Monday, 7 March 2011

#9 Zombie LARP: The Sad Tale of Team Scavenger

This week I’m writing about Zombie LARP (That’s Live Action Role Play to you). Zombie LARP is, in short, where a bunch of people lock themselves inside a building, the small groups of them take turns to try and fight their way out with NERF guns while everyone else slowly walks towards them with outstretched hands, groaning. And if that doesn’t sound terrifying to you, I just ask that you try it.
One of the founders of Zombie LARP, Mary Hamilton, has already written about the motivations and mechanisms of the LARP far better than I can here and here. Meanwhile, I’ve already written about why the zombie apocalypse scenario is so suited to emergent storytelling in the context of my Left 4 Dead blog.
So this week I’m going to do something a bit different, and demonstrate how games like this create stories by simply telling you the story of my brief time as a zombie-killing badass, with help from the other members of Team Scavenger.

The Sad Tale of Team Scavenger

SPOILER: At least one of these people dies. From left to right: Sascha, Harry, Lucia, Matt, Alina, Tom, Your Humble Blogger
 Our goal was to find one of two objects- either a key card that would let us out the front door, or a fire axe that would let us out the fire exit. To make things harder, we’d been split into two groups, each at opposite ends of the building, and each given a jigsaw piece that might add up to tell us how to get out.

The first team was made up of Tom, who was dressed up like a cowboy that had dressed up like the clown who abused him as a child. He had a fedora with foam bullets stashed along the rim, and make-up not unlike that of the kid from Clockwork Orange. He, along with Sascha belonged to the “Class” of Security Guard, which gave them both the ability to carry a really big gun. Then there was Tom’s friend, birthday girl Lucia, who seemed less crazy than Tom until she chose the class of “Test Subject”- meaning her abilities were carrying a big axe, and screaming. Finally, there was the Medic, Alina, clad in a blood-soaked lab coat (nothing reassures patients like the smell of fresh blood) and carrying a big knife.

Extract From Alina’s Account of the Game:

“While waiting, we started hearing moaning outside the door. For a few seconds we decided to ignore it, surely Mary would tell us when to get going, right?

Then the singing started. The creepiest "Happy Birthday" song ever sung, and it was getting louder. We opened the door and peered outside. Zombies were definitely closing in on us, blocking the corridor towards the meeting point, and, yes, they were singing. We ran upstairs, me and Sascha going last. I passed a couple of zombies that were slowly turning around to follow us, threw a couple of glow sticks to distract them and then got distracted myself by the one zombie leaning against a wall, casually chewing on an arm. That's when I got scared. I was hit once while staring at Sascha being surrounded and killed, but managed to make my way inside a room and lean against the door to block it. I caught my breath as Lucia and Tom destroyed and searched the one zombie in the room. Did he have a clue? Was there something in the room we were missing? He was just so obvious there, it just seemed like there must have been something somewhere around him. There wasn't. We kept searching until the other door opened and Sascha came in with her new zombie friends. There was some shooting and screaming and I like to think waving my knife around helped.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the building, our team had its own problems. While the first team had been made up of security guards, medics, and axe-wielding maniacs, our team was made up of what you could be forgiven for calling “The Rest”. I was with Sascha’s flatmate Harry, whose special skills amounted to “Having a beard” and Alina’s boyfriend, Matt, who, well, didn’t seem the combatant type, and would probably be killed off in the first minute. I had ambitiously taken on the “Believer” class, which gave me the twin skills of being able to hold off the baying horde with my monologuing skills, and the ability to kill all surrounding zombies, and myself, by shouting “Lord strike you down!”

Between us we had three six shooter pistols a stick, an Ankh symbol, two mobile phones (As a rule I always carry two mobiles- my battered old Nokia, and a Blackberry that I still haven’t worked out how to use yet), a handful of glowsticks and some jigsaw pieces.

We were in the building’s main hall, where we hadn’t run into any zombies, but had got stuck in a stand-off with a couple of crazy looking scientists, one of whom was holding a shotgun. After a brief, shouted debate (“Calm the fuck down!” “You calm the fuck down!”) we decided on a tactical retreat to the stairwell just beyond the hall.

