Yes, we are running out of witty LARP related headlines, please feel free to post your suggestions in the comments box. So, a brief note: Editorial notes/comments will be in this splendid shade of blue, in character narration will be pink, and the rest of the text will be the standard dull grey. Enjoy.
Photo of Lucky is by Oliver Facey.
With a heavy heart, Prince Drogon left the Ashen Tower. Deposed, the Prince departed with his throne and other possessions stacked upon a wagon. Long weeks on the road, and many other adventures, at length found the good prince on the threshold of a bridge. Barring Drogon’s way stood a wolfish rogue, leaning upon a sword level with his shoulder.
“Good day, yer highness.”
Though courteous, the man spoke in a gruff commoner’s drawl. Roused from dejection by the incongruous address, Drogon quirked an eyebrow.
“Do I know you?” He asked.
“We have not met, nonetheless I deduce you to be a merchant prince, fallen on such hard times as to be travelling alone.”
“And what business might it be of yours?” Drogon asked, bitterly.
“I am by trade a bodyguard, of sorts, and a man of honour. For across this bridge, you will meet my twin brother, who is a rogue and a highwayman. But he will harm none that I accompany.”
“Hilarious.” Drogon was in no mood to be amused. Dismounting the wagon at a bound he drew his sword. Nathrach laughed and brought the greatsword on guard. With the first pass, Drogon’s temper was cooled; the highwayman fought with uncommon skill. By the third pass, Drogon began to be impressed; he could not easily void his opponent’s guard. Time and again the greatsword came within an inch of his throat, only to be suddenly withheld.
“A moment,” Drogon held up a hand, and his opponent waited civilly while the prince caught his breath. “For curiosity,” Drogon asked, “what price attends your company across the bridge?”
“A mere gratuity; your highness has already bought his life.” Nathrach saluted him sardonically with the greatsword, and the prince flicked a crown piece down between them.
“And what price to follow me further, to Anvil and beyond? I have need of a bodyguard.”
Almost a year has passed since that first meeting. Now, Nathrach MacNebb and his wife Akora return to Anvil once more, to guard Prince Drogon’s life and aid in his machinations…
Battle Squad, photograph by Nicholas Young
Where possible, these events fall on Bank Holidays, to afford everyone a full weekend in character, the Friday and the Monday given to setting up and packing away. This occasion not being so fortuitous, well over half the participants arrived on the Thursday afternoon, to at least get an extra night under canvas.
Our tent was in the same spot as at the previous event. Besides the ease of finding our plot and the sense of familiarity lending itself to our weekend home, this also put us again directly on the League Plaza. From this vantage, we not only had our shopfront neighbouring three popular bars, but also enjoyed a front-row seat of the theatre and incident in that quarter of the camp.
Our first port of call was the Meadery, to order a copious quantity of mead. (No surprise there). We spent the rest of the evening on the quest for interim booze until the delivery arrived, the good owners of the Meadery themselves awaiting the full arrival of their team. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to bring a hipflask of brandy. Always bring a hipflask camping. (This could explain why so many of his characters carry a hip flask).
Most of Friday was spent in setup, out of character (OC); the tent-city of Anvil appeared, and modern attire began to disappear as the afternoon set in. Before evening set in, all cars had vanished from the field and the game began. We had our shoppe, Akora’s Artefacts, directly across from The Pledge newspaper and neighbouring the Orphan’s Bar, the Temeschbar, and Lady Illianna’s Holberg Meadery. One up from us the other way was the tent of Il Vulpe, The Fox, the League’s base of military operations.
Our team, the Crimson Reaper Cartel, numbered our team-captain, Prince Drogon, Nathrach MacNebb, Akora McNebb, Aurora, Hermes Illuisious S. Dietrich, Echodin Dran and Natalia Di Neveschwar. We were later joined again by Drogon’s old comrade, Lucky Flint.
Akora and Nathrach had the pleasure of hosting Prince Drogon in their tent. In the second tent, set back from the main Plaza, were Natalia, Hermes, Echodin and Aurora. Where Lucky might have slept, and even if he does at all, are deep mysteries.
