All for One: A game using moment-based Design

Design, Essay

Author: Ian Thomas

Originally posted on on June 26, 2019. Reproduced with permission of the author. For more of Ian’s writing on LARP and games design, go to

Back in late 2017, Harry Harrold asked Rachel and me to help him put together the Musketeers game he’d been bullied into running. He also enlisted Bill and Kiera – who’ve always done our stunts, props, and ridiculous over-the-top moments – and we roped Dan and Damian in to help out as well. So, suddenly All for One was a Crooked House event, in association with Harry. And, as it was only just over a year away, we needed to start the design process. We like to get a head start on these things.

The design unfolded over the next year, mostly in conversations between Harry, Rachel, and myself, with occasional calls with the others. It changed direction a lot, and frankly it’s hard to remember all the variants, but here are some of the major decisions and the thinking behind them.

A List of Moments

We started with our standard approach to this sort of event: brainstorming a long list of ‘moments’ that we want the players to experience. I’ve written elsewhere about this design method; effectively we started by saying “what moments would make the players feel like they were in a Three Musketeers movie?” and writing down a long list. Things like: being in the fight in the laundry, swinging from a chandelier, brawling in the tavern, having breakfast between the lines at the siege of La Rochelle. By the time we’d finished, we’d listed several hundred of these moments, drawing from the 1970s movies and similar material in the same genre. We had a first pass to figure out what might be practical. Then we took a step back and considered the overall shape of the event.

Broad Strokes

Harry had started with an initial idea, which was to structure the event as if it were Hogwarts for Musketeers; you would start as a cadet, have lessons in swordplay and politics and etiquette, and then finally at the end you would stand before the King and take your oath as a full Musketeer at a graduation ceremony. Roughly following D’artagnan’s path – earning your place amongst the Musketeers.

This was a great starting point; it told us what the main physical setting would be (we hadn’t picked a site at this point), told us that we’d be breaking the event up into blocks of time (‘lessons’), and even better told us that we’d be breaking the cadets up into small squads – a bit like Hogwarts houses – which was interesting for a bunch of reasons.

Teaming Up

Splitting the cadets into squads would potentially give us rivalry and a sense of identity, as with the Hogwarts houses – but more importantly it gave us a small, bonded group. Which, given the movies are all about a small, bonded group, is perfect. Your best friends by your side, willing to clash swords and shout “All for One!” in unison.

This became the key decision for the game, and drastically affected how we’d design and plot out the game’s events. It was no longer a game focusing on an amorphous group of between 30 and 50 players; it was a game focusing on several small, tight-knit groups.

We decided each group of cadets should have a servant, to fill the place of Planchet from the movies. And that a group of cadets should be called a cadre. We settled on five cadres consisting of six cadets and one servant each, making thirty-five players in total; primarily because that fit with the numbers we were allowed to have at the venue we’d now settled on – a 17th Century house near Monmouth.

To Adventure!

So, an academy full of cadres of cadets, learning lessons and having rivalries. But surely that was Hogwarts, not Three Musketeers? How could we add in those elements from the movies that were on our wishlist of moments – chasing enemies across France, gambling and drinking in taverns, visiting the Queen at Versailles?

The cadets must be allowed to go and have adventures! In their separate cadres, as we wanted the cadets in those groups to have shared adventures that would strengthen their bond. We came up with two ways for this to happen:

The High Road

The first, and most obvious, answer was to adopt what we in the UK think of as ‘old-school linears’.

These were typical of University LRP club systems where so many of us started; a path through a wooded area, where a group of players would set out and have ‘encounters’ every so often along that linear path. At the start of the adventure they would typically be given a mission. Then they’d come across various groups of enemies or NPCs to talk to, some directly related to the mission, some just filler. Then eventually they’d reach the goal of the mission and achieve it (or die trying!).

Happily, our intended site had just such a wooded area within easy walking distance.

This would fit the shape of the event very well and would give us many more of our wishlist of moments – being able to send a cadre out to travel the Paris high road to intercept a message, or to pursue an enemy while fighting off the Cardinal’s Guards. It would also bring in plenty of nostalgia for the older British players, which was a nice bonus. Tom and Woody were ‘volunteered’ by Harry to run this for us.

