When the call went out that Crooked House were running a game, I jumped at it. I'd long fancied playing one of theirs, as the reputation that they've garnered with the Dick Britton games is exceptional. A teaser trailer released, that I didn't even watch before yelling "shut up and take my money", and throwing my hat into the ring for a place. I have long maintained that our hobby is essentially a set of intersecting (mostly benign) cults of personality which revolve around those individuals writing and running events at any given time, and I was more than happy to be given the opportunity to buy into Ian and Rachel's cult. The game was reassuringly expensive, given the ambitions (more on price later) and I was over the moon when my place was confirmed.
I left the vast majority of character creation to CH's discretion, as I didn't have any strong feelings one way or another. I understand that others were able to work very closely with them to develop a character that fitted their preferences. Mr Vincent Fairchild was to be the mind I was inhabiting for the weekend. A pioneering plastic surgeon, with a massive guilt complex over the death of his wife, and a traditionalist's attitude to social mores. He'd made a number of mistakes over his life as well as some dubious moral choices but was essentially trying to atone for the car crash that left his young daughter motherless. His wife was a member of the Northmoor family, and it was to their first Christmas in years at the family pile that he was invited. Needless to say, he approached the event with some trepidation. Would the family blame him directly for the death of their sister/cousin? Would the truth of some of his past misdemeanours come to light? And how would his wife's cousin react to him (after all he had proposed to her first, immediately after helping her to bear someone else's child in secret when he had been bribed by her father to terminate the pregnancy)?
The character packs were great. Rather than a NWO style narrative brief, the packs were a series of IC documents and letters (and in some cases artefacts), that when read chronologically gave a series of touchstones upon which to rest a player generated personality. I was, at first, a little concerned that I might be about to "do it wrong". After all, I intended to have Vincent be relatively sanguine about the morality of having helped a Nazi doctor escape from Dachau after the liberation because he had unique knowledge in the field of burns treatment and could help Vincent develop new treatments. It was a pretty big decision and I worried that I was taking the easier option, rather than have him panicked about it, but I concluded that nine years after the fact he'd have justified it to himself at least. The documents revealing what had happened were able to be read either way, and so I figured that it was probably an open choice. The beauty of the way in which the character packs were produced meant that I felt a real connection to Vincent - he was my character, his thoughts and emotions mine, and so it made playing him that much easier.
Before going into character at the event, we assembled in the lodge at the end of the drive. There Ian took us individually into a room and took photos of us with our eyes closed, and asked us to draw a tarot card from a deck. I promptly forgot all about it, as it was time to walk up the drive in small IC groups; but it served to inject a feel into John's mind that put me subconciously slightly on edge. The walk up the drive in the cold and dark served to shed all OOC thoughts, and by the time we arrived at the house, Vincent was in charge. This was a great mechanic, and the fact that all luggage was IC and that we were met by the staff who informed us that there were power problems in the house, set up the initial feel of the game beautifully. Walking into the living room to discover the traditional awkwardness at the start of a party, just deepened the feeling.
One of my big fears about the weekend was that my daughter and son-in-law were being played by complete strangers. It was partly behind my decision to make Vincent emotionally reserved. I need not have worried. Fran and Adam were awesome, and immediately set any lingering doubts to rest. The conversation between Audrey and her father about Gloria (the aformentioned cousin) was an early highlight, and when she revealed that she had witnessed another family cousin (the headmistress of Audrey's finishing school) beating her friend to death (after which Vincent had forced Audrey to return to the school against her wishes), Vincent cried for the first time since the death of his wife. Privately, of course.
If a LRPer cries in the garden and no one is there to witness it, does it really happen? I've always had a bit of a "method" streak in me. Although the LRP that I started with, way back when, was a linear system, it always encouraged emotional scenes, especially on the longer 3 and 4 day games. Since then, I've found that I play better when I am able to immerse myself, and rarely had a a problem with it. But since my break away from the hobby, I've still had the occasional moment of OOC clarity, where I realise that I am a middle aged man, stood in a field with a pair of rubber horns on my head and a funny dress. I've held back from fully engaging with the game, sometimes, because I am embarrassed. But this weekend, that did not happen. I am sure that it is largely down to the fact that the setting was so believable, but there were only a handful of moments when I was not Vincent. Those moments were only when I required a referee. I don't know how these could be avoided, but thankfully they were few in number and I was always immediately back in character as soon as the query was dealt with. I sang Christmas carols with gusto, because Vincent would have done so; I attended the church service and joined in with prayers; and generally threw myself into the role with no reservations. And I was rewarded in spades. It was emotional, terrifying and exciting. I was still a middle aged man in a funny outfit, pretending to be someone else, but it did not get in the way. I hope that I can carry this feeling over into the other games that I play.
The venue was marvellous (http://www.northmoorhouse.co.uk/) with period features galore and doors everywhere. I was still discovering new bits of it after time out on Sunday! The creaky floorboards and vintage fittings really made it easy to believe that this was the 50s, and the game-related props blended perfectly with the house furnishings. Plus it was very comfy. And warm(ish) and dry. Hurrah! It was just a shame that it was full of terrifying ghosts!
The effects at the event were amazing. Bill and Kiera have a deserved reputation, but I had no idea what they had in store for us. Finding Edgar Northmoor with a chandelier in his chest was the start of it, but from murder it moved to terrifying suicide (he's hung himself with knotted bedsheets!) and then shit got weird. It took Vincent until Saturday night to accept that, yes, there was something supernatural going on. He was in denial through the sounds, the voices calling to family members, the flames outside the windows that vanished as suddenly as they came, and the piano that started playing itself. He continued to search for rational explanations even after the hard-bitten soldier had concluded that it was ghosts. He denied through the evidence that "Uncle Godfrey" was in fact 160 years old. It was really only after Gloria vanished from under his hands that he accepted it. Playing with ever more unbelievable and far fetched "rational" explanations for the weirdness was fun, but in the end he was forced to accept that sometimes the explanation is that a ancient vow of vengeance did it.
