Interview with Under the Stars!

I had a chat with the organisers behind 80s prom horror game Under The Stars which, as well as leaving the players more than happy, was also congratulated on it’s accessibility. Read on to see what Emma, Izzy and Shek had to say about the event.

UTS
Group picture of Under the Stars players outside the venue. They are in 1980s high school costume. There are a number of genders, body types and abilities shown. photo credit Tom Garnet

Can you introduce yourself for us? Do you have any access needs of your own (that you are comfortable sharing)?

[emma] I’m Emma Round, one of the design team. I’m a wheelchair user with a combination of physical conditions/impairments. I’ve also got my own mental health issues that center around trauma and a learning disability.

[Izzy] Hi I am Izzy Sanders, also one of the team. My access needs are usually mild but when they flare up are mostly pain and joint themed issues.

[shek] I’m Shek, the third third of the team. I’m dyslexic and suffer with OCD (which is nowhere near as helpful as it seems on TV!)

Tell us a little about Under the Stars – what it was and how it went!

[emma] We were doing what all LARPers do at some point, chatting in a pub about what sort of game we’d like to be a part of. One idea that I chucked forward was something I’d been wishing for for ages, “it’s the 80’s, the players are at a ‘normal’ school prom, then – horror twist!”. Izzy and Shek jumped on it and started using their wonderful creative minds to really bring it to life.

[Izzy] … The idea of running a game set in every 80s prom movie crossed with every teen horror movie just seemed too perfect not to have already been done. We were pleasantly surprised. The thing that sustained us most was just how rapidly the potential player base latched onto the idea, came up with characters that they loved, and really threw themselves into the concept.

[shek]  … UtS was a game about fear and uncertainty. The players were students at a high school, attending their leavers prom. That prom was interrupted at 2300 by a strange black void falling over the hall and the rapid deaths of the staff who ventured in to investigate! The rest of the game was filled with the players responding to their predicament and the strange shadowy figures experimenting on them.

People gave a lot of praise to the game in general but good accessibility in specific came up a lot. How did you approach accessibility for Under the Stars?

[emma] As poor Izzy and Shek had to hear far too many times over the course of planning that event “I won’t run something I couldn’t play”. I’m of the opinion that there should ideally be nothing a non-disabled player can access that a disabled player can’t, and if there must be, then it should be of no importance to the game or the stories being told. There would be no one left behind on disability grounds, because I really hate it when I’m only able to access a quarter of the stuff at a game that my non-disabled mates can. Every step of the way we asked “how would I, or any of the many disabled people in my life access this?” and if the answer was “we couldn’t”, then we either changed things so it was accessible or dropped that idea and ran with a new one. Areas that we weren’t 100% on, such as accommodating some sensory impairments, we tried to note where issues might arise and brain stormed some areas around them.

… Another side of things was focusing on our attendees emotional and psychological wellbeing during the event. I don’t think I’ve ever met another UK larper that doesn’t have horror stories centred on their teenage years and school, so we knew that this event could potentially be really tough for some folks (including ourselves). We decided the best approach was to provide clear tools for players to use to manage their conditions. We did it by attempting to set clear boundaries about what would, what might, and what would not occur at the event. Providing a quiet room for players to use, and stocking it with a few things that could help folks soothe, distract, or ground themselves if needed. We also had three mental health first aiders in attendance (two in the design team) as well as first aiders. All the players were provided with an amber and red card (colour coded and with the colour name written on them) to back up our amber and red safety calls, as I well know from experience that sometimes when you most need to get people to back off is when it can be hardest to make a sound. We also had a “I was checking the windows” call added in by Izzy which was magnificent. In games where suspense and intrigue are key, explaining that the reason you weren’t around when so-and-so was killed was because you OC needed to take time out can be immersion dampening at best, and can lead to players feeling like they have to disclose personal medical information in front of strangers at worst. It was the most used call of the game in the end.

[Izzy] … The majority of our ‘main plot’ involved students being captured by shadowy agents of the void and dragged away for ‘testing’. Of course that wasn’t feasible for everyone. We had one player in a wheelchair who needed to wait to charge their chair, so we delayed their kidnap plot by about quarter of an hour. Then I told them “you find yourself inexorably drawn into the void” rather than having any monsters dragging them. It gave them control over the scene and ensured they could still have all the fun of traumatising their helpless friends in the process.

You can’t reasonably think of everything beforehand, but if you are willing to look at what you’ve written and modify it for a specific player’s needs without getting precious, then you’ll have a more accessible game.

[shek] … I’m particularly proud of the system. The mechanics for fighting were designed to be dramatic rather than competitive. Hard skills were borderline irrelevant and fights were brief and shocking to punctuate narrative, rather than protracted and acting as a focus of the story. At one point a player who uses a crutch took a drug which made them insanely aggressive. When they grabbed a kitchen knife and went to go stab the person who’d hurt their friend everybody reacted; even fit, non-disabled players backed away and took the threat seriously. They were eventually wrestled away from the knife and their intended victim by two other players using mobility aids, all smoothly and cinematically, using just light touches and system calls. That, for me, was the moment I knew I’d done it right.

