Odysseus / A Retrospective

This is slightly tweaked version of the original post I put on Facebook on Sunday July 21st 2019, regarding my thoughts on the recent Finnish LARP, Odysseus that ran over July 4-6 2019 in Helsinki.

“It’s not enough to survive, one has to be worthy of survival.”
Commander Adama, Battlestar Galactica*

* I’d already decided to preface this post with this quote before reading some of the player experiences once the week of stories** was over, I didn’t realise just how fitting it would turn out to be.

** I was unfamiliar with the concept of a “week of stories” before this game, roughly this means that for the first week after the LARP has concluded, only positive stories and comment are mean’t to be passed to give the GM team time to recover.

This is going to be a long, possibly rambling post about my experience in the run up to and at the recent LARP that you may have seen me post about; Odysseus. I’ve not posted about a LARP in this depth for some time so apologies for the wall of text that is about to crit you for 10D6 damage. I will include points that I’ve been asked to comment on by curious friends and how they relate to my own LARP experiences, I may touch upon elements of the plot but don’t expect exhaustive examination or philosophical debate, I think that’s been covered elsewhere, I also won’t cover issues that I did not directly experience.

TL;DR, I had an amazing time at the very best LARP I’ve ever been to.

What was Odysseus?

I’d been looking for a large European “mega-LARP” (for sake of a better term) for a while but if I was going to spend roughly £500+ on a game then I wanted it to be something that was in my sphere of interest. @Nick Reynolds (who had previously gone to Lotka-Volterra) sent me the link for this one and it seemed to tick all of the boxes that I was looking for. As I think the team behind “Odysseus” freely admitted, the game background was very much “Battlestar Galactica” with the serial numbers filed off. A colony of humans who left Earth hundreds of years ago is wiped out in a surprise attack by sentient machines, but as we would learn as part of the game there was much more to it than that.

Pre-Game

This game was cast from pre-generated characters, so this means instead of writing up your own characters backstory and fitting in with the game universe, you fill out a questionnaire as to your preference of play styles and then the GM’s will “cast” you into a role they think lines up with your answers. Questions such how much you enjoy a certain play style, do you like having secrets, do you like romance plots, etc. For example, I remember one question was relating to what role I was attracted to, I put down either Engineer, Scientist or Bridge Officer.

So, naturally, I was cast as a Marine, a soldier. If you’ve played any Laser-Tag LARP’s with me over the years then you will know I’ve played an awful lot of military-type roles and had been hoping for something different. It seemed I wasn’t alone at being unhappy with their character, there were similar comments flying around the facebook pages but there was an alternative; I could put in for a swap and see what happened and I very nearly did. But I thought playing another soldier-type character after doing it so many times would actually be an aid to my role-play as I would be going into relatively unfamiliar LARP territory and having some idea how to play in a military manner might be a benefit.

We got the main character briefs in May and by that stage there was a touch of anxiety creeping in about the game in itself, to the degree that I put off properly reading it for a couple of weeks. I think what was bothering me was the fact I was flying to another country to play a game with people I had never met before, it’s been a while since I’ve done anything like that and I guess it was a fear of the unknown getting to me (although I did this way back when I first started LARPing, I can remember going to a youth hostel near Ambleside and I didn’t know a soul at that event and this was long before the internet). When I did finally open it and read, it all seemed relatively straightforward and nicely written, a rounded character with a few nuances I was fairly happy I would be able to pull off. I was able to condense key items into roughly half a page of bullet points (something I’ve learnt to do in recent years to help memory retention when confronted with large multi-page briefings). The only document I would need to refer to during the game was the universe timeline and that was mainly for dates.

So I would be playing Kerrie Ray, Petty Officer 2nd Class, Alpha Squad Marine, ESS Odysseus. He was an orphan who had defied his adoptive parents wishes by enlisting in the marine corps as they had wanted him to be a doctor (he was also training to be a combat medic as a nod to this), his true parentage was (at that time) a mystery.

