Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I am...who?

Isaac Dian, the character I played.
       I look over the tables again and frown. I'm probably running out of time, and I need to figure out who the hell I am. Taped to each table is a typed sheet listing available characters for the AnimeNEXT Live-Action Roleplay, and I still don't know what I'm going to do. Part of this is due to my not knowing very many anime to begin with. Part of it is also due to about half of the anime and manga I do have a familiarity with being outside the PG-13 guidelines of the roleplay. Finally, I take a step back and think about this, then decide on a thief character, Isaac Dian. I register my decision to the moderators, find a room full of people, and wait nervously for everything to start.

       Perhaps I should back up and explain. This actually starts on a humid Thursday evening when I decided to write for a while. There was a thunderstorm coming in, and I love the feel of humid air, so I went out to fill up my lighter and maybe bang out a few passages in the meantime. My friend Dave, who for five years has been pretty much the other half of a rather awesome duo, messages me and asks if he can hang out at my house. Since Dave lives in Philadelphia, I am more than okay with him dropping by. I would, however, like to know what he would be doing in my neck of the woods. As it turns out, he wants to go to AnimeNEXT, a convention for the tri-state area held just fifteen minutes away from my house by car. I figure I can bang a nice article out about my experiences, and also, it's a con (which I've never done before), so I tell him sure. After a small caveat that he's going to do certain things in particular, he starts trying to sell me on the LARP. I manage to wave him off for the time being and get things ready for the next day, making sure the Hawaiian shirt I wear for covering events is out and that I have enough money to actually do this.

      We head to the convention mere minutes after I pick him up from the train station, and he continues his hard sell once we're all registered and looking around for stuff. I'm a mixture of surprised and annoyed at all of this. I don't do live-action games. Live-Action Roleplay, or LARP, is considered in tabletop gaming circles as “that thing geekier than us” for the most part. While there is overlap, there's also a certain sense of, “No, of course we don't run around in the forest pretending to be elves. But sitting around a table pretending to be elves, rolling oddly-shaped bits of plastic, and constantly doing addition are perfectly okay.” Yeah, I'm well aware of the hypocrisy in that statement. So Dave keeps his hard sell up for a while, alternating between telling me how much I should do this and telling me everything his character did from an earlier roleplay at Zenkaikon, another event. Finally, I can't take it any more and decide he's worn me down. I'll go see what this is all about.

      “All right, already. I'll at least give it a look. It can't hurt to look.”

     And apparently this seemed to pacify him for about ten seconds. Since I didn't know what else was around, and I said I'd take a look, I followed him into the LARP room and took a seat near the back for the opening presentation. And just like that, I'm already curious enough to play. The whole vibe of the room is very welcoming, and these people seem less like complete strangers (which, let's face it, at this point they are), and more just like people I hadn't met yet but really should. It's like walking into a room entirely filled with ten percenters1. The opening demonstration has the same tones of any opening, but at the same time, it's really, really informal, which I'm not used to. Rules discussions usually aren't this low-key, or this nice. Furthermore, it appears my fear of having to wear a costume or some such thing is completely unfounded and the LARP is very low-key, which I enjoy. All of this just convinces me that I should really, really stick around, so I do. I have a few ideas on who to play, anyway, thinking that I can just pick anybody. These picks may or may not have been influenced by Dave leaning over to me and muttering, “At Zenkaikon LARP, we had the largest number of kills on record.”, and the moderator leading the discussion saying “And if you get killed, remember, it's no big deal.”
       While I understand death is part of it, I don't want to make it easy for anyone to kill off whoever I play. Which brings me back to where we started-- me looking at the list of playable characters and deciding on Isaac. Once I get the sheet, it seems like very little time passes before we get started and the opening narration happens. I try to pay attention to everything, but there's a little too much to take in. I try to focus by asking myself what my character would do. That does me no good, because Isaac would probably steal everything not nailed down, and start working on a plan to steal the massive TVs giving the player characters the opening narration. So for the moment, I wait patiently. The moderators finish their narration, and we're free to go interact with each other and work out our various plots and counterplots.
The LARP is contained in four rooms-- one for the moderators, and three for the players and the various scenes. For a while, I hang around, awkwardly interacting in character with the various other people who I was sure I would click with but now am having trouble approaching. 

