Background and History
A Quick History of Theatre Style
I’m a firm believer in foundations. We’ll start with a look at the origins of "theatre style" gaming. Like everything else, it did not spring full-grown from the head of an inventor. It was a product of trends, influences and source material. In this quick history, I'll be looking primarily at trends and groups that proved to be trendsetting, in that they verifiably influenced other, later, groups. Even so, it is clear that all live roleplay, even Theatre Style, sprung from a general ferment in many places at about the same time.
The question would be, why? Before Theatre Style, there was Live Combat, and "Assassin." My personal thesis, which is increasingly borne out by evidence, suggests that organized modern live roleplay had two "explosions," both fueled by a media event.
In 1978 and 1979, we can theorize that there were a few handfuls of over-educated college kids playing Live D&D on college campuses. We know that a few years before a simple "tag" game called "The Live Ring Game" was published, which made Tolkien’s three book saga into a sort of team live combat game. You won’t find the "Live Ring Game" around today – it was a violation of the copyrights of the Tolkien estate, and the product was pulled from production.
Live roleplay was a closet phenomenon. Then in 1979 a University of Michigan student with the unlikely name of James Dallas Egbert III disappeared, and the information got out to the press that his disappearance might be linked to a group of students who played "live D&D" in the steam tunnels beneath the university. The disappearance turned out to be unrelated to roleplaying, or the TSR product "Dungeons and Dragons," but the case provided the "basis" for Rona Jaffe's fictional work Mazes and Monsters set at "Grant University in Pequod, Pennsylvania." Jaffe's 1981 book portrayed a fictional case similar in appearance to the Egbert case - instead of an intriguing side detail, however, in Jaffe's book the roleplaying game is the basis for trouble. Many more people are familiar with the fictional version in Jaffe's book, and in the subesequent movie, than have any remembrance of the actual facts in the case. After Egbert committed suicide, the investigator who found him, William C. Dear published his factual account as The Dungeon Master, in 1984. Dear states categorically that it was not a factor in Egbert's decision to flee his family and live underground.
Strangely, a number of Live Combat groups trace their origins to the years 1979 and 1981-82. Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle in the UK is often cited as the "first" Live Combat Group (rec.games.frp.live-action FAQ), however no dates of origin are given. While we cannot assume that Treasure Trap was definitely "the first" group to do live roleplay with padded weapons, we can assume that at least in the UK it refined a random phenomenon into an actual system. However, the news, rather than any particular group, seems to have led to the genesis of Live Combat Roleplaying. All across the English-speaking world, D&D playing kids heard about the Egbert disappearance and thought not "how scary" but "they were playing live D&D in the steam tunnels – how neat – I bet we could do that!"
During all the time that this was arousing righteous societal indignation at Dungeons and Dragons, it was also catapulting TSR into the limelight. I bought the game because my father read about the case, and being a liberal sort and a J.R.R. Tolkien fan, thought the game sounded interesting. Every adult rant and polemic was free promotion for a company that, despite bankruptcy, still holds the largest marketshare (34.25%) in the Roleplaying game business (source April 1998, Comics Retailer, page 24).
So we have two explosions of live combat groups—first, a number of groups in the late 70’s, often with membership drawn from an existing local medievalist group. The early groups tended to fight "battles" and modeled themselves as much after the Society for Creative Anachronism’s activities such as the "Pennsic War" than after Egbert’s exploits. Then in the early 1980's the "second generation" of groups took the idea further.
The influence of the Medievalist phenomenon – typified by the "Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA" on live roleplay should not be underestimated. Well before Egbert took to the steam tunnels, the SCA were doing a type of live roleplay of their own. Huge events with fighting, feasts and entertainment were run at dozens, eventually hundreds of locations. And though these folks didn’t have plots, and sometimes looked down their noses at the rising tide of "fantasy" medievalists, they had one thing in common with live-roleplayers. They took a name that wasn’t their own, and made up a background, called a "persona." Like it or not the SCA was roleplaying, and they were doing it in vast numbers.
At around the same time the game "Killer" was published by Steve Jackson Games, and a number of other similar systems came out. Assassin games were being played on campus by the early eighties, and it is likely that some of the "home grown" versions are older than any of the published systems. One early verifiable organization is the M.I.T. Assassins Guild, which was organized at least as early as 1983. Early Assassin games were "circle games" where all the participants drew a name, and then serially eliminated their opponents. By 1983, M.I.T. had clearly progressed to more organized events, with dramatic elements and plotting. The 1985 Movie "Gotcha," with Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino popularized the "assassin" genre, but is also a reflection of the fact that it was very well established by that point. Live Action "Assassin" is the forgotten grandsire of most theatre style games. These events were run on college campuses, and despite invectives from the authorities, and problems with students sneaking around campuses with dart pistols, they were wildly popular. Modern "paint ball," which is a fairly organized sport, seems to have evolved from the starting point of the "circle games," but in the opposite direction - towards a more "sport like" approach where team play, physical activity, and shooting in interesting terrain were emphasized, rather than plot and drama.
Assassin games quickly became outlawed on many campuses, and aficionados needed to find some way to continue play that was less frightening and threatening to the authorities and their communities, or stop playing. A logical step was to come up with a mathematical "combat" system similar to that used in tabletop RPG – players who found each other could resolve combat using dice. The problem is that stalking someone with an index card of stats isn’t very exciting. So the next step becomes adding some plots so that there is something more interesting to do that walk around comparing cards. Theatre style gaming was born. It would also be incorrect to assume that "assassin" genre is dead, however. Killer! a live action rules system for Assassination gaming by Steve Jackson Games is being re-released in 1998 in a 4th edition.
In 1982, Walt Frietag and some friends at Harvard University "invented" what they called "interactive literature." Like Treasure Trap, they didn’t precisely invent a new form of live roleplay. Their undeniable contribution was to build a "standard" event which would serve as a model. Frietag called his group the "Harvard Society for Interactive Literature," which was shortened to "Society for Interactive Literature" the next year. The MIT Assasssins Guild formed around the same time, and focused on "Assassin Games," at least initially, though by the mid eighties it had branched into live fantasy gaming. In 1985, the SIL group began running a convention for live games in 1985 called "Silicon," and at the first Silicon they advertised the SIL as a membership organization. It is unclear exactly who and where the concept originated. There are several accounts offered in early editions of the LARPA (then SIL) periodical Metagame, and in the program books for early SILiCONs (now Intercon). Unfortunately the accounts are "mock serious" and diverge both along lines of comedy and consistency. It can be established that the group ran a game called Rekon I in early 1983 at the "Boskone" Science Fiction Convention. It is safe to assume the concept predated the initial run of Reklone I by six months to a year.
Live Action Gaming, particularly Assassin gaming was not unknown to society at large in the early 80s. Certainly Gotcha! must have inspired growth in the Assassin games genre. By 1988, the "Live Roleplaying" phenomenon was embedded enough in SF/Fantasy culture to inspire a science fiction novel. Larry Niven's Dream Park codified the concept, adding high tech bells and whistles, and an enormous budget - the first depiction of Live Roleplay as the "entertainment form of the future." Dream Park would provide the original inspiration for the Midwestern "International Fantasy Gaming Society," which takes its name from the book, and along with NERO constitutes one of the two largest "live combat" roleplaying groups in the United States.
As the predecessor to the LARPA, the SIL had a turbulent history. Largely this was because of an unspoken, and to a large extent unrecognized, difference of opinion between the groups founders, especially Rick Dutton and Walt Freitag, as to what the SIL represented. From 1985 to 1988, there was some question as to what the SIL was. It was a membership organization, which began selling memberships for $5.00 in the program book for SiliCon I in 1985. Yet it was also a gamewriting collective, identified with Walt Frietag, Rick Dutton, and a few others.
In Metagame vol. 1, no. 1, in summer 1988, Rick Dutton said "The Society for Interactive Literature, as an organization, will write no more games. Desitny has called and we've answered....We are rededicating ourselves to serve as a clearinghouse for news, services and theory on the art and science of interactive literature. Our newsletter will publish ads and previews of coming attractions, reviews of previous games...stories and articles on the theory of game-writing, game playing and interactive literature in general....We will also provide help for new gamemasters, both at our conventions and elsewhere...The Society's membership will be the same as it has always been: those players, gamemasters, and spectators with an interest in the future of interactive literature."
However in Fall (Metagame v. 1 no. 2) Walt Frietag wrote of the SIL in terms of a gaming system and organization. A number of the early or founding members felt the SIL should function as an extension of the initial writing group – and almost all favored making the SIL a sanctioning body, similar to IFGS, but without the genre and proprietary rules set that provides the rationale for the IFGS to function in that regard. In 1988, the organization elected a Board of Directors at a mass meeting in New Jersey.
The result was turmoil. Fundamentally the SIL was progressing from being a student organization – little more than a private club – to being a managed non-profit concern. Given the fact that neither the founders, nor newcomers had experience in management, or in how to effect a transition, the result was bound to be painful and disharmonious. Frietag became disenchanted with the organization he had helped to form in 1990, after a fellow officer resigned with feelings that she had been unfairly treated. At a tense Board meeting in Annapolis MD, Frietag asserted a proprietary claim to the name "Society for Interactive Literature." The Board of Directors moved to change the name, and the Live Action Roleplayers Association was born.
Eventually most of the founders broke from the organization, several including Dutton resigning from the Board of Directors in 1991, and operating a rival organization under the old SIL name, which issued a version of Metagame sporadically for about three years thereafter.
Lest the author should appear to be re-writing history, I should note that I had a hand in the problems of the SIL during my board term from 1989-1990. Young, and without adequate business learning or manners, I doubtless made as many immature and poor judgements as any other participant in the debate. Above, I've tried to more or less outline the two basic threads of progress in the organization - towards and away from being a core writing and production group. But by no means should this be taken as villification of anyone involved. Certainly frustrated as I may have been at the time, in historical retrospect it seems that both Rick Dutton and Walt Freitag tried very hard to do the right thing, amid pressures from many different sides, and different basic understandings of what the organization was to accomplish.
Launched into the failing economy that would culminate in the 1992 recession, the new organization dealt with the usual painful pangs of small group politics and rivalries, but stabilized by the middle of the decade under a new management structure modeled on successful non-profit organizations. The LARPA launched newsstand sales of its magazine, "Metagame" in 1997, and is rapidly growing to be the leading impartial voice for all types of Live Roleplay. The author had the privilege of being present for many of the early events in the organization’s history, and acting as President of the organization from 1995-1997.
The Creation of Theatre Style.
The fact is that an idea whose time has come often enters the market through several outlets. Howe and Singer invented a nearly identical sewing machine independently. The importance of the "turning point" innovators shouldn’t be underestimated. Few "inventors" make up something from scratch. The television that Philo Farnsworth in 1926 invented wasn’t the first scanning electronic device, and it wasn’t even to be the first production television. But it was the television that would enter hundreds of millions of homes over the next five decades.
The refinement of "theatre style" events is still murky. Within a few months of Freitag’s first successful public game "Rekon", at the Boskone Science fiction convention in Boston Massachusetts, another group in Maryland ran a similar event. For the next eight years, "Rekon-type" games would be identified with science-fiction fandom.
Obviously other people in other places were running similarly plotted games at the same time. Tracking the theatre style "meme" may be a pointless activity, but it explains a great deal about the growth, distribution, and comparative quality, of various events and systems.
Just like most live combat groups eventually have a trail leading to the "meme dispersal" of the Egbert disappearance, most radically similar groups have a trail leading to science fiction conventions, and ultimately an event spurred by "Rekon" meme. Often the trail is faint – someone running a live combat game heard from a friend about a theatre style game run at some convention he or she had attended.
One big exception is "Murder Mysteries." No single event seems to have spurred groups to start running live murder mysteries. But they did, and by the early Nineties they were big business in some locations.
The modern "theatre style" event is more complex than its "Rekon descended" ancestry. To me, modern "theatre style" is the ultimate genre.
Most new arts have a geographic home, and few have founders. Bill Haley may have been the first artist to found a "Rock and Roll" band, but the rising of Rock and Roll from the ferment of Dixieland, Motown Jazz, and Big Band was an inevitablity that went beyond Haley, and captured the hearts of millions.
The "Theatre Style" monicker is a random one, and could just as well be replaced by any other. It isn’t terribly accurate, and it isn’t terribly historic. The first widespread use of the term occurred after the LARPA’s Interaction I Leadership Convention in 1995.
The form was changing in the early 1990s, and the change has been dramatic. A traditional "Theatre Style" game run in 1994 would be clearly identifiable to most players as an event very much in the same mold as Walt Frietag’s "Rekon I." Despite a vastly larger "standalone" site (i.e. one not affiliated with a science fiction convention), drastically more complex plots, and more player input, the event was structurally very similar to its predecessor.
The years from 1994-1998 have seen an explosion in the quality, complexity, and dispersal of the Theatre style event. 1998 will mark the first British convention devoted solely to hosting Theatre Style events.
In 1997 and 1998, the Washington area was the source of a cultural "ferment" that brought many different strains of gaming together. This is no coincidence. For the first time in five years, in the mid Nineties, the LARPA’s annual convention "Intercon" began to range outside the Baltimore-Washington area. While this meant exposing other writers and producers to the style common in Washington, it also meant that Baltimore and Washington writers, faced with an increasingly competitive market had a truly vast array of fresh new examples. Most significant was the melding of Midwestern and New England Murder Mystery writing traditions with more standard "Rekon descended" traditions.
At the same time a number of Baltimore-Washington writers began to experiment with talented and well produced live combat games in Pennsylvania, most of them run by a small group called Xanodria Productions, and talk with NERO system game designers.
The rising wave of "Vampire" games has had an impact too. Some Theatre style producers were initially snobbish about Vampire. They saw the participants and designers as "simplistic," and considered the events little better than costume parties with names. Many, however, were not. Vampire games established something that had been unknown before – an "ongoing" or "campaign" theatre style game, which in Vampire parlance is a "chronicle." While live combat events run by NERO or IFGS had always followed the "campaign" model established by tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, theatre style games had not. The results are still unclear. In 1998, some theatre style campaigns have been running for two years – the level of customer satisfaction seems to be higher than the average vampire campaign (though no better than the best), but the form is still a nascent one.
The result of the exposure of Baltimore-Washington GMs to new forms in the mid 90s was a synthesis. A new class of "Theatre style" event, embodying special effects, complex staging, and the concept of "cast" learned from live combat designers
Baltimore and Washington were not the only places that live roleplay was "happening" in 1997, anymore than Detroit, or New Orleans, or New York were the only place that Rock and Roll was "happening" in the mid fifties. But it is one of the key areas where a big community spurred new ideas and new approaches, and it is the area that launched the first national magazine on live roleplay in the U.S. In 1996, theatre style live roleplay was also growing and changing in places as diverse as Atlanta, London, and New York City. In the early 90s Boston had produced work which was innovative, but poured out in no great volumes. By the late 90s the highly college-oriented Boston market seems on the threshold of an explosion of new work, fueled by Intercon.
I began running "The Assassin Game" in 1985. In 1986, I wrote my first short event, and by 1988 I was producing major theatre style events. In 1989 I found myself drafted as a GM for a game called "The Prisoner," based loosely on the 1960s television series. In those days writing groups tended to be tabletop groups or social groups – "drafting" a GM was unusual.
The fact is, nobody thought about the science and art of GMing much at all at the time. The emphasis was on "writing," and GMing was something that people did when the thing they had written had to actually happen. Some of the conceits that GMs engaged in were appalling – it wasn’t uncommon for GMs to be called "Gods." In a few earlier events this made sense because the GMs had players who represented some quasi-deific force of nature. But it was carried widely into events where its only purpose was to butter the egos of the event organizers.
Events happened once, and frequently ended without a copy on paper that could actually be reproduced. Usually, a theater-style event was run by the writing group that conceived of it, perhaps with the help of a few gophers (usually termed "game mommies") or other auxiliary staff. I was an outside writer, who came in to author six characters, and run a "site" – at that time a new idea in games.
A few months later, I found myself up late one night doing unexpected last minute work on another event, and I decided it was time to start keeping track of my runtime hours.
In 1998, I crossed the median on my eight-hundredth hour on the floor, actively running events. While there are probably many Live-Combat GMs with well over a thousand hours, there are not a lot of theater-style GMs with over 700 runtime hours.
I had been trying since 1990 to get as much floor experience as possible, and during 1996 I began to realize that my experience was paying off. I was easily thinking of solutions to problems that seemed impossible to less experienced GMs. Not because I was smarter, but because I had a wealth of experience to draw on. I was managing to use pacing controls to get games to end exactly when, where, and how I wanted them to, for maximum dramatic effect. And I was being decisive and having a good feel for the progress of an event when other GMs were floundering or confused. There were two possibilities. One is that I was a lot brighter than the other people working with me. While that would be flattering, it was clearly not the case.
The alternative possibility was that experience actually added up to being able to do the job better. In a field where almost everyone is a beginner, and producers are routinely deceiving themselves by thinking that the fact they have fallen into a rut and are running their monthly game by rote means they are "old hands," I had emerged from being a beginner, into being a journeyman. I still had a lot to learn (and I still do) – more than most producers dream of. But the puzzle places began to fall into place, and I began to understand what I didn’t know, and figure out how to learn it for myself.
Look at it this way. If running events was my full time job, I would just have completed my first six forty hour weeks. That’s the point at which most new employees begin to become firmly reliable on their own.
Copyright 1998 , Gordon Olmstead-Dean. You
may reprint or cite, providing the source is attributed.
Some of this material has appeared previously in identical or substantially similar form in the LARPA Periodical
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