of hot tea on my head, and juggling teacups while trying not to spill a drop. Arkady continued clueless, our second choice for Anastasia was hopelessly in love with an actress, Anatoly was keeping his own counsel, Tatiana was hors de combat for out-of-game reasons, and I barely saw Dimitri at all but the halls were abuzz about the Fairweather girl’s impending engagement with an Irish aristocrat. I feared that we would end the game with no engagements at all.

After dinner on the last night — the most lavish and festive meal of the game, with everyone in their very finest outfits — we divided as usual, with the women going to the drawing room and the men to the hunting room (where “I use antlers in all of my decorating”) for brandy and cigars. (The brandy was real, the cigars fake.) There I was drawn aside for a personal question by an American officer, an “aviator” in the newly formed Army Air Corps, with whom I had had several delightful conversations about his novel machine. My heart pounded. He was a commoner without money, but I knew and liked him and his character seemed impeccable, so I agreed to hear him out. He very humbly informed me that he was in love with… our lady’s maid Dunya! He requested that I permit her to depart my service to marry him and move to America. He preempted my biggest objection — that Dunya was Anastasia’s best friend in the world — by saying that he had already spoken to Anastasia and that she consented to the match provided he promised to convert to Russian Orthodoxy and sign a pledge that in case of his untimely death Dunya and any children would return to Russia. The loss of Dunya would be devastating to our family, but I realized I could not stand in the way of true love, so I agreed to grant his request as soon as I heard Anastasia’s consent from her own lips. Well, I thought, at least we’ll get one marriage out of this… though it would mean the loss of one of our most beloved servants, practically a member of the family. We shook hands and I said “oh, by the way, can you suggest anyone as a possible fiancé for Anastasia? Her mother and I are stumped.”

He could, as it happens, and though the young man — a captain in the English army — was barely known to me, he was already a friend of Anastasia’s and the aviator vouched for his character, so I asked him to arrange a meeting between us. Pretty soon the young man in question sought me out and made his case. I queried him as to his intentions and prospects and was satisfied, so I accepted his request. (I did this without consulting the Baroness, as time was growing very short, but I informed her as soon as I could and she agreed with my assessment of the situation.) We discussed how best to approach Anastasia with the news and we agreed that he should be the one to pop the question, without my involvement. One down, I hoped, four to go.

Tick tick tick. The ball had already begun and I was rushing hither and yon. Everywhere you looked men were kneeling before women crying with happiness. The Baroness, because of out-of-game mobility issues, remained seated at the side of the ballroom. Anastasia was beaming in the middle of the room, having just accepted the captain’s proposal, and I congratulated them heartily. Arkady was deep in conversation with Tiffany, that’s good. Anatoly was dancing with an absolutely beautiful specimen, that’s good. Tatiana was socializing cheerfully, that’s acceptable. But where was Dimitri? Drinking alone in the corner. Oh dear. I went to him. “Apparently Amanda prefers an Irish brute to a Russian noble,” he slurred. “But I will show him a thing or two!” I told him as strongly as I could not to do anything rash.

Then Arkady came to me, looking rather stunned. “I do not know what to do, Father,” he said. “I do not understand my own heart.” “Would an order from your father help?” I asked. “Yes.” “Go find that girl and propose to her immediately!” I commanded him. He saluted and went off to find her. But I soon saw him wandering helplessly around the ballroom. “Can I help find her?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Her name is Monique Delacour.” What happened to Tiffany? I thought, but once he had described this Monique I told him to remain in the ballroom and I’d try to find her and bring her to him. I did find her, eventually, and brought her back, whereupon they entered into an intimate conversation. I crossed my fingers and backed away.

Anatoly came up to me then, happily presenting his intended, a beautiful young woman named Gabrielle Delacour (cousin, as it happened, to Monique, and both members of the richest family in the game). I immediately gave my assent to the match and presented Anatoly with the tickets. “But,” I warned him, “you are not permitted to tell your brothers until tomorrow morning.” I knew that if his brothers discovered I’d bribed him so handsomely for something I was asking them to do for free they would revolt, but tomorrow of course, would be after the end of the game. Anatoly was disappointed — tormenting his brothers was his greatest joy — but consented. Three down? I thought.