However, it wouldn’t adequately answer our other aim – letting the cadres visit the Queen at Versailles, or wander the streets of Paris.

The Sound Stage

Since not long after we ran Captain Dick Britton and the Voice of the Seraph back in 2006, I’d wanted to set up something I called a sound stage. I’d thought about it for Dick Britton 2, but we put that event on hold. The idea was that we’d take a large empty space, set up a projector as a backdrop, and then add lighting, sound, other effects, and some very simple props, allowing the players to improvise wildly with a minimalist set – something they’d done spontaneously at the first Dick Britton and something we loved.

This was an ideal fit for the Musketeers event. With a sound stage, we could transport them to the rooftops of Paris; to the middle of the English Channel in a boat; to a far-flung chapel in Scotland; to an Alpine mountain pass; to the Vatican itself!

We had several false starts on the design (I wanted to overcomplicate it with multiple projectors at one point) and several false starts on where to put the thing (“Will it fit in the garage? Could we put it in a tent?”) We eventually decided to give up a major room in our chosen venue, because we lost one room and gained (potentially) a whole universe!

Avec Fromage et Jambon

It’s probably worth pointing out here that we’d already come to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be trying to be deeply immersive with much of the event – we would deliberately be making use of the players’ suspension of disbelief, their inventiveness, and their ability to not take things too seriously and to create play for others. The setting would be cheesy, with large slices of hamminess. That didn’t mean the roles wouldn’t be taken seriously – after all, in the 70s movies, everyone is taking their roles seriously. It just meant that we would emphasise the fun to be found in being deliberately collaborative with other players. This would be play to lift rather than play to win.

It’s About Time

With the High Road established as the place for Fighting Adventures (as we couldn’t really have fighting on the sound stage) and with the Sound Stage established as the place for Exotic Adventures (on sets we couldn’t build elsewhere), the shape of the event had evolved again.

We had lessons, and amongst them we had adventures; we also had, from the very beginning, a siege sequence, and a tavern brawl. Harry was most insistent on those. So how could we make it all fit together? It made very little sense that you could spend three days at a training school and in the middle of it pop off to Paris or the Vatican and come back an hour or so later.

We started to think about time.

In Dick Britton, we adopted a framework which we called Cinedrama. The conceit was that the whole event was actually a movie, which meant we could frame it like a movie and use movie concepts and ideas. We would call “Cut!” between scenes, as (for example) the players flew from Bavaria to the Arabian Desert, and “Action” when we’d walked them over to the desert set; we asked them to ignore the brown-coated stage-hands who were shifting scenery; we would get them to trace a dotted red line across a map while travelling; and everyone played everything through the lens of over-dramatic, hammed-up acting. Which fitted our cheese and ham approach perfectly.

And All for One was intentionally trying to recreate the feel of the 1970s musketeers movies. So – Cinedrama!

(You can learn a lot more about Cinedrama here.)

This meant that we could conceivably have cuts between scenes where large time spans took place. You wouldn’t join a musketeer academy on Friday and graduate on the following Sunday – surely it would take at least a year? And that journey to Paris would take a week, at least; not to mention the journey to far-flung Scotland!

We divided play into distinct acts. During an act, time would be linear. At the end of an act, we’d call “Cut”, and update people with how much time had passed and any major events they’d know about. Then we’d start play again, with a call of “Action!” Suddenly, months had passed.

A small complication here is that we couldn’t have all the cadres having their adventures ‘between acts’ – it would have made sense from a game point of view, but logistically the scheduling for us was impossible.

A schedule that Doesn’t Work

But this is Cinedrama! Things don’t need to be filmed in order! Therefore, we fitted the ‘adventures’ into the normal academy timetable, disguising them as ‘Latrine Duty’ and ‘Guard Duty’. From the point of view of everyone in the academy, those cadres would be off on very unexciting duties for an hour. From the point of view of the cadres on the adventures, they’d be travelling hundreds of miles, perhaps over the course of several months. The gimmick was that, on returning to the academy, they couldn’t tell anyone else what had happened – because it hadn’t happened yet! After the next Act break, they’d be able to talk about it. Slightly convoluted, but worked surprisingly well in practice.

A schedule which Does Work. With some suspension of disbelief.

The Cinedrama framework was hugely helpful for both the High Road and Sound Stage as well. Being able to transport them huge distances or time spans with a simple ‘Cut’ meant the adventures became snappier, more focused, and more globe-trotting. For the sound stage in particular, we were even able to play with split-screen (simultaneous action happening on two separate bits of the stage), montages, and fast cuts back and forward between bits of action.

This cinematic conceit also meant we could put in music and sound effects and everybody would be happy to play along.

The Siege

Going back to our initial moments list, what about this siege? In the early parts of the design, we’d looked at transporting all the players off-site to an entirely separate venue where our stunt and props team had arranged a battle. In the end, we managed to fit it on to our existing site, with some clever work by the battle team, led by Kiera, Bill, and Chris.

Conceptually, the thing we wanted to nail for the siege design was for it to feel like a small group of musketeers – one cadre – was taking on hordes of enemies. But where would we get that horde of enemies? Well – how about the rest of the cadres?

So Cinedrama came to the rescue again. We would use the same piece of physical ground, but in the fiction of the game we were shooting five different parts of the siege scene from ‘different angles’. Between takes we would rearrange the battlefield. Each cadre would have their own take; their own mini-story and mission objective. And then, as they went on to the battlefield, they’d be faced by the players of the other cadres along with our supporting cast, all costumed up to be the enemy forces. Seven against fifty! After that attack was over, we’d call “Cut”, rearrange the field, and then it was time for the next cadre.

The siege became its own act within the overall story – taking back the Academy from Spanish forces!

Having a Ball

Another set-piece moment we had to have was a masked ball. Partly we wanted to watch our cadets navigate their way through a situation requiring etiquette and politics; partly we wanted to give them a chance to rub shoulders with all the major figures of the court; and partly we wanted to steal the humour and confusion from the scenes in Casanova and Shakespeare where there are multiple cases of mistaken identity. To do this we introduced a new cinematic rule. First we provided all the masks, making sure many were identical; then we introduced the rule that it was impossible for anyone to tell two people wearing the same mask apart, no matter how else they were dressed. We’ve all seen movies where the identity of the masked figure is utterly obvious, yet the rest of the cast just can’t seem to figure it out.

Faith in Cheeses

The set-piece moment that Harry had dreamed of was the tavern brawl. A scene in which each cadre would enter a tavern, have to fight with everybody inside, and during the confusion steal their dinner. We turned this over to our stunt and props team – they created foam chairs, tables, benches, and barrels for our cast to hit each other with. Their masterpiece was a foam chandelier that could be dropped on people’s heads. To all those, we added sugar-glass bottles and wine glasses, which could be smashed over combatants. Again, as with the siege, this scene would run five different times, once for each cadre; everyone having the opportunity to get stuck in! To minimise potential physical danger, we worked brawling into the lesson plan, so that by the time the cadets got to this scene they would already have had a chance to become familiar with a bit of stage fighting.

Building Story Threads

Having decided the shape of our game – the academy as a ‘hub’ with adventures taking place elsewhere; time broken down into acts; major set pieces such as the siege, the ball, the tavern, and the graduation ceremony, we now needed to look at how we would structure the story itself.

We had many, many different ideas for plots, inspired by the Musketeers movies and similar sources. We couldn’t run them all. But one single plot didn’t make much sense, as the cadres would effectively be sharing that plot between them and there wouldn’t be enough to do. It just didn’t fit our structure. But we had five cadres, so why not have five plots?

This was a fairly major turn in our design thinking. Instead of making one movie for a cast of thirty-five, we’d be making five movies, intertwined with each other, each for a cast of seven. This gave us a solid framework for how we’d try and make each cadre’s experience feel coherent and focused.

