Sky Full of Astra – 7 Things I’ve Enjoyed the Most as a Co-GM in Astra Larp

Photo by the player of Suzana K (Astra larp, Croatia, 2014)

Photos by the player of Suzana Krajačić (Astra larp, Croatia, 2014)

A week ago, the co-alpha and I’s twelve day long pervasive larp Astra ended with a ceremony promoting the spy recruits into apprentice agents in our fictional secret agency, “Astra”.

For twelve whole days (well, the second Wednesday was a bit slow) we’ve co-GMed this incredible crew of players, both experienced larpers and total beginners, creating a story together – one we couldn’t have even imagined we’d enjoy this much.

As the first reviews and opinions are coming in, after we’ve published the first batch of documentation (for now in Croatian only – here), I’ve tried to gather my initial, overwhelmed impressions into a single post. It was one hell of a task – one I plan on upgrading in the weeks to come. How does one write about a larp they’ve run? How do you pick up the threads of your old life, when… (wrong movie.)

Forgive a girl a bit of sentimentality, yeah? After all, it’s not every day you get a cast of 20+ people so wonderful they make you laugh and cry and worry about them at the same time – for almost two weeks straight. I feel pretty honoured by having had the opportunity to co-GM for them, bringing a story the co-alpha and I have written to life on this scale, for the first time in our lives.

The “seven things” I’ve enjoyed the most about Astra larp are noted below – and there are many, many more I’ve loved almost as much. Something tells me an experience like this isn’t something you can easily cast aside – and it was, truly, both an honour and a pleasure to be a part of it.

I’ve enjoyed…

#1 The co-GM and everything a good partnership entails

I might’ve written something about it here, before, but let me just say (over and over again) – it’s incredible what two people who are on the same page can accomplish when they pour everything they have into a single, highly focused, quite demanding project. The co-alpha and I came into Astra larp prepared to cut each other’s throats out a couple of days into the game, and to hate everything it represented after it was over – but it didn’t happen! Not only did we enjoy almost every second of the game, but we filled our creative batteries on it, something we didn’t think was possible while running a pervasive game.

Sometime during the third or fourth day we’ve had already split the work between the two of us, more organically than planned, and it worked. Not only did we not fight (except for a bickering incident or two), but we ended up more excited about the prospect of running another game – pervasive or whatever – after this one, together. Co-GMing Astra was by no means easy – but it was enjoyable as hell, due to its requirements and having a well organized, creative and passionate person by my side. How could I not be excited at what’s to come?

#2 The players and their endless amount of energy

Pervasive larping is hard, especially when you’re into it for weeks at a time – and many of our players, as well as the two of us, have been through Izgon (and/or Izgon 2), burning all of our energy through month-long larping on a deeper emotional level. Although Astra was designed as a completely different emotional experience for the players (strong ingame vs. offgame borders, no deeper or heavier character backstories, games instead of politics, spying on folks instead of resolving private conflicts from the characters’ past lives), many of them were cautious at the start, afraid not to get burned over once more.

A few days after Astra started, we’ve had the first really awesome daily task results come in, and the players were already running all over the town, grouping up over their initial competitiveness and solving puzzles by themselves or in their respective groups.

Later into the game, when the more time consuming daily tasks were sent out, we’ve had players writing stories and poems, drawing, sculpting, making stuff with their hands and their minds, doing extensive research (some of them), taking photos all over the city…. Not only did they give us great initial feedback by fulfilling the tasks, but they seemed to be having fun, if going by the way some of them took interest in the main backstory (written all over classified documents they were slowly collecting from the get go) and the stuff others wrote in their everyday reports/diaries and meta reports. We were not only thrilled, but genuinely in awe over all the effort. When you get a person writing a long report, or when you receive an emotional short story, a haiku, a piece of music composed just for the larp, when a player sculpts something out of paper or clay, when your groups run all over the town, compare ingame poems to already published ones to spot tiny differences… how could you not be (a little bit) in love with both the players and the game?

#3 Pervasive gaming from the other side of the screen (or, how many characters am I corresponding as at the moment, exactly?)

One thing we were not prepared for, no matter what we intially though, was co-GMing a pervasive larp based in a big part on online communication. The first few days were hell in terms of GMing, since most of the players were more than active online, a few of them reacted quite well to the Agency’s many Departments (part of the surface backstory for the larp) and taking part into bringing the fictional world of the “Astra” Agency to life – in ways we had imagined and in ways we had not. There’s no way for us to count how many e-mails we’ve sent out in the twelve days, how many gdocs we’ve written to note everything down and follow the story’s course, how many hours we’ve spent over the details, both by ourselves as GMs, and in direct communication with the players…

Sometimes before the halfway mark (our first Monday, when we sent out the “tell us how you’re doing” meta e-mail) the co-alpha and I had already come to realize it was a four GM larp, not two. Well, we did our best and had a blast – and if we did learn a thing or two about the hi-tech part of the equation which was not a part of the larp’s initial design, you can only be sure we’ll use it for one of the games we have in mind for the future. (Actually, we’ve learned a lot more than just that – but that’s another story…)

#4 Alternate reality gaming – just a taste of it

Learning about alternate reality gaming from reading articles published about it online seems as intelligent as learning about larping through blogs and not taking part in active games. Well, it was the only way for us to do it, this time round – and it was a start.

Although most of the stuff we’ve done in Astra can be categorized as halfway between pervasive larping and low-tech ARG/urban treasure hunt stuff, it served as a great starting point for further GM development. Many of the players cited the larp’s final urban treasure hunt (lasting for 2 or 2 and a half hours and spanning over 10+ kilometers total, if the numbers were right) as one of their favourite parts of the game, and we’ve certainly had a blast designing and running it (sometime literally, khm, running). Astra’s ARG elements may rank pretty low in the grand scheme of things (after all, our budget was cents compared to marketing ARGs which made the genre popular worldwide), but it was enough for us to see what it could be, and love the hell out of it.

Still, ARGs are not for two-person teams – a fact we’ve learned over and over again during the game, and one we plan to build upon in the years to come.

#5 Reinventing the past – casting historical Croatian literary geniuses as spies and paranormal investigators 

Astra larp revolved around three Croatian literary geniuses of the first half of the 20th century – Marija Jurić Zagorka (pioneer journalist, women’s rights activist and historical fiction grande dame), Ivana Brlić Mažuranić (fairy tale and local mythology enthousiast, family person and imaginative spirit, inspiring many artists) and Antun Branko Šimić (revolutionary poet, intellectual activist and master wordsmith).

Most of the players were only partly familiar with their works before the game – with the exception of maybe three fans of MJZ’s novels, two passionate lovers of ABŠ’s poetry and one artist well versed in the illustrations which have accompanied IBM’s fairy tale collections in the past hundred years. During the larp, all of them went head on into the authors’ lives, professional and private work, and learned a lot more about them and what their effort and influence actually meant for our culture.

The thing about Croatian past and culture is – either you tolerate it or you hate it. From day one, many of us are taught to appreciate it with no real explanation whatsoever, resulting in many of the young(er) generations basically ignoring it. How could a regular young person in Croatia know how fun and entertaining MJZ’s novels are when all we get is, basically, “she was this great old author who couldn’t tell a story in less than ten thick books”? How can we enjoy ABŠ’s poems they way they were intended – emotionally and privately – when, during early and middle education, all the teachers care about is how many lines and verses, which poetic elements he used etc? The fairy tales of Ivana Brlić Mažuranić are part of obligatory reading in elementary education – and we all know there’s no way in hell for kids to enjoy something they’re forced to read, most of the time way to early and without proper motivation.

Some people have already, during the larp, told us that they had no idea how fun the writer’s work was – we’re looking forward to feedback from others. And at one point, after Astra’s players had already identified the trio as the main focus of the ingame material, someone asked us who else, from our historical literary pantheon, had been a spy in the Astra Agency…? We couldn’t have wished for more.

#6 Taking care of players’ needs and ideas for twelve full days

Pervasive gaming is hard for more reasons than I could possibly name in a single article. Many of the things the co-alpha and I wanted to keep out of Astra larp we had previously experienced as players during Izgon pervasive larps in 2013, also in Zagreb.

Izgon was… one hell of a ride, in all the good, great and disastrous ways. The co-alpha and I have both loved the larp, especially the first installment, but it took us months to get over the consequences of the way we’ve played it. Some of Astra’s players have had problems in the second Izgon especially, and some players were total beginners, with no idea what pervasive larping actually means.

The co-alpha and I did our best to stay in contact with the players, both ingame and off, for the better part of the larp. The main way we choose was keeping an active offgame blog, here (yup – Croatian only), and answering the players’ meta and offgame e-mails and messages as quickly as humanly possible. We met with one player who had issues about their role in person (over coffee) and did our best to take the ingame pressure off them, which I think worked – at least a little bit.

Midgame, we sent out the already mentioned “tell us how you’re doing” meta e-mail, and implemented some of the feedback we got into the game during the very next day. Although the communication wasn’t perfect, I still feel we made an effort – and since it’s a thing I feel strongly about, due to my personal previous pervasive larping experience, well, I can’t not mention it along with other things I’ve loved about this larp. Tto my knowledge, it was totally worth it – and since many of the players have already filled the feedback questionnaire, we’ll check the fact in no time!

#7 Sheer excitement over a job both well done  – and a project which went well

There’s something about running on adrenaline for twelve days – actually, closer to three weeks, with all the last minute pregame prep – and surviving it. Still, there’s even more in knowing you’ve given your best (or pretty damn close to it), done a good job, and created something that many people, judging by the inital feedback, found fun, exciting and educational.

Honestly, nine months ago – when this whole thing about the two of us running a pervasive game started – I had no idea. There was no way for me to know how fun, thrilling, involving and challenging it will be. There was also no way for me to predict how well it would all go. Not all of Astra larp was perfect – things never are – but most of it was… to say the least, surprisingly awesome.

The co-alpha and I expected things to go boom, people to get tired or burnt out by the game, plot twists to flop and a general feeling of “good try, too bad it didn’t happen the way you wanted it to”…

What we got – thanks to an ensemble of incredible players, and, by no small means, each other’s effort and creativity – well, for me it felt, at least for a second in time, like we’ve come a bit closer to the stars.

Like I said – no one expects a GM to be coherent about a game they’ve run, at least not so soon after its finale. Passionate larpers, passionate GMs, right?

I just hope more of our GMing colleagues – both new ones and those who still didn’t dare create a larp themselves – have this experience so early in their larping life. Because, whatever happens next, we’ll always have Astra – and a reason to be proud of the story all of us told together.

Thank you for playing, thank you for reading – and, most of all, thank you to the co-alpha, the only person who was willing and crazy enough for me to go down this path alongside with.

All good things come to an end – but I have to agree with the Captain on another thing, this time – only the sky feels like the limit…!