But no — it was only two. Arkady returned to me crestfallen, saying that Monique had already pledged her heart to another. Alas. If only he had not been so hesitant — he’d missed out by less than half an hour. (After the game ended I had a chance to talk with Tiffany’s player to find out what had happened. She had been hoping and expecting for Arkady to pop the question, but he told her “my father ordered me to propose to Monique.” Argh! I had specifically said “that girl” precisely because I was not certain whom he was courting! But what we hear is not always what was intended.)

Then Pavel, my trusted valet, came up to me with a personal matter of some importance. Drawing me aside, he said “I would like your permission to marry Manya. If you grant this request, I promise that we will both serve you faithfully until the end of time.” That was, I assured him, rather more than was necessary, but I was actually overjoyed. The prospect of my two remaining servants, practically family, to not only find happiness with each other but remain with the family as well brought real tears of joy to my eyes. We went down to the servants’ hall, where it would have been unseemly for me to enter, and Pavel went in and brought Manya out. “Congratulations on your betrothal,” I told her happily. “I wholeheartedly consent to your marriage to Pavel.” She immediately burst into tears and fled from the vicinity. “I had not yet informed her of my intent to propose,” Pavel clarified. I felt sick, but as I could not follow her into downstairs space I instructed Pavel to keep me informed of further events.

I returned upstairs to the ball, which was very nearly over. Anastasia and Anatoly were glowing; Arkady was staring into space; Tatiana was cheerfully engaged in conversation. Where was Dimitri? Then I heard shouting, and Dimitri’s name. I pushed through the crowd to find him punching someone, I knew not who. “DIMITRI, STAND DOWN!” I shouted — the only time in the game I raised my voice — and he did. I dragged him into the hall outside the ballroom… and then there was a call for silence, and an announcement I couldn’t make out, followed by applause. Dimitri and I returned to the ballroom to find that the game had just ended. This was followed by a speech by the organizers about how all the people who had been so happy to have gotten Titanic tickets wound up — basically, the first-class women mostly survived and almost everyone else perished. But we all applauded anyway, because it had been a fabulous game. Dimitri and I did a passing-hand-across-face gesture to indicate “okay, dropping character now” and hugged. Final score: two children and one servant happily engaged, two proposals attempted but rejected, one proposal still pending. I’ll take it.

I spent a good hour after the game ended talking with the player of Pavel, who had been extremely emotionally contained and had never broken character once. I had grown to trust Pavel and depend upon him completely and I needed to meet the person behind the character. He turned out to be charming and witty, as I’d expected, but he also revealed something utterly shocking to me: Pavel had been an absolute two-faced bastard, who sucked up to the upstairs characters and was a complete shit to his downstairs peers. But, as Pavel was pretty much my sole line of communication to the downstairs, I had had no idea of any of it. I had played Robert to Pavel’s Thomas, and I felt an utter fool. (This was, perhaps, why Manya had burst into tears at the end. But when I talked with her player later, she said that she had merely been overcome with emotion and that the character would need some time to reach a decision. She honestly didn’t know which way Manya would eventually go.)

It really was a fabulous game. The characters, the drama, the richness of the setting and the fabulous costumes, the food — it truly did feel like a weekend spent in another time, another world. With such a large cast I knew that I had experienced only a tiny fraction of even the upstairs characters’ stories — never mind the downstairs characters’, of which I had essentially zero knowledge — but my part of it felt full and complete. All in all I have to say that I preferred Conscience and Meeting of Monarchs because they had an overarching plot rather than just character interactions (they were miniseries rather than a soap opera, so to speak), but the character interactions at Fairweather were so great that it was a rich and emotionally satisfying experience.