The first morning in Anvil, Nathrach MacNebb blinked awake to learn that his wife Akora had been handed a note by a passing customer at their Shoppe. It proved to be a coded message; Nathrach puzzled over it while he drank his morning tea, and resolved to investigate.
At the Meadery, he met again with his old comrade Caith De Tassitos, and was introduced to one Primoverde. This learned man had also received a coded message, and gone some way to unravelling the key. The code remained elusive, however, until they located a third cipher, written in a different code. Primoverde realised that the messages must be the same, and with this larger sample of code, the cipher began to unravel.
There then ensued an interval of “strawberry picking”. Every morning, combatant players take the field in two teams; one in their own character roles, risking their lives for the glory of the Empire, and the others masked as orcs to oppose them. It being bad form to mention one’s orcing exploits IC, those heroes who were not at the fight are implied to have been elsewhere at the time…
This time, my fourth outing as an orc, I focussed less on displays of berserk swordsmanship, and more on surviving the whole battle. Slain orcs return to the field, representing the outnumbering of the heroes. It’s fairly easy, therefore, to take a break as an orc; just rush wildly into the human line, hewing maniacally until you’re cut down, then it’s off to the respawn point to get your breath back. Staying alive as the same orc the entire time takes considerably more doing.
On this occasion, we were Grendel Waveriders, orc elites tasked to hit-and-run, dashing about the woods to pin and lure one human unit after another, blocking their advances and confounding their retreats. Paying attention to the tactics employed, staying alive and with the same squad, took precedence over personal heroics, good practice for the following battle when I would be risking Nathrach’s life, rather than some nameless orc corsair.
The only occasion of note occurred at the end, when a die-hard band of heroes remained to negotiate with the Grendel for the return of the wounded and the bodies of the slain. Standing over a wounded human hero, a man in leather armour propped against a tree mere yards from the safety of his own lines, I watched the human commanders attempt negotiations. The left flank of the human troops, however, jeered, spat, and offered challenges to the orc warriors still holding their friends hostage.
Ultimately, the handover began when the wounded man in my custody called out a final message to his wife, who stood in the human lines. The Grendel warriors were moved to mercy, and brought the man forth alive without ransom. Barely had this noble gesture been made, than the left flank of alleged heroes replied with a volley of arrows.
Snake Shaman photographed by Amanda McDonald.
Returned from picking strawberries, Nathrach spotted the lean figure of the Harlequin, bright in his black-and-red diamond pattern, strolling through the crowd. Nathrach greeted him warmly; their first encounter had been strained, Prince Drogon suspicious of the montebank who had appeared so suddenly among the powers of the League. The Harlequin had been amused by the grim manner of the Prince’s bodyguard, and with all suspicions settled, Nathrach chatted amiably with the new Egregor of the League.
An “Egregor”, it should be noted, is an NPC, a Non-Player Character, an actor, in other words. Equipped with an earpiece, an Egregor is the eyes of Profound Decisions, the organisers of Empire events. Thus are story-lines and game incentive fed down to players, and players’ own games and storylines passed up. Besides your own group of friends and the social life of your in-game nation, the Egregors are a new player’s access to the otherworld of Empire.
While Nathrach was about his investigations, his wife Akora too had a meeting with the Egregor. The Harlequin, unwitting of whose wife he asked it, required help to secure his codpiece. Nathrach was much amused when she told him.
For the afternoon, we were joined again by Bessie the Bard, and felt it something of an honour to host the Empire’s greatest entertainer at our pavilion. While there, Bessie gifted us with a sign proclaiming the Crimson Cartel as “Friends of Bessie”, and picked my brains for suitable verbal abuse to throw at a farmer’s wedding.
Later, a small crowd gathered in the League Plaza, directly at the Shoppe doorstep, for the Fox Sword duelling contest. Nathrach contended, and defeated a number of opponents, but was undone more than once by skilled adversaries.
At one point, Scevola di Niente enjoined Bessie the Bard to take to the field. A call went out for another bard to face her, and one Niccolo appeared in answer. Accepting the challenge to a musical contest, Niccolo returned presently armed with his violin. He played a beautiful piece, lilting classical strains that drifted across the field and drew a round of applause. Then, a hush fell as Bessie readied her response, half the crowd in expectant ignorance and the rest knowing full well what was to come.
