Although I’ve been larping in one way or another for well over twenty years, this was something rather different to anything I’d done before – and the sort of game that I would have considered well outside of my comfort zone. In the past, I might have feared I would struggle in it, and opted to play something else instead. But in my current spirit of trying anything, I was keen to give it a go and see how it worked. The answer was: very well. I count it as a fun and also a valuable experience.
So, what was so different about The Checkerboard Crew from the kind of larps I normally play? Three structural things stand out.
- Firstly, the characters don’t speak (other than in one uncommon situation, and even then it’s not in a conversational or declarative way). They must communicate with gestures and actions: but not in a charades-like way that can be directly interpreted; instead, using a very small vocabulary of behaviours that’s been communally developed. What this means is that ‘saying something’ to another player is in practice impossible.
As my strengths in play are all about words – articulacy, narrative sense, ideas, and so on – this was quite a challenge. Essentially it forced me to rely on empathy and ‘reading the group’, not things I’m good at at all.
- Secondly, the game was played outside, pervasively, in the streets and open spaces of London. Being observed by passers-by, was not just an occupational hazard, it was part of the design intent. We were playing characters who move through London as a group, doing their thing. Mostly beneath the attention of the cityfolk, but having to have ways of dealing with that attention when it manifested.
- Thirdly, there was no planned story shape or direction: the game was just the presentation of a situation, with no narrative arc or resolution offered. We entered the streets, we moved through them as we wished, and we acted as we wished. Adam observed us but didn’t direct or otherwise interact with us in any way.
- Fourthly, the characters didn’t have names, backgrounds, wants, goals, information, or anything like that.
So, if you’re like me that probably all sounds pretty weird and arty. And indeed it was, but in a very good way. I found it a tremendously enjoyable and fulfilling experience.
The game is billed as being inspired by the lives of hobos, but don’t let that mislead you: it’s not really about that. It’s about being a group of people who have their own purpose, that’s not the same as the ‘normal’ world’s; who are able to move around and within it without impinging very much upon its inhabitants; and who have been drawn together by their shared understanding, beside which all personal considerations have melted away.
The game was preceded by a long and thorough workshop. It was particularly important to build up a trust and understanding between us – to get our recognition of the group consensus ‘want’ to an almost instinctive level. That’s a tough ask in a couple of hours, but Adam had a carefully structured and progressive series of exercises that brought us from scratch up to the level we were going to need for the game.
Workshop techniques are a particular thing of mine at the moment, so I made mental notes as we were going along. I’m trying to develop a systematic library of categories of technique and when they’re useful, so to be experiencing a whole bunch that related to a type of game I hadn’t played before was really interesting.
I would really recommend that you give The Checkerboard Crew a go, if you get the chance. Perhaps particularly if, like me, it’s the sort of thing you’d normally avoid like the plague. I found it stretching and demanding, for sure, but in extremely good ways. It’s made me think a great deal: not just about its subject matter, but about ‘games’ in general, and what larp can encompass.