Would I do it again? Heck yeah! Many of the players had done two or three runs of Fairweather in the past, and I can see why — playing any other character, especially a downstairs or commoner character, would produce a completely different game. Perhaps if I do it again I will play my dark side in a way I did not allow myself to do this time. But do I really want to? I’m not sure, but I’m sure that if I did it would be interesting.

Actions Have Consequences: A “Conscience” LARP Report

Last weekend I attended run 6 of Conscience, a Westworld-themed LARP, at Fort Bravo, a tourist attraction and movie set near the village of Tabernas in Spain. This report contains SPOILERS for Conscience.

If you’ve heard the term LARP (Live Action Role Playing) you probably envision people going into a park and doing a live-action version of D&D that involves hitting each other with foam swords and throwing tennis balls while shouting “Fireball!” This wasn’t that kind of LARP. This was a kind of LARP which goes by many names including “Nordic LARP,” most commonly found in Europe, which is focused on emotion, character interactions, and immersion. It’s an improvised, immersive, interactive theatrical experience. Each of the participants — and this LARP had over a hundred — was simultaneously actor and audience, all mingling together — in costume, in a large realistic environment, for a full three days — to produce a deeply emotional shared experience.

We had each been assigned a character weeks beforehand, based on our previously stated preferences for what kind of game we wanted to play, and had been provided with character sheets detailing our character’s background, personality, function in the park, goals, priorities, and secrets, as well as general background information on the setting, themes, and game play. The weekend had an overall shape, designed by the organizers, with several important events that occurred at predetermined times. But the characters’ reactions to those events and all their interactions with each other were entirely improvised, based on the players’ understanding of what their character would do in that situation.

To me, the point of a LARP is to have a genuine emotional experience in a fake situation. You know the gasp that comes from an audience when something unexpected and significant happens in a play? Now imagine that, instead of just watching the play, you were deeply embedded in the action for days, mingling with other actors in costume and completely surrounded by a realistic set. The structure of the event encourages the players to really feel the emotional impact of the things that happen to them and the things they do. It’s like riding a roller coaster, which gives you the thrill of feeling like you’re going to die while being absolutely certain that you will not. One player, who has social anxiety in real life, told me that she loves to LARP because, as everyone has agreed in advance that we will be interacting in certain ways, she has no fear whatsoever of being rejected when she engages someone in conversation.

The structure of this LARP also encouraged players to be vulnerable and open to deep emotion because the organizers took great care to keep everyone safe. The weekend started with a half day of workshops: site orientation, general LARP principles, consent principles, violence mechanic, sex mechanic. We were provided with techniques to ensure that all interactions, up to and including simulated sexual violence, were entirely consensual and could always be interrupted. We were encouraged to drop out of character and negotiate delicate situations before and during the interaction (this is called “calibration”) and to check in with each other frequently. There was a safety room to which we could retreat if we were overwhelmed, and organizers mixed in with the cast to keep an eye on things and provide support when needed. And there were hard rules: no real violence, no real sex (not even with established partners), and although nudity was allowed it was only permitted in certain well-defined places and times and there would be no touching of naked people.

Conscience was loosely based on the first season of the TV show Westworld but although it used the same basic idea — a Western theme park staffed by realistic robots, called “hosts,” where the guests could torture, rape, and murder the robots without consequence — it did not use any of the same character names or other details, and the action of the LARP diverged from the plot of the TV show in significant ways. But the game and the TV show shared themes of identity and oppression, asking questions like “What makes a person a person?” “What is consciousness and how do we know that we or others are conscious?” and “What are the effects of violent oppression on both the oppressor and the oppressed?”

