Mission Together / A Retrospective

This is both a review and thoughts on the 2nd run of the “Mission Together” LARP in Aviles, Spain, held from August 11-14 2022. All photos are by the author unless otherwise specified.

Introduction

It all feels like such a long time ago now. Three years ago I was coming off the high from the Odysseus LARP, in fact some would say I still haven’t (If you’ve not seen my thoughts on that game that then you can do so here: Odysseus Retrospective). So I was on the look out for a similar game/experience. When Mission Together was announced, it seemed to fulfill my criteria so I signed up and looked forward to returning to space in August 2020. I’d missed out on a last minute place at ‘Conscience’ (a LARP inspired by the TV Series/film WestWorld) as even though I had the means and the time, I dithered just too long and missed out, that would not happen again.

As you might have gathered, things didn’t quite work out the way I thought they would.

For a while I wasn’t sure if the LARP would ever run but as Covid restrictions seemed to ease the chances looked better and it was finally scheduled for August 2022. Before this, I had heard it referred to as Mission Whenever among some other players so having a fixed date was very welcome. So this post will be a collection of thoughts and observations on the recently run Mission Together LARP. Some comparisons with Odysseus are probably inevitable.

Pre-Game

This would be my first time attending a LARP organised by NotOnlyLARP (otherwise known as NoL) after my failure to grab a last minute place on ‘Conscience’. Indeed this would only be my second International LARP (unless you count TagCon 2001 held in Seattle). I got confirmation that I had a place in November 2019, the cost was €360, slightly more than Odysseus had been (but then I still consider that LARP had been cheap for the experience it gave).

The casting questionnaire arrived and this time (unlike with Odysseus) I didn’t try and sway my answers in any particular direction. In a nice twist, I (and I assume all the other players) got an email on December 25 2019 with a brief character description of what we had been assigned. Once, again I was cast in a military role but unlike with Odysseus, I didn’t rail against it but accepted it. The description was nothing more than a bare bones outline but it was enough to perk some interest so I was as happy as I could be at that stage.

Regular newsletters would keep us informed as to what was going on, uniform questionnaires, online meetings for those of us who were ‘teacher’ characters, etc. It all seemed to be moving along. I will also say that any query I threw at them via email got a reply within a couple of days, either with a resolution or a promise to get back to me (which they would do).

Covid first appeared towards the end of 2019 and we watched it progress around the world during those early months of 2020. It was becoming obvious that it would both have an impact on our lives (real and fantasy). My own LARP, ‘High Frontier: The Goodman Protocol’ had originally been scheduled to run March 21/22 2020, after a meeting of the GM team two weeks before that date, we had decided to postpone it due to the emerging Covid situation. The UK as a whole went into it’s first lockdown on March 23. Mission Together (otherwise known as MT) would eventually be pushed back to 2021 in mid April. Things would go quiet (we still had the odd email) for nearly a year until March 2021 when we got our full character sheets and news that the LARP had been pushed back another year, to August 2022. I supported that move, the vaccine rollout had given us hope of a return to some kind of normality but it was also very early days.

The basic backstory to the game was of three planets (Kepler, Deimos and Rhea) who went to war over resources but Kepler was ultimately victorious and able to bring the others to the table for peace talks. However, enough resources had been destroyed by the war and so now new worlds needed to be colonised. Could former enemies work together for the betterment of the whole? That’s a quick précis but its the general gist of what the basis of the game was. I would be playing Atwood, a Keplian soldier who had never actually fought in the war but rather his genetic information had bred armies of soldiers for the Kepler war machine (so my first thought was that I was Jango Fett!). He felt shame for never having actually fought (despite trying several times) and isn’t sure of his place in the world now the war is over.

One difference I did note is that I had more contacts for this character than my one back on Odysseus. Nearer the time of the LARP, I tried to contact people on my list where I felt there was something to work on (calibrate) ahead of the game but I got a mixed set of responses (when I got a response). It felt like other people were as unprepared as I was and this would all add to my upcoming anxiety. As before, I had made notes on these relationships as well as who was playing who but when I came to make contact again, I discovered roughly a third had changed in that intervening time. Immediately before the LARP, 10 player spaces were being advertised for free, all you needed was basic costume and get to the event site. One contact I had been talking to quite well would message me a couple of days before I flew to Bilbao to say she had caught Covid and wouldn’t be attending.

I will admit I had quite the anxiety attack in the immediate run up to the LARP, 2022 hasn’t been kind for a couple of reasons and as I tend to say “Reality has to take precedence over our fantasy lives”. In a weird coincidence I toyed with pulling out of MT (much in the same way as I nearly pulled out of Odysseus but for very different reasons) and weirdly I wasn’t the only one not feeling it. Whether it was the thought of travelling, Covid, or something else, I saw more than one player actively discuss not going.