Here we ran into zombies. It’s hard to explain just how scary it is trying to fend off someone walking towards you with outstretched arms using nothing but a NERF pistol. Numerous times I was backed into a wall, desperately firing an unresponsive gun, before remembering I had to cock it and only then managing to shoot my attacker.
Then shoot them again once they're down, naturally
From Matt’s Account:
“Happily, once we'd got there and methodically pinned down and killed some zombies, the other half of our team arrived and helped us with the slaying. We put all the puzzle pieces in the corner and tried to start putting them together. At this point Alina starts shouting to me that she's lost her piece. Convinced that she's role-playing, I shout back and try very hard to extract the location of the piece out of her, until it becomes clear that she has indeed genuinely lost it. Once I'd ascertained this (and beaten away a few zombies for good measure), I turned back to the pieces which we'd so sensibly left in the corner of the room. There were only three left.”

At this point, I saw our friend the shotgun happy scientist standing in the door of the main hall and waving a puzzle piece in the air.

Myself and Lucia went haring after him into the hall. He held us at a distance with his gun, asking what the jigsaw piece was for, and we tried reasoning with him, but as an absolute last resort, I was forced to shoot him twice in the back.

I was momentarily distracted by an attack of zombies, but soon returned to search the body thoroughly for the missing jigsaw piece.

From Lucia’s Account:

“A crazy man with a double barreled shotgun suddenly appears and steals a puzzle piece and runs into the main hall. Chris and I follow him in an attempt to reason with him and retrieve it. He seems very unstable and threatens to shoot us. But then he throws the puzzle piece in my direction, which Chris doesn't notice, and Chris shoots him. I grab the piece and bring it back to the others by the stairs.”

Ah. Okay then. Umm. Wow. This is awkward... Say, I wonder how Tom was doing while all this went down?

From Tom’s Account:

“It was at this point I realised I had only 4 shots in my Recon left, and had dropped my clips somewhere, so I started to panic a little. We were being overrun in the corridor, where Alina was being beaten to death by zombies, and I was rather conservatively trying to shoot the remaining zombies. The decision was made to fight them off in the main hall where we had more room.”

Thanks Tom. Once the surviving members of the team (Sorry Alina) had all retreated to the main hall, we gained a moment’s peace, with half of us able to keep the doors secure and put down any zombies that had made their way inside, while the rest worked on fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.

Having realised, after a thorough cavity search, that the dead scientist did not have a jigsaw piece, I rejoined the rest of the group just in time to take the credit for correctly reading the jigsaw and working out what was on the missing piece. The puzzle said that the key was hidden “behind the great eye”. We looked at one another and asked “Has anyone seen an eye?”

Now in the movies, once the team has found the answer to the riddle about where the treasure is, there’s always one character, usually the dodgy looking one dressed all in black, who decides to abandon his comrades and save his own skin, only to suffer a quick, karmic death. But of course people don’t really act like... Oh Tom!

From Tom’s Account:

“Around this time zombies started to pour in through the back door, and after fighting a few zombies and depleting my shotguns, I found a small one shot pistol and decided to just try and find the eye, thinking the rest of the team were pretty much screwed.

So I ran out of the stage exit door into a corridor with 5 rather bored zombies. Not realising at the time I was standing RIGHT NEXT TO THE DOOR where the 'eye' was, I decided to try and get to the sunken room, the only other room we had not checked. However with just 3 rounds and 5 zombies I had a problem, so tried an alternative method. Using the laser pointer on my empty gun I distracted all of the zombies and skilfully dodged by all of them. Making it to the sunken room I was relieved to find the room devoid of zombies, but this proved to be false hope, as the room was completely empty. No keycard, no guns, no ammo. NOTHING. I knew I was pretty much dead at this point, and two zombies burst into the room, who quickly took my remaining 2 hit points away and started to eat me.”

See? That’s cosmic justice. Meanwhile, those of us who had decided to stay with the team were doing just fine...