Esmee Galea as Bessie The Bard
Settling her guitar beneath her chin, Bessie assumed a wide fighting stance. A few minute adjustments of her posture created a truly daunting prospect for her opponent. Then she struck a ferocious chord, and screamed, “Aromnomnomnom! Aromnomnomnom! Karakao! Aromnomnom!” Advancing implacably until Niccolo took a backward pace, gaping, shaking his head, stunned.
Bessie withdrew to wild applause, leaving the violinist Niccolo to recover and marshal himself to fight back. This time he played a jaunty piece, toe-tapping fiddle music, subtle and skilled. When he had done, the crowd applauded. Bessie assumed a fighting crouch, her guitar braced like a cannon. Someone in the crowd remarked that she was digging deep.
Advancing crabwise, the indefatigable bard assaulted her guitar with violence and sang in a voice to instil terror in the staunchest heart, “You’re shit! Get off the bridge! Get off the bridge! You’re shit! Get off the bridge, because you’re shiiiiiiit!” At her final scream, Niccolo was defeated, and withdrew. (Is it just us, or does it sound a bit like the way the Brexit campaign was run?)
A team fight followed, two-on-two, confined to a narrow field so that all must fight in single-file. Seeing the first contest, Nathrach stepped forward for the second, and for his comrade summoned Bessie the Bard, deeming her the most fearsome champion present. With Nathrach’s long sword to hold their opponents at bay, Bessie assailed them over his shoulders with her ukelele, until both men yielded the contest in defeat.
Other contests followed, the Harlequin himself joining in the “cavalry” duels, each combatant carried on the shoulders of an ally. The Fox Sword was ultimately won, however, by Ideolo of the Orphan’s Bar, in a contest of wit against Gant Archama of the Torn Banners. Gant, being accounted the champion crafter of insults known to the League, was utterly destroyed by his opponent Ideolo. Left unable to respond but for choking on his tongue, Gant withdrew. At the counting of battle-honours, Ideolo was found to have doubled every other man’s score, and accepted the Fox’s Sword in victory.
Not long after, the new Empress’ procession passed by, on her way to the coronation, conducted by the Harlequin. The Empress paused, and Nathrach found the Harlequin suddenly standing beside him, demanding recommendations for a good pub nearby. The question was interrupted by the Empress reconvening her advance; caught directly in the path of her entourage, Nathrach had no option but to call out, “Make way for the Empress!” if only that he himself should have room to let her pass.
Besides the major battle each day, every nation participates in smaller-scale skirmishes throughout the afternoon and evening. On this occasion, two skirmishes were planned.
Nathrach demurred from further battle, and remained with Akora at their Shoppe until nightfall. Periodically, he puzzled over the partially-solved cipher and its cryptic message. With the return of Empire warriors from the evening expedition, dire news arrived: General Andrea had been captured by Grendel orcs. A second expedition was planned in haste, but before it could set out, Echodin brought yet worse: General Andrea had been murdered by the orcs. Prince Drogon walked abruptly away, taking a moment to ascertain his self-control; the slain warrior had been his blood-sister.
It was rumoured in the Temeschbar that the first expedition had been ambushed, their intentions foreknown by the enemy. This speculation strengthened the fear that the orcs had murdered General Andrea from some forewarning of the rescue mission. Further, ill omens abounded of a red star seen in the sky above the Empire, and a plot to depose the newly-crowned Empress. Many of the Draugir lineage, including Aurora of the Crimson Cartel, were afflicted by a terrible foreboding of doom. Some spoke of an Eternal, angered to betray the Empire’s battleplans to all enemies. Others whispered of a plot against the League, from whose ranks the new Empress herself arose.
Barely had Prince Drogon relayed this news, than he was summoned to the Torn Banners to give account of his absence at the preceding battle, on charges that his presence alone might have changed the outcome. Nathrach, as the prince’s bodyguard, offered to accompany him to the meeting. The good prince swore softly, as if realising only then that his life might be in danger. He resolved to go alone, reasoning that to go armed and escorted would only make danger more certain. As it transpired, the Prince survived his interview.