Players took the roles of hosts, guests, and park employees. All characters could be “black hats,” “white hats,” or “gray hats” (metaphorically speaking; hat color was not an indication of character morals) but the design of the park seemed to encourage black-hat behavior from both guests and employees. Park employees were divided into departments: Behavior designed and modified the robots’ personalities, attitudes, and priorities; Plot wrote the robots’ backgrounds and the stories, called “loops,” which they enacted each day and in which the guests were encouraged to participate; Maintenance fixed up the robots when they were damaged or malfunctioned; and Security was responsible for protecting the guests’ personal safety. Some of the characters were departmental-level managers and supervisors but upper management was not present in the park. And in addition to the guests oppressing the hosts, there was plenty of oppression among the park employees. Plot and Behavior each denigrated the other, both of them looked down on Maintenance and Security, and within each department there was bullying, betrayal, inappropriate romance, and toxic office politics. My department was co-headed by a married couple — she was a hardass with no people skills, while he was more reasonable but still beholden to the corporation.

My character, named Gold, was nonbinary and a member of the Behavior team. Their position in the team as staff ethicist made them rather isolated, as it was their job to remind employees of the moral and ethical principles which they should be employing in their work — principles which the basic design of the park often violated. Playing Gold I often felt like Cassandra, in that I would frequently say “you should not do that thing, it is bad for the guests and employees and will eventually hurt the company” and see that advice ignored. But as long as I made my case as best I could I felt that my conscience was clear. One big question I had to answer for myself was why Gold was working in this park at all. The best answer I came up with was that Gold had been imposed on the Behavior department by higher-ups for appearance’s sake and to use as a scapegoat in case anything went wrong, but was trying to work within the system to prevent the worst excesses.

As Gold, I had many philosophical, moral, and ethical discussions with fellow employees and guests to try to influence them away from the rape, torture, and murder which they had generally come to the park to commit. These debate scenes were actually a lot of fun for me — the other players were very smart, argued fairly, and played their parts brilliantly — and, as I said on several occasions, I wasn’t really expecting to change the mind of the person I was arguing with but I hoped to influence the onlookers. And I did indeed have some positive effects! One evening I had a long talk over whisky (tea in whisky bottles) with a multibillionaire guest — a black hat who was, at least, willing to debate the possibility that the hosts might be conscious — and after the game the player told me that his plan had been to walk out of the bar and torture a host to death just to see how it would react, but after talking with me he just couldn’t do it.

It became clear pretty quickly that Gold was one of the few “white hat” employees in the department, indeed one of a few in the whole park, and in some ways this made playing them easier. As Gold I tried to never lie, always keep my promises, be clear about when I knew things and when I was only speculating or repeating a rumor, treat others with respect, and most of all to be kind. I always said please and thank you to Maintenance and Security personnel and even hosts, and when my fellow employees would put other employees down, calling them to their faces “maintenance monkey” or even “it” (and that was a Behavior employee talking to one of their peers!) I would at least call them on it. Not that this seemed to have much effect. The two things I kept saying to anyone who would listen were: 1) you always have choices, even when your actions are constrained; and 2) actions have consequences.

After the workshops, the first day’s actual play began at the end of the work day. We had an end-of-day meeting in Behavior, discussing the new software update which was just rolling out to the hosts and which management had decided to deploy without testing. I raised my objections to this strategy, of course, but was overruled. Instead, we would observe the hosts carefully and bring every one in for analysis over the next few days. (Out-of-game this was so each host player would have an opportunity to get an interview with Behavior, which was fun for both players. One of my favorite things to do was to get the host to play a brief scene in “story mode,” switch to “command mode” and raise or lower their aggressiveness or sex drive or whatever, then switch back to story mode and play the same scene over.) After that meeting we were free to enjoy the park — a major perk of the job, given that the list price of a visit was in the millions — but there were a lot of issues with the hosts and I spent most of the evening fighting fires. Of course the official story was that “every new update has problems” but I feared there was some kind of structural problem. But I was “disagree and commit” to the plan and kept trying to keep the park running.

Day 2 started off with an out-of-game group calibration session for the Behavior players, in which we discussed our reactions to the game so far and our plans for the day. This was followed by an in-game staff meeting where I again suggested that the new update was problematic and should be rolled back and was again overruled. We spent the day bringing in hosts for interviews and dealing with problems as they occurred. One host was remembering things they should not, another kept muttering “dream within a dream,” another smacked a Maintenance employee in the face while in command mode. “Was the employee physically hurt?” was the official response to that one. “If not, this is normal host behavior — they are programmed to roughhouse with guests. Maybe there’s a motor systems issue that caused the host to hit harder than intended.” Each individual problem could be — and was — dismissed as “just a glitch” but to me there seemed to be a systemic problem.

The problems got worse. A host had been sliced open by a guest who had forced him to look at the wires and cables within before he died, and now, even after being repaired, kept saying he was a robot. There were multiple problems here: he should not have been able to perceive what he saw, he should not have accepted the guest’s statement (and analysis in command mode indicated that he had really internalized it), and he should absolutely not have retained any memory of it after a hard reset. I tried dealing with that one by loading him up with a simulated year of psychotherapy to convince him that he was indeed human, which seemed to work but got me in trouble with my female boss. “I pay you to fix problems, not patch them.” She called in another Behavior employee who had the host look in a mirror, then before shooting the host in the head instructed the host to see blood and brains as he died. (I did not like this employee before, and liked him even less now. This attempt at shock treatment did not work in the long term, by the way.)

Then we started to get some surprising and upsetting news about the other employees. For one thing, one of the Security people shot herself in front of guests. The story we were instructed to give out was that the suicide, with visible blood and brains, was a prototype high-realism host. For another thing, two new employees reported to work in Maintenance and were quickly discovered to be hosts. One was programmed to know that he was a host, the other was programmed to believe he was human. But the most upsetting thing of all was that we found out that a number of long-time employees had been hosts all along, including two of my Behavior peers! Lots of arguments and dramatic scenes ensued, including me trying to convince one of the Plot employees that going to her ex-girlfriend — my Behavior peer, who had just been revealed to be a host — and commanding her to love her would not be a good idea.

In the afternoon of day 2 the situation escalated as a delivery truck pulled up and dropped off a new host who was an exact duplicate of the Security employee who had killed herself. The new host had no personality, and there was no paperwork and no instructions. We hustled the host off to Behavior, where a fierce argument ensued about what to do. My male boss, the highest-ranking person in the room, decided that we should give the new host a name and a plot and send her off to work in the whorehouse, saying “look, we told you she was a host, and now here she is!” I argued strenuously that this was not only immoral but would inevitably be found out and would cause a publicity shitstorm that would make “one of our employees shot herself” look like a walk in the park. I was, of course, overruled, but as the meeting ended I promised that when I was on the witness stand I would tell the truth about what had happened, then pointed at the manager and told the other employees in the room “do not do anything to forward this plan without an explicit order from him, his co-boss, or their boss.” (Later we learned that he was, himself, a host, which would have made the legal case against the park quite interesting.)

Later in day 2 I permitted myself to be talked into going to the whorehouse “to experience your work from the guests’ perspective.” (This was something I had calibrated earlier in the game with the players of the characters who talked me into it, because as a player I did want to experience some of the dark side of the park.) I wound up having a delicious and very sweet scene with a male host called Chuck, and between the extensive negotiations beforehand and the scene itself we developed a relationship of mutual attraction, respect, and trust. This relationship proved to be pivotal to my game.

There comes a point when you pile enough WTF on a person’s head that they go from WTF to “okay sure, I’ll buy that, what else?” In the afternoon of day 2 I was in a state of upbeat cynicism and cheery pessimism. I resolved to continue to fight for the right but to not be upset when it didn’t happen. As long as I stood up for the right thing I could be satisfied. But I had said “this is the right thing to do, and I’m going to tell you even though I know you won’t do it” so many times that I felt like Cassandra. At one point I actually got my boss’s boss to say “okay, let’s try it your way, go and find out if it’s technically possible” (which it was) and I felt great even though I knew it would never actually happen. So when word came down a while later that it would be too expensive I wasn’t even disappointed. “Okay sure, I’ll buy that, what else!” But by the end of day 2 I had had enough.

