Theatre LARPS: Life After Oxford

It’s been almost a decade since I graduated and left Oxford to seek my fortune. I often get wistfully nostalgic about my time there, and especially my involvement with OURPGSoc. After all this time, Oxford still owns my heart.

Working and having to RP as an adult1 can be difficult. Thankfully, all is not lost on the gaming front. Although the exact nature of our beloved Society Game remains, as far as I can tell, unique, there are traditions out there with definite similarities. Games with a live action component, but focussed on IC interaction rather than combat. I thought I’d introduce you to the ones I’ve become most familiar with.

UK Freeforms

This is the group I first fell into, and it’s a good one, with an active mailing list and facebook group. I’m also far from the only secret OURPGer involved here! I would heartily recommend the annual convention, Consequences:

It’s full of good games2, very well organised, with pre-signups designed so that everyone should get at least two of their top 3 choice of games. It’s also VERY CHEAP, which is important when you’ve just left uni and don’t have much to spare! Cost is around: £35 + £100 for a twin or double room for all 4 nights, with discounts available for GMs.

UK Freeforms also organises ‘Peaky’, which is an annual freeforms writing weekend, and new writers are encouraged to go along and give it a go. You form small writing teams, generally with a mix of writing experience, have most of the weekend to discuss and write, culminating in everyone playtesting each other’s’ games.

There’s also an annual 3 day long freeform game. This is brilliant fun and intensive, with around 70 people playing; but more expensive than the others. Recent games have included ‘Café Casablanca’, ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ (which included lots of singing), and ‘Sharpe and Sensibility’.


The UK Freeform tradition is for games that are one-offs, with characters pre-written by the GMs, and cast prior to the game. Most of the information, items, or abilities your character is seeking to achieve their goals will be inside someone else’s character sheet. Most of the conflict is also PvP rather than an exploration of the environment. From my perspective, I found the pre-written nature to be interesting because it immediately gave me an intricate and intimate connection to the gameworld and to other characters, much more so than the Society Game ‘splats’. On the other hand, I also found it sometimes limiting; I couldn’t decide that I felt like, for example, building a Steampunk Skynet unless it’s already written into the game3.

Other Freeform Influenced Cons

Continuum began life as a Glorantha con, but has since branched out, and now includes a number of LARP/Freeforms.

Similarly, Conception3 is primarily a tabletop convention, but also includes LARPs/Freeforms.

Nine Worlds is an up-and-coming general geeky con, with Theatre LARP4 as one of the ‘tracks’ on offer. It’s an expensive con, and games are hampered by the short slot times, lack of pre-casting, and the need for players to assimilate any game information on the day in a few minutes. On the other hand, the reason for this is that it’s a large con with tracks open to just about anyone who feels like trying it out, so it’s a great place to meet new people and dip into all the geeky corners you’ve ever wondered about. I’d generally recommend Nine Worlds as a fantastic con experience. I’d also consider it my con favourite in terms of diversity and inclusion aspects; the main organisers are primarily from an LGBT event background, and the whole con has been designed with this in mind.


Other examples of games outside the orbit of the Freeforms people have approached their games from a different direction, often beginning with more combat focussed LARPs or with a theatrical background and shifting focus. This tends to result in games with a different tradition and focus, but still recognisably similar.

A Foot On the Stairs was a recent game, sort of based on Downton Abbey. Participants created their own characters – either above or below stairs – to fit the setting, and most of the plot stemmed from their interactions. My impression is that the game was much lighter on plot than I’m used to; however most players said that this was a major part of the charm. They got to spend time just experiencing life ‘being’ someone in 1920s. Rules were a very light touch and largely invisible to accommodate the high immersion; the organisers put a lot of thought into rules for handling IC prejudice.

Firecat Masquerade, who are also involved with Theatre LARPs at NineWorlds, are the group behind Tales out of Anchor. This is yet another example of a route into LARP; the group members I’ve encountered are from a largely theatre and entertainment background, who wanted to make their productions more participatory. I played in their Amnesia short game at Nine Worlds last year, and found their attention to detail superb, resulting in an atmospheric, character light theatre LARP5.

There are of course the ubiquitous World of Darkness games. Despite their popularity I never really got into them. I decided that while they are fun if you’re involved from the start or already have a group to play with, as an isolated newbie, I’m not involved in the plots, and nobody wants me to be because I am forced to start as a level one character and play in a game alongside other characters who are massively better at everything, including the things I’m supposedly specialised in.

There is the SCA and other re-enactment groups. Corporate team exercises. All manner of other things, things that don’t necessarily use familiar terms like ‘LARPs’ or even ‘Roleplaying’ at all. Laser Tag has spawned LARPs: Firefight organises a Firefly based game that a freeformer friend of mine particularly enjoyed6 and found to include more plot and character moments that they had expected.

Changing Influences

As the groups mingle, mutant hybrids are spawned. Techniques are integrated, new games with shifting focus and style. I have seen an increase in this in recent years, and the new life and growth has been good for immersive theatre/LARP/freforming/whatevers.

From the ex-Oxford side, I see attempts to introduce the idea of GMs as a resource, a setting that bites back, and a willingness to engage in insane plans8 and shoot yourself in the foot. Most of my own games have been attempts to find a freeform/Oxford balance. From this I have learned that if you’re going to allow players to essentially submit turnsheets in real time, you’ve really got to have a good GMing queue and information flow system.

The new and growing influence on the scene is Nordic style games, and its offshoots, including Jeepform and American Freeform. This style of game tends to be more about immersion, emotional engagement, improvisation, and shared artistic vision. For a better introduction from a UK Freeformer, see this document, entitled “Nordic LARPs are Toss”.

