After almost three years without attending any in-person larp events, this summer I somehow managed to schedule back to back blockbuster larps just two weeks apart. (What could possibly go wrong?) My Drachenfest bags had scarcely been unpacked before they were filled to bursting once more, this time with everything I needed to travel to a mysterious academy on a far-off planet. There I hoped to prove myself worthy of joining an ancient order of mystical protectors doing their best to hold together a struggling galaxy in the wake of a terrible civil war. It was time to make the jump to lightspeed and find my destiny at Starfall Academy!
In a similar spirit of my Drachenfest review, I’m going to be doing a bit of an overview as well as relating my experiences and reacting to different parts of the game – the game is big and complex enough to warrant it, I feel, plus as a designer it’s often difficult for me to separate my reactions to things like rules and mechanics from the roleplaying aspects of stories and character interactions. Which means this review will probably be pretty long so, you know, make some popcorn and get comfy. I’ve divided the review into sections so if I’m getting too design nerdy or feels heavy you can feel free to skip to another part you’re more curious about, I won’t be offended.
I also want to make it clear that I am going to be doing my best to make this a spoiler-free review; I will discuss certain foundational plot and setting elements, as well as talk about story beats in a general sense. I will do my best to avoid more specific things such as certain secrets that were revealed during the weekend or the outcome of particular plot points. For those interested in that kind of information, when I have time I will post a “spoilers” version of this review with more detailed information about certain game secrets and revelations later and put a link to it here when it’s ready. I ask that anyone inclined to share and/or comment on this review please respect the spoiler-free premise, for others if not for yourself.
I want to give a brief disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Quest Productions, I did not receive a free ticket or any special perks from them, and they had no input when it came to writing this review. (Though naturally I may edit the review at their request in the event I have reported a factual error about the game.) I attended the second of the event’s two runs, and I have been made aware that certain rules and plot elements were adjusted between events, so those who attended the first run may see differences in the way things worked at my event.
Last but not least, I also want to make it clear that any speculation I put forward in this review about how things might work at future events – as well as the existence of future events in general for that matter – is just that, my personal speculation. While I certainly hope to see more classes at Starfall Academy, that is entirely up to the staff, and if there are future events staff may of course decide to do things in entirely different ways than I imagine. That is 100% their prerogative and as a game runner and designer myself I fully support whatever direction they decide to take on any/all of these choices. So please take any such passages with a big handful of proverbial salt.
An emotionally engaging, highly immersive weekend spent in a cleverly realized sci-fantasy world. Starfall Academy features strong writing, top notch game staff, and clean, innovative game design that takes the classic “unusual school larp” format to the next level. The setting basics and game mechanics are easy to pick up and the game leverages the school setting itself in clever ways that make the experience extremely friendly to larp newcomers, while veteran larpers and boffer fighters will still find plenty of action, intrigue, and personal drama to enjoy. There is also an absolute treasure trove of richly detailed, highly original lore for curious players of all backgrounds to dive into if they desire, which makes the concept of coming back year after year to rise from initiate all the way to master even more enticing.
Should I Play?
If you enjoy the idea of taking fascinating classes in everything from philosophy to alien zoology to galactic history to saber fighting, don’t mind staying in a college dorm room for a few nights, and are attracted to playing a character who has been whisked away from their old life to begin training as part of an ancient order of powerful but morally conflicted individuals tasked with holding a struggling galaxy together, then welcome home! You’re really going to enjoy it here. Of course a love for particular group of mystic warrior-monks in a popular sci-fantasy universe certainly doesn’t hurt, but the game is set in a totally different universe so it’s absolutely not necessary to be a fan of that other setting to enjoy this one. The potential to attend year after year and rise through the ranks is also well worth exploring and combined with excellent event value gives a natural reason for players to keep coming back.
No, I Mean, Should *I* Play, Specifically?
I mean, I dunno? If I don’t know you it’s hard to say, but I suppose you could write me in the comments or privately and I’ll talk to you about your personal tastes.
A Word about That Other Universe
By now you’ve probably noticed that I’ve refrained from mentioning a certain sci-fantasy universe and its iconic mystic warriors by name. That’s intentional, but not entirely for the reason you might think. Sure, part of me doesn’t want to deal with showing up on Disney’s radar, but more importantly the more I learned about Starfall Academy the more I felt like I would be doing it a disservice to constantly compare it to Lucas’ creation. Because while you’d be right to say that Starfall Academy draws on that world for inspiration and I believe it will absolutely scratch the itch for those people who have always wanted to play a Jedi in training – there, I said it, but it’s the one and only time I will – there’s so much more to the experience than saying that might imply. Staff has clearly put in a ton of work and love to bring this world to life, and I feel that deserves its own recognition rather than constantly reducing it to a comparison.
To put it plainly, Starfall Academy is not that other universe with the serial numbers filed off just enough that they don’t get sued – it is a rich, detailed universe that deserves to be considered and explored in its own right. Comparing the two is a bit like saying Babylon 5 is basically the same as Deep Space Nine just because both are set on space stations, or that there’s no need for Dune because Foundation already exists. Just because you have similar subject matter, or one was inspired in part by another, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the newcomer to shine brightly on its own merits.