Making contact with mentioned players in my briefing was encouraged and I did my best to do just that (a couple found me first), some were mysterious (as I would learn befit their briefing) but I can’t thank @Oscar Hidalgo (who would be the Alpha Squad Team Leader) enough for setting up an Alpha Squad Facebook chat group, that helped a lot with getting the team bonding, truth be told I was incredibly happy at how well and quickly the team did bond once the game got going, it really did feel like we’d been serving together for months, both our team and the rest of the crew in general. I arrived in Helsinki on the Wednesday with the game starting on the Thursday but you could stop over on the game site the night before the game, it was now we got our first glimpses into what only a few weeks ago had been a junior school. I won’t go into it here but the depth of detail in the site dressing was (and still is) mind blowing, I’ve uploaded all of my site photos into an album which you can check out.

Thursday brought a day of workshops where we figured out where we would be sleeping, a more extensive tour of the ship and an introduction to some of the tech/equipment we would be using as well as some of ground rules of the game, the ideals behind it, etc. I’ve been quite taken by the “play to lift” and “empty chair” concepts and that’s something I’ll touch on later but are also elements I’d like to incorporate into my own LARPs.

The Game

Time In happened at around 18:00 on the Thursday with the playing of the national anthem of the colonies (a specially commissioned piece) and when that finished it was Time In. Another element of the game (certainly to those as part of the ships crew) was the shift system, divided into Solar and Lunar. Solar shift was 04:00 to 12:00 and then 16:00 to 20:00 and Lunar the inverse. Alpha squad was on Solar and Beta on Lunar, you were encouraged to be mindful of your own welfare and to sleep/eat when you were mean’t to (and also to keep hydrated), this also mean’t that at least half of the ships company would be awake at any one time although realistically it was more than that. I estimate that over the 48 hours duration of the LARP I slept for maybe 5-6, if that. My team was roughly similar but the thing was (as I think we commented at one stage) we didn’t feel tired, adrenaline and hype? Food was served around the clock and there was always lots of it (the apple crumble..)

As the marine team we had several duties to perform when on our shift: –

  • Man the security room and look for and investigate suspicious activity on the cameras
  • Guard the brig and ensure prisoner security/comfort
  • Patrol the ship
  • Defend the ship in case of any incursion (like that was never going to happen!)
  • Participate in Away Missions as required
The Security Room, base of the Marines on the Odysseus

That last part was one of the highlights of the game, as a marine team we got to go in the shuttle (a minibus where all the windows were blacked out) to somewhere in the Finnish woods looking for ancient beacons that it was hoped would lead us back to Earth, this was definitely something I was familiar with! We also had one trooper with a custom vest/helmet with a GoPro camera mounted on the front so a live feed could be transmitted back to both the Bridge and it was also shown on the huge projection screen so everyone else could see what we were doing which would turn out to be a double edged sword on our first mission.

Our first mission was tracking down an ancient beacon (what may have been the first one?) and we tracked it down but to get to it we had to scale a loose shale hill (in the rain) where it was being guarded by some local inhabitants, I wasn’t sure who they were, criminals, lost colonists, etc. Ultimately, whoever they were didn’t matter, they were belligerent, they had something we needed and they were heavily armed. One of our team (Leone) had been attempting to flank their left side, which she did beautifully but as she popped up ready to fire the battery powered Nerf gun she had started to spin up and then died (not the last weapon failure we would endure) so they then had a hostage. Looking back it was never going to end diplomatically (a first hint at a railroad scenario?) as once we all got to the top and were trying to negotiate with them, they then started to make ever more outrageous demands in exchange for the beacon they had found that we wanted. Their primary demand seemed to be for food and medical supplies, so I said I had both (I’d stocked up on bandages as my brief mentioned I was training as a combat medic and I also had several protein bars as I thought I might need an energy pick me up at some point). I’m slowly opening my belt pouch with my gun lowered when their leader shouts something and opens fire and that was that, we basically then had to start shooting or engage them in hand to hand combat, I dressed the wound of one and she would probably have survived for a little while. Hunter (the team leader) would then be shown on live feed despatching the fallen, not a great look and I was worried that would come back to haunt us so I gathered the team and made sure we had our stories straight in case it did but it wasn’t taken any further.

Finding ancient beacons down on a planet.. (c) Santtu Pajukanta

Both Alpha and Beta teams (and the newly formed Ghost shift formed from other soldiers we had picked up along the way) would engage in various land missions (I won’t be talking directly about the night mission that Beta did as I was asleep when this happened) throughout the course of the LARP. Sometimes they were short (where we just went to a cargo container/bunker) other times we would need to go out in anti-radiation gear and went for a long march in the Finnish forest.