The plot was classic ghost story, but no less cool for it. Edmund and Nicholas Northmoor were brothers in the Napoleonic age, and both in love with Catherine. She returned Nicholas' love, and they were engaged to be married, but then the brothers were forced to go away to war. Whilst away, Nicholas was lost in action, and when Edmund returned he found that Catherine was pregnant with his brother's children. Not wishing disgrace to fall on Catherine, he proposed to her and began to raise the children as his own. Nicholas was not dead, of course, and when he finally got back home for Christmas some years later, he thought himself betrayed by his brother and fiancée. He fell into a rage, killed Catherine and bricked up his still living brother into a wall. The wet nurse managed to smuggle the children away, but Nicholas swore a curse that he would see his "brother's line" ended. This curse made him immortal, and he set about trying to wipe out his "brother's children". Over the years he managed to murder a bunch of Northmoors, but never ended the line. Then he contracted Graves disease, and his body started to fail.
He realised that he needed to speed things up somewhat, and so arranged for all the relatives to be brought to Northmoor for Christmas with the intention of setting them against one another in the hope that they'd kill each other, and that he could then mop up whoever was left and see his vow fulfilled. His murder of Edgar, however, woke many of the spirits of his previous victims and the family started to try to work out what was going on. The secrets that we had held that Nicholas, masquerading as Uncle Godfrey, was trying to use to turn us against one another, were largely revealed as we each turned to the truth to try to free us from the spirits, and the disunity that had riven the family. There was much angst as people discovered that they'd slept with their own half-sister; that their father had engineered their apparent successful art career; and that their husband had a fortune in stolen nazi gold (amongst many others).
In the end we discovered the truth of the matter, that the children had never been Edmund's and that all that he had done had been done with the best intentions. Nicholas was convinced of this, we uncovered Edmund's body and the spirits of he, the now-mortal Nicholas and Catherine were reunited, reconciled and all was well.
There were too many highlights to remember them all but I'll try - most of these will only make sense to those that were there. But stand out moments included: the discovery of Annette's shrine; the looks on the family's faces as Vincent was forced to take a kitchen knife to Edgar's cooling corpse to remove the chandelier from his chest; finding "Clayton" hanging; the argument with Barbara; rooming with Edward and Vincent's moral outrage at the injustice he had suffered; being told off by Audrey; being included in the family group (a fact that Vincent had not taken for granted at all); visiting "Godfrey" on Friday night and seeing medical horror corner; the helplessness he felt at Gloria's situation with the child; finding ways to help with the same and Charlie's hostility to his involvement; finding half of Nancy's amulet in the pudding and the realisations that followed that; having to be brave due to scepticism and enter the children's room at the top of the house on his own with virtually no lighting; Nicholas inadvertently pointing out to Vincent how to make peace with himself and release the guilt he carried; almost dying of fright due to Maurice bringing Victor's ghost to play; alone in a corridor with Godfrey's ghost; helping Gloria say goodbye to Annette in ghost form; finding the murder board; misunderstanding the murder board's contents due to terrible lighting and inadvertently helping out the game; Dot Pickering's panic; the amazing murder board discovery and extreme quick thinking by Edward; the proposal and (probably my biggest personal highlight) Howard's inadvertent "Congratulations"; ballsing it out with Nicholas during his threat of blackmail; and finally my contribution to the resolution.
I was lucky, as being the sole medical professional in the game, meant that I was called to almost every dramatic event over the weekend. It gave Vincent access to situations and capabilities that helped him make a difference. Combined with the fact that the Northmoors clearly considered him family, meant that I was able to thoroughly immerse myself in the plot, getting to offer thoughts and wild speculation. It felt, very much, that Vincent found himself at the centre of things.
It would be utterly ungrateful of me to not mention the astonishing job done by the crew. The crew plants amongst the player base did an outstanding job, especially Nick who managed to really make me like him as Edgar and really make me hate him as Nicholas. But the serving staff and catering staff should take a massive bow. Their dedication to looking after us (occasionally at their own expense) and to making it feel like a proper upstairs/downstairs divide was amazing (as was the fact that they didn't actually poison Gino!). The food was utterly amazing and delicious. There were a number of things that I ate and drank this weekend that I now rate as the best I've ever had (the soft eggs, devilled kidneys and bloody mary in particular). You even managed to make turkey taste great!
Financially I understand that the event made a loss. I'm unsurprised given the quality of the thing, but I am sad that this was the case. There is still, I think, an anticipation rife within the hobby that it should be cheap. Many got into the hobby whilst they were students, and budget was critical. But many of us are now much more grown up, with reasonable incomes, and the ability to save for things that we want to do. Staggered payments help a lot, post-deposit, for those who find the lump sum hard to come by. I'd rather have the quality of game than the cheapness, when quality looks like the weekend just gone. Putting months of work into a game like that, and then finding that you have to pay as well, is not fair on the organisers. I am sad that CH found themselves in that position.
The bad points around the game were so minor, that to share them here would be nit-picky and unnecessary. I'll pop them into an email to CH for the record, but they really are minor points.
The cast, the crew, the venue, the props, the food and the plot were all outstanding.
There are games that constitute the stories that we tell one another after time out at events. Those moments when something so extraordinary happens that it lives on for years after and becomes something more than just a bit of LRP froth. It becomes an "I was there when..." thing ("...and then she jumped out of the window!"). I think that this weekend I shared in an event full of those moments. Certainly for me, Crooked House, redefined what I thought was possible in LRP. Thank you so much to everyone involved!