We decided to hang each story off a particular major figure from the movies. We’d already come to the conclusion that we’d set the story twenty years later, so that D’artagnan and his companions had moved on, giving the cadets a chance to be the new Musketeers. So we thought about what would have happened to the major characters in twenty years; where the interesting stories and conflicts might be. And we tried to mix things around, so that the Cardinal wasn’t necessarily the antagonist, and that the Queen wasn’t necessarily the damsel in distress.

As a result each cadre had a story focused around their interactions with one or two major supporting cast members, who represented a faction of the court; the Queen, the King, the Cardinal, the Captain of the Cardinal’s Guard, Lady De Winter and so on. While the stories did overlap, the main thrust and goal of each story was particular to a cadre. It also tied in ideas that the players had sent in about their particular cadre’s background and their individual character connections.

Juggling and Plate-Spinning

One of our hardest – and most-often revisited – tasks was to juggle the event timetable. We kept having discussions like: “Cadre Verte needs to be at the Soundstage at 2pm, but they can’t go to Paris at that point, because they have to learn about the current political climate during their 3pm lesson with Aramis! And we need Aramis on the High Road earlier in the day, so he can’t tell them then.” It was mind-numbing, and kept changing and changing again. We had the whole event timetabled before we realised that having horses and black powder weapons together at the same time would not be a good idea and had to change it. Again! Before the event Rachel painstakingly extracted all the information into sorted spreadsheets and printed them out. We never thought it’d survive contact with the event itself. And were astounded when almost everything ran exactly to schedule.

Character Generation

To create the characters – and to see what stories our players might be interested in us writing – we used our Tag System, which I’ve written about over here. Rather than submitting full characters, players submit a set of tags describing their character, which the writers then work from.

The Rules

We created a bespoke rules system based on moments from our moments list – to help us provoke the scenes we wanted to happen between the players. You can find the rules here.

For example, we wanted the cadre to have a motto, so that they would clash blades and shout their equivalent of ‘All for One!’. We worked that in as a healing mechanic – if your cadets and servants were all wounded and tired, they could clash swords, shout their motto, and be healed.

We introduced and systemised the idea of ‘Heroic Moments’ so that each player could have a moment in the limelight where they had the advantage over the opposition.

We turned the servants into the ‘healing batteries’ of the cadre, so that the cadre were utterly dependent on their servants (and would protect them). When a cadet was injured, the servant could pour them a tankard of wine and give them a good talking to, and they’d soon be on their feet again.

We added back in our language rules from Dick Britton, so that people could have the opportunity for a moment where everyone knew perfectly well what was said, but their characters didn’t.

We introduced duelling rules, so that people who were not great at sword fighting in reality could still feel like a true musketeer and win duels. And we made fighting very, very simple.

In general we tried to get the rules as out of the way as possible, with very little to remember; tried to make them so that there was plenty of room for individual improvisation; and above all tried to make them create opportunities to have those moments from our list.

Into The Pot

Into all this, we also threw:

  • Messengers turning up on horseback. Real horses in a larp game was something we’d wanted to do for years. Happily, Rachel is a vet, and trained to run a riding stable.
  • Real black-powder firing muskets, so players could actually be musketeers! Tim and Jon, who provided the muskets, also fired cannon for us across the battlefield.
  • Pyrotechnics, including hand grenades and a bomb to breach a wall, by David.
  • A superb supporting cast, some of whom taught lessons on politics, herbalism, brawling, swordplay, and dancing, and some of whom switched characters twenty times in the course of an hour.
  • A catering team, cooking banquets and buffets for all and sundry, and for one evening an improvised seven-course gourmet dinner for a small number of cast and players.
  • Background music for the high road and the sound stage, and music for the grand ball, provided (and in some cases created) by Panda, our dance instructor.
  • A working alchemical experiment to prove that one key plot item was real, and another faked.
  • Opening titles with a text-crawl, and closing titles listing the cast and crew.
  • An Iron Mask; a Holy Relic; the Stone of Scone (and the fake Stone of Scone); a Templar altar; a gravestone with a coffin buried beneath it, complete with a nun’s corpse; the Fallen Madonna avec Les Grands Melons by Van Clomp (and a forgery of same); a mortar you could hammer a spike into; a flat-pack boat; six nun’s outfits; a set of false moustaches… and all manner of other props and effects and costumes and ridiculousness.

And Finally

Like all our productions, everything here was tailored as much as possible to help us deliver those moments from our initial list. Either actual set pieces, or situations or rules which would give the players the opportunity to create or experience one of those moments. We wanted to make them feel like they were part of a Three Musketeers movie. That’s really our philosophy for all this sort of design: start with what you want the players to feel, and work back from that.

The Graduation Ceremony — Photo courtesy of Tom Garnett

Photos courtesy of Tom Garnett.

Over here, you can find Harry talking about the bits he was happiest with, including some scenes I’d forgotten about.

We couldn’t have done this without the help of a huge number of skilled and creative individuals. I’ve named some. You can find the other names in the end credits:

If you’re interested in more of this sort of thing, here’s a complete contrast — my write-up of some of the design aspects of Wing and a Prayer, a larp/simulation of the duties of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War 2. Or there’s an entire website over here about our 1950s ghost story, God Rest Ye Merry.

Immersive, interactive, in-character: larp edges into mainstream entertainment

Community, Essay

Harry Harold

This article first appeared on on March 17th 2018. Republished with permission from the author.

The Peckforten Papers is a collection of writing about UK larp published by the Wychwood Press. You can buy it on Lulu should you wish, or get the pdf here.

I wrote a bit for it in a stream-of-conscious sort of way, and it’s down here so I don’t lose it…

I am sat where it all began. For values of “it” and “all” that are arguable, for sure, but they’re certainly true for me. The entire family tree of Treasure Traps; Durham, Cambridge and late-lamented Birmingham (in no particular order), of Labyrinth, of fests and of Fools and Heroes, maybe. Of a small Norfolk system called Overkill where I first ran linears, absolutely. Of the live-combat side of larp in the UK, probably.


(Image credit: Stephen Charles licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.)

I’m leaching Peckforton Castle’s wifi with a pint of Estrella and a laptop, sat in what was the “smoke room” in the original Treasure Trap’s “basic” adventure. Back in the day, monster weapons were coated with paint, and a ref checked if you’d been hit with red for a small amount of damage, black for a lot more or even green for poison. The staff blame the paint that still marks the walls in “off limits” areas on “an American paintball company.” I am unconvinced, but better an unnamed company than an entire hobby which happened to be born here. Right now it’s a luxury wedding venue. It would make an excellent phys-rep for a College of Wizardry, but would need a ticket price to match and I’m sure it’d be worth that.

Next year, I hope to be sitting in a hotel in Walt Disney World, just starting out on an experience where I’m in character for a couple of days, immersed in a Star Wars themed environment, interacting with Star Wars universe characters, and inspired to change my own and others’ narratives with my actions. The kind of thing their 2013 patent and the news stories since then have fanned as rumour, delivering storytelling through emerging technology, I think they call it these days.

In the 35 years since I started larp, the mainstream has been embracing bits and pieces of the hobby. I didn’t notice for years, but now it’s hard not to. “Immersive”, and “interactive” appear with increasing regularity in advertisements for various types of live entertainment. I’ve seen them used to describe theatre, cinema, music from classical to art-rock, newer forms such as Escape Rooms, Zombie Runs and what we’d once have simply called Haunted Houses. The words “immersive” and “interactive” mean more to more people.

There’s a bit of the mainstreaming of parts of geek culture that can be traced from Harry Potter, bless’im, the cinematic release of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and the re-birth of Star Wars. There’s something in individualised or even mass-customised experiences vs. commodified digital delivery of the same entertainment to everyone.

In this article, I’ll place larp in a landscape of other events I’ve been to that are a little bit “larpy”: immersive, interactive, and maybe even a little bit in-character…


By this term, the mainstream tends to mean an activity happening in an environment which is authentic to a setting, with people who are dressed and act authentically to the setting. Note, “a” setting – Plunkett and Maclean is my favourite example – it’s lousy at being authentic to Regency Britain, but it’s fabulously authentic to “Plunkett and Macleany Britain,” an altogether better place in which to play. They don’t mean mentally immersed, or at least I don’t think they do, with a very few exceptions I’ve come across, they also don’t mean “in character” – more on that later.

Punchdrunk is a well-funded theatre company with a magnificently executed schtick; the audience moves. Not merely in the sense that a promenade performance moves; where the audience move at the prompting, urging or instruction of ushers. Punchdrunk audiences simply wander about. Punchdrunk shows are unique to their environments, which are simply stunning. I’ve been to two of their shows for adults. The “Masque of the Red Death” took elements from Edgar Allan Poe stories, and wove them round Battersea Arts centre. “The Drowned Man” created a Hollywood cinema studio with accompanying trailer park and town in the shell of a disused Royal Mail sorting office.The attention to detail in the set dressing in particular verged on the obsessive; with documents, letters, and props all forming part of the story.

As a member of the audience at a Punchdrunk event you’re immersed in the story, in that you have a physical presence where you wish to be. You are certainly in a place which is itself part of the action. You’re all given white masks, so you were all blank faces staring at the action. At “Masque of the Red Death”, you were given black robes if you weren’t dressed for the time, so many of you were raven-like, flocking round points of interest. What you experience is (probably) unique because you move at your whim.

Secret Cinema create immersive experiences based on films. You show up, you’re in a space appropriate to the film, then you watch the film. Some actors do some stuff appropriate to the film. Back in the day, you never knew what the film was. You showed up, not knowing what to expect, they took you somewhere, you watched something.

Now, that’s pretty cool, but what I think they realised is that an immersive experience needs the people as well as the environment to be dressed right, and act right. So nowadays their blockbuster shows tell you what you’re going to see, how to look, and there are crew about to give you something to interact with before the film. I’ve only been to a couple: “Empire Strikes Back,” and “Moulin Rouge”.

The immersive element before “Empire Strikes Back” was the setting of the original “Star Wars” story: Tatooine, a couple of shuttle runs, and the Death Star. The set was simply stunning, and it turned out there were enough geek-sci-fi-fans around for the audience to look good too. When we landed in Mos Eisley, my inner seven year old just stumbled about open-mouthed, when we walked into the cantina with the diddly diddly music playing, he was slack-jawed, when we got to use Jedi mindtricks on a stormtrooper, he was in seventh heaven, when the Death Star pulled us in a tractor beam, he was punch-drunk with experience-shock, and when a life-size x-wing executed an attack run over our heads, he actually exploded. It was pretty awesome.

“Moulin Rouge” was a film-set street in Mountmatre: a couple of bars, a stage and a dancehall with double level seating they managed to hide until we entered the “Moulin Rouge” itself. It was a beautifully effective use of space, and we were moved round impeccably, to the extent that I only really noticed what they were doing on my third run, when I went with a more analytical frame of mind, and a more analytical companion. It wasn’t – to look back critically – as immersive as the set for “Empire Strikes Back”. What I think made it, were the other people. Everyone I noticed had gone to town on costume, in a setting where, unlike “Empire Strikes Back,” there are some easily accessible tropes: “posh” or “performer” are pretty easy to do, steampunk fits, if you feel the need, and low status male at least is a charity shop standard. The audience got (physically) immersed amongst a whole pack of other folk who’d also gone to town on their look.

That physical immersion is one of the elements I prize in larp. Yes, you can patch anything with imagination, and yes, in most games I run you need to. But I think imagination is overrated in larp. What sets larp apart from tabletop roleplaying is physical presence, and there are stories to be told where tabletop is simply a better vehicle. Let it have them, and reserve larp for the stories it tells best, the ones where participants can be physically immersed in an environment and where physicality plays its own part in how the story unfolds. Like a Punchdrunk show, in fact, where the experience is unique precisely because participants define it by exactly where they move to and when.

Like my first linear way back in the day at Peckforton, where I arrived at the main gate of an actual castle to go on my first adventure…


I’ve moved castles. I’m now in the chapel at St Briavels, a former royal hunting lodge turned youth hostel. I ran an event here once; a parliament I helped organise for the faction I led as an NPC for the Lorien Trust. I can’t remember the plot too well, actually I’m not even sure we had any beyond some meetings and decision-making, maybe a haunt or two. I distinctly recall not letting the orcs in the poshest meeting room, on account of their OOC (out of character) facepaint and that becoming a bone of contention IC (in character). Nice place, anyway. Decent venue for the right sort of larp, but as so often these days I’d look at it first, then design the game around the location. Anyway. There was interaction, but the focus would have been the IC business of running the kind of political organisation that that needed doing for a faction called the Vipers.

The Punchdrunk events I have been to are only modestly interactive. As a member of the audience you’re not in control of the interaction: they are. There’s the edge case of the serial Punchdrunkgoer who knows not only where to stand to see what, but even where and when to stand to get what for the rest of us is the rarest of the rare, a one-to-one interaction with a Punchdrunk performer.

Back at Secret Cinema’s “Empire Strikes Back,” cutting deals with Jawa or using Jedi tricks to break rebels out of jail were ace, but also pretty structured. Interactions at their “Moulin Rouge” were more like larp, in my experience anyway. While I wasn’t and couldn’t be in charge of the big arc, the event did respond to my actions. There were more small goals and more I could interact with. As well as the signposted interactive elements, the “quest NPCs” if you like, there was reason enough to interact with the majority of the other people there. If participants signed up for it, they got a character name with an objective, and something of a lever on the world which involved other archetypes. More of the interaction could be, should be, would be with the other punters. So when I signed up and was given “Impressario” as an archetype – well, then, best to turn up with a show to put on, and find performers to perform.

These interactions seemed to make the immersion more, well, immersive. Notably, I experienced the film as part of an *us* rather than a member of an *audience*. The film at “Empire Strikes Back” was an irrelevance: we just watched. The film at “Moulin Rouge” carried on the immersive, interactive, inspirational, communal experience. More of the action in the film was conducive to this approach; and we were expertly orchestrated by Satine’s conducting. We were dancing when there was dancing on screen, we were singing (badly, and off-key, but singing) whenever there was singing on screen. We were making the experience together. Was that “interaction”? No, not really. But I absolutely, totally loved it. Essentially, I think it’s a fest larp done brilliantly. There’s enough for people to watch if they simply want to be immersed in an environment. There’s interaction if participants choose to chase it. If they don’t, some other player like me might invite them along anyway and there’s enough inspiration in the background to give those players the tools they need.

My enthusiasm for Secret Cinema isn’t universal. According to some other folk who’ve gone, the reality of the more signposted stuff involving crew characters – the “plot”, I guess – didn’t match the promise. I tend to approach my larp-event-fun pretty defensively – I bring my own fun every time – so this didn’t hit me. Because not *everyone* learns their “character brief”, those sorts of interactions never worked out for me. I don’t think I asked anyone their name, so that passed me by. One person described it as a club night with a film in the middle. They go to better clubs than I do.

Interactive is possibly even more of a trend within popular culture than immersive right now, with a number of sub-genres and related styles I have little or no experience of. I’ve been to one “pervasive game”, an event set in the real streets of London. Their main mistake to my mind was setting an event with a espionage theme in a triangle of London bordered by Westminister Barracks, the Ministry of Justice and New Scotland Yard. My experience was dampened by an initial brief, delivered in-character, which demanded I “Trust no-one”. I managed that so successfully that I avoided the whole rest of the game. One encounter with a “security guard” I heard of second-hand felt a little too immersive for my tastes, helping support my contention that the boundaries of the sandbox are best described out-of-game, not in-game. Another, differencEngine & Dean Rodgers’ “Heist,” was more successful for me. They did well enough at the interactive and immersive element that I forgave them not allowing us to use the props and plans we’d brought with us in favour of operating within the parameters they set us. Then there’s the Crystal Maze experience based on the 80s TV show opened in London in 2016, with another slated to launch in Manchester. Murder mystery evenings, with a longer heritage, and escape rooms, where participants have to solve puzzles in a set time-frame to emerge successful, a more modern invention.

