Empire – being a feather wearing loon in a frozen field

This is a review of a LARP event, hence there is no recording or for that matter tea (although I have to admit that more access to tea would have been gratefully received!)

Empire is the new fest-larp from Profound Decisions, now in the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t really get into Maelstrom, their previous system, although I did do a couple of events. So when they announced a “battle-larp” with high production values we leapt at the chance to give it a go. We (and the organisers it seems) were not banking on the weather deciding that Sub-Zero was were it was at for the weekend.

They have been exceedingly ambitious, with both aspirational production qualities, and a fully defined closed world with information on the empire in question stored on a wiki. Which was part one of the problem, as parts of the wiki were only completed a few days before the actual event (the information on the Merchant Bourse, and some of the rituals for example) making it difficult to actually create your character. Given the VAST amount of information on the Wiki it was also very very difficult to get a good handle on the things that you needed to know. Personally I found the wiki difficult to navigate unless you knew exactly what you were looking for. The sheer amount of stuff and the fact that I spent much of the week making my kit, which nicely got a lot of compliments but frankly took forever, I only had a vague understanding of the setting and system having mostly concentrated on my own nation and skills.

Which almost lead to me spouting heresy to other priests… Which would have been fine if I’d intended it, but is less good when you aren’t intending to. The same was true when people asked me detailed things about things the average mystic WOULD know but I hadn’t had chance to read. Hopefully for the next event I will have had more time to read things, and possibly the Wiki will have been better organised. A rules booklet would also help, to give the basic information on how the game plays with maybe a brief report of the background.

The slightly late delivery of the Wiki, along with a site visit that stopped construction on the site meant that on the first day there were long queues to collect player packs or in some cases create characters before time in. Given Time in was very early on the first day this meant a lot of people went time in without resources or even a character. I’m fairly certain that this was first event hiccups and hopefully they will learn from this going forward and ensure both the player packs are ready to be handed out and the character creation computers are up and running prior to start of the event. Once the lines started going they moved pretty damn fast, but the massively long wait was quite annoying, especially as the way of creating groups had been changed such that groups could only be a Sect, Coven OR Band and lots of people had to create their groups.

The Packs contained your money and resources and this was were the “High Production Values” started to kick in. I am a priest so I use something called Liao. I expected to receive a load of cards for the Liao and have to physrep it myself. I wasn’t expecting to get very nice physical representations of wax capped bottles of Liao. The mana crystals meanwhile were just cards, but I had secured a load of Quartz Crystals to stand in for them. Although we didn’t get hold of any other resources I believe some of the others were also physrepped.

The money is gorgeous as well, actual metal coins which allow you to tell the denominations really easily. Actually having clinking coins in your pouch is excellent, and really adds to the feel of it being a living breathing world. I do need to make a pouch however as my belt of pouches is a bit loose to keep the coins in.

When we did start playing it seemed to go well, The camp in the “centre” of the camp was still being put together (again due to work having been stopped for a day I presume) but once it was together it was very impressive. The Senate building was lovely, the Tavern looked rickety while actually being very well built, The Regio and the Portal of the people both looked brilliant. The Bourse… was a marquee, and the Hall of Worlds where Mages go to talk with the Eternals was a bit small for the number of mages in the Conclave. Again first event issues I suspect and I hope that they will be continuing to build on what they already have. It massively helped the immersion to have real buildings to go to, and the central town did feel like a real town. Having the Stone Circle of the regio stuck in almost in the Varushkan camp was unfortunate however as I feel some of the more dodgy ritualists might have been put off a little as there would be no way to avoid witnesses!

The other camps were VERY scattered however. The Imperial road that lead through the various camps was a good idea, but lots of camps were grouped together while Wintermark was in the arse-end of nowhere. This was probably a function of the size of the nations but it did leave Wintermark feeling a bit isolated. The other problem that we had was that there was no plan for the camps themselves meaning tents were placed in the Wintermark camp a bit randomly, which when the cold nights came in meant that we ended up huddled around our respective fires. By the end, we were mingling a bit better, but already Wintermark has plans for organising the camp a bit better next time. Not a problem for the organisers however, but worth mentioning. There are plans afoot to rectify this for the next event, certainly in Wintermark we are coming up with plans.