The next morning, it had been determined (by machinations of Prince Drogon), that the Crimson Cartel should fight as mercenaries in the pay of the Marches, to help reclaim territory lost to the Grendel orc invasion. The mission: To destroy the entrances of the mines through the mountains, which the orcs might use to sneak reinforcements onto the Empire’s flanks.
Water-carriers and potion-sellers patrolled the warriors waiting to set out. Among the crowd, Nathrach saw the Harlequin, passing what might be final words to steady the courage of the fighters making ready. The Harlequin gave Nathrach only a smile and a mock salute; the Prince’s bodyguard returned the gesture, and went on to join Drogon and the Crimson Reapers’ squad.
The Marches and their League mercenaries set out in collumn, through the portal to the battlefield. The Crimson Reapers (Prince Drogon, Captain Nathrach, Lucky, Hermes, Echodin, and Talia) marched with the Torn Banners, supported by the Drunken Mercenaries. The forces of the Brass Coast had preceded them, and had already engaged the orcs by the time the Marches and League arrived. The orders were not to engage; the League skirted the melee and made double-time to the woodland. Here the difficulties began; the Jotun orcs met the League with fierce resistance. The arrival of ogres in the fight drove the attacking League clear back to the open ground, the orcs jeering on the threshold of the woods.
The Torn Banners reformed to hold their position, staving off orc skirmishers from all sides until the captains decided to turn about, and aid the Brass Coast warriors still fighting it out with the enemy in the open field. Despite misgiving about the change of plan, the Crimson Reapers joined the redirected march. They were halfway to the fight there when orders were changed again, and the column turned to make a second attempt at the woods.
The orcs closed in at once from both sides, pinning the League and Marches force in the narrow way between the woodland and the open ground. Until then, Nathrach had been in sight of the rest of the Crimson Reaper squad; now, all were lost save Talia and Lucky, the rest having been separated in the confused march. Nathrach could only hope that Prince Drogon’s valour would see them through, and set himself to see that his remaining comrades survived the day.
The orcs attacked in waves, initially from the open field while skirmishers in the woods barred any retreat. Nathrach lost sight of Talia; she had been behind him, in the last rank, to treat the wounded as they withdrew. Suddenly, the Reaper’s physick was gone. Three more waves of orcs assailed them before Nathrach saw her again: When the Torn Banners managed to drive the orcs back somewhat from the woodland threshold, Nathrach spotted Talia fallen on the field behind the orcish line.
Thus far, Nathrach had restrained heroics and fought in the second rank, supporting the more heavily armoured halberdiers. Now, unknowing if Talia had already bled out from her wounds, Nathrach plunged into the orc line and battled a way through to her aid. Finding Talia still alive, he hauled the wounded healer back, fighting a path through the orcs again until both were safely behind their own line. Barely had Talia been treated, than a column of orcs arrived from the woods.
The Torn Banners were caught, pinned in the narrow way with orcish shieldwalls closing to crush them from either side. The orcs charged, their two lines coming within a spear’s reach of one another. Trapped between them, the warriors of the League leaped back-to-back and fought for their lives. In the ferocious melee, they broke through and drove one flank of the orc pincer-movement back into the woods.
The orcs behind them pursued, sending ogres again to the fore, but the League made a fighting retreat and gained their objective; the entrance to the mines. Here, engineers were already at work to collapse the tunnels.
The League formed up and held the line, doggedly defending the mines against repeated onslaughts. Exhausted, their line closing into an ever tighter knot, the wounded piling up behind them, they knew a moment of despair when yet another orcish column marched out of the trees. The warriors of the League braced themselves and made ready to die, backs to the mines and swords to the foe.
The orcish reinforcements charged with a roar, crashing not into the League, but into the flank of the orcs assailing them. Then were seen the banners of the 1st and 2nd Legions, under generals Irontide Scar and Bloodcrow Morg-ur; these new orcs were not Jotun, but Imperial Orc Legionnaires, arrived in the final hour to turn the tide of battle. The Torn Banners and those with them were afforded a moment’s rest, the Imperial Orcs fighting with ferocious courage until a blast and gout of smoke signalled the collapse of the mines. The Imperial Orcs redoubled their valour, and opened a path through the enemy for all to escape, themselves fighting on in the rearguard to bring the miners out safely as well.
