As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been doing quite a bit of LARPing lately with several different organizations, and my curiosity was piqued when I heard about a brand new, supernatural, alternate-history, Wild West-themed LARP in Pennsylvania called Dead Legends. I have a few friends from Knight Realms who recommended it, and my partner Andy was interested in giving it a go, so last weekend I plopped my bowler hat on, gathered up some relics of my steampunk phase, and drove up to Lancaster to see what it was all about. Unfortunately, the reality fell short of its glowing reviews. While the game mechanics, theme, and atmosphere are well thought out and pretty ambitious, the game itself was quite disorganized and definitely suffered because of the staff’s inexperience. There were certainly many elements that worked, and the game could be genuinely great if properly managed, but overall, the player experience really needs to be shored up quite a bit to put Dead Legends on par with other LARP games I’ve experienced.
Dead Legends is an alternate history LARP that takes place in the 1860s-1870s. The premise is that in this version of history, the American Civil War was fought primarily over land, governance, and resources, and went drastically differently than in actual history. The land area of the United States is divided into several smaller nations and remains in a general state of dispute and unrest, but gold and other rare materials have been discovered in a town called Lazarus Gap (where the game takes place). Lazarus Gap is so named because although the potential payoff locked away in the earth is huge, things here have a mysterious and ominous habit of not staying dead.
To their credit, the storytellers have worked to create an alternate history scenario that is recognizable, but eliminates racism from the gameplay by eliminating slavery from their version of US history. Black people still exist, obviously, because there are Black players, but they presumably immigrated to this version of the US of their own volition along with other settlers. This is really the only way the storytellers could have proceeded in a post-Civil War setting without enabling some level of racism, so I applaud them for navigating that pretty well. I’m not pleased, however, about the fact that “Native American” is a playable race. Creating fictionalized versions of real-life ethnic groups is a problem with other LARPs: Knight Realms, for example, has “Romani” and “Bedouin” as playable races, even though these are minority ethnic groups that exist in reality. It is, in my opinion, inappropriate and distasteful for people to assume real-world races as a form of entertainment, even with the best of intentions. While this is a problem with LARP worldbuilding in general, I had hoped that as a brand new LARP, Dead Legends might have the cultural wherewithal to avoid that.
That said, the game mechanics and setting in general are very impressive. The marshals and storytellers are sincerely committed to the atmosphere and aesthetics, and the rules—including character professions, classes, and abilities—are interesting and seem pretty functional for how new the game is. Unlike in other LARPs I’ve played, a character’s health points cap at a certain number, making it impossible for more senior players to become absurdly powerful. A common problem in other LARPs is that storytellers effectively have to run two games at once: one challenging enough to entertain high-level players and one easy enough not to annihilate low-level players. So based on what I know of other LARPs, this should—in the long term—help to cut down on senior player elitism and hopefully keep the gameplay fairly balanced.
The real issue I experienced with Dead Legends—and unfortunately it’s a major one—is disorganization and lack of communication amongst the staff. The game, like many LARPs, runs on a series of “mods”: effectively short scenarios or quests arranged by the storytellers to keep the players entertained and active, and to provide rewards to stimulate the in-game economy. Some mods are related to larger multi-game plots and some are not. Every player has a four-hour shift they sign up for at some point during the game where they are assigned roles as various NPCs to go and interact with other players. The first mod I was involved in as a player at Dead Legends was the so-called “new player mod” where newcomers are escorted “into town” by a marshal and have to face some kind of obstacle along the way. The new player mod was excellent, the best new player mod I’ve ever been on, in fact: it introduced some plot-relevant baddies, let the new players get in a little bit of combat and roleplay, and resulted in a few rewards for everyone involved. I expect the new player mod went so well because it was a mod structure that the staff had roughly duplicated several times and had lots of practice running. Regrettably, the quality of the mods went into steep decline from there.
It was clear that the staff had not filled the NPC slots very efficiently, as some shifts had entirely too many NPCs for the mods scheduled to run, while shifts with more important mods were badly understaffed. I got a look at this organization problem up close from the inside during my NPC shift. There was one mod, for example, where the staff had gone to great lengths to create a fantastic cavern setup and had a really neat concept for how the players would interact with it. However, myself and the other NPCs were given very vague and hurried instructions on how to run the mod. The first result of this was me getting sent in a different direction from the other NPCs and getting badly lost alone on the multi-acre campgrounds for about twenty minutes in the pitch dark. Another result was that the storytellers didn’t coordinate placing any loot in the “cavern” setup, so the players fought through the mod for nothing and left empty-handed.
The height of the organizational failings was during “main mod”, the event that is supposed to be a major coordinated effort against the Big Bad of the Month. Marshals spent a great deal of time and care dividing the group of players into thirds and stationed us in three different parts of the camp to take on different phases of the plan. The problem is, in actuality the plan only had two parts. My group, consisting of about fourteen people, stood in the woods for more than half an hour and did absolutely nothing, only to get word that the baddies had been defeated and we could all head back to chill at the saloon. The frustration amongst that group was palpable as we all trudged, shivering and scowling, back to where we had started. I learned later from a friend whose NPC shift had been during main mod that there had only been five NPCs on duty at the time to fight at least thirty-five active players.
I was unhappy enough to leave early on Sunday. Although the game officially lasted until noon, I left at around ten-thirty, and to my astonishment, not only were there no mods at all running and no NPCs on duty by the time I left on Sunday, but there were also no game marshals or other staffers awake by ten in the morning. I’m not sure if this is a normal occurrence, but it made me even more salty about the fact that I paid for what was advertised as a three-day game.
The very first Dead Legends game was hosted in June of this year, so of course it is to be expected that the staff haven’t perfected everything just yet, but to my surprise, in spite of the game’s newness, Dead Legends costs $50 per game. This is the same as Knight Realms, which has existed for nearly twenty years, and $5 more than Dystopia Rising, a very well-known game that has existed for about seven years. Doubly surprising was that there was no discount for a player’s first game. I’ve been to four different LARP groups just this year, and every single one offered first-time players a discount.
Speaking as a marketing professional, this is a terrible system on the part of the Dead Legends staff, firstly because the most critical aspect of a successful and engaging LARP experience is large-scale participation. More players means more people available for NPC shifts, a richer environment with more balance in professions and abilities, and most importantly, the development of a loyal long-term player base. This is a critical development phase where Dead Legends needs to be hooking in as many new players as possible, and it was without doubt the most sparsely-attended LARP I’ve ever been to, with what I would estimate was about fifty players in attendance. Second, because the game staff simply don’t have all their crap together yet, they can’t expect people to pay the same amount they would for a richer, more organized, and fully-actualized LARP experience. They are essentially charging new players more money for less game, which will not be sustainable without very, very rapid improvement.
I would desperately like to see Dead Legends improve. I genuinely enjoyed the setting and mechanics, I like my character concept, and a lot of my friends attend this LARP. I can also tell that the staff genuinely wants the experience to be a good one, but they simply haven’t figured out how to accomplish that yet. If they take constructive criticism wholeheartedly and employ some intelligent marketing, organization, and player retention strategies, they could be very successful. As it is, I don’t plan to go back until spring, and then only because a good friend has already committed to going and would like Andy and me to come along. If the experience hasn’t improved by then, I won’t be going back at all, but I definitely hope it won’t come to that.