It was VERY cold this weekend. I’m from the north, I’m not quite a Geordie (T-shirt and shorts in a blizzard is a bit beyond me) but my ability to resist the cold is somewhat well known amongst the Cult. So you can be certain that it was properly cold when I say it was absolutely freezing. This had a very detrimental effect of the infrastructure of the site, stand pipes froze, shower blocks were rendered inoperable, and the generators kept cutting out. This in turn lead to toilet blocks not flushing correctly and taking them out of commission, a shame as there were originally more than enough but were quickly overwhelmed as they variously stopped working. More unfortunately was the fact that the warm water in them also failed, meaning you either had to not wash your hands, or as I did wash them at the standpipes. Which was painful, very painful, and bone chillingly cold. This added to the fact that the pipes to the showers failed meant that it was difficult to get clean without freezing horribly to death. Finally there were a number of portaloos in the main field, but they seemed to be hidden in certain camps rather than available to all and there were none over by Wintermark and Navarr. The Cold however was unseasonable, and I can’t really blame the organisers for it, but I do hope that they take note of the issues they experienced and going forwards work to sort them. Obviously that is dependant on the site owners allowing them to.

One excellent thing that they did do however was provide literal TONS of wood chips to be placed down on the ground where it was getting boggy. I and one of the other Cultists spent the entirety of one of the battles making a wood chip pathway from the pile into the camp and then round to the back. This stopped the field becoming a quagmire, which was a very good thing as the few sections without mud on them became horrible very quickly, well at least until the sun went down and everything froze solid!

I do however very much like the system regarding rituals and so on as unlike the other fest larps I do, you can perform them anywhere as long as you grab a “Civil Servant” (i.e. a ref) first. There could do with being a few more of them out and about but the ones I dealt with were uniformly helpful and pleasant to deal with, willing to put up with us suddenly deciding to do a rite after inducting a load of people into our coven. The results of such things are also very detailed, we performed a signs and portents and the results were both characterful and really creepy, showing some excellent writing. As I said more Refs would be useful, or possibly a Civil Servant office in the Anvil camp, or even a civil servant for each of the camps. PD have already said that they realise they needed more people, so again hopefully next event will be smoother.

I managed to get involved in both the Synod and the Conclave, although didn’t make it to all of the meetings. They needed to be slightly better advertised, especially as I nearly missed a Synod meeting that was dealing with a subject I’d already spent about two hours dealing with and was very central to the group concept we were playing. It would also be useful if Anvil had some way of telling the time, a town clock or even just a town crier who shouted the current time out now and again! The synod actually felt like a real thing, probably thanks to the wiki being very detailed about how it worked and its internal systems. Similarly with the conclave, the voting methods and traditions helped considerably, although again it was difficult to tell when meetings would be happening. Again hopefully something that will get better as more events go on.

I personally didn’t go on the battles as I was not feeling it, my character is no use in combat and wanted to hear how it went before going. However the responses from the players who did was that it was really good fun and the global system plus damage calls works really well. I did go on a skirmish (more on this in a bit) but being a priest I didn’t get to the front line (I had an excellent guard who made sure of it!). The skirmish was player led and the battle plan went all over the place. Personally I was only on the field for the Empresses body so the moment we got it we left. It did however feel like a real battle, which is a good thing. We had a hard limit on the time to achieve our aims which I’m told after we had removed the body lead to a slight panic and half the troops leaving the field with the second objective unfinished.

The lack of combat in the camps was slightly unusual to me (I’m more used to CP where camp attacks are common). Not going to the battles which was my own choice probably made that more obvious. That said it was not a terrible thing to be able to walk around the camps in the dead of night with no real worry that you were about to get jumped and murdered. In fact being able to walk about and visit the other camps in relative safety was excellent, and each of the nations was very distinctive. Role playing amongst the other nations was particularly fun as most people had made an effort to internalise their nation brief. In fact I didn’t notice anything obviously out of the blue, and it helped to make the empire itself come to life.

I have to say the Role playing that I was involved in during the event was amongst the best I have been involved in at any Larp. A long conversation about the body of the Empress for example lasted nearly two hours but felt about a quarter of that time, and indeed was very in depth with both sides knowing their position and arguing around it. The procession of the Empresses body was one of the more powerful RP moments I have been involved with through my LARP career to date, not least of all because it was a heartfelt expression of grief for an NPC no one had actually met!

One thing I would say is that it is well worth remembering to bring food with you. In my case I will be procuring a number of self heating ration packs for breakfast. The reason for this is simple, the caterers are excellent, but expensive and in the OOC field. They also seem to end up with long queues, and I find at LARP I tend to suddenly remember I need to eat, and then need to do so fairly swiftly after that. The Food is however very very nice, and is not just the usual LARP fare of burgers and chips. There is lettuce, Sweet and Sour Chicken, and variety! The food tent could do with a few more tables in it, but unless you are turning up at busy times you should be OK.

I definitely intend to go to the Second Event of Empire because this one was so much fun! I hope that the hiccups that made this one a bit of a hard event will be gone for the next one, better organisation and shower facilities. I might even take the battlefield next time!

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