After a sheepish look to Dave, he leans over.
“Sam, you're playing a thief. Steal something!”
“Go to the moderators. Tell them you're going to steal something.”

     After a moment's thought, I walk into the moderator's room. “I'm stealing a booth from the merchant's guild.” I tell them. “I'm dressing up as the Grim Reaper and stealing a merchant's purpose.”
     There is a brief rules discussion over how this would work, and after a few moments of talk including the phrase “You're Isaac, of course you would do this.”, they reach a decision.

“Congratulations, you now own a booth in the Merchant's Guild.”
“Really. Are you just stuffing it in a bag?”

“Sure, why not?”

This would, unbeknownst to me, set the tone for more than a few of my interactions throughout the game session.

       After thanking them, I leave and go back to the other game rooms. I'm new, so in my fervor to interact, I accidentally barge into a few scenes. Eventually, I figure out that if I hang out in certain “open” areas, then most of my interactions are okay. Somehow, despite my shyness and weirdness around strangers, I start to get the hang of this. It's only helped by my finding a woman named Jess playing a character from the same universe as Isaac, an alchemist named Maiza. Instantly, I latch on to her like a remora on to a shark, she brings me into the group she's a part of, and just like that, I'm off and running, acting as a member of the group she's a part of. Things move in a blur after that, from one scene to the next, me trying to hold on as best I can while events are set in motion around me.
      By the time I have to leave at nine that evening, I'm hooked, possibly for life. I'm figuring out my next moves, tossing out lines, doing a voice (I kind of think of him as bombastic and sounding like a suave hero with no indoor voice, so I do that), participating in dungeon crawls, and every so often going back into the moderator room to steal more things. Just before I leave, I have Isaac steal “energy from the gods” (okay, so he cuts power to the in-universe news service the mods are using for exposition...while wearing a bucket on his head...) and then run off cackling maniacally. I'm already working out plans for the next day, things like Isaac stealing “The future” (all the technology he doesn't understand), and a few other strange ideas here and there. Dave and I make it back home, watch a few episodes of Baccano!, the anime Isaac comes from (me for research, him because he'd never seen it before), and crash into bed, all ready to have at it bright and early the next morning.
       Saturday sees me off to a slow start. My brother, Ben, is with us for the day, and I'm not nearly the hard-sell Dave is. Because I can't figure out what we can do together, Ben wanders off and I'm thrown off for a little bit at first. I'm torn. I desperately want to go back to those four rooms, back to playing Isaac and the people I met...somehow, while I don't know many of their names, and we only met when we were in character for the most part, I felt like I connected on some level with them, and they with me. I spend most of the day with Ben. At his urging, I buy a T-shirt and wear it under the Hawaiian shirt that serves as my journalism shirt. When I get back to the rooms, I notice everyone's in a session. This makes me a little nervous, but I carry it off well. As it turns out, everyone is currently in a scene, leaving me in the hallway.
     I am alone. However, I am not out of things. While I'm milling around, one of the moderators comes by to tell me that due to the current crisis in game, Isaac is currently very, very unwell and losing health and energy at a steady rate. It is here where I unintentionally put a very complex and improvised plan into order, one that would echo throughout the rest of my time in game. When Dave comes by, sees me in the hallway, and once again tells me to steal something, I decide to move my timetable up a little and make my epic theft of the night a little earlier than usual. I stride into the GM's office, head held high, and announce,

“I'm dressing up in a black cloak and pumpkin mask, going to the merchant's guild and I'm STEALING THE FUTURE! Anything more technologically advanced than the 1930s, and it goes into the bag.”

