A Tale of Two Worlds
Illustrations by Ilian Iliev
Matthew Pennington is a co-founder of Profound Decisions — a company that runs LRP games, creating worlds where people passionate about fantasy, history and, why not, gaming, can be someone else at least for a while and enjoy their interests at their fullest. What makes a grown person pretend to be a unicorn and what does this hobby give in terms of community and support? We find the answers below.
How did you decide to do Live Role-Playing (LRP) for a living?
I got involved in running live role-playing events with friends of mine – after we decided to set up our own game. We ran that game for five years — and it grew steadily throughout that time taking up more and more time. After five years I knew I had to either give up my hobby — and concentrate on my career — or give up my career and concentrate on my hobby.
I chose the latter! After the game we were running finished, I quit my job and started a company, and devoted myself to running live role-playing games full time.
Can you explain a little more about LRP in general — for the non-familiar?
If you’ve never encountered role-playing before it can be a little mystifying. It’s easiest to explain it by comparing it to all the things it’s like.
It’s a lot like online gaming — like World of Warcraft or similar – with everyone playing a character, but instead of playing it online, you get together and actually act out what your character does.
It’s a lot like acting —
Most of what you do and say is just extemporized, you simply say what you think your character would say.
It’s a lot like re-enactment, there are fights and battles, but the setting and the outcome aren’t fixed by history. There are rules to determine how a fight plays out, but who wins or loses is based on the skill of those fighting.
How did you start Profound Decisions and how many people are in your team?
I started by putting the word out in the live role-playing community that I was creating a new game. People who knew me would come and talk to me about the game, I’d tell them the ideas I had in mind, and many of those people would then join the team to help put the game together. We wrote our first game in about four months, but over the years the projects got more and more ambitious. Our latest game took us around three years to create!
We usually have a core creative team of around 20-30 people to create a game. But that’s just the number of people you need to flesh out the setting, develop the background and so on. When we run an event, we have between 350 and 400 volunteers making it all happen.
What is the most successful game you’ve run?
Success means different things to different people. Our current game, Empire, is the largest and most financially successful game we’ve run. The biggest Empire event had over 1500 players and most of the events average around 1350 players. That probably puts it in the top ten largest live role-playing events in the world (it’s not that big a hobby!).
But there are lots of things I’ve been involved with that measured success in other ways. I’ve been involved with games as a contributor which were smaller but pushed new ideas and new approaches.
Tell us more about Empire?
Empire is the latest iteration in our attempt to create a perfect sandbox game, one where the players make all the crucial decisions. The Empire that the game is named after is a vast imperial power — spanning ten nations and dwarfing the size and military might of its nearest rivals. This Empire is completely run by the players, they direct the armies, make the laws, etc. That makes the game very political, it’s a bit like the Game of Thrones story but it’s one where the outcome is dependent on the choices the players make.
It’s also a very advanced society. There are a lot of live role-playing games set in post-apocalyptic settings where society has been destroyed, and people are essentially living in lawless groups. Our Empire is the opposite of that — it’s a land of law and order, of politics and trade. This structure allows us to do lots of things we couldn’t otherwise do — like present an Academy where the characters portrayed by young players can be trained to become heroes of the Empire.
What is the profile of the typical person doing LRP, if there is such?
I’m not sure there is a typical person doing live role-playing, any more than there is a typical person who enjoys acting, sports, or chess. It is a fairly cerebral hobby, and on average players tend to be professionals or university graduates of some kind. The roots of the hobby are quite geeky, it draws a lot from the old Dungeons and Dragons of the ’80s and so there are a lot of participants coming from IT.
The hobby isn’t that old — in its current incarnation it’s really only around 30 years old, so a lot of participants are in their 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, mainly people who joined when they were young. The hobby has drawn in older players; there are players who are 60 and older — but they’re not the bulk.
What is typical is the mindset. It’s a very social hobby and it’s very creative. There is a strong visual element to it with the costumes and the sets. It’s not a staid, prosaic hobby, it’s a hobby for people who like to use their imagination and for people who enjoy fantasy.
Does LRP create some sort of community and feeling of “belonging” amongst like-minded people — what are your observations?