From my point of view, I’ve seen a lot of games that seem to have been designed around having a really horrible experience. While there must be something in them that appeals to many players I know, I personally have no desire to emotionally engage with the hopeless feeling of knowing you’re all about to die one by one, or that survival is only possible by agreeing to enslave yourself, or what it’s like to be the plaything of a callous powerful person. This has put me off a lot of the earlier examples I saw and made me cautious about giving it a go.

However, the games on offer seem to have widened in scope. I played in my first such game last year; “None But The Brave”, run by the excellent Mo Holker7 and Traci Whitehead. We played firefighters, and the game was about exploring various types of bravery. Characters were developed in workshops, and much of our interactions in the game itself was improvised around the results. There wasn’t much of what I would call plot; but I felt like it was a richer character experience. I chose to plan a trans man struggling with an enforced idea of masculinity and heroism, which I thought worked well within the game concept.

Mo is one of those rare creatures who write freeforms for a living. He also keeps a blog on his gaming experiences, and there’s quite a lot on there detailing his exploration of Nordic style games:

Since playing ‘None But The Brave, I’ve been more willing to dip my toe in, and have even written my own game! I decided to make use of some of the new techniques – including improvisation and pre-game workshops – to write a small game with the aim of encouraging players to come up with a Star Trek episode. It’s called ‘The Prime Directive, and is told with flashback scenes reconstructed with the holodeck. We’re playtesting it next week; I’ll let you know how it goes8.

Lost Colony

I have in fact found it surprisingly easy to find other Oxforders. Friends of friends. People who pursued live games after leaving university. We spread out like tendrils of a vast cthuloid entity, insane Oxford cultists RPers, infecting other traditions with our enthusiasm and mad creativity.

It’s been almost too easy to play host to a number of events, start a few more, and deliberately cross the streams. Muahaha.

I never really left; instead I am a carrier. And I have discovered many siblings and cousins, to assimilate into the collective. You don’t need to lose anything. We’re here.

We’re always here.



  1. I am 4 ft 10 and play on the swings in my lunch break. Luckily people seem willing to suspend disbelief if you help them along by wearing an appropriate costume.
  2. Including mine.
  3. Conception takes place 9 months prior to Consequences. Accommodation goes within seconds of opening, too, so if you want to go then keep an eye on the date.
  4. Curently run by me, so obviously awesome.
  5. I don’t really have anything to add, it just seemed like I’d not made a footnote in a while.
  6. This friend has repeatedly sworn never to get involved in muddy outdoor games, so it must have been good.
  7. Mo is also an ex-OURPGSocer. Mo was on the team for the very fondly remembered Society Game, ‘Inferno’.
  8. Unless it all goes horribly wrong, in which case I’ll go quiet and hope nobody asks.

New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.

Paradiso starts tonight!

paradisoA catastrophic apocalypse swept away The World That Was, leaving only those that sheltered in the eight domed cities. As centuries passed, the other domes were forgotten, only rediscovered 30 years ago as the domes’ residents started exploring the world outside their sanctuaries. Now, the construction of an amazing railway has brought the domes closer to each other than ever before, and rumours of ‘paradise’ seem almost within grasp. Will you join those meeting on the railway, as they decide the fate of the world?

Paradiso is the society game for Michaelmas 2014/Hillary 2015, and its wiki can be found at To make a character, come along to the first session at 7 PM tonight in the Oscar Wilde Room, Magdalene College, and the GMs will be happy to help you. If you can’t make this meeting, don’t worry – email the GM team at and they’ll guide you through making a character.

That is not dead which can eternal lie…

Cthulhu-1000x540With the new term, the Nightflyer is coming back into action! This week I’ll be putting up articles on new books in the archive, discussions on roleplaying, and a few gems from the old print Nightflyer, but for now I thought I’d welcome our new freshers and ask the readership what you’d like to read about on this blog:

  • Thoughts on roleplaying theory?
  • Stories of people’s experiences in games and at LARP events?
  • In-character fiction?
  • News about new RPGs for sale or being kickstartered?

Let me know in the comments!


Tabletops for Week 6

Come along to the Harris Seminar Room in Oriel College for 2 PM to play:
New World of Darkness run by James:
You’ve never been out in the city at the stroke of midnight before. To be honest, you didn’t mean to be now. But you couldn’t find your keys, got lost on your way home, or ran out of gas, and now you’re about to see another side to the city.
Star Wars: Edge of Empire run by Owen:
A Waltz in the Clouds – join a ragtag team of scoundrels in a daring heist on Cloud City, Bespin.
Call of Cthulhu ran by Ellie – Brief to follow.
Hope to see lots of people there!


Hilary Term Pub Crawl

This term the pub crawl is taking place on Friday of Week 5 (21st February), and is the East Oxford route. The timings and route are below, along with a map:

Warm Up from 7pm The Angel and Greyhound
7:30-8:00 The Cape of Good Hope
8:00-8:30 The Oxford Blue
8:30-9:00 The Big Society
9:00-9:30 The Cowley Retreat
9:30-10:00 The Star
10:00-11:00 The Port Mahon

Submissions Open

Following the AGM it was decided that this site would take on the mantle of the Nightflyer, the society’s old print/pdf magazine. That means that if you’ve written something RPG-related and want it published here, send in a message and we’ll get it done.

Things you could submit:

  • Reviews/previews of games.
  • Reports of great sessions, festivals, conventions, etc
  • Fiction written about your characters and others
  • Articles on running games, game theory, designing games, etc