Review by Samuel Z Jones
We said it, we warned you, if you don’t suggest a headline, we’ll continue to make them up. So, just to change it up a bit, in character blue, out of character dull grey, editorial comments pink. We like pink.
Fourth Event, a year of LARP, and the n00b shine is starting to fade. This
Photo credit Robert Leigh
time, we arrive with game already in progress, people to talk to and schemes to unfold. We arrived Thursday to set up, and spent most of Friday watching the tent-city of Anvil appear, one canvas pavilion after another going up all over the field. The main part of our team arrived in the morning, with our team leader rolling up around noon. We pitched our tents on the League Plaza, that quarter of the field given over to our nation, the League, a rather Machiavellian mob. Next to us was the Dawnish quarter, the opposite side of the field occupied by the other nations of Wintermark, Urizen, Varushka, the Highguard and the Brass Coast, each nation with their own distinct fashions and culture. In the woods, off one side, camped the Nevar and the Imperial Orc legion. Gradually, cars vanished from the field and modern attire was replaced with period costume. We became again the Crimson Reaper Cartel; Prince Drogon, his bodyguard Nathrach McNebb, Nathrach’s wife Akora, and our colleagues Hermes, Echodin Dran, Aurora, Talia DeTemeschwar, and the mysterious loner Lucky Flint.
The first task for Nathrach McNebb was to seek out the Shaman and reclaim the Wolf Mask, won in combat at last season’s Event. As the reigning Wolf, Nathrach was required to accept challenges to duel, from any bravo who presented the Shaman’s token.
The Mask now sported dreadlocks.
As the sun set, Nathrach and his wife Akora found Caith Di Tassitos and his friend Primoverde, drinking by an open fire outside the Meadery. Caith’s wife Illiana was not in Anvil this season, and the Meadery doors remained closed to general trade. Nathrach and Akora bought a large quantity of mead, and renewed acquaintances with visitors to Caith’s door. Discussions with Prince Drogon brought the Crimson Reaper Cartel up to speed. A red star still hung in the sky, presaging disaster. Nathrach had discovered a number of major heists in Anvil; besides the recent theft of a vast sum from the Butcher’s Bank, the Ashen Tower and the Temeschbar had both been robbed. An attempt had also been made to steal the very shield of the Empress herself, but the thief had bungled and escaped only with his life.
Photo credit Tom Garnett
Dawn brought rain. A thin, constant drizzle that rendered the very air soggy. Nonetheless, I love camping. It’s one of few occasions where I’m confident at a stove. Campfire cooking is incredibly easy; chop it all up and fry it. Well-padded with campfire fry-up, we made our way down to the orcmuster point for the morning battle. How can one summarise this to the uninitiated? LARP is like… a game of hockey, in the woods, with no ball. Upwards of two hundred people take the field in bright armour, divided into two teams, to beat the living hell out of each other with variously-shaped padded cudgels. One side “monsters”, wearing orc-masks and other costume provided by Profound Decisions, while the other side take the field as their ongoing characters, risking their lives and progress in the game against the wager of battle. So far, I’ve had my preference and monstered on the first day. It’s a good warmup, a chance to cut loose as a succession of nameless orcs, compared to the far higher stakes of taking one’s own character into battle. Our orc commander on this occasion was Evil. Allegedly, that’s just a nickname. Demurring to volunteer for the call for sergeants, I joined the berserker squad which Commander Evil meant to hold in reserve. The mission was a little different to past monstering battles. This time, rather than simply trying to prevent the heroes of the Empire from their goals, we were tasked to escape with as many units of orcs intact as possible. The role of the berserkers would be to hold in reserve until the time came to die heroically while the rest of our column escaped. The forest, we were told, was infested with Velorn. These are tree-men, by any other name. As we masked-up and marched out, Evil warned us to be sure and die fighting humans, rather than being devoured by angry brambles. The rain barely reached us beneath the trees. We spent the first hour marching, describing a large arc of the woods that took us almost back to our start point. Re-orienting the column, Evil spotted yellow smoke through the trees, and led us that way. Avoiding the poisonous smoke, we manoeuvred to join the fight, looking for an opportunity to break through. Human forces blocked the exit from the woods, and Evil ordered the berserkers forward to lead the charge. Before the order could be given, curious Velorn emerged from the trees, forcing both human and orcish lines to back up. While the Velorn wandered through, orc reinforcements arrived. A second column formed up on our left and a little ahead, interdicting our intended charge. We reformed, narrowing our front to make a rush upon the human lines, engaging the brightly-clad warriors of the Brass Coast. The lines clashed and parted repeatedly, neither side able to make headway. Falling back from one clash, I was shot in the gut with an arrow. I dropped, and was dragged back from the fighting by an orc healer. Propped against a tree, he counted out thirty seconds beneath his breath while we mimed tearing out the arrow and stitching up the wound. Pitching back into battle, I almost immediately caught an arrow with my face. Dragged back to safety again, I slumped against a different tree while a female orc healer repeated the 30-second countdown and stitching of the wound. A final push ensued. In the front of the human lines, I saw a rare thing; a truly proficient dualwielder, lightly battering one orc after another, his paired swords a blur. Inspired, I forged towards him in the melee, eager to test my two-handed swordsmanship against his dual-wielding skill. I never got to him; others on the orc line pushed forward too, the front ranks of both forces grinding across each other. Orc berzerkers advanced, driving the human line back until we broke through on their right flank. Out of the forest at our backs, the Velorn appeared again, howling this time. The main part of our force had escaped; with the arrival of the Velorn, human die-hards and orcish rearguard fell back. The Velorn were on our heels clear to the edge of the woodland. Here, we expected a stiff fight from the human forces still in our path. When we emerged, however, we found the human Highguard already engaged by an orc column. I had lost sight of Commander Evil, but found my immediate unit led by the Orc General himself. A few Highguard skirmishers harassed us from the flanks, but we marched grimly for the exit on the far side of the field. In all, over a hundred orcs escaped, the Highguard ultimately resorting to jeering from the battlefield while we jeered back in victory. Marching back to the orc muster-point, we returned our masks and washed off our facepaint, the army dispersing again. The rain had been barely noticeable during the battle. Our tent had fared less well, water infiltrating to dampen much of our gear. After two hours running about in the woods, I was too tired to react strongly. We sat out half the afternoon under canvas, waiting for the rain to withdraw. When the sun eventually appeared, we set up the shoppe, Akora’s Artefacts, outside our tent, and traded through the afternoon. There’s always someone who needs a tankard, or is on the lookout for pieces of kit, and we had taken out adverts in The Pledge and Thrifty Squid newspapers to draw custom to our stall.
While Nathrach sat at the shop door, he saw the towering figure of Balthazar,
Photo Credit Tom Garnett
battlemage of the Ashen Tower, ambling down the road. “I hear you’re a great swordsman,” Balthazar said, and Nathrach shrugged. “There is such a rumour,” he replied. “I could use a lesson.” Nathrach rose, and put aside his greatsword in favour of the shorter arming sword, the better to discuss swordplay. After a few minutes in discussion of guard and stance, the pair squared off to spar. Balthazar was noted as a great fighter with stave and polearm, but he knew little of the sword. It was only after he had departed that Nathrach considered whether the looming battlemage had been sounding him out, testing in preparation of a challenge to fight for the Wolf Mask. With this thought in mind, Nathrach donned the Wolf Mask and returned to his seat. Not long after, a warrior approached, and shaking hands palmed him one of the Shaman’s tokens. Nathrach studied the man, as asked him his name. “Arden of Cantiarch’s Hold,” was the reply. Nathrach doffed the Wolf Mask, and the pair squared off to fight. Arden proved highly skilled with sword and shield, and at length triumphed by five hits to four. Nathrach gave him the Wolf Mask, and directed him to seek the Shaman in Wintermark to learn the full gaes he had earned. I was, to say the least, rather deflated to lose the Mask here. My opponent was the first sword-and shield user to present any problem, effectively closing down my attack lines and giving no openings for my preferred tricks. He in turn complimented my skill with the two-handed sword, averring it a difficult weapon to wield well.
From further up the street came a terrifying sound, which raised a smile from Nathrach and his wife Akora; the voice of Bessie the Bard, famed far and wide, singing as she approach. Pausing outside the Butcher’s Bank, Bessie struck a bizarre pose, strummed her ukulele with fury, and sang in the voice of a banshee, “You’re shit! Everybody hates you and you’re shit! And they wanted you to know!” A few minutes later, Bessie passed by the shoppe, pausing to smile and pass a few words of greeting with her friends, Nathrach and Akora.
Running a shopfront is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it makes your group easy to find and ensures that messages can be readily received. On the other, at least one person is required to be there at all times, keeping shop, leaving them minimal time to explore Anvil. Almost every location is player-operated, most of them also player-inspired.
Closing up shop in the late afternoon, Nathrach and Akora wandered the streets of Anvil, looking up acquaintances and trading from a large bag of wares. On their way, they sought out storytellers and bards, passing on word of the Crimson Reaper Cartel’s desire to publish an anthology of true adventures by heroes of the Empire. In the League quarter, Nathrach and Akora learned of a fund-raising effort to re-inter the bones of a past Empress, whose remains had been taken from the city of Sarvos ahead of besieging Grendel orcs. They were told that the Senate had refused to fund not only this, but a great many other proposals lately put before them. In Highguard, at the sign of the White Raven, they met again with the armourer Azazel, and bought from him a leather scabbard-loop for Nathrach’s sword, and a fine pair of leather greaves. In the Brass Coast quarter, they learned that it was a festival night, when the people of that nation were required to lie and play pranks. In Wintermark, seeking the Shaman, they found Arden of Cantiarch’s hold, himself still waiting for an audience with the master of the Masks. Here, any unsporting thought I might have harboured evaporated; the new Wolf had been waiting at least an hour, entertained by the Crocodile who camped near the Shaman’s hut.
Photo credit, possibly Sally?
That night, Prince Drogon held council with the Cartel, laying out the dangers posed by the red star overhead. Through rituals, visions and communing with mighty beings, Prince Drogon had learned that the star was composed of ilium, a rare and precious metal. Whichever region it landed upon would be devastated, but left rich with vast quantities of the rare ore. Plans had been mooted in Senate to draw the star down magically, and choose its impact site. Offers had been made to take the hit on one region or another, or to direct it in a cataclysmic attack upon orc-held territory. Meanwhile, the orc nation of Thule had offered to take the impact, and hand over fully half of the ilium yield to the Empire. Prince Drogon, however, had extra intelligence; the heart of the star was of some yet rarer stuff, ilium refined and transmuted into an artefact of unknown power and great importance to the Thule. Analysing the information, Nathrach concluded that a Thule invasion was inevitable; if the star fell on the Empire, the Thule would move to seize it while the human nations squabbled over the bounty. If it fell in orc territory, the Thule would move against the devastated Jotun and Grendel orcs already harrying the Empire. If given to the Thule, they would inevitably use it in war.
Later that night, I attended the Captain’s Meeting, to hear the plans for tomorrow’s battle. Nominally, each fighting unit has a Captain entitled to attend these meetings, but in practise only a handful generally do. Here General Gabriel laid out our part in the fight. The plan was to see a group of non-combatants safely through to a gorge in the forest, and then return to Anvil. The forest, however, was a playground of the Wild Hunt. Reports claimed some sixty of these creatures, lurking in the trees. The nation of Dawn had offered to send fifty men to fight a way through, while the rest of the Empire nations fighting that day held the open field against the Jotun orcs who would waylay us in the plan. Although not openly stated at the meeting, the assault on the woods was considered a suicide mission; Dawn were expected to suffer massive casualties. Sunrise brought a dense fog. I cooked another camp fry-up and buckled on my armour. It’s an odd thing, but after years of martial arts, this was the first time I’d ever donned heavy armour. At previous events, I’ve worn a padded lorica-style jacket. This time, the lorica was complemented by a suit of steel half-plate; breastplate, vambraces and rerebraces, with leather greaves.
The Crimson Reaper Cartel battle squad assembled; Prince Drogon, Captain McNebb, with Talia as our healer and Echodin laden with magical firepower. Forming up with their allies, the Torn Banners of the Temeschbar, the Reapers marched to the general muster of the Empire’s army. League mercenaries, their task was to screen the advance of Dawn, allowing the forlorn hope to gain the woods without depleting their numbers against the Jotun orcs.
The Empress herself led the army into battle, her sword a gift from the Jotun orc-queen. The Jotun respected such gestures, the Empress’ hope being that her personal courage in taking the field would weigh heavily in the war. With her went the Throne Guard of the Ashen Tower, led by Captain Lupo. In the ranks of the Torn Banners, Nathrach set himself the task of guarding Talia, reasoning that their only dedicated healer putting the wounded heroes back into action was more important than one more sword taking orcs out of it.
Photo Credit: could well be Sally again.
Frankly, I prefer to skirmish than fight in the shieldwall. The two-handed sword only comes into its own when the ranks open up; in the shieldwall, it’s a case of letting the polearms on both sides trade blows, withholding the long sword to bop any enemy who over-extends, exposing his head and shoulders. In the wider-spaced skirmish, the two-hander becomes a whirling, slashing thing, capable of taking on two opponents and holding off three or more. Historically, its use by bodyguards for this very purpose is well attested.
We spent most of the battle manoeuvring, keeping with the bearer of the Torn Banner and providing a mobile medical station to patch up the wounded. Orc columns attacked from one side and then another, marching from opposite ends of the field and the forest at our backs to crash into our shieldwalls and halberd-blocks. The lines of battle contracted, the main melee drawing nearer. Talia knelt beside a wounded man, patching him up quickly. But there were two more soldiers awaiting her help, and the fighting was barely ten feet off. Nathrach stood guard, warning Talia to hurry. She was still treating the second soldier when the Empire line buckled. The melee swept over them, six orcish spearmen suddenly breaking through. Talia was cut down almost at once, the handful of skirmishers standing guard either dispatched or driven off in an instant. Nathrach set his sword to work, but six to one and they with spears, his stand barely slowed their advance. A prodigious blow knocked him flat, and he retreated to the reforming Empire line. He could see Talia wounded on the field, and swiftly sought out Drogon and Echodin to attempt a rescue while there was still time. Even as they started forward from the line, another skirmish unit in retreat picked Talia up and treated her wounds. Heavily beset on all sides, the Empire army deployed a secret weapon; sorcery out of Wintermark.
From the ranks of the Children of Winter emanated a deathly wind, sapping the strength of every orc to feel it. A sudden charge in the wake of the icy gale overthrew an entire orcish column in a moment, shattering their advance and buying a few minutes’ reprieve for the warriors of the Empire. Far as I can tell, the orc plan on this occasion hinged on making us run up and down the field from end to end. With the choice of exhausting ourselves versus dividing our forces to cover both ends, the major achievement of the human side was in holding the middle ground, keeping all units within a brisk march to support one another, and so conserving our energy for a protracted fight. The only warning was a roar; an ogre charged out of nowhere and struck Talia down. Nathrach whirled to hew it down in turn, but the brute sprinted away; Nathrach’s vengeful strike cleft only the cloth of the ogre’s shirt as it fled.
Seeing Echodin nearby, Nathrach called for aid, intending to carry their wounded healer to safety. Fortunately, Echodin still had a healing potion, and revived Talia enough for the Crimson Reaper squad to rejoin Prince Drogon in the ranks of the Torn Banners. With orc columns closing in from all sides, the Empress gave order to her bodyguards, relieving Captain Lupo of his command. It was to no fault of his, but rather the Empress’ esteem of his valour; despising her own protection, the Empress unleashed Lupo upon the foe. Hewing a path through the Jotun skirmishers, Lupo joined the melee in fury. His heroics were seen by all upon the field, fighting on despite a grievous wound that almost cost him an eye. The lines of battle seemed to rotate around the field, orcish columns crashing into the Empire’s lines from one side and then another. From the woods came the tramp of marching boots, then shields were glimpsed through the trees. Blue shields; the warriors of Dawn returning. All had expected them to face slaughter in the forest and only a few to return alive, but it was a mighty host that marched from the forest eaves. A resounding cheer arose from the embattled ranks on the open field; the return of Dawn signalled not only reinforcements, but victory overall.
Photo credit: most likely still Sally.
The army of the Empire advanced, sweeping their flanks clear of orcs and withdrawing in good order. At the height of the final minutes, the Imperial Orcs formed a square to withhold the wider battle from overtaking an honour-duel against a champion of the Wild Hunt, who had defended the forest against Dawn’s incursion. For the valour of the Imperial Orc champion, the remaining forces of the Wild Hunt demurred from further battle, and were then seen flitting about the field, exhorting warriors of both sides on to greater heroism. A final force of ogres were roundly defeated; two rose up from their wounds to flee, but were swiftly set upon. Nathrach and Drogon tried to intervene, meaning to take at least one ogre alive for certain questions that the prince would ask, but the brute was slain even as they arrived. Hearing our intentions, the slain ogre gave us the merry finger as he quit the field.
In the vanguard of the final push, the warriors of Wintermark and the Imperial Orc legion crushed all resistance. The main force of the Empire marched off the field to the music of the Wintermark and the orc legionnaires beating out victory on their shields.
Returning from battle, we all collapsed for an hour. I ditched my heavy armour and broke open the last stores of canned caffeine hoarded for the occasion. Across anvil, exhausted warriors sat or lay on the grass outside their tents, gathering their energy for the final few hours of play.
Prince Drogon had learned that, even as they discussed the ilium star and its fall the previous night, a piece had broken off from it and struck down in Empire territory. A force had been dispatched to retrieve it, and the fragment was even now in the hands of a League cartel. Rumour had it that the fragment of enriched ilium blazed with intense heat, such that it could not be touched. The force that retrieved it had carried it back on a shield, all involved suffering burns from mere proximity to the artefact. To Akora’s Artefacts in the afternoon came the Wintermark priest, River, assisting the Shaman in the game of the Masks. River apologised that he had not brought many challengers, only to express surprise to learn that the Wolf Mask had been lost. River hurried off to find Arden, and initiate him into the rules attending the Mask’s wearer. Not long after, River and the Shaman returned together to Akora’s shoppe. Nathrach accepted the Shaman’s congratulations and commiserations, and expressed his wish to help further in the games of the Masks. The Shaman agreed, and set Nathrach the task of finding three challengers for the Wolf, when next they met in Anvil. The Shaman spoke also of new masks he was crafting, and new challenges appending. “I will write to you, Shaman,” Nathrach said, “and we will speak again.” River and the Shaman departed, and thus ended another season for the Crimson Reaper Cartel in Anvil.
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LARP organiser: Profound Decisions
Digital effects on some shots are by Nick Young.