From Lucia’s Account:

“A zombie bride leading a hoard emerges from the door at the back of the hall, I run towards them and notice she is carrying the fire axe. I also notice a zombie holding a cartridge of ammo, so for some reason I grab the ammo and bring it to the stage where team mates are shooting zombies. I then run back to the bride and shout that she has the fire axe, but no one hears me. I try and wrench it from her and hack at her. I succeed in slaying her and obtaining it, but there are too many zombies and I fall to the floor still yelling "I have the fire axe!" Still no one hears and I die alone, swarmed. The zombies then all fall to the floor around the bride I had killed, and weep, some rocking back and forth clutching their heads in grief.”

Okay, maybe not everyone was doing just fine. By now we had fallen back to the stage, there was some shouting about a “last stand”, but I wasn’t done just yet. As the zombies crowded the stage, I launched into my Special Ability, and began to preach. Of course, as a pretty secular person, I didn’t have much to preach about, so I launched into a lecture on why I didn’t believe in zombies.

“Zombies don’t exist!” I shouted “You’re the result of mass hysteria... or swamp gas... or some sort of flu bug... or...”

The zombies were halted in their tracks, possibly more out of confusion than out of the power of my faith, but it did the job. Still, it’s amazing how quickly your ideas can dry up on the spot, and before long I just had to cry “Shit! Zombies!” and leg it for the exit, hoping I’d bought us enough time to escape. Fortunately, we all made it out okay.

From Harry’s Account:

“We defended the stage, and Chris used his believer power to freeze zombies. I used a glow stick to distract the zombies, which worked briefly. They then left the hall, and by the time I realised this I was all alone and escape by the other route was cut off, so I tried to escape down the side of the hall. I was quickly surrounded. I fired desperately but my gun had no ammunition, although I tried firing about 8 times before realising this. I was then killed.”

Okay, almost all of us.

Okay, two of us. There, you happy now?

From Matt’s Account:

“Once out, Harry was nowhere to be seen and it was just Chris and me. As we passed the corridor, a zombie emphatically gesticulated toward a room in the opposite direction from where we were headed. I ran ahead to catch up with Chris and bring him back, but of course by then the route back to this room was blocked by rather too many walking dead.”

At this point I ingeniously opened a side door and led Matt inside. Less ingeniously, it turned out to be a dead end, with only one exit that was now filled with zombie. Lesser men would have panicked in this situation, maybe even finally taken that last NERF dart for themselves (This wasn’t an option by that point, our guns had jammed long ago).

Instead, I looked Matt in the eye, and with quiet confidence said: “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan.”

From Matt’s Account:

“Chris runs around shouting "I've got a plan!". After a minute or so and once we were backed into a corner, I'm beginning to seriously doubt this plan (if it even exists).”

At this point I whipped out my battered old Nokia and, fingers shaking, tapped in a number. I hit the dial button as the zombies surrounded us, and... nothing. One incredibly long moment of nothing, when I start to worry about battery lifespans, and mobile reception, and... then the ringing starts. The ringing of the blackberry phone I had just planted at the opposite end of the room.

As one, the zombies turned and lurched over to the source of the noise, while we snuck out the door, me doing a very quiet victory dance.

We dodged a couple of hallway zombies, and Matt led us to a room with some sort of arcane shrine set up. At the top of the shrine was a drawing of a single, burning eye. I looked at the eye, and in my photographic memory I flashed up the image of the jigsaw puzzle, only all the words were all weird and glowy, like in A Beautiful Mind. They said “Behind the eye” and here was a picture of an eye, an eye like the eye that was mentioned in the “Behind the eye” of the jigsaw, “Behind” an eye, an eye that could, maybe, possibly, perhaps, be like the eye that was on this shrine.”

“Behind the eye!” I said meaningfully.

Matt looked at me in confusion. It wasn’t his fault, I was clearly operating on another level by this point.

To demonstrate, I reached up behind the altar, and pulled out the blue keycard.

Once again, the zombies invaded our moment of triumph, having apparently discarded the blackberry as needlessly complicated and fiddly. We retreated to the far end of the room, but this time it was no dead end. Instead, we came across a pair of double doors. We pushed through, to find ourselves... back in the main hall!

This time the hall was no safe haven however, it was packed with zombies, at quick headcount, I estimated it to be roughly four bagillion zombies. With no other choice, the two of us pushed through the horde, but it soon became clear we were both going to die unless someone did something really noble and heroic. The sort of thing that should be immortalised in legend and song for generations. The sort of thing that should at least net the hero a pint from the comrade he saved later on.