Ahead now lay the open field, where the Brass Coast had been reinforced by Dawnish warriors to hold back the last of the Jotun legion. All that remained was to punch through the melee and make the final retreat to the portal.
Back in the open, Nathrach was joyed to see Prince Drogon, then Echo and Hermes, all three bloodied but still alive. Barely had the Crimson Reapers been reunited, than a lone orc scout sprang suddenly, knifing first Talia and then Prince Drogon brutally from behind. Hermes, Echodin and Nathrach rushed to their aid, but the orcish assassin had already fled.
By all luck, the alchemist Hermes still had a healing potion, and was able to save both Drogon’s and Talia’s lives. With the Prince wounded, the captain of the Torn Banners ordered Nathrach to see to the Reaper’s safe escape, and they joined the lines of halberdiers in a back-pacing retreat towards the portal.
These final minutes were for me a high point of the battle: One issue of LARP battles is that the demands of fun mitigate against drilling group combat manoeuvres. Complex tactics are generally limited to an understanding of three basic formations (Column, Line and Skirmish), and the minimum necessary terms (flanking and the difference between the left and the right, forward and back).
On this occasion, none of that held true: The retreat was a feat of military formation dancing, our forces arraying in wide-spaced interlocking lines like a ladder down the battlefield. The front line then back-paced, face to the foe and weapons ready, until they passed through the defensive line behind them. By my estimate amid the fighting, a dozen largely undrilled units performed a text-book leap-frog fighting retreat in good order. I for one was very impressed.
The Wolf Art, by Nicholas Young
Returning from battle, the first person Nathrach happened upon was Bessie the Bard. Nathrach greeted her with good cheer, and joked that her presence on the battlefield might have thrown back the Jotun far sooner.
The League Plaza was all but deserted when a man in a wolf-faced mask, accompanied by a priest of the Wintermark, put out an open challenge. Nathrach accepted, ever ready to test his swordarm and unwitting then of the mysterious quest he was about to undertake.
The Wolf was a fencer, armed with a rapier. He raised an eyebrow at Nathrach’s greatsword, but accepted nonetheless. Swift and skilful was The Wolf, but even to the eyes of the priest standing referee, there was no telling which combatant struck first, their blows falling simultaneously time and again. At the last, Nathrach took the match by a hair, and The Wolf yielded up his mask as a trophy, bidding him all good fortune.
Only then did the Wintermark priest approach, and explain to Nathrach the gaes now binding him; to become himself The Wolf, until such time as a greater swordsman could defeat him for the enchanted mask. The Wintermark priest brought him to the Shaman, a nameless Naga wizard, the master of the masks, and received his blessing. According to the gaes of the mask, Nathrach then donned his armour and took up his two-handed sword, and walked with his wife through the nations of the Empire, wearing the mask openly.
It was the Wintermark priest, however, who found a challenger to face the new Wolf; a self-styled nobleman of the Dawn nation. Nathrach returned to the Crimson Cartel’s pavilion, and soon after was met by a burly youth in full armour, who challenged him to combat.
Wolf Mask rune, by Tony Porteous
What then ensued was a duel so ferocious and literally bloody that it cannot be told IC: My opponent bull-rushed me at once, using the weight of his armour to drive me back into a neighbouring tent. As I tripped over the guy-ropes, I caught him a solid blow about the head. Before I could regain my feat, he crashed into the tent as well, continuing the fight until the Wintermark priest intervened.
With the rules sternly clarified, we squared off again. At first, I thought the red stain on my opponent’s face was makeup. Only as we engaged again did I realise it was real blood, from a cut on his scalp. My opponent insisted on continuing, and asked for eight hits as the end-point; with the score 4/0 in my favour, he withdrew. I, in all sportsmanship, offered to accompany him to the First Aid tent.
Wiping the blood from his sword, Nathrach accompanied the priest in seeking the Shaman, the master of the masks, to tell him of the duel. Nathrach hailed him as he approached; “Shaman! The Wolf abides.”
This was my third event, and the developing nature of the game become clear. Every event, one has more to do; more story and game to pursue, more appreciation of the wider stage on which all players’ adventures occur.
And you can find more from Samuel Z Jones…
…and on Smashwords
LARP organiser: Profound Decisions