As Mary and I struggled to come up with an hour-long talk about NERF and NERF derivatives suitable for the baying hordes of Kitacon, Solihull’s premier Anime Convention (and one of the largest in the UK, too, as it happens), we oscillated back and forth between “talking about Zombie LARP a bit I guess” and “not going at all.” It was difficult. We didn’t really know our audience, or what sort of space we’d be delivering the speech in, or anything useful like that. I did know that I’d stashed two heaving sacks of NERF guns in the boot of the car, in case we needed to use them.
I HAVE A CUNNING PLAN, MY LORD
Zombie LARP – the thrice-yearly undead apocalypse that I’m part of – started out as a game that two people made up because they had a) too much time on their hands and b) too many NERF guns, as well. We’d play it in Uni halls and shared houses, often scaring the shit out of / seriously irritating our housemates as they went about their daily business. Thanks to that constant playing and playtesting, we’ve finished up with something that can entertain hundreds of people at a time. Which is pretty neat.
Eventually we settled on a concept, based on this: we wanted to try and replicate the experience of making up your own game and then playing it – you know, like we used to when we were kids (we didn’t have your Pokemons or your Yu-Gi-Ohs back in my day, oh no Sir, we had to make our own fun once mum kicked us off the SNES) – except with a room full of people who’d probably never met before in under an hour. We reckoned we could lead them in a quick exercise in making their own game.
Plus, it involved almost zero effort on our part. If it all went terribly, we could blame the players. And if it went well, we could take all the credit. Genius.
WE SHOOT SOME CHILDREN TO TEST OUR THEORIES
We playtested the idea on holiday in Cornwall, as you do, using a team of four nieces and nephews rather than a room of gun-toting geeks because they were all we had to hand. We invented a game called Teatowel Panic, which revolved around the acquisition of teatowel-based objectives in a field, screaming “I got you! I GOT YOU” as loud as you can, and having a bit of a cry when your sister accidentally shoots you in the face.
It was, as it turns out, surprisingly good. When I sat down and guided the kids through the process, I tried my best to let them come to their own conclusions whilst gently steering them away from ideas that might not be the best (“How about,” said Jonah, the nephew least-attached to this plane we call Reality, “how about if you had a gun that looked like a frog. Or! Or, right, a frog that looked like a gun. Or a gun that shot frogs. You’d be like “Freeze, punk!” pow pow pow and then they’d be like “But this is just a frog” and then you’d punch them and then they’d die.”).
Eventually, it had game balance, challenge, tactical play, Uncle John as a wandering monster who went “rawr”, and – eventually – had around twelve players, all participating with various levels of keeness. Thirteen players, actually, if you count the way that my father-in-law ambled around the battlefield casually collecting fired darts and giving them to anyone that asked nicely.
ONCE MORE UNTO THE BLEACH, DEAR FRIENDS
Kitacon, then. We were in Panel Room 3, a room which you wouldn’t think was big enough to host a full-blown NERF war, especially if all of the hundred chairs laid out in front of the expensive-looking AV equipment were filled. Still, we took this crisis as an opportunity (or, you know, a crisitunity) and figured we could work it into the restrictions of the game – it would have to take place in a single, not overly-large, room.
The talk went as follows: over the first twenty minutes, we’d ask a series of questions to the audience (after explaining who we were and what the hell we were doing) and work with them to build an interesting-sounding game involving high-velocity foam. Questions ranged from the simple “Does everyone get to play at once, or should we take turns?” and “Do you want to be in teams, or on your own?” to “What happens when you get shot?” and “Should every player be the same?”
The first suggestion outside of the questions – from a girl in a full maid outfit, of course – was that we should have some people who act as a medic and can revive the other players. This got picked up with enthusiasm, and also helped sort out the tricky problem of what happens when you get shot. “Can you shoot medics?” I asked, to which almost everyone responded “Yes!” Someone else said it was a breach of the Geneva convention, a third person suggested that one player in each team should be an actual bomb to breach it even further, and I insisted that Bombs factor in too.
It was fascinating, and a lot of fun, to lead the group in discussion and rebound questions back to them. The temptation to steer them away from silly ideas (“What if everyone was a medic?”) was strong, and I tried to do it by looking quizzical and asking the rest of the audience what they thought rather than refusing it outright.
(What if everyone was a medic, though? It’s an interesting thought, but I can see any game where that’s true stagnating pretty quickly.)
IT’S ACTUALLY PRETTY HARD TO SPELL “SCHMENVENTION,” ESPECIALLY IN FRONT OF A CROWD
The finished game, initially entitled Geneva Convention? Schmeneva Schmenvention! but changed to Make the Geneva Convention Cry after the original wouldn’t comfortably fit on our projector screen, ran as follows:
- Divide up into teams. Arrange yourselves in lines and take turns to pick guns from the enormous pile at the back of the room. Look upset and whinge a bit when all you’ve got to choose from is four one-shot pistols because you stood at the back.
- Build a base out of chairs kindly presented by the Hilton Metropole in your corner of the room. Hide behind it. Discuss tactics. Wait until Grant shouts “GO!”
- Shoot at each other over the barricade of chairs, and attempt an advance. If you are hit with a NERF dart, you “die” and can’t act until the designated Medic in your team heals you by placing a hand on you and counting to five.
- Get your Bomb – also a person – into the enemy base. Once the bomb is shot, they must count loudly down from ten; if they reach zero, they explode and you win the game. A medic can heal a bomb in the same way as they heal a person to stop them exploding, which is invaluable considering that most bombs will go off in their own base thanks to enemy fire.
- Reload all the guns in a quiet and orderly fashion. GOTO: 1
That’s it! It was awesome to see it all play out, and the weapons actually had different uses – single-shots were great at arcing shots over your own barricade, where semi-auto guns where perfect at firing blindly into the enemy’s base as part of a frontal assault.
Plus, it only took five minutes, so we had enough time for three games and a handful of rules updates, hastily applied between rounds – some cover was placed in the centre of the room to encourage assaults. A second entrance was built into every base, and a second medic in every team to make play a bit faster if you got shot in no-man’s land.
Also, we included a third team (after team Pirate Monkey and team Laser Explosion, as they named themselves) of Zombies, which you joined if you died and weren’t healed within a minute. The zombies, wouldn’t you know it, tended to win more often than not thanks to weight of numbers and their ceaseless shambling assault.
POSTS LIKE THESE SHOULD HAVE A CONCLUSION SO HERE YOU GO
Playing with NERF guns is always fun, especially when folk are into it – and these guys were, as they crawled around on their hands and knees and screamed orders at one another – but having a chance to build the game from scratch was even better. Between us we created something entirely original that sort of reminded us not only how to play, but how to create mutable rules and adapt them on the fly without anyone getting upset.
Is this is a better form of play than computer games? Are we reviving an important skill – the creation of communal games – that’s being eroded by strictly-defined rulesets in trading cards, online play, and portable consoles? I dunno. I do know that making up games is great, and when they’ve got NERF guns in them, that’s even greater.
We’re going to take the “talk” on tour, starting at GameCamp 2012 and pitching it left, right and centre to anyone that’ll have us. If you’re going to a conference or a convention and you feel like taking part in a NERF war of your own creation, big us up!