From Nottingham to Bilbao to Aviles

My job is great for the most part, each day is different, we play with a lot of different technology but I get the least amount of paid holiday out of any job I’ve had in nearly 30 years. So, even though I knew friends would be flying out to Bilbao on the Tuesday ahead of the run, I would not be until the Wednesday before catching the laid on coach on the Thursday. If I could I’d have flown out on the Thursday but the necessity of getting the coach at 08:00 mean’t I couldn’t. I also toyed with could I get away with just a carry on bag, I didn’t need much in the way of costume and a friend had recently gone to a LARP in Denmark and his luggage (with his costume) had stayed in London. In the end I decided to take absolute essential costume in my carry on and everything else I would checkin (although I would buy an Apple AirTag so I would know if it was on the plane or not).

First attempt at packing for the LARP

Travelling down to the airport was relatively uneventful but what was more worrying was that it felt every time I looked at my phone, someone else had dropped out of the game for various reasons. A friend on Facebook even postulated the game was ‘cursed’. Every LARP has dropouts, but it did feel that MT was experiencing a higher rate than what might have been expected.

Despite all the terrible news stories about queues at airports, it took me 50 minutes to check in and then just 5 minutes through security. Although my flight would then be delayed by 50 minutes. I didn’t really get chance to see much of Bilbao but I really should try and get back at some point as it looked lovely. The coach on the Thursday was relatively easy to find under the Guggenheim museum and the blessed air-con on board was a relief from the heat and humidity that was already building. It was great to meet up and chat with people I’d only met once three years ago at Odysseus.

Interlude: LARP in the age of Covid

As with nearly every part of life, Covid had an impact on LARP in general. During this time some systems folded, some events would be cancelled never to run and some people would walk away after losing interest. If you’ve not done something for two years and don’t miss it, are you going to go back?

In the latter half of 2021, LARP did start to wake up to a degree after its enforced slumber (I had tried virtual LARP over lockdown but I found it hard to engage with). I played two real life games during that time both with very different approaches to Covid. On one game it was the proverbial elephant in the room and not even mentioned (apart from a brief section about not coming if you had symptoms) whilst the other insisted everyone took a Lateral Flow Test (LFT) before attending. When it came to my own game in March 2022, I would also insist on everyone passing an LFT before being allowed on site (and that wasn’t without causing some controversy among people). I believe that for the remainder of 2022 (and probably part of 2023) Covid testing will be a pre-requisite before any LARP to keep it as safe as possible for all participants.

Initially, Covid Testing for MT would be twofold, we should test before leaving our homes and travelling to Spain and we would be tested again before getting on the coach ahead of getting to the actual event site.

The week before my run of MT was due to start I was on the archery range when an email arrived (I was aware the first run of the LARP was due be starting around this time). The email basically summed up that two people had tested positive for Covid at the checkpoint for the coach and both them and two close contacts would not be going to the LARP. The email was followed up by posts on Facebook/Discord that it had only been mean’t for players of Run 1 and sending it to all had been a mistake. The practical upshot of this was that players of the second run were asked not to mingle outside of their immediate parties before arriving at the departure point for the coach, I know some players had been making group dinner plans for the night before the game but these were cancelled after this.

My LFT taken the night before flying out.

This was followed up by another email a couple of days later specifically aimed at Run 2 players that indicated there had been another Covid outbreak involving players at the actual site (who were now isolating). We would now be testing ourselves and providing proof of testing. We would also have to make sure we had enough tests so we could test ourselves every day of the LARP.

It’s been interesting to see how each game has handled Covid since LARP resumed. It really does range from next to nothing to having to do an LFT and having your vaccination paperwork. As I write this the UK appears to be on the downward slant of its latest Covid peak so we are still in this no matter what governments may say.

Graph captured August 2022

As it would turn out I don’t believe there was a Covid outbreak during my run of the LARP, although afterwards would be a very different story. I flew home on the Sunday (the day after the LARP finished) and went back to work on the Monday. I tested in the morning before leaving home and was negative. It wasn’t until Tuesday that the first symptoms appeared during the day but I still tested negative that evening. Wednesday morning I felt quite rough and this time I got the dreaded double redline on my LFT. I wasn’t alone, I saw on both Discord and FB that various people had also tested positive. As to where it came from, people I hadn’t mixed with since before getting on the coach back to the Airport had tested positive so I’m relatively sure I caught it at the LARP despite the fact we were testing daily. Ultimately I would continue to test positive for the next 11 days after that first positive result.

