I wrote this over a year ago, the night after I took part in a Zombie LARP – a game of my own creation – as a player. We’ve since had to pretty much pack it in, but there’s a lot of nostalgia there, and perhaps some lessons to be learned, so here it is. It’s very long. Congratulations if you reach the end.
As Time In was called on my first game of Zombie LARP in three years, I was walking nonchalantly down the centre of the mall. I ran to find a team of seven that I’d dispatched to hide in some back end of the building before the game started – the panic kicking me up to a speed too fast for any zombies to catch me, luckily – and joined up with them immediately.
“We’ve got a battery! You just left it lying around near where we started!”
“Great!” I lied. It shouldn’t have been that easy. Still, I was supposed to be getting out, so any help was appreciated. “Let’s move through here, yeah? I think there’s another battery in this shop…”
I CAN’T SHOUT AT GUNS
I’m a GM, so I don’t normally play. Anyone who’s been anywhere near a Zombie LARP event will recognise me on sight and, more commonly, sound. I shout a lot at the head of things, and tend to be the one that leads things like safety briefs, rounds of applause, and crowds of slavering Zombies. In my life I think I’ve played in four runs total, so a lot of what I have to do in terms of game balance is guesswork.
This time, we found ourselves blessed with almost 20 crew members, and as we normally have 4, we were finding it easier to make things happen. So the night before the game, over a sub-par plate of meatballs at Bella Italia, we decided we’d each get to take part on a run – partially for market research and partially because, well, it sounded like fun.
The other refs didn’t have quite such a blast as I did as they a) tried to talk to players, rather than ruthlessly surviving at any cost or b) knew where all the objectives were, so much of the challenge was removed (and they didn’t feel right just cleaning up and saving the day) and they had to act ignorant. Luckily for me, acting ignorant has never been a problem – I left all the hardware drops to the rest of the crew, because as I can’t shout at guns to get them to do things, I tend to get bored and wander off – so I was going in completely unaware of what was going on, aside from we had to get some battery packs and get them to Dr Baxter in the basement, so we could escape.
A FISTFUL OF MED-STRIPS
We file into the room and the rest of my newly-acquired team check every corner, almost obsessively – as a ref, I’m used to just barging around the place at top speed, so to see a team carefully checking all their corners and advancing slowly was inspiring. Outside, in the main drag, a team of players are engaging pretty hard with some zombies.
“Should we join them? There’s about 30 of them…” one girl says, but she’s shut down by a guy with a shaven head and a fistful of med-strips.
“No – they’re keeping all the zombies busy. Let’s go downstairs, there aren’t going to be as many down there.”
I agreed, and chivvied the team along as best I could down the nearest flight of stairs and into the basement. For the first time, zombies jumped out at me. I was scared. Some goon staggered out from a doorway I had neglected to fully examine and mauled my arm. From then on, I was much more careful.
TURN YOUR PHONE OFF OR THROW IT AWAY
The idea of teams started out as a way of organising players, rather than any sort of camaraderie, when we used to run in the (much smaller) Congregation Hall in the University of East Anglia. Before each game, we’d call out the names of the folk who were on the next team, and get them armed up. In the time before the run, they were encouraged to learn each other’s names and maybe even swap phone numbers, in case they got separated and needed to escape. (FUN FACT: All exchanging numbers ever did was lure the horde onto a) phones that were left in corridors as a genuine distraction or b) people who were trying to hide. Lesson: once the apocalypse hits, either turn your phone off or throw it away)
Since then, we evolved the idea to be a bit more integral to the system. The class system – which we don’t use in our big games, but deals with the division of weapons and introduces a variety of specialist abilities too daft to chat about here – meant that teams could plan ahead on the internet to build a team identity and also a game plan. It was pretty neat.
Now – in our Mall venue – teams are a bit more fluid. We ask people to form up into groups of five to ten in the same group – but it’s barely enforced at all, and it’s really just a way of stopping them from getting too many guns. Generally folk hang around with the same team all day, but it’s no longer gospel.
THE HORRENDOUS FREAKS WOULD HAVE A MISSION FOR US
We handed the batteries over to Dr Baxter in the basement, and made our way to the main level again (after, and I’m not ashamed to admit, I was thoroughly terrified by the addition of a single full-speed zombie in the middle of a group of shambling, radio-controlled static-buzzing Drones who locked eyes with me and hissed under her breath – I ran fairly hard in no particular direction other than away) only to find a big group of players beating up some zombies on the main concourse.