In a deep, booming voice I yelled “Matt!”

Matt turned, our eyes met, and something of the secret brotherhood of fellow soldiers passed between us. “Take the key!” I shouted, and the key card arched through the air in slow motion, until Matt snatched it down.

Matt gave me a look as if to say “No! It should be me who dies! You have so much to give!” and I gave him a look that said “Yes, but this is the way it has to be.”

Then, I gave the mighty cry “LORD STRIKE YOU DOWN!” (Deathbed conversions are the best!) and all at once every zombie in the room dropped to the ground. I too fell, but as I lay upon the ground I was content, as I saw Matt fleet to safety.

From Matt’s Account:

“The lower lobby was deserted apart from my apparently now ex-girlfriend Alina, who began to lurch towards me, hungry for brains. Barely slowing down, I hit her with my big stick (what was that thing, a baseball bat?) and kept going. I don't think the two zombies in the upstairs lobby even knew what was going on before I was past them, to the door and collapsed on the floor.”

So, that’s the story of team scavenger. The whole thing took, maybe twenty minutes at most. Certainly less time than it took to write down.

Now, for the drinking game.

Well, we spent most of the game under siege in the main hall, so take one shot for that. I don’t know if the mad scientist dude ever meant to rescue us, but if he did was incompetent, and dangerous, so two shots for that. A lot like the two shots which I put into his back, which I guess, combined with Tom doing a runner, means mankind is the real monster. So one shot for that.

The zombies were walking dead, who moved slowly, although we weren’t allowed to shoot them in the head, so only two shots for that. Oh, and if I hadn’t shot that scientist twice he almost certainly would have come back for me, so two shots for the rule on the dead rising regardless of being “infected”.

Finally, during the safety and rules briefing at the beginning of the night, several kids from the Muslim prayer meeting next door snuck over and watched us through the door. We later found several of them marching up and down with outstretched arms groaning “ZOMBIE!”

So take two shots for the “Kiddy Zombies” rule.
CLARIFICATION: In this article, reference is made to a "Tom", who is a bit dodgy looking and attempts to run off and leave his friends to die. In my article on Left 4 Dead, I also refer to a "Tom" who is a bit dodgy, and often attempts to run off and leave his friends to die. These are two seperate people. Avoid people called Tom when the zombie apocalypse hits, is what I'm saying. Stick to people called Dave.


  1. Chris, that was actually great. I don't think any of those other people exist. But it was the best. It made me feel like I experienced the whole damn thing without actually having to do any of the undignified running and shrieking.

    Although usually when you shout "I HAVE A PLAN." it usually means you're drunk and need to take a piss, so I was understandably confused.

  2. This is marvellous. I think you guys had one of the absolute best stories I've witnessed - between the atheism, the phone trick, the zombie bride and the mad, mad dash to the doors, everything just came together. In a twisted, horrible sort of way. Which is what we do best. :D

  3. So you guys did eventually go to the sunken room then!! We had a whole zombified wedding going on in there with a very loud weeping zombie bride (me) clutching the fireaxe and her decapitated zombie groom at her feet and a congregation of weeping moaning zombies, all waiting for your arrival, but when it looked like the action wasn't heading our way, we were directed into a zombie bridal procession into the main hall instead :P

  4. An excellent read and also one of my, all time, favorite times to be a zombie. The whole run was amazing... from eating some of your team mates upstairs, finding a puzzle piece, waving it around in the downstairs lobby to being jumped on and killed in the loo doorway, disrupting the believers chant and busting in on you guys at eye... i was one busy zombie!

  5. This is quite possibily the most comprehensive and entertaining acount of a zombielarp run I have read. Great post, it was fun to be there too :) Grrr...Arg!

  6. Most important lesson from matter how desperate you matter how close to matter how hard you empty gun just will not fire.

  7. The phone trick - Awesome!!!
    "As one, the zombies turned and lurched over to the source of the noise, while we snuck out the door, me doing a very quiet victory dance."
    Also, brilliant account.
    Keep up the good work, I look forward to being either shot, whacked or generally destroyed by you again (as a Zombie that is). ;o)
    It says Anonymous, but I was there, really!