The people who are passionate about the hobby really love the games they help create. Live role-playing depends on the people who participate to make it happen. We’re relatively unusual in being a commercial company, but even we are dependent on an army of volunteers to make our events happen.
That volunteer spirit or ethos permeates the entire hobby. Participants are incredibly generous, grateful and supportive of everyone involved.
It’s a way for people to come together and work together, to be creative and imaginative, and to make incredible things for other people to enjoy.
It’s hard to convey just how strong the sense of community is with live role-playing. I’ve never encountered anything else like it.
Can LRP be perceived as some kind of escapism from the stressful modern-day world and what does it personally give you?
I’m always wary of defining live role-playing in terms of escapism — although that is certainly part of it. There is a Walter Mitty quality to pretending that you are an ancient medieval knight about to rescue the beautiful prince from the clutches of the evil sorceress.
But the escapism is no different to reading a Boys Own Adventure or watching the latest Hollywood action movie. The difference between watching Star Wars and role-playing Star Wars is that when we role-play it, everyone imagines everyone is part of the story rather than just you in your head. That said, live role-playing provides an escapist experience that is more real, more profound than watching movies or reading books. Most people who are into it feel like they are really there.
Also, most people I know get into live role-playing when they have zero stress in their real life. A lot of them are students, which exams aside, is not exactly the most stressful time of one’s life. So
Can you share with us an interesting story from one of your games?
I’m not a big fan of stories – not in the traditional sense of narratives at least. Real life is not a narrative; it’s a messy, complicated series of random interactions. Authors create narratives or draw them out of the historical events, and that’s the skill of the author. But I’m not convinced that they exist in real life. The games I run try and simulate that unpredictable reality, they provide a world that can be that chaotic and disordered. I’m not remotely interested in telling stories.
But… live role-players love to trade war stories. It’s one of our favorite past-times – we want to talk about the crazy, things we did, that moment when we were the hero in the story. It’s a bad habit! Any story in which I am the hero is probably more appealing to me than to anyone I tell it to. But the quid-pro-quo of war stories is that I listen to yours if you listen to mine. Live role-playing will give you a pile of stories all about you — but I always remind myself that my stories are not very interesting to anyone but me!
But if you really want a story… Many years ago, I was playing an evil skaven, a horrible rat creature. I had been tasked to try and start a war between two nations, the Harts and the Unicorns. So I got a bunch of my skaven friends to go and stand in the woods and then I paid some warriors from the Unicorns to go and murder them.
Once the murder was underway, I grabbed a handful of warriors from the Harts, told them a murder was happening, and took them to the same woods. It was like a false-flag operation — one where I’d also tricked the other side into playing out the role I was about to blame them for…
We meet up roughly in the middle of the woods, in a scene that is pretty chaotic and full of carnage, and my friends are lying dead or dying everywhere. The Unicorns can’t tell the difference between the people they’ve been murdering for the last ten minutes and us, we just look like more monsters to them, so they come at us. And they outnumber us 3:1 — so we turn tail and flee! They pursued us the best part of a quarter of a mile and we only just got away in time.
I suspect that all sounds a bit confusing and crazy and actually not that interesting. The stories that you create in live role-playing are never going to win any awards like those in literature. The dialogue is poor; the acting is ropey, there are no scripts and no editors. But
That’s what a great live role-playing game will give you — a story all about you.
The big challenge for us right now is to find a permanent venue. At the moment, we are using temporary sites, and that really limits the potential of what we can create for each event. It also impacts real world things, like making it harder for disabled players to get involved…
We have incredible support within the hobby, for example we have access to some of the best set-designers in Britain – people who have worked on sets for Harry Potter and other big movies. We have architects at the ready. If we could acquire a permanent site — and get the right permissions – we could create something incredible. A setting that really starts to look and feel real, something breath-taking that would really draw the public into live role-playing.
There are a few places around the world doing this now, and the best is currently in Canada (a place called Bicolline). We want to try and create something that will allow us to reach an international standard for our events.
Sadly, the shortage of land in this country and the many many challenges of the planning system mean that we’re still struggling to make it happen even after years of trying. Every time it seems like we’ve gotten there… we get knocked back. But we never give up and one day we’ll find a way to convince the world to let us make something really amazing.