Of course shipboard duties and land missions as a marine was only half of the game, I also had my actual character background to explore and resolve as well. Ultimately, through the course of the game when I wasn’t on duty, I would discover I was a Royal Bastard who had potentially the best claim to the currently empty throne, I told my best friend (Leone) who then introduced me to her senator sister who when she learned of my parentage immediately suggested an alliance, then marriage and then babies all in the space of about 15 minutes.

The marriage proposal came at the end of a whole series of revelations about my character which came as one hit after another to the extent I went off and hid in the engine room for a while (laying down next to a Jump Drive Reactor is surprisingly soothing), it also led to a state of (what I call) decision paralysis which I’ve experienced a few times at LARP’s. Now to my mind this is where my character is presented with a choice but is hesitant to proceed in one direction or the other as the player (ie me) is then worried about the ramifications to other players, basically I was out of character worried if I accepted the proposal I might be breaking someone else’s game. Once again I have to thank @Nick for his advice as he came over at one stage to check how things were going and after I told him what had happened, he gave me some advice in the form of three words: “Embrace the chaos”. I did.

It boiled down to an Out of Character (OOC) concern for an In Character (IC) situation, I probably needed to loosen up more, I certainly did after that.

In short I got married, tried to assume my throne only to have my claim (temporarily) thrown out, it felt just like the episode of Game of Thrones where Ned Stark was clutching Robert Baraetheon’s last will and testament only to have it thrown in his face by Cersei Lannister, an incredibly tense scene well played by all involved. The rest of that plot line was played out in the aftermath of that scene as my “father” tried to make amends for abandoning me all those years ago but I really was not going to make it easy for him, where the hell had he been all my life?

That senate meeting, coupled with a couple of other things mean’t the character was at a low ebb so when the red alert sounded followed by the announcement we were being boarded, I did what any marine would do, I shook myself down and got ready for combat. Getting to the armoury there were no protective vests left so I picked up second gun and went looking for toasters. We knew they were coming but we had no idea where from, for one of the few times on the game I reverted back to James for a second and wondered if I was doing this (I’ve both staged and helped to stage similar attacks in the past), where would I launch my attack from? Part of the transformation from the school to the spaceship involved blocking off thoroughfares and creating false walls, I think I figured out a few seconds before I saw the red lights on the mesh grill on the ceiling, they were going to come from a corner of the mess hall. I dashed over there and stood ready on the staircase facing it, shouting at the civilians to get back. The false door opens and out they came Now I had two Nerf guns, a springer and a battery powered. Typically the battery powered Nerf gun jammed on the second or third shot so I was left with the springer which I then used to dispatch one of the mechanical monstrosities but I was peppered with their shots and fell dramatically to the floor.

The attack was repulsed and I then get dragged to med-bay and hauled onto the diagnostic table (where I was laying in the warm (fake) blood of the previous patient, but I didn’t know who that was then). The doctors get me patched up and I get moved onto a normal bed as there were a lot of customers that day.

Another point that had been mentioned in the briefing was that it was quite hard to do die on the game unless you wanted to and then you would talk to the GM’s who would organise it for you, maybe that had been in the back of the characters mind when going to fight machines, maybe I was volunteering to get shot, to go down in a blaze of glory. I did consider killing the character at that stage and it was still something I was considering when a couple of things happened.

The newly elected prime minister was doing the rounds and there were of couple of fallen crewman and he spent time with all of us saying how much he admired us for doing our best to defend the ship and its inhabitants.

I closed my eyes for a moment and then I hear a voice say “I thought I told you not to die”, I look up into the eyes of my new wife. we chatted for a few minutes where I explained how I thought me dying would have solved a few problems for people, her included, whilst seeing my point of view she argued I would be much more use alive.

Re-invigorated I sit up and whilst talking to a Doctor I look over and see Lee Savage (a fellow marine on Beta Team) laying on one of the beds, I ask how she’s doing and the doctor just shakes his head. I look back and they are covering her body in a sheet and taking her away on a stretcher. Part of my character brief had been to break up Lee (who I thought had been stringing Leone along on false pretences) and I had achieved this relatively early on as Leone told me that they were indeed breaking up. So when Lee dies and they then find an engagement ring in her pocket, it just hits me like an emotional slice of lemon, wrapped around an atomic powered freight train. I have cried before at LARP’s but not for a while and not with this much power, I solidly lose it for a good few minutes.

