Gimme Shelter

[Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Shelter In Place co-author J.R. Blackwell is a friend of mine – she even took my wedding photos! – and I contributed a short story to Gimme Shelter, an anthology of short fiction that was released alongside the game. So I may be a bit biased, but as if often the case when I’m a bit biased in my blog, I don’t particularly care. That’s the beauty of a personal blog. Still, take it with as much salt as you need.]

It’s been a little while since I had a chance for a proper update, so I thought I’d kick things back off on a positive note, with a review of one of the best LARP books I’ve read in a long, long time.

I’ve often wondered what the proverbial “next big thing” in LARP will be. Deep down, I suspect the answer will come when ARG becomes more widespread and viable, but until then, I think regular pokey old non-AR games still have surprises for us. In boffer LARPs, games like the post-apocalyptic zombie madness of Dystopia Rising* have broken away from the “strictly fantasy” model that has dominated that subgenre for so many years, allowing players to see what boffer can do with other settings and expectations. In parlor LARP, Jeepform is pushing the boundaries of what games are about and what players should seek to explore, not to mention giving them new tools to explore these different kinds of stories. And then there’s something I’d call playground LARP, and which brings me to the original purpose of this review: the wonderful little game called Shelter In Place, and why you should shake up your next office party or family reunion by playing it there.

Here’s a link to Shelter In Place on Indie Press Revolution.

OK, first of all, click on the link if you haven’t already and check out the wonderful cover art by the inimitable Daniel Solis. If that cover doesn’t immediately scream “BUY ME I’M AWESOME” you might want to check your, uh, eye-hearing. But as you might expect, it’s the game inside that is worth the rest of your $20.

One of the commonly-held tenets of Jeepform is “Restrictions foster creativity”, and that’s pretty much the philosophy behind Shelter in a nutshell. (Not that Shelter is a Jeep game, before I get angry messages from LARP enthusiasts, I’m just saying the expression is apt here as well.) While there are some fun twists that veteran groups are encouraged to drop in to keep the game fresh, the basic game uses the same premise each and every time: There’s been a zombie outbreak, some humans have holed up in a (fairly) safe place, and in an hour – or less! – either the humans will be rescued or the shelter will be overrun and all the humans slaughtered. The clock runs the entire time, with no rules that pause the action or otherwise mess with it, and it’s a hard limit – if you’re not rescued when that final minute runs out, you’re zombie chow. No pleading, no exceptions.

The twist? Scattered outside the shelter are materials essential for rescue, in the form of parts for a broken radio transmitter that needs repairing, as well as a number of other helpful items such as weapons, medical kits, food and so on. So you’re gonna need to leave that shelter, and that means you’re going to need luck, and a bit of strategy, and definitely some speed if you want to survive. Each tool has a single, specific purpose, with game mechanics that are quick and easy to understand.

For the players, there are a set of pre-generated roles. (No fuss about character creation, and the game has already been balanced in advance!) Each survivor has a specific and unique skill, with a number of “essential” roles required to run the game and then “optional” roles to add some spice if you’ve got more players. The roles are broad enough to be easily be grasped and taken on by just about anyone, while unique capabilities make everyone feel that they have something to offer. Likewise, they’re given some basic motivations in the form of bonus Goals, but otherwise left entirely for the players to flesh out as they see fit in terms of personality, backstory and so on.

The game itself is divided into three acts, with the zombies gaining more power each act, making the use of tools and tactics increasingly important as time counts down. Act transitions are triggered either by time or the completion of certain goals, making the game’s timetable surprisingly flexible for a baseline one hour limit. It’s also designed to be played in two runs at a time, with the players switching sides after the first run so that humans become zombies and vice versa. So everyone gets to experience being hunted as well as doing the hunter. And any humans that fall to the zombie horde early on simply swell their ranks, becoming more recycling enemies for the survivors to face.

Which brings up the combat mechanic, which is an adapted version of the game pretty much every human being knows – tag. To start combat, you tag another player and count loudly to three. Everyone who wants in must tag a target before the three count is over. The parties involved compare a simple set of numbers, and that’s that. No time-outs, no retests, no funky mechanics, just a bit of quick small-number addition and you’re on your way again. Defeated zombies recycle after a minute, while of course injured humans become another terrifying complication for their friends. I’ve played a lot of games that try to be as “real time” as possible, but aside from boffer games with real weapon combat – and even some of those indulge too much in pauses and description – most of them fail horribly under pressure. By contrast, these rules are quick, fun and completely without room for interpretation or confusion, making them absolutely lightning fast with even just a little bit of practice.

That’s why I called this a “playground” LARP, by the way – it’s not an insult, and certainly not meant to suggest that there’s something twee or overly precious about the rules. It’s because this is about as close to a playground game you can get as an adult without someone calling Chris Hansen, the sort of games that had the simplest rules you can imagine, and yet you can play over and over for hours on end without getting tired of them. That’s a major part of the charm of Shelter, as reinforced in its pages by its adorable mascot Fred, a lovably brain eating zombie – it is a simple premise executed without pretense, a great little idea allowed to be exactly what it wants to be without anyone mucking about and making it overly complicated.

Of course, as I mentioned previously, the book includes plenty of twists to spice things up. You can introduce unusual characters such as werewolves and cyborgs, or special enemies like evolved zombies that can talk or move at full speed, the better to close the distance on unsuspecting survivors of course. The book also gives plenty of tips for first-timers and fine-tuning, so that an experience most gamers dread – the Unknown First Session – actually becomes as much fun as the fifth or fifteenth or fiftieth. For instance, it notes how to create a proper shelter, notes that close quarters such as tight hallways and office cubicles tend to favor zombies (easier to corner or ambush people), and gives important safety reminders such as discussing the difference between shambling, walking and running when it comes to making sure players and scenery don’t wind up in pieces. All presented in the same clear, amusing tone as the rest of the book.

In fact, such is the easy tone and simple clarity of the book that I almost feel like I’m doing it a bit of a disservice with a complicated review. It all boils down to the basics: Humans, zombies, props, Tag!, clock, go!

Just don’t forget to bring plenty of brains water, because chasing down your close friends and devouring them is definitely going to be thirsty work.

*Author’s Note, Part II: I’ve also done work for the fine people at Eschaton Media, the parent company of Dystopia Rising, not to mention brought entirely too many cupcakes to at least one of their houses. Throw more salt on the pile if you like.

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