Oh, and before anyone’s hackles go up – I’m not saying that Starfall Academy is better than the universe that helped inspire it, or anything of the sort. To each their own; I happen to love both! Ultimately what I’m saying is that while there are some interesting comparisons to be made, it’s definitely worth considering the setting on its own merits, rather than always viewing through a comparative lens. Like any great homage, it does honor to its inspiration while becoming worthy art in its own right.
At risk of doing a disservice to that same excellent world-building, for the sake of brevity – and for letting players uncover some of the many mysteries on their own if they would like to peruse the game’s extensive online Archives – I will go with the basic broad strokes of the setting here. Long ago, a collection of sentient species came together after some rocky moments and formed an Empire that spans the known galaxy. The bedrock of this government is the Guardian Order – an organization of individuals known as Radiants who display special powers thanks to their connection to a cosmic force called the Light. For centuries the Guardians have steered the Empire, and while there were some conflicts and turmoil for the most part it was a time of great harmony and growth across the galaxy.
Just over two decades ago, however, one sect of the Order known as the Dominari fell to Shadow, their darker natures taking them over en masse. They rebelled against the Empire, crowning their own ruler (now known as the “false Empress”) and corrupting many Guardians from other sects to their cause. The resulting civil war was brief but incredibly bloody, causing immeasurable devastation and loss of life before the so-called Dominari Rebellion was finally put down. The few surviving Dominari seemingly vanished deep into the uncharted regions of the galaxy, leaving the Order to try to mend a wounded galaxy while still grappling with the aftermath of such grand betrayal among its own members. Not to mention the fact that the trust of the average Imperial citizen for the Order has been badly damaged by the conflict, and to this day many have not regained their former regard for Radiants.
Players enter this universe as students at Starfall Academy, a training center for new Radiants located in the heart of former Dominari territory. The academy was actually taken over during the Dominari Rebellion and was the site of some terrible atrocities; only after a long, fierce debate among senior members of the Order has it finally been re-opened, in the hopes of healing some of those old wounds and making it a shining example of unity and hope for a battered galaxy. It is not the only training academy for Radiants in the galaxy, but it may be the most significant one for what it represents if this re-opening works … or the impact it will have if it fails.
Harmony and Growth: Character Creation
Character creation in Starfall Academy is entirely narrative – you don’t have stats or skills as such, and you don’t receive any Light powers or abilities until you attend classes (more on that in a bit). With no mechanics to dig through, players are free to focus entirely on developing character concepts, costumes, makeup, and backstories. There are a number of different playable species, ranging from good old Humans to the partially cybernetic Vyx to the plant-based Shumi and plenty more besides. Aside from Humans all other species require a level of makeup and/or prosthetics, some quite elaborate, which creates a nicely varied and exotic visual environment in play. The site is very clear about the makeup and costuming requirements for each species, and even grades them based on the complexity and cost involved in playing a particular species so players know what they’re getting into. Where possible links to suitable prosthetics and makeup are provided as well, which is nice, and each species also comes with a good body of lore to help players get into the right mindset.
Since this was the first year of Starfall Academy all players created initiates, the very first rank in the Guardian Order. (Future years might allow new players to create more advanced students as well as initiates, and of course current players can carry existing characters over from year to year as well.) Initiates are individuals who have only recently had their Spark moment – the first time they manifest Light powers, which often happens in a traumatic or dangerous situation – and have been brought to the academy for training. (Note: The Guardian Order is authorized to bring new Radiants against their will if they must, as untrained Radiants are a danger to everyone around them, so you can play a reluctant student if you like.) A Spark moment can happen at any age, so the student body of Starfall Academy has a wide range of age, species, and backgrounds, which was also welcome – as a middle-aged larper it was nice to not have to pretend to be a teenager!
After species and concept, the biggest choice a player can potentially make is which sect of the Guardian Order their character will belong to after initiation – while players can specifically request a certain sect if they have their heart set on one in particular, they are encouraged to leave the decision up to staff after answering a detailed survey designed to see which sect is best suited for their character. (I believe you can also hedge your bet by saying “any sect but X” if you’re fine with not picking your sect but really don’t want a certain one.) In my experience most players trusted the survey to sort them into a sect; while they had an idea where they might wind up based on their survey answers, they didn’t know for sure what sect they were in until they saw the color when ignited their saber for the first time. The drama of that moment left more than a few choked up; I knew which sect I would be in and I still got teary-eyed. The sects themselves offer a variety of ways to engage with the Starfall Academy experience and the power of the Light, not to mention cater to various playstyles (sect/saber color provided):
Bellati – Passionate masters of crystal saber fighting, the frontline fighters of the Order. (Purple)
Vindori – Historians and skilled protectors, these leaders are keepers of tradition. (Gold)
Ouiori – Masters of the wild, capable of controlling plants and animals. (Green)
Medicari – Renowned healers who also use their skills to defend the helpless. (Silver/White)
Venefari – Seