(Photos by Jesse Robert Gifford Stuart. Illustrations by Jabari Weathers.)
(Ericka’s Note: Reverie Studios reached out to me as an ‘Influencer’ and, after much negotiation, I took the contract with a focus on being a larp journalist for their event. What that means is that I retain full editorial control over everything I say about the event and it’s not meant to be marketing, but a deep dive into what they are doing, how the process works, and an unbiased review at the end. I had some questions going in about this event as the marketing looked a bit too ‘You all play bad guys’ for my general tastes, so the first thing I asked them was if I could do a Q&A with my concerns and the worries that come from the general community. Just like previous Q&As I’ve done, they had no control over the questions and the answers are unedited save formatting. After speaking with Garrett and Ken, I will say I’m far more excited to be attending this project and hope to see some familiar faces there. More information can be found at: http://eskhatonlarp.com/. So, without further adieu… )
Ericka Skirpan (ES): Let’s dive right in with my favourite question and a brief introduction. If you all could give your names, a sentence or two of background about yourselves, and then answer my favourite question: What is your favorite kind of story to tell and why?
Garett Kopczynski (GK): I am the lead writer for Eskhaton and Reverie Studios. My responsibilities on Eskhaton have largely dealt with world-building and establishing the fiction, including the characters. I collaborate closely with Ken and Tyler, as well as the paid writing team. I am excited that we released our participant guide recently, and I am looking forward to the final characters getting finished over the next few months and sent out. My favorite kind of story to tell is one that explores nuance and allows for examining a character fully, rather than just the archetypal mask that they seem to wear. I am not overly interested in stories that provide little opportunity to explore characters in full and understand them as people. I studied literature in undergrad so my brain has been trained to think this way about the stories I read, and crosses over into the stories I tell.
Ken Pickering (KP): I’m one of the trio of co-founders at Reverie Studio and my role on Eskhaton has largely been centered around the macro design elements and logistics of the event itself. I’ve been a LARP organizer for a little over 10 years now, and I have to say that Eskhaton is certainly the most ambitious project I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve always written dark fantasy or horror, because there’s something about those genres that seem to allow me to explore the darker side of human nature. I’m not entirely sure why my creative interests index in that arena, but I find myself drawn to those sorts of stories, whether LARP or fiction.
ES: In reading over the preparation materials for Eskhaton, it seems like a very dark game. How do you handle players who want to be heros or morally good people in such a dark larp? Do you consider all the characters inherently evil or degraded in some form? Are there any traditional ‘good guys’ in this game?
GK: As I mentioned about the stories I like to tell, I prefer to examine characters from the lens outside of traditional morality because it allows for nuance and complexity. There can be heroes in Eskhaton, but there cannot be the hero’s saga story in this space, which by the way I think is usually misunderstood. If you look at Beowulf for instance, most people don’t pay as much attention to the final act which is just as much about the tragedy of decline and is (I think) more interesting than the sections we usually focus on where he defeats enemies in the dark.
Eskhaton is about people, fundamentally, and explores why they think or believe things. Our universe assumes that the apocalypse is inevitable, but at least the characters get to make decisions about what apocalypse happens. I don’t think of these characters as evil or good in that sense, but motivated by any number of understandable motivations in the face of an alien indifference.
KP: To piggyback on what Garett says, I think in an experience like this, morality is a bit complex. I would say a lot of characters in this universe have been damaged in some way to end up in what’s essentially a doomsday cult. To write them off as good or bad people would really over simplify the circuitous path that lead them to the nights of the event, though. And, I think this is one of those sorts of stories where someone might wholly believe they’re doing the right thing for the world even if they have to perform monstrous acts to get there, or might need to betray those they love to do the right thing and feel terrible about it.
ES: What excites you most about the setting for Eskhaton?
GK: I am most excited about Eskhaton’s organic development once it is in the hands of the participants. One of the conscious decisions we made was to get away from the gravitational pull of the ‘Mythos’ and how people usually think about that. Everything, from our choice of imagery for our core event image, to the design of the cults was done to examine something familiar to people (i.e. cosmic horror) but also to open the door to new interpretations of what that means. Once the participants have their hands on it, it’s going to be very exciting to see what they do with it and what stories they decide to tell in this world.
ES: When we spoke, you mentioned there are a few things you are doing differently than most larp out there? Could you tell me about these design choices, why you think they are innovative, why you made them, and how you think they will affect the event?
GK: At Reverie we’ve embraced the storytelling sandbox style where we set up a carefully constructed universe, and then step out of the focus. We have guide rails to use to keep participants engaged with this world they are inhabiting and the characters, but we do not want them to come to us for answers. From the get go our larps aim for their desires and dreams and we facilitate that.
ES: What sort of games did Reverie studios make previously? How long have you all worked together? Why did you decide to make the jump to the so-called ‘Blockbuster’ arena of larping?
GK: Ken, Tyler and I have known each other since I think about 2013 or so from playing in the local Mind’s Eye Society Vampire: the Masquerade larp. We got Reverie together after going to Grand Masquerade in New Orleans in 2015. Our first larp as a studio was a sort of ‘training wheels’ larp called Seance Sessions back in February of 2016. This larp explores going to a seance and getting to portray someone who is a skeptic or a believer and deciding if something is real or not. It’s a great larp for a small group of people who learn very quickly that there is no authority for the story, and that they are the storytellers. We’ve been developing a variety of different larps since then and looking to lay infrastructure for each next step, and the ‘blockbuster’ space is where we wanted to go next so that we could work with a large group of people and spread the style we want to see more of in the US.
KP: We’ve also been running A COG in the Machine at a few difference conferences. It’s our psychodrama with a pretty low amount of preparation required by the participants, so it’s ideal for a micro experience at a conference. And, Reverie has starting looking into co-producing content for other writers. We helped two of the members of our writing team launch their experience Daedulus this past year.
ES: Finances are always a concern and many new games of this size and style are struggling to sale tickets. Are you absolutely certain you will sell enough tickets to run? How are you addressing concerns in ticket sales and the general worry about pricing oneself out of the larp market?
GK: This is a great question. Finances are always a concern, especially with a number of great blockbuster style events starting up or having already run. We’re not certain what the outcome will be for Eskhaton sales wise, but part of this is also learning some useful information about the larp community and what it wants. We’re remaining optimistic, but of course with any project there’s concern about hitting our targets so that nobody is put into a painful position.
We set out with a couple of core decisions when looking at a ticket price. Since we wanted a good site that felt immersive and appropriate, rather than say a cheaper site that does not really fit the theme, we had to look for a place that ticked all the boxes. It’s a matter of scale after that and what gets added to the ticket price to provide value for the participant. I think what we offer really is worth it since it’s good food catered at the site (which normally is a wedding venue), a good hotel in the heart of Providence, and transportation to and from the site and hotel. We aimed to meet the comforts of a person who would come spend time with us, and we wanted to avoid cutting corners on that because we as a studio believe it matters for any blockbuster to really be thoughtful. It is a risk we are taking to sell a more premium experience, but we are also confident we’re offering quality for that premium.
ES: On the other side, large-format, expensive games like these present a class challenge to the entire larp community. I know you are offering scholarships. Can you tell me a bit more about them, how much of a discount you can offer players, how you are funding them, and how many you plan to give? How are the applications for scholarships going?
GK: To address concerns about pricing we are offering scholarship tickets at an ‘at cost’ rate. Since most of our ticket price goes into good food and lodging, which is guaranteed at a room block rate or a food minimum, we have to keep that in sight when charging for a ticket, but we want people to come and enjoy themselves, so this is funded out of our own Studio budget. We settled on around 10 tickets, and so far we’ve had a few interested persons checking it out at the reduced rate for consideration so there is certainly I think a desire for that scholarship rate.
We are conscious of the limitation that presents, and will do what we can to try and make things easy for anyone that wants to go. The goal is to try and establish enough of an infrastructure that in the future we can continue to drive that price down and eventually get it to a really sustainable sweet spot.
ES: You have said you have no NPCs for this game, correct? Even in these cross-over between Nordic-inspired and North American traditional larp, we often see a handful of NPCs to help drive plot. How are you tackling this with no NPCs at all?
GK: With Eskhaton we want to encourage participants to make manifest the world with full agency (while still being collaborative and considerate of other participants). So, for instance, we don’t really have “NPCs” in the traditional sense. There are these sort of robed minor cultists wandering around called the Allerton Family which are NPCs, but they are game staff that can be used as a prop or tool, or to coordinate something. Any other signature characters are at request. This means that plot is largely participant created or derived, which inverts the usual relationship you might see at an event. Rather than us creating the ‘mod’ and then using NPCs to hook people into the mods. In this way we avoid some of the logistical issues that come with trying to get everyone a chance to ride the theme park ride, and people feel fully empowered to explore their own contributions to an event space.
This is all largely run through a pre-scene request system that will be released to the participants before the event, giving them time to think about what they need to meet their vision, and then submitting to us so we can review. This gives us opportunities to make sure we are planning enough buckets of fake blood or have an appropriately spooky book let’s say. We’ll then have a full prop workshop and system in place at the event, with staff who track the ingoing/outgoing of props or NPCs. It’s a logistical center managed by Tyler and his team, including a full-time technical stage director.
ES: Talk to me about your workshop process and what you want the players to get out of it.
GK: Workshops, we believe, are the core of this experience and we take that as importantly as any other part of our design. We want our workshops to provide a sense of belonging for everyone coming, and to establish what we are all agreeing on for an experience. Collaboration, consent and calibration are essential for the healthy event space so we can really get into the dramatic meat, so we will have workshops dedicated to that, but also workshops to develop one’s character experience more, to learn how to craft impromptu rituals or bonding moments (i.e. a chant or call/response) and also how to use our scene request system. Our workshops are geared strongly towards building participants up so they have all the tools they need to fully engage safely and know with full awareness what to do, what to expect and how to behave.
ES: Is this absolutely a one-shot larp, or is there a possibility for a sequel in the future?
GK: We’re interested in running Eskhaton again, and it will get easier each time, but we really have to make sure that it’s appropriate to do so. If response to Eskhaton is positive and the participants are supportive of what we set out to do that will really be the determining factor I think for us. It’s about a year’s worth of work on our part and as a studio we actually aren’t likely to get much out of it except the satisfaction of completing a large project. It is our preference everyone is happy and comes away with great stories, and if the community pushes for more we will absolutely consider doing it again.
ES: Why did you choose the physical game location you did? What excites you about the space the game is being held in?
GK: To say we are excited about Squantum Association does not really adequately represent how we feel. Basically, when we first looked at the site we said “Yeah that’s really cool but can we actually run it there? Will they let us run it there?” As a larp studio I think you can come into a cool site and be wowed, but then the reality hits hard and you just start scaling down expectation. Squantum is beyond perfect, and then on top of it, they actually want us there. That is not what we expected to have happen, so we have really done everything we can to match the quality of that site with everything else we are offering, including the food and hotel. I think this is going to be a place that people go and fall in love with as a larp space.
ES: Finally, talk to me a bit about what kind of story YOU are most excited to see being portrayed at the game?
GK: I’m a huge sucker for ostentatious displays. I love it when people organize something that transforms a space and creates a mood. When a participant organizes a scene and gets a bunch of other participants together and there is a massive and elaborate pageantry to that and I have no earthly idea what’s happening, then I will have hit my goal. I want to be sucked into the story and not to feel like I’m in charge of it as much, but to be as much of a part of it (even from the fly on the wall perspective) as anyone else. This is why I sign on for larping in general because it, unlike any other theater event I’ve ever been to, can evoke such powerful emotional response.
ES: Is there anything I’ve missed that you’d like to let the greater larp community know about this experience?
GK: I think it’s just important to stress that we’re excited to see what kind of bold visions people have when coming to Eskhaton. I think it’s rare to have an event that responds to you, rather than the other way around, so we want participants to know we will fully support them and work to develop the dream they have in mind in this universe. We are building this creep cosmic horror house, now we want people to move in and give it life!