We ignored them and slipped past (fast becoming standard practice) and moved up to the Nightmares in the playroom upstairs. I knew that the horrendous freaks would have a mission for us – hell, I wrote the mission – but I figured it’d be nice to check precisely what they wanted, in case they changed it without telling me.
Ben and Ella (Ben’s old-school, and it was Ella’s first time but she took to it well) were Nightmaring: dressed in red boiler suits and blank masks covered in blood and sigils, they were handing out batteries to players in exchange for weird objectives. This time, they wanted us to collect six oversized jigsaw pieces from around the mall – “some” of which were in the White Knight nest I had so carefully built the night before, and carefully ensured that it was stocked with at least one screaming superzombie at all times.
Cracking. I marshalled my team and pressed on, determined to make an impact – so with my original group behind me and around ten other new players, we stormed the White Knight nest. We’d spent a lot of ammo panic-firing and running away from one earlier – including a fantastic minute spent standing in shadow, torches turned off, not making any noise as it prowled around mere feet away – so we were going in under-prepared. Luckily the single monster we found in there went down under the the weight of twenty or so darts simultaneously hitting her in the chest. I frantically searched for jigsaw pieces and put all of our eggs in one delicious human basket by hanging on to all of them.
“Are there any more?” I shouted, frantic. When I wrote the objective last Sunday, there were supposed to be MORE in here. This wasn’t right. It was then, when a zombie staggered through and cut me off from the rest of my group, that I discovered the fluidity of teams under our new system.
Back in the day, once you got your team, you were stuck with it for the whole night – you’d get your one go as a player, but the rest of the time would be spent shambling around as a deader (we even had a run unofficially called the “Dick Run,” which you’d jam any and all players who might not rub along well with others into one massive group and fire them at the zombies in one horrendous wedge). But now, if you’re not getting on with your team, you can just run off and join another.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting on with my team – they were lovely people all, and the medic had healed me when I’d been bitten a couple of times – but due to logistical problems in that they were behind an increasingly-large group of zombies and I wasn’t, I decided it was time to part ways. So I ran away, and hid.
I hid; that wasn’t an option back in the old premises, thanks to a general lack of space and relative abundance of zombies. But I crouched down behind some frosted glass and managed to evade (or at least earned the sympathy) all the nearby zombies for the best part of two minutes, as I heard my previous team back down the corridor in the opposite direction firing wildly. I needed assistance – and it arrived, in the form of a chap clad head to toe in camouflage.
HE LOOKED LIKE THE SORT OF MAN WHO COULD DELIVER
When he turned up earlier that morning, I’d been the one to explain to him that not only would we be keeping his guns, but he wouldn’t be able to use all of them – and this guy had a LOT of guns. Nice guns, modded and painted, including a Recon that came close to breaking security restrictions on power and a shotgun in a clearly hand-made leather holster on his back. I felt kind of bad to see the disappointed look on his face, but we had game balance to think of.
At that moment, though, I couldn’t give a damn about game balance. Right then I needed bullets – I had none left, powering through the ten in my Barricade within five minutes – and he looked like the sort of man who could deliver. I ran out to meet him, as he was getting more and more surrounded by zombies, but remaining steely-jawed and unloading shot after shot into them despite inherent difficulties.
“HELLO!” I shouted, that being my standard greeting to spur people into action. “Come on,” I said, pointing at the stairs ten feet – and four zombies – away from us, “We’ve got to get these jigsaw pieces up to the Nightmares.” He nodded, and his gun ran dry, so I instantly ran away and left him to hold off the Zombies as best he could. I was going through team-mates pretty quickly, and I needed some more – or, at least, a gun.
I learned, later, from another ref who was overseeing the event that he tried to follow me but – and this is fantastic, this – that modded shotgun in the leather holster on his back got caught in some loose camouflage netting, and while he was trying to pull it free, he got munched.
I CONTRIBUTED NOTHING
In order to achieve the mission – and that was all I’d gone in to the game to do, I wasn’t bothering with a character due to the short notice and general lack of imagination – I’d found that small teams, of about seven or so, worked best. Any more than that, and it all started to move at the speed of the slowest person as disagreements and confusion, especially in the darkness of the basement, reigned. (FUN FACT: Orders are less than half as effective when you give them to people who can’t see you or, indeed, what you’re pointing at)
So I began to move between teams, pulling them on like jumpers as I rushed around trying to get power cells to Baxter. I joined back up with my original team, traded in the jigsaw pieces, and went off in search for more with a group of five guys dressed up in army fatigues. I made friends with no fewer than three different medics, all of who healed me – including one man, after I’d led my current team into an almost game-ending massacre that saw around twenty deaths, who saw that I’d collapsed on the floor and threw a healing sticker directly at my face letting me dash out of the room relatively unharmed. Over the next twenty minutes, aside from finding some but not all of the Nightmares’ puzzle pieces, I contributed nothing to the game except a confidence to lead players into dangerous situations and a cowardice to leave them there as I ran away.