      There's a moment of silence from the moderator in the office, and then he checks my sheet and nods. Isaac gets a bag full of future tech, and I go out to the hallway again to await my impending doom. I start up a conversation with another player who's been in and out during the day, though for different reasons. As we sit in the hallway and bullshit, I can hear what sounds like a two-group PVP going on as moderators go from one room to the other, working things out. Briefly, I try to dynamic-entry my way in with a teleport pad, but there's no way. After a quick chat with my newfound hallway buddy, it turns out his fiancee is playing a healer, something which gives me some amount of hope that Isaac can beat the condition slowly killing him.
    After a quick question to the moderator about healing (as it turns out, Isaac can't heal the way he normally would due to immortality, but he can be healed), it dawns on me that I probably have some medical items, items I quickly put into use, thus beating the GM crisis condition all on my own. While my character is being healed, the game takes a quick break for dinner and GM resting. In between, I have apparently gained a reputation as a magnificent bastard in this little subculture for my stunt. While this appears normal for people playing my character, it is still pretty darn cool.
      Once dinner has finished, the big moments wind down more. There are a few duels I don't take part in, two people have their characters sort of ascend to a higher plane of existence, and I'm involved in a plot to help the woman playing Maiza bring back yet another person from the Baccano! Universe. It doesn't work, but enough headway is made to both satisfy the player, and at the same time, keep the scene from dragging out. Most of the time is spent in a sort of temporary autonomous zone, where a bunch of people sit around talking out of character. This is a common occurrence whenever enough people are out of a scene, though it seemed to happen most on Friday and least on Sunday, the reverse of how I expected it might.
     The night closes with me having stolen a decent-sized drill robot (which dances!) and a sonic screwdriver, which Isaac points at everything and activates, causing both consternation and amusement when he does so. The moderators shoo us out of the LARP rooms with a cry of “You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here any more.” Dave and I leave and get a cab. Outside the hotel where the convention is, things are still lively and the first hints of stragglers are leaving. Two fellow LARPers chat for a little outside about the game, and conventions, and a few other things before they go back to their room to pass out. We get into the cab with a couple bound for New York for their train, when they're informed they can't get there in time. The whole ride home, I wonder if they made out okay. I hope they did. Dave and I spend until three in the morning doing very little but taking a lot of time to do it.

      Sunday comes and the convention hall feels strangely empty when we arrive. There's a sort of quiet air to it...no longer are people hawking things at the front entrance, costumed characters mill around still, but there are less of them now that people no longer need their elaborate cosplays. The hotel's lobby is slowly filling up with baggage, all of it in neat, orderly lines near the entrance. No desperation or nervousness, just...acceptance. The feeling of “Yes, this is all ending. We all knew it was coming, now let's all go.” Even where there are loads of people milling around, somehow it still feels empty. Like the magic is leaving, if it hasn't left completely.
       In the LARP rooms, things are off to a slow start. People gently trickle in, all of us out of play for the time being. There are donuts and other snacks brought in, and the tone, while informal as usual, carries some other kind of weight to it. In one of the rooms, I confess my fears to another player I've had no in-character interactions with. I'm afraid that on today, the grand finale day, the all-or-nothing in game day, I will run out of awesome things to think up. The young lady reassures me that I'll think of something, I respond with self-deprecating humor, and that's the end of that until game time.