Finding out Lee Savage is dead.. (c) Mira Strengell

I’m trying to clean myself up and when Abrankowitz (security chief and in charge of the Marine teams) comes in and tells me he needs all hands, the sleeve of my jacket is still wet from all the tears I’ve just shed but I do what I think a good marine would do, I picked myself up, walked into security, picked up a gun and asked where the situation was.

The Finale

A long time ago I gave a presentation about LARP (on how as a writer/GM, how I structured my games, this was also the same talk where I first mentioned the Christmas cake of LARP) and one of the things I touched on was that I considered a LARP to have (but not always) a three act structure (not unlike a lot of films) with each part as important as the other, the three parts I mean are: –

  1. The Setup (everything before the LARP)
  1. The Chase (The LARP)
  1. The Pay Off (The ending of the LARP)

Players can have a great game but a rubbish ending and vice versa and how the game ends can colour your memories of the game as a whole.

The game came to an end when an attempt at a diplomatic solution with the machines failed and a suicide mission was then launched which then took out the machine primary “nerve centre” with a large nuke, we then took one last jump and that is where the game ended. As players we had committed genocide in the name of self defence against another sentient species, albeit one that was trying to exterminate us first. There is a lot more to the plot than I’ve touched on here such as how our ancestors weren’t quite the whiter than white people we’ve always thought they were, how the machines came into being, etc.

I know some players have taken issue with how we survived, apparently there were three potential endings we could have achieved but all were mostly variations on a theme, I know some players aren’t happy that it seems diplomacy never had a chance, I have seen this LARP referred to as a “railroad LARP”; we could take any number of decisions on the journey but we were always going to get to the same destination, there was some variance but it was always going to boil down to a decision no-one was going to want to take. I’m genuinely torn on this, as a player character I was completely happy with the decision to wipe the machines out, they’d tried to kill me and everyone else earlier in the day and wipe out our civilisation before the game started.

As a GM and writer of LARP’s I’m really very torn, I like giving my players choices, forcing them to debate the morale quandary over their actions, the players can face seemingly overwhelming odds but there has to be a chance for whatever plan they make to succeed. A series of “Firefly” games I ran a few years came to an end where the players having a critical piece of information made a deal with the Alliance (that had been hunting them) in exchange for it, now this was wasn’t the ending I’d have liked but it was the ending the players chose (off their own back) and I was incredibly happy that they did. I’ve read some of the Facebook comments from the GM team about this, how the game was always driving us to make this ultimate choice. It seems there was no winning here, just degrees of losing.

I’ve since learned that the ending (the final Time Out). was apparently premature and we should have had a little longer (30 minutes) to try and resolve any outstanding plot lines. For me though, personally speaking, this was a good place to end, I loved my last scene where I found myself unexpectedly with my “wife” and whilst I would have liked to try and resolve my royal plot line more it felt like it was still wide open should there ever be any opportunity to take that forward in the future.

Post Game

After the game we broke down into small groups for a character debrief with a GM where we talked about both the positive and negative aspects of our characters and how we related to them. Once this was complete we then broke into our larger profession groups (for me this was the rest of the Marines and security team) and we then discussed aspects of each other’s characters that we had liked and respected.

This depth of retrospection so soon after a game was a first for me but it led to an overwhelming positive feeling that I’ve rarely experienced before, to the extent we were one of the last groups to finish this exercise as we all had so much to say (plus we were one of the larger groups). We then had the after party (although alcohol free as we were still on school grounds) but it was great to finally talk to people as opposed to their characters.