I ended up joining my last team – who I’ll dub Team Distraction for the purposes of this article – for a full eight seconds, as I sidestepped a group of zombies that were chasing them and sped through them, running up to the walkway on the second flight of stairs and hiding.
I felt the heat radiating off me in waves. I was exhilarated, and possibly not too far off my first heart attack – but I didn’t want to die rolling in pigeonshit, so through a combination of willpower and laying down a little bit I managed to recover my senses. I watched through a narrow gap in the frosted glass (FUN FACT: Studies show that frosted glass saves more lives than firearms in a zombie apocalypse) as my team-mates were horrendously killed in the dead-end exit. I crouched down and prayed that no-one would find me.
MACHO HOO-RAH BASTARDS
This was the most illuminating part of all, really. We picture players as macho hoo-rah bastards who run roughshod over our best laid plans and kick out more ammo than they know what to do with, taking down every White Knight and zombie horde we’re able to throw at them. From the player point of view, it’s very different.
Aside from the fear, mentioned earlier – kind of a mixture of panic, shock, and acting (FUN FACT: I wasn’t acting) the scarcity of ammunition is a constant factor. I knew exactly how many bullets I had in my gun at any one time, and much of the conversation was about how many shots we had, in what guns, and whether we could take the upcoming threat. It was fantastic stuff; real whispered damage control and risk assessment in a way I’d been hoping to create for years. It all happened organically. There was no way we could make shit like this happen reliably with direct intervention; it would be forced, false. This all felt authentic. I guess we have a working system.
A CHAP APPROACHES
I should thank the woman who gave me her spare glowstick, after it was revealed that neither of us had guns – it saved my life. As did the nitefinder, and the maverick, and the recon, that I managed to blag off players who were dual-wielding. Without your co-operation I would have died.
I hear the announcement over the tannoy that the doors are open, and I’m about to gingerly walk down the stairs when a chap approaches.
“Hi,” he says, and wearily leans on the balcony. This has clearly been an exhausting run for him too. “How’re you doing?”
“Oh, not bad. Are you dead, by any chance?”
“Ah, well I’m not, see.”
He looks down, and rears his head back up. I’m trapped. I have a bullet in my pocket, but no gun, and no escape. He approaches, and to his credit, when in my blind panic I hurl it at him he staggers back appropriately. Whoever you were, thank you. Had you not played along, my story would have ended getting chewed up next to a lift, rather than an escape.
I ran – down to the exit door, and slammed into it. The other survivor, a chap from the games company Playfish, had dragged himself through forty feet of the aforementioned pigeonshit using only his arms, thanks to being on zero health. But we made it out alive, just.
NEVER HAVE TOO MUCH AMMUNITION
So I learned a lot. That Zombie LARP is scary, still. That players can never have too much ammunition. That zombies are willing to play along with a good story. That moving between teams is a valid, if cowardly, survival tactic. That surviving is impossibly hard for most, and massively exhilarating to try and even achieve. That the reason we have such a low survival rate is because the way to survive is to not be a hero, to not get out there and risk your life, but to inspire and stand near those who do.
And there’s a game for everyone in that, a part to play. There are more ways to have fun within this system than I can comprehend, and I built the fucking system. How exciting is that? How much fun is it to click some cogs together and watch players spin the handles of this great story machine? It focuses the mind. It’s like realising that everyone around you as you walk on the street is a whole, complete, messed-up person just like you, except you can build the world they exist in, tweak those stories. It’s not quite like being a God, but it’s close. A regional administrator for God, perhaps.
And above all, it was fun. More fun than I expected. Right now, if I’m honest, I’m considering packing it all in and turning up as a player next time.
Crushingly – hah – there wasn’t a next time, because we lost the premises and then a year later moved to Australia, as you might have heard. So it’s on permanent hiatus, really, and that’s sad because I read bits like this and realise how white-hot awesome the entire thing was, and long to do it again. One day, I’m sure. One day. Probably not in London, though.