      When game time rolls around, people split off into groups and prepare for the final battle. My team is put into a police car, an item whose stats include a durability rating of “one scene”. We're to be part of the “ground team”, the group bringing about the end game. However, as audacious as I can possibly be, my mind is currently blank. While there isn't much I can do, other than wait for the scene to start, it's still worrying. Finally, my part of things begins, and I get very, very nervous, wondering what it is I'm going to do.
      As it turns out, drive the car and not much else is what I'm going to do. I do pull off a wonderful job as wheelman for our four-man crew, getting us down a long stretch, followed by Isaac successfully pulling off a windshield cannon (in a pirate outfit, no less). The four of us successfully drop the defenses and allow the other group to run rampant through the base, and I use a (single-use) jetpack from the bag of future to drop us into that scene. From there, both the ground team and the people left outside during the attack launch a final assault on the machine driving the plot, hoping to take it down and end the scenario cold.
I wind up in the group taking the machine down in what seems like a race between the varied groups-- everyone is trying to reach the end of the hallway, destroy the machine, and rescue whoever we can. Sadly, my bag of tricks is used up (though I did think of trying to ride explosive decompression down the hallway to the machine using a massive sack as a sail...sadly, an aborted attempt), though I feel I do what I can to help out. Whatever mojo I had, though, appears to be lost the same way the tight, magical energy of the convention has started to go. Finally, the machine is destroyed, and after several people (my own fumbling and feeble attempt included) make our way through the epilogue, the game ends with a curtain call for the moderators, an award for the best roleplayer (a young lady who managed to pull of a high-energy character for the entire LARP and remain in character just about every time I saw her, so well-deserved) and a few plugs for upcoming LARPS, all of which I consider. Then, after that, it's time for the Long Farewell.
       If you've ever been in a big group, you know what the Long Farewell is. The process of saying goodbye is never a simple one, and when it's a big group of people and a lot of them want to say goodbye and thank you individually, well, you get the Long Farewell. When done at its most egregious, it can sometimes take an hour or more. I say my goodbyes with a series of handshakes and the occasional hug (and one rather cool jig/dance/thing), get Dave and remind him he has a train to catch, and reluctantly say goodbye to this world. A feeling of loss comes over me as I realize that I know none of these people outside of their characters and brief moments in the temporary autonomous zones, but I want to so badly. There's a brief discussion of future cons as I leave, and I hem and haw a little over them. After all, what if this was a one-time thing? What if all the mojo's gone for good?
The suitcases are all piled outside in the front lobby, our ride is on the way, and the magic is fully gone when we exit the hotel. We've still got the high, though, and can't stop talking about it, even if all we're saying is “If I only did this” or “I could have handled this better.” Somehow, a chance thing that I was partly dragged to has become one of the best experiences I've had. As we drive away from the hotel, now an echo of the high-energy, high-pressure gathering it once held, I turn that question over and over in my head...what if it was a one-time thing? Immediately, the thought is dismissed. Despite not really wanting to be one when I came in, and despite not quite knowing what I was doing, I am a LARPer. There will be other conventions, and I will be at them. I will most likely LARP at them, too. Though the time was short and we were all pretending to be someone else, I feel like I connected with a group of people I'd never connected with before. I'd do it again in an instant.