Critique

Now I had an amazing time at this LARP but I do have a couple of relatively minor comments to make regarding a couple of issues: –

  • Nearly all of the officer stations were duplicated between shifts with a couple of exceptions, one of them being the chief of security (who was also in charge of the marines) and he’s been on his feet for so long we finally got him to take a couple of hours in the brig (comfiest bed in the whole ship) where we could try and make sure he wasn’t disturbed. I’d have put in a nominated second and tried to ensure there was some kind of handover between shifts (agreed tasks got lost between shifts, as I said to him one stage “next time you want us to arrest a senator, just leave a post-it on one of the monitors!”
  • Nerf Combat, now I wouldn’t have advocated using Laser-Tag indoors (although with the recent data refinements who knows) but outdoors when darts were being tossed in the wind on the top of that hill so you needed to practically get to point blank range and even then they were flying randomly, the battery powered guns failed at more than one critical moment, using something like LT would have made that combat so much more intense but I can appreciate why we had what we had.
  • Night games, Standard Operating Procedure for games I (and others run) always call for players to have both torches and whistles on them, when you consider we often run intense combat in rough forest terrain in the dark then the potential for accidents is higher than just staying in the scout hut. I’m not saying if the team on the night mission had been equipped with whistles/torches it would have prevented them getting as lost as they did. I did send the GM team an email to this rough effect when I got back as I only learned what fully happened at the airport about to fly home.

Conclusion

I’ve heard this game referred to as a “Clockwork LARP” in recent days, roughly translating as multiple individual parts, moving independently on a loop to drive the larger machine forward, this is probably as a good a description as I could give. I never thought 360 degree immersion was possible in a LARP, let alone in a sci-fi setting but the level of immersion was just astounding, even now at the time of writing (two weeks after the game ended) I’m still buzzing about and wondering what can I learn from it moving forward in my own games.

So many different facets from set construction, make up, sound, lighting, all worked together in a synchronicity I’ve only ever seen in professional productions costing much more than this did, the project management on this was incredible but it felt flawless, if this was clockwork LARP then it was supported by a clockwork crew.

The technical achievements were also many and varied: –

  • Full Bridge function (powered by Empty Epsilon)
  • Laptops liberally sprinkled around the ship with access to a news/mail system so you could send players messages
  • Engine room systems based on a NASA software framework
  • Integrated lighting, you knew when it was Yellow/Red/Jump alert
  • RFID tags on the walls and on the props that could be scanned by smartphones running a custom app with which you could do tasks
  • The aforementioned helmet cam that went on the away missions
  • The soundscape that changed in different areas of the ship and through jumps

As Nick said to me, any one of these systems would have been noteworthy on a game, but to have all of them integrated in the way that they were is still an achievement I’m in awe of. I’d have loved to have been more hands on with the tech as it’s of genuine interest to me but my role mostly precluded this. There was the occasional glitch but it all worked! I work in IT professionally, I know how much tech they must have had to drive all of this and then some. Then there is the crew, roughly the same number as the players (over 100) and yet always where they needed to be, when they needed to be, absolute precision. I’ve often equated running a LARP as being akin to keeping plates spinning on sticks, but over 100 players were effectively and efficiently herded and I have problems doing that with 20 players.

We also had a 24 hour safety team and a time-out room where you could go if the game was getting too much for you, there was so much emotion on the game, we had tears and laughter, joy and pain, comedy and drama, we ran the full spectrum. The intensity of the collaboration between players was something I’ve rarely encountered but hope to again.

What did “Odysseus” mean to me?

  • A new love of LARP which after the game I walked out of back in March was something I thought I’d lost
  • New friendships made with people I hope to see/LARP again with in the future
  • A new appreciation for the Finnish/Nordic style of LARP, I’ve read a lot about it but this was probably my first proper exposure, in particular the concept of “Play to Lift” and “empty chair” (this is where at any gathering you make sure there is at least one empty chair so a newcomer can join in), I’ve tried to write down how I feel about Play-to-lift but it’s probably easier if you read it yourself: https://nordiclarp.org/2018/02/21/play-lift-not-just-lose/
  • A drive to try another LARP, maybe on a pirate ship, maybe a magic school, maybe something else but I want to do more on this scale like this.

Final Thought

Odysseus was bold in vision and execution and (for me) delivered on every single one of it’s promises and then some. I was changing into my outdoor boots before an away mission and one of the GM’s asked me how the game was going and I responded; “This isn’t a game, it’s a f****** experience” and I still hold to that.

We didn’t play Odysseus, we lived it.

Marine Alpha Team, ESS Odysseus

One thought on “Odysseus / A Retrospective

  1. Pingback: Black Hand Marines

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