UTS 6
Photograph of a number of people in 1980s clothing in a darkened hall illuminated by fairy lights. The people are grouped casually but are watching something out of picture. There are a number of different genders, body types and abilities visible. Photo credit Tom Garnet

Did you run into any difficulties implementing the accessibility you wanted?

[emma] Venues are always hard. We live in an inaccessible world that rarely complies with disability legislation. The one we found had the facilities we needed, but it wasn’t perfect. There were three main issues; one was that the main hall we were using as the school gym amplified sound which meant being very careful when it came to adding music and ensuring quieter areas were available. The second was that there was a small narrow room off a corridor that had a large concrete step and no room to affix a ramp, so we made it a locked staff room, and spoke to people that had flagged a need for step free access to let them know that we would a) not be running anything in there, and b) would happily give them a crew member to help them achieve anything they wanted in there. The last was the presence of a one and a half inch step between the IC area and the OC accessible ground floor rooms, and the main quiet room. I knew my manual chair and powerchair could bump it and forgot that others might struggle. Using some spare wood and duct tape however Shek made a makeshift slope to allow others to use it. Those issues however were pretty minor to work around because of the teams approach to keeping stuff to a high standard of accessibility as possible at every stage.

[Izzy] The venue we used was one of the best for price and accessibility. It still had two whole floors that were inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t manage stairs. We made those completely OC sleeping areas, but it would obviously be ideal if the whole venue had been perfect. In larp running though, you realise that no venue is perfect.

 

Was there any feature you were specifically proud of?

[emma] It’s like choosing a favourite child! I’m going to go for the thing I liked best. The attitudes of the crew and players. I get patronised a lot at games, and often forced to sit and listen to people telling me just how far out of their way they had to go to accommodate me. It’s rubbish and I didn’t want it to happen to anyone at our event if possible. It’s one of those invisible social and emotional barriers we disabled folk have to manage that just drains energy and motivation. I think we achieved that, and I’m super proud.

[Izzy] Two things for me. The quiet room was an idea that I feel every game should implement if at all feasible. At the beginning during the announcements part, we told the players and crew that the room was free for everyone for any reason. It wasn’t just a room for people at their absolute lowest ebb, but a place for people to sit and be quiet and relaxed if they needed a recharge. A lot of players afterwards came to me to say they really valued having a safe place to retreat to when they were getting a bit emotionally exhausted without having to come and tell anyone, or ‘bother’ crew. I was also able to escort a player there who was in the throes of a pretty intense anxiety attack, and feeling good as a game runner that we had this space for them – rather than just any side room, or empty corner of the crew room.

Under the Stars made use of puzzles for players to solve in order to learn more about what was going on. Which was your favourite puzzle?

[emma] We didn’t use many traditional puzzles per ce at the event. The game was one of psychological horror and 18 year old angst, so we had the beings that had captured the prom attendees testing the players. Giving them things (be it a empty locked box, designations, attention, surgery, vendettas, sweets, or a weapon) and prompting them to use them on each other. They were like lab rats being experimented on, so the choices they made were never right or wrong.

I think my favourite was an off the cuff one where the players responded to a noise they could hear in the “void” they were surrounded by. Shek then used it to make a sequence of sounds they had to copy back. When they successfully completed a long chain they were thrown a bag lollies and I think that was the moment it dawned on them what was happening. It’s that or trying to train them not to IC damage the DJ equipment by playing the Conga by Black Lace on a ten minute loop.

[Izzy] The puzzles I enjoyed the best were the ones that didn’t strictly have answers. The extra dimensional void entities were not supposed to be understandable or relatable. Sometimes they did really nasty, horrific things just because they wanted to see what the students would do. So my favourites were the ones that the players inferred great meaning into ‘randomly bleeding, papers erupting off the table, the randomly self-throwing rugby ball’.

 

Is there anything you would do differently regarding accessibility next time (assuming there is a next time)?

[emma] I’d like a larger venue for more players and crew that was as accessible, if not better. I’d really to go to an event with a changing places loo. I think I’d also like to do a longer workshop before time in to allow players to meet each other OC and cement/create relationships.

[Izzy] Having a longer pre-time in would be good. I like what we managed to pull together online with the clique Facebook groups, but being able to go through the rules, aims, relationships beforehand would have been helpful.

What advice would you give to an organiser who was just getting started planning a LARP?

[emma] If you don’t create an accessible premise and system to begin with, you will have a terrible time trying to tack it on as an afterthought. It never really works. That and if you ask disabled volunteers to help you make your event accessible then please treat them with respect. Do not make it their sole responsibility to know how to make all things accessible to all people, and don’t blame them when they tell you stuff you don’t want to hear. They don’t download all that knowledge and ways to solve every problem perfectly into us on the day we get our first pair of crutches to keep.

[Izzy] Start from the ground up. Don’t accept any rule as unchangeable. Does your combat system HAVE to involve a lot of running around and hard skills? You don’t HAVE to be pushing plot at all times. Give your players time to breath, and give yourself time to react and adapt. And remember, no plan can completely survive contact with the game.

This has been edited lightly to remove repetition in answers and for brevity. The full text with everything that Emma, Izzy and Shek had to say is available to Rogue and above Patreon Patrons. If you would like to support Access:LARP as a Patron and get regular updates and bonus content then follow this link

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