Anyway, interlude over, back to the game at hand..

The Space

The LARP was held at the Exhibition Pavilion of La Magdalena in the town of Aviles roughly 3 hours drive from Bilbao.

The front of the Exhibition Hall

Entering from the rear, I was immediately struck by the large size of the hall. It was virtually empty apart from several dressed freight containers and some kind of an inflatable building (that housed the in-game hydroponic experiments). Various spaces along the sides had been converted into specific areas such as a science lab, med bay, engineering, etc. Moving upstairs you would find the memorial, armoury with shooting range and auditorium.

The main hall of the exhibition centre.

This initial period we were able to walk around the interior and get acquainted with our new surroundings. Soon after we were able to collect our costume rentals, character ID cards and other items and also see where we would be sleeping. Sleeping would be behind the brought in showers in ‘tents’ holding two air beds each.

Atwoods ID card (which was RFID equipped and could interface with other props) along with his flag, rank and mission patch
The Shower blocks
Another view with the Hydroponics lab in the foreground
Another view of the main concourse
Weapon Testing Range
Some of the better NERF weapons that I’ve encountered, with the spherical rounds as opposed to the more traditional darts
Experimental Power Armour
Science Lab
Med Bay
The built in projector screen on the Bio-Bed
War Memorial
Mechanics Workshop
The Space Flight simulator, two stations either side with helm at the front, this was duplicated on the other side
Looking into a dorm (this was taken on the last day so the main lights are still off)
The video comm where we could receive IC video messages, note the milk crate…
Closer look at the Vid-Comm, note the RFID reader in the left hand corner of the panel, also note the IR Keyboard projector in the lower middle. This would be replaced by a more mundane mouse later in the game.
The artists corner
Space Disco (no rope lights sadly)
Inside of the Hydroponics inflatable.
These valves were dotted around and were the purview of the mechanics team

Time In!

The LARP started with a series of workshops where various mechanics and rules of the LARP are gone over again and we get a more detailed tour of the spaces on each floor. We also go over some of the themes of the LARP again and the rules for playing on them. This involved the racist elements of the LARP. We were encouraged to both use and receive the various racist slurs that had been disclosed in the pre-game documentation against each other in a workshop. I took part in this but this was never a part of Atwoods character, he believed in the mission. In fact, I would discourage their use when I saw it as I believe that’s what my character would do.

Lastly we had meetings in both our planetary groups (Kepler, Deimos and Rhea) and then our profession groups (Military, science, medical, engineering, artists, etc.).

The combined military element of Mission Together, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

The next In Character (IC) item on the agenda was Speed LARPing which I will admit is something I don’t believe I’ve come across before. Basically, I had a list of 9 meetings, sometimes with one character, sometimes with a group. The idea was (I think) to do some last minute calibration to help with relationship building. Each meeting had a number and I worked out that the number correlated to a numbered meeting point dotted around the immediate area.

Two of my contacts never showed up, one was delayed elsewhere, in another case the player had dropped out and not been replaced. One of my main antagonists had also only been given the character sheet 20 minutes before meeting me and hadn’t really got a handle on our relationship or even really who I was playing. It wasn’t his fault and we resolved to try and make the best of it over the course of the game. One of my potential romantic contacts told me that she already had 4 romantic contacts already so probably wouldn’t have time for me as well.

You have to feel sorry for people in this position, being given characters and then no time to really go through them, I’d done some work with previous player’s but of course that was all lost. I don’t know how many characters were finally missing from the game overall, there was a list of something like 15 characters that were missing from the overall total of 148.

Time In was finally called at around 23:00ish, after the long day I didn’t last too long and I soon retired as in the morning I would be taking my first class.

Sergeant Atwood of the Keplian military

I will admit, one of the attractions of this character was the chance to be a teacher/trainer character but with the multiple changes to the rota nothing had really been decided amongst the trainer characters. Indeed we only came up with a plan just before the first session. Each group would get a short briefing from the Lieutenant and then the groups would be split. I was given the task of running the rifle range (equipped with various NERF rival weapons) and then another would take them through some other basic drills (I’m not sure what as I was always in the rifle range). My next dilemma was how to pitch it, I’m not sure I could carry off Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket and that probably wouldn’t have been suitable but I certainly wanted elements of that. Ultimately I think it landed somewhere between Sergeant Apone from Aliens and Sergeant Major Zero from Terrahawks but I did get some compliments from players afterwards on how I carried it off.