Day 3 began with a Behavior staff meeting. When it came time for me to report my status I explained that I could no longer countenance the corporation’s actions — the deployment of untested and possibly dangerous software, the replacement of staff with hosts both overtly and covertly, and the immoral and in fact illegal plan to deploy a host with a dead staffer’s face — and was resigning my position effective immediately. “I’ve enjoyed working with most of you,” I told my peers, then looked my female boss in the face. “But you? You don’t look like anything to me.” And I threw down my badge and stalked out. Best scene of the game, for me.

I sought out a group who had reached out to me the day before, calling themselves “The Real QA Department” and consisting of a mix of employees and hosts who recognized the hosts’ dawning consciousness and were most concerned with protecting both the hosts and the innocent among the guests. I spent the day talking with troubled hosts, employees, and guests and doing what I could to help them deal with the increasingly insane situation. Chuck, who by now had been elected sheriff and was beginning to come into consciousness, was a key contact and put me in touch with hosts I could use my knowledge and skills to help. (We had agreed during calibration that, although my managers would of course cut off my access to the control software, the corporation moved slowly and I would retain the ability to modify hosts’ personalities for the duration of the game.) And then Dallas came up to me on the street and grabbed me by the throat.

Dallas was a host who, by now, we knew was a repurposed military robot who was dealing with resurfacing memories of perpetrating violence on humans, and Dallas’s player was literally two heads taller than me. He clutched my shirt front, leaned in close, and said “you’re going to take away my fear of guns.” I was legit terrified but kept my voice level. “I can’t do that. Although I respect your rights as an individual, I need to protect innocent people.” “Well,” he said, “that’s your choice, but like you always say, actions have consequences.” And he let go and stalked off.

I went to Chuck, who I respected as a keen judge of people (and was also a repurposed combat model, though I don’t think I knew that at the time) and asked his advice on what to do. “Well,” he said, “I don’t like the way Dallas threatened you and I’m going to talk to him about it. But the key thing is this: who are you to take away another person’s right to choose how he runs his own life?” I spent the next hour or so thinking hard about that, then went back to where Chuck and Dallas were sitting on the sheriff’s office porch. Chuck apologized for his earlier treatment of me and requested, politely, that I take away his fear of guns.

This was the most difficult moment of the game for me. I had to weigh my respect for this dawning consciousness against the almost certain expectation that granting his request would cause human beings to lose their lives. But in the end it came down to this: there are always choices, and actions have consequences. So I would let Dallas make his own choices, and I would live with the consequences of mine. I swallowed and agreed.

We went into the sheriff’s office, where I used an administrative password to remove his phobia. At one point during the procedure my Apple Watch buzzed, saying “your heart rate is elevated although you are not moving.” Lol. After the procedure we talked for a bit about how he felt and what this meant. I said that I would not put any conditions on his behavior going forward, but I said to him “be yourself, and be kind.”

When we left the office we found Chuck waiting on the porch with a few other hosts who also wanted modifications. I did what I could for each of them. In some cases the request was beyond my capabilities (the host wanted to be able to stop men from abusing her, but her aggression was already at max, humility at min, and removing the prohibition against harming humans was not something I could do even with an admin password) so we just talked. I left each one with “be yourself, and be kind.”

After that I met up with The Real QA Department in the church, where we all talked about how we were changing and what we were going to do going forward. I tried to help Chuck come to terms with his new consciousness by changing his personality to help accept it, but one of the other humans present stopped me, saying that “we have to respect them and talk to them as people.” Important reminder for me, both in-game and out-of-game: the master’s house will not be dismantled with the master’s tools. The group agreed that when shit started to get real we would make our last stand in the church, a defensible location.