1 Referring to the theory (expounded most notably in the book Happy Hour is for Amateurs) that there are only ten percent of people in any given situation who are worth knowing, and that they're naturally drawn together by whatever forces exist in any social situation.

I hope you enjoyed the diversion from the normal program.

Next up: Lev Grossman's The Magicians

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Thief of Always

“I’ve heard a little good magic is always useful. Isn’t that right?" 
    - Mr. Swick
When I was twelve, my taste in books was driven by what I wasn’t allowed to read. It was a long list, as no one wants to be the parent who let their twelve year old kid read A Clockwork Orange, or even more unsettling work. But there were loopholes in the parental rulebook. Fun loopholes. Loopholes like authors they didn’t really know outside of maybe a few books here and there, or stuff I’d already read. At the time, R-rated movies and I were no stranger, so the rule felt a little weird, but there it was. And one of these loopholes was Clive Barker. This is, actually, the book that made me a Barker fanboy for a little while. I’ll get to the book that made me stop another day.
I discovered The Thief of Always on a spring day in the library at my middle school, a place where I was treated warily by the head librarian*. I was bored and wanted to find a new book, and somehow the name “Clive Barker” called to me. It may have been that I’d heard it before connected to horror movies of the decidedly weird kind. Or it may have been the Marvel Comics line in the early 90s, Clive Barker’s Razorline, which I always enjoyed. But no matter what it was, the author’s name and the blurb “a fairy tale for adults” on the back cover meant I walked out with the book and didn’t look back.
That was honestly one of the best decisions I made. The book took me a day and a half to read, and I was rapt all the way. When I was done, I took it back and then later took it out and read it again. The author illustrated it as well as writing it, and his creepy pen-and-ink drawings added something to the text, though it also outlined a glaring flaw I’ll get to later. The book is beautifully written, moves at a pace that seems leisurely yet almost too fast, and the emotions are genuine and evocative. This is a book that should be treasured somewhere, and it makes me sad when I realize I’ve only ever found three copies of it.
The Thief of Always is the story of young Harvey Swick, a boy who finds himself rather bored during the humdrum midwinter months and wishes for adventure and something interesting to happen. His prayers are answered by a small grinning man named Rictus who takes him to the magical Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a place where he can have whatever he wishes and the weather is always pleasant and perfect for the season. Winter mornings, summer afternoons, halloween nights, and Christmas evenings happen almost every day but fail to get boring, and no one children ever leave because it’s far too perfect. 
Except as you may have guessed, all is not perfect at the Holiday House, at least, not as much as it seems. There are horrors as well as delights (I’m not about to spoil them, but come on, you saw the “all is not perfect” thing coming a mile away because you are classy and intelligent people), and to survive them and escape the House intact, Harvey will have to call on all the power and cunning he can muster to confront Mr. Hood once and for all. 
What really makes the book succeed is the mood Barker sets for the piece. The tone is bright and cheery when it has to be, with notable touches of melancholy when it calls for it. Harvey is exposed to the idea of loss again and again as the book progresses, and each time, the world he inhabits grows noticeably darker and sadder. That isn’t to say it’s completely without its beauty, as even at its darkest, the Holiday House has a strange, alluring quality to it. But it’s the growing feeling of melancholy throughout the book that drives home the tone and the message in the story. This progression makes it easy to feel what Harvey feels, creating an easily identifiable hero— we know why he does what he does because we experience everything he experiences and understand why we’d do the same.
Another way the book shines is in its images. Not just the pen and ink drawings, but the descriptions. This book is description porn in the best way possible. Everything is described in detail, from the food in the kitchen to the heavily-wooded lake to the roof where the house’s more eccentric residents make their home. The drawings accompanying each chapter (and occasionally the text) further aid one to imagine the various sights and sounds, giving a better picture of the house and its inhabitants. Barker has a certain way with evoking images, and he puts it to work especially well here, showing us both the good and evil of what goes on.
The book should also be applauded for its sense of loss. This is a book, after all, about growing up and losing innocence, of losing friends and loved ones, of seeing them move on. Every death, loss, and sad event serves to turn Harvey into the more mature, more capable boy we see at the end from the perpetually bored and slightly-surly youth we see at the beginning. The Thief of Always is a book about taking back what someone steals from you and dealing with the losses you cannot fix. In the end, while the specter of adulthood and Harvey’s future loom uncertain on the horizon, he seems to have dealt with his misgivings and become a stronger, more confident person.
And finally, there is the characterization. In a remarkable change for a “fable” or “fairy tale”, particularly one that seems to find its way into collections for young readers, the motivations of the characters are actually just as important as the actual characters. In the end, it’s not so much that Harvey fights as why he fights— he’s fighting to save his friends, the people he loves, and even himself. He’s fighting to keep from losing everything he’s ever had, and that makes what he does, be it the final duel that closes the book or his storming the House in the final third of the novel, right. It’s odd to see this sort of thing in a fable where usually the character lines are clearly drawn, but that Harvey fully adopts his role as a “thief” or a “vampire” makes his choice to do good that much more meaningful.
However, there is a major flaw that must be discussed. Barker has very little sense of pacing. While the book moves quickly anyway, instead of the slow build and the eventual shocking revelations and the horror of things, he starts building the creepy right from the moment Harvey enters the house and just keeps building from there. For the most part, this is mainly my reaction to reading the book multiple times and knowing what lies in store, but I felt after rereading it for this review, that things got a little sinister too fast, with the obvious hints a little too obvious and the occasionally unfortunate events a little too constant. The illustrations were no help here, either, the most obvious being the Christmas tree with the monstrous grin about six or seven chapters in, and the cover of the hardcover edition, which features a nightmarish face grinning below a picture of the titular house.
In the end, though, the book should be forgiven for its pacing and spoiling of rhythm. Why? Because it’s a fantastic book. It moves quickly, creates an interesting atmosphere, and its visuals continue to haunt and tug at one long after the book is closed. The final struggle is a question of if, not why, and is much better because of it— the chance that Harvey won’t succeed makes the battle all that more important. This is a beautiful book you should know about already, and if you don’t, you have no excuse now not to go out and find your own copy. Read it once. Read it twice. Pass it on to anyone you think would like it. I love this book, I cannot say that enough, and everyone else should, too.
Next time:
- my LARPing article
- Stephen King
The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker, as well as others by him.
- The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman
* But less warily than my high school’s head librarians, who talked to my parents about me because they thought I was reading too much. No lie. Thankfully, they weren’t long for the school come Junior or Senior year.