Interaction is where larp can genuinely stand out amongst other media, and good larp does. I’ve heard, and now tend to use, words like “lever” to encapsulate this kind of thing, the idea that the world is a system a player can bend to their will somehow. If a decision does not have consequences that are reflected by the world, it’s not as meaningful. There is some interaction on offer in the more mainstream immersive experiences. I’ve seen immersive and interactive events that said participants would be shaping an actual narrative. I’ve often been disappointed. Possibly because to my mind, if a story cannot be influenced, it is not interactive, it’s a show. Maybe a good show, but a show nonetheless. I’ve been to larp events which did the same, either by accident or sometimes by design, railroading the action so I felt like a spectator.

“You must be able to make a difference and you must want to make a difference,” is something I think Matt Pennington said about good larp once. Part of this is inherent in consequences, if the world recognises and reflects your actions positively, you’ll be more likely to actually do things. Big things. Impactful things. I don’t mean to suggest an action should only have a positive effect. An action should not produce a positive effect simply because a player took it. Heroism cannot be granted, it can only be earned. However, to my mind the world should try damned hard to say, “that was a good thing to have done”, as well as, “You did that thing. Here are the consequences”. “That was a good thing to have done”, as opposed to “That was the Best Thing!” I think I am saying that every defeat should be a Dunkirk. I find this extraordinarily hard to manage myself.

Part of it is leaving sufficient space for the players to make an event their own, so they bring their imagination to the party, so they bring their things to do. Small things, maybe, but personal things perhaps, relationships that mean a lot to their characters or stunts that bring others into the action.

This is a right pig sometimes, because some of the immersioning I want to do requires set dressing ahead of time, groups of non-player characters to be moved to somewhere specific at just the right moment, things to go bang at the right moment, and not some other moment, that kind of thing. And the sign-posting to these scenes kinda stands against interactivity in the active sense I want it, the sense where every interaction has an effect. What of that effect is to kill one of the scenes I want to bring a really cool moment to life? Heigh-ho. No-one ever said this was easy.


This is where we depart from the mainstream.

Secret Cinema kinda do this, I’m pretty confident no-one else does, really. After “Empire Strikes Back,” I said I’d not bother with multiplexes so much, I’d just save up until Secret Cinema did something else in a genre I liked. “Moulin Rouge” It wasn’t *exactly* a larp, in that there was precious little characterisation or *emotional* immersion going on. However, I’d be happy going to one fewer larp a year, and blowing the cash on another night out in Mountmatre. It was kinda like a gateway drug to larp. To me, it’s weakness in that was it’s “character generation” system; only luck gave me a role that I was comfortable with, which led me to the kind of experience I delight in.

Other “immersive” pieces have said something like, “It is the future. You’re a citizen.” or “You’re a spy”, but put nothing into the experience except that assertion to make attendees think or behave differently. Sometimes, less forgivably for me, they’ve gone so far as to reject my efforts to behave as someone in that environment might behave in favour of only recognising conformity to the narrow behaviours expected of audience members, as opposed to participants. I think I’ve learned to set my expectations as I’ve gone to more “interactive” events. It’s a matter of identifying the power I, as a member of the audience, has, and pushing those limits so they bend but not break. Just as I’d do in a larp, in fact. There’s social contracts everywhere after all, even if they aren’t always as clear as you’d like.

As pointed out by one of the wise at the time, an earlier “immersive and interactive” piece I wrote didn’t explicitly require “participants to be playing a character rather than being themselves” at all, which was a bit revealing to me in retrospect. I think there’s something in the sort of “my body is a puppet” roleplaying I do, and the “I become my character” roleplay which others do. Something to ponder anyway. It’s quite something of a volte face to move from not even mentioning “in-character” to the realisation that it is the uniqueness of larp as a hobby, but there it is.

This is what we do that no-one else concentrates on yet. That Disney resort? They might. We’ll see.


College of Wizardry

The 2013 Disney patent

An example story concerning the Disney resort


Punchdrunk: Masque of the Read Death

Punchdrunk: Crash of the Elysium

Punchdrunk: The Drowned Man

Secret Cinema