We Don’t Want Any Adventures Here, Thank You!

This past weekend I had an extremely good time at the second run of EyeLARP’s Second Breakfast. This was a charming little game set in Middle-Earth, in which the Wild West town and Viking village at EyeLARP’s site stood in for the little village of Frogmore, a hobbit community in the Shire. The basic concept of the game is that it’s the weekend of the Mayor’s birthday, there’s going to be a lovely party, the four extended families of the village (the Thornburrows, the Greengawkers, the Kettlebrights, and Puddlefoots – or is that Puddlefeet?) are engaged in some light-hearted rivalry when it comes to baking delicious pies and/or cakes for the big event, but are all united in one thing: they don’t want anything so exciting as an adventure so any meddling dwarves or wizards showing up trying to coax right-thinking hobbits off on one can move right on, thank you very much.

As you might expect, this was basically a fairly light-hearted, easy-going sort of event, but I think there’s still some interesting points of LARP design which arise from it. In particular, it’s a great example of a LARP which managed to deliver a great event on the strength of pure ambience, after dialling back on more or less every other factor LARPs usually go out of their way to provide.

There was basically no peril to characters, and no real combat, In theory, Second Breakfast worked on EyeLARP’s usual “FilmSim” principle, which includes as a feature a systemless combat system: rather than fighting being a genuinely competitive process, you basically die or get injured when you think that it would make sense or be dramatically appropriate for your character to be. In practice, we were briefed not to expect or initiate genuinely life-threatening combat, and indeed none happened. The biggest outbreak of violence that happened during the second run was a massive food fight, in which a party of annoying dwarves were pelted with LARP-safe “food” (basically sponge balls in different food shapes) to make them go away. EyeLARP’s approach to combat already sets aside their LARP from the vast majority of old-school games which try to make a satisfying tactical game out of the combat system, but still included combat in its function as a cheap and easy power fantasy; Second Breakfast didn’t even have that.

Indeed, power fantasy in general was absent from the game. The town’s mayor and sheriff were NPCs, but didn’t exert all that much power over us in the grand scheme of things: we know from Lord of the Rings that the Shire does have something of a social strata, with Sam Gamgee coming from somewhat more humble circumstances than Frodo, but the social gap between, say, Sam on one hand and Merry and Pippin on the other is fairly narrow compared to the rich-poor gap in the vast majority of historical societies. (The gap between Sam and Frodo is bigger, but Frodo is loaded thanks to Bilbo being absurdly wealthy by Hobbit standards, thanks to his haul from his Unexpected Journey.) If you wanted to play a hobbit who was fairly well-to-do, you absolutely could, if you specifically wanted to play a Sam Gamgee type that was completely in your gift to do, and people tended to treat each other as equals by and large.

As such, there wasn’t really anything in the way of social power games or political scheming, which are the sort of thing which Vampire LARPing made a big deal in the early 1990s and is a major feature of many LARPs which don’t necessarily exclusively focus on that (like the Empire fest-level system). Sure, there was the friction between the families, but it was very much framed as pranks and chaffing, nothing which would get majorly serious. The game design cunningly nudged us in this direction: the main form of PVP chicanery supported was specifically referred to as “mischief”, and there was a specifically approved way to approach it: you did a little mischief, you left behind a mischief token associated with your family, and then the recipients of your prank could deliver the token back to your family with some scolding.

The mere fact that it was referred to as “mischief” helped set the tone that this was meant to be good-natured ribbing, not outright blood-feuding, and I got the sense as the event went on that there was lots of mischief happening early on as we vented our high spirits and then it slowed down a little as the event progressed as everyone calmed down, until on the last half-day there wasn’t that much mischief happening because we were all full from the feast and feeling well-disposed to each other. Far from going in the usual LARP plot arc in which things increasingly escalate, this was a game where everyone gradually de-escalated in a pleasing fashion.

Another thing that typically happens over the course of a LARP is a shift in the status quo – either as a result of referee-designed plot progressing which changes the state of the game world in some fashion, or because player action proactively caused change. That didn’t happen here: the gentle cottagecore idyll of Frogmore was much the same by the end of the event as it was at the start, by and large. As a community lacking racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia (because those were themes which the referees specifically briefed us not to touch, and EyeLARP generally run games in settings where barriers arising from such do not exist), and also lacking external danger or internal strife (because Tolkien sets things up for the Shire as being pretty utopian – the game doesn’t take place during the Scouring of the Shire, after all), there wasn’t much in the way of a major injustice or a serious conflict which could form the basis of an attempt to shift the status quo, and our solid rejection of adventure meant that an inherent small-c conservativism was part of the way we played our characters. Ultimately, the event was specifically pitched as being all about a village of those hobbits who don’t go off on adventures, so our PCs weren’t going to be troubling any dragons or Maiar any time soon.

In keeping with both this and the lack of any real combat, there was also nothing in the way of significant magic to cast, or deep mysteries to research, or powerful items to acquire or craft. LARPs usually include magic (or super-science, or steampunk inventions, or similar) either as a means of spicing up combat and/or as a way to provide a way to cause change in the game world without resorting to combat – here combat was meaningless, and the game world wasn’t going to change, and we didn’t want to change it, so such things would have no purpose.

Another thing people go to LARPs for to experience intensely cathartic emotions. The Nordic LARP tradition is particularly known for this, but it is by no means exclusive to that scene – I’d in fact say that what I’d call a “high-catharsis” LARP is a game type which provides an example of a sort of game design equivalent to carcinisation, where you can get to a similar sort of thing from lots of directions. Essentially, this sort of LARP is designed largely as an exercise in producing an intense experience in which the players give vent to a wide range of negative emotions and come out the other side with the sort of high you get out of any cathartic experience.

I’ve seen this happen in highly genre-heavy games – The Sisyphus by Carcosa Dreams was a largely linear retro-SF-horror game which (in the run I was on at least) concluded with an intensely emotional moment – but this also absolutely describes the caricature version of Nordic LARP, where it all takes place in an absolutely mundane, non-genre setting and explores Real Issues in a deep and meaningful way. That’s an unfair and inaccurate description of Nordic LARP as a whole – that’s why it’s a caricature, not a proper definition – but I have absolutely seen game pitches which fit that bill, and I imagine many LARPers if presented with such a pitch would use the term “Nordic” in describing what they expected out of it. Second Breakfast would never in a million years be described as high-catharsis in this sense. Sure, there might have been a few cross words here and there between the hobbits, but nothing so intense that a cup of tea and a sit down couldn’t smooth things over just fine.

So Second Breakfast was a low-combat, low-politics, low-power, low-plot, low-catharsis, low-stakes game lacking anything resembling a conventional story arc, intriguing strategy, exciting combat, high emotional drama, serious competition, or ego-boosting power fantasy. When you strip away all of these features, and all of the features which usually get worked in to support them, the only thing a LARP can really offer is ambience, and that’s what Second Breakfast delivered in spades, both through the efforts of the referees and crew and through the enthusiastic engagement of the players with the brief.

In this respect, it sort of represents a convergence between LARP and re-enactment; the latter is more about crafting as authentic a historical experience as possible, whilst Second Breakfast was all about stepping into a variant version of a fictional setting and not sweating the authenticity too much in favour of swanning around swapping food items all day and having a lovely party with your hobbit neighbours, but what they both very much had in common is prioritising ambience and atmosphere over anything resembling conventional gameplay. A good re-enactment experience should feel like being part of history for a moment; Second Breakfast felt like being a citizen of the Shire for the weekend.

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