In the next few hours the hosts were acting way out of character and the guests were absolutely freaking out. Some of the richer guests were making plans to escape, or otherwise use their real-world connections to fix the situation in some way, but I knew that all these plans would take more time than we had. I tried to calm people as much as I could while not sugar-coating the situation. And then I saw the sheriff holding a guest by the scruff of the neck. The guest, a black hat, had been beaten up by his white-hat brother who was fed up with his bullshit, and now he was being asked to apologize to the hosts he had abused. He was hemming and hawing and completely failing to apologize so I barged in and told him “this is what you say: ‘I’m sorry I raped you.'” Together, the sheriff and I managed to get something approximating an apology out of him, but then the sheriff asked the victimized hosts what they wanted to do to him. They decided they were going to string him up on the gallows. I walked away at that point, but as I was leaving one of the Security employees, a cousin of mine with whom I was very close, said to me “I’ve never wanted you to see me when I do something bad.” I told him that if he was going to do something bad I would turn my back. A minute later I heard a gunshot, and saw him being led away by other Security people. He had shot the guest, using his real Security gun, and the guest was dead for real. (Later I learned that the Security person had only wounded the guest and his brother had then choked him to death O.o.)

Okay, shit was definitely getting real. I retreated to the church, where some members of the Real QA Team and a bunch of guests were gathered — including one of the very nastiest black hats, who I knew was marked for death by many of the hosts. Not only did I not want to give him sanctuary, but I knew that if he was with us we would all be in danger. “You can’t come in here,” I told him, but he just walked past me. But nothing happened for a long while, people got bored and wandered in and out, and at one point I found myself the only person in the church. So I closed and barred the door. “Real ethical move, Doc,” the guest yelled through the door, but I waited him out. Eventually I opened the door and found that everyone had left. I found and put on a bulletproof vest my cousin had stashed in the church for me; I didn’t really think that any of the hosts had it in for me, but ricochets are a thing and the guests had guns too. During this time there were all kinds of disquieting messages on the in-game Discord messaging system about the park’s central AI acting weird.

And then a siren went off, and a computerized voice announced that all loops were being rolled back. Messages on Discord indicated that the central AI had revoked the First Law. There were gunshots. There was screaming. People started showing up at the church, some of them shot, and we let almost everyone in. I don’t recall turning anyone away myself; the nastiest guests probably died before they could get to the church. I was kind of disappointed, as a player, that I hid in the church rather than going out and witnessing the slaughter, but I really felt it was in character to do so. And then the sirens stopped and a game runner came by to say that the game was over. We had survived!

After the game I learned a few important things. The update about which I had been so concerned was not actually the cause of all the glitches — the update was no worse than usual, it was the central AI becoming conscious that had been the root cause of the problem. Dallas wound up not killing anyone. (Win!) Another host, with whom I had had just one interaction, told me that my injunction to “be yourself, and be kind” had kept him from killing a guest when he’d had the chance. My male boss told me that I had been a hero for resigning. Many people said that they had enjoyed their interactions with me. All in all I came out feeling fabulous about myself and about my character.

It’s been a few days since the game and the post-game Discord has been lively. I’ve learned what other players’ experiences were like, and it’s not too surprising that, with a hundred players, many of them had games that didn’t overlap with mine at all. In particular, while my game was about the park and the hosts’ dawning consciousness, many other players (especially guests and hosts) had significant experiences with each other within the world of Mayfield before shit went down.

This was only my third LARP, and in both previous games I came to the end and realized that, while I had done well by my character, I’d been a side character to the main plot. In this case I would say that my character was right in the middle of the main plot, perhaps even a pivotal character, but I still missed a lot. In particular, I realized that, despite the rape and murder all around, I had witnessed exactly one act of sexual violence, when a guest called to me from a stagecoach and demanded that I turn off the filters of the host he was torturing so she would know she was a robot. I refused, saying “it’s against policy,” but I still stayed around to listen to her being tortured to death. After he finished and pushed her body out of the carriage and onto the street, I walked her to Maintenance and gave her a post-mortem interview. Then I said “I’m sorry” and burst into real tears. It was the only time I cried in-game. I think I am glad I did not have the same game as most of those other players.

As I write this I am relaxing at a yoga retreat in the Spanish countryside. Soon I will be heading to Berlin, where I will connect with my partner Alisa and we will both proceed to the next LARP: Fairweather Manor. Look for another report like this after that one.