Atwood sizing up the participants while Lieutenant Hypatia speaks, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

My one regret being a trainer was that I never got to go and see what the other trainers were up to and that might have been helpful as a source of inspiration. Realistically I think the groups on the second day got a better experience than the first as I’d certainly found my groove and was happier in the role. Once the morning training sessions were over we were then free to try and pursue our own plots.

Supervising the firing range, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

Ultimately the first full day of the LARP left me a little deflated as I wasn’t sure what I could ultimately contribute to the game (in some ways mirroring Atwoods feeling of not knowing where he belonged now the war was over). I throughly enjoyed my interaction with the other military personnel, particularly the junior ranks trying to keep them in line, we would go on to have some great interactions throughout the course of the LARP. I broke up a few fights between soldiers and would give the participants some motivational speeches to not do it again (I’m fairly sure I could see Plath looking past me looking for more ‘opportunities’ just as I was giving such a motivational speech). We had the ceremony of ‘Unification’ in the evening and it was clear that plots were happening and wheels were moving but I had no real idea what.

Atwood talking to Plath, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

As I said earlier, Atwood’s primary back story was that he had been the template for an army of clones, I would train the clones (as a perfect soldier!) and then they would train the Keplian army. Elements of this got more and more teased out of me as the game went on. The primary thrust of my character was this and, even though being described as a perfect soldier, he had never fought in a battle and never fired a shot in anger. He had watched his best friend from the academy, Lamarr, become a massive war hero, leading from the front, leading the life that Atwood desperately would have wanted. Naturally seeing her again was quite the boost for my character and those early scenes with Lamarr were great and definitely one of my event highlights. As I’ve said before, Atwood was also, I think, a Patriot, he believed in the mission and would have done anything to ensure its success.

It was the last day where things started to move quickly with the sudden deposing of the leader of the Keplian Government. I know the way this happened impacted some of the Keplian players in a negative way OOC and I don’t think we ever got a reason why or what the evidence against her was. Looking back, I don’t think we ever got an explanation as to why this happened, I got hints from another character but not the complete story.

Lamarr asks for a word and she explains that her ‘record’ has been faked for morale purposes, she too (like Atwood) had never fought in a battle. This was Atwood’s world imploding around him and I’m ashamed to admit I did shed a tear or two (although nothing quite like what happened to me at one point on Odysseus!). I pleaded with her not to tell anyone else, I knew tensions were already running high between various factions and if this got out then it was going to get potentially dangerous. My reasoning was that if the cost of keeping the secret was mine and Lamarr’s souls then that was a price worth keeping. Oh how little did I know what was coming.

Officers and NCO’s in conference, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

All Keplians were summoned just after lunch for a briefing, with Lamarr standing front and centre. She laid out what she had told me despite me pleading with her not to. Things immediately got tense and I thought I was going to have to put one of the pilots down at one point. But this was then followed by the confession of our General that Kepler had started the war all along and had done some really terrible things along the way.

Looking at it, we were dressed in red and black and I suppose all we needed were some skulls somewhere on our uniform. I know I really shouldn’t have but as this was happening all I could think of the was the Mitchell and Webb sketch: Are we the baddies? Poor role-play on my part but it just popped into my headspace and refused to leave.

Revelations about Kepler and the war, photo by Kai S Fredriksen

So we had a new leader, and then a new general as Lieutenant Meitner was put in temporary charge of the Kepler armed forces. Thinking as soon as the news broke of how the war really started some enterprising Demian or Rhean might make an attempt on her life, I became her de facto bodyguard for a short while. We then learned Rhean and Demian forces were about to bomb the training facility. We had to launch two ships, one to the new world and to try and negotiate with the bombers. The ships launched and we all looked skyward and that is where the game ended, naturally, without knowing if we made it or not.

I’ve since learned that Run 1 of the LARP ended much more violently with an all out gunfight and attempts to steal space ships, ours ended more peacefully, undoubtedly due to the respective generals of all planets keeping their forces calm but it felt like it could kick off at any moment and I really thought it would.

The question of whether three worlds could work together after a major war had been answered in two very different ways across both runs.

Post Game

Once TimeOut was called we gathered in the main concourse where we took photos (including some great group photos which I’ve included in this blog post). Then, once I’d stripped off my armour and changed T-shirts, the cleanup began, as it was such a huge job we all pitched in. I ended up helping to breakdown the shooting range, whilst there it was great to chat with some of the organisers (language problems not withstanding!). The after party would start and it would be great to talk and chat to people as James and not as Atwood. A little contingent of Odysseus veterans would gather at one point to reminisce about that previous experience. Retiring to bed at around 04:00, I would get about 3 hours sleep before having to get up to catch the coach back to Bilbao.

Critique

I liked the prop design an awful lot on this game, the Perspex(?) sheets lit from underneath worked really well (particularly the one on the BioBed). I’m not sure what the various valves did that were dotted around but I’ve gleaned bits of info on them and I like the concept a lot. But, the one thing I had an issue with was the Video Comm unit where you could receive pre-recorded messages. The concept was fine and it was setup like the others but the screen was high for me (I’m a fairly average 5’11”) and the way it was angled (to allow for the projector) made it quite difficult to see properly (which is probably explains why there was a milk crate next to it). The next problem was the speaker, this was under the desk and sounded muffled, despite increasing the video volume in the interface and physically increasing the sound on the speaker. If you were watching a video and the background noise around you went up a notch then you would have to choose between watching or listening to your message. It’s still an interesting concept and whilst this may sound negative I thought it was a really good idea that merely had issues in its execution in this one case.

Watching a video message on the VidComm Unit

As I alluded to earlier, certainly on the first day, once my training sessions were over, I felt distinctly rudderless as Atwood. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. Some of this was almost certainly down to all of the character changes that had been enforced on the game. One character in my contact list I tried to get in touch with on Discord was seemingly ignoring me but I would later find out they were using the character login of the character they had originally been given before being given a different character to play. Atwood had a fantastic background and I thought he was a great character to play (certainly one that played to my RP strengths), but as a good friend has told me in the past “background is not plot”. Ultimately, as I was having a negative time at stages of the game I should have gone to the Plot Team or Safety and I didn’t and thats on me. I ignored one of my own LARP mantras I stress when doing my own LARP safety briefings, namely “We can’t fix the problem if we don’t know it exists”. I’ve since reread the character background several times in case I missed something that would have been relevant to the game but I’m not sure I did. The one potential hook was that some characters could have been my ‘genetic-children’, clones based on me but with a different face (changing faces was part of the backstory). I could have gone to get scanned at the medic department but there was no impetus in my background for me to do so, looking back maybe I should have. Perhaps there was also something that would have come out with one of my contacts who I was never able to connect with?

As I’ve written elsewhere, endings are hard, like really hard. You can run the best LARP ever but have a mediocre ending and that can be what players remember. I’m not saying the ending of MT was mediocre, it wasn’t, but it felt forced to the extent it felt like we weren’t making decisions in so much as reacting to the apparent situation. The one element of the ending I have an issue with was the apparent incoming bombing of the facility, I just didn’t get why this would happen from a plot viewpoint. I get why it was happening with my GM hat on, this would give the players impetus to do something. But speaking as Atwood, why send bombers when they’re own people were still there, there may have been something else going on but nothing I’ve gleaned since the end of the game has shed any light. The game also ended on an open-ended note, did the ships get away, were they able to get the bombers called off, would they get to the new world? Cliffhangers in games are fine, I’ve both written and experienced them, but the point of a cliffhanger is for it to get resolved in a future game, but in this case it probably never will be. Afterwards, some people weren’t happy about not getting closure on the LARP and I can see why. I don’t think this ending was as controversial as arguably Odysseus was, but it did provoke some comment in the immediate aftermath.

Summing Up

It’s hard to ignore the Covid shaped elephant in this room. I can only imagine how stressed the GM team were in both the run up and then the execution of this run of the LARP with the sheer number of participant dropouts. It’s easy in hindsight to say that maybe this LARP should have been pushed back further, perhaps even another year to 2023 but it does come to a point of when do you run? The sheer number of player changes undoubtedly impacted my game (and I suspect others). Also remember the game was still missing roughly 10% of the characters by the time my run started and that’s after intensive recruitment right up to the beginning of Time-In. Was this the most Covid impacted game since LARP started running again?

The above may sound negative but I did have some great moments, I enjoyed the training aspect of the character and I also really enjoyed a lot of my character interactions, particularly with some of my contacts (the ones I was able to engage with). I liked a lot of the game setup and found the exploration of some of the themes interesting. I had some intense scenes with some great characters and I think I played Atwood as well as I could given the circumstances and situation that developed.

Final Thoughts

I booked onto Mission Together looking to scratch that Odysseus itch and whilst I may not have been totally successful in that, I did find different aspects that I was able to enjoy and connect with alongside some fabulous people. In closing I would like to thank all of the organisers, crew and my fellow players for helping to make this LARP happen.

So, thanks for reading if indeed, you still are.

The Kepler element of “Mission Together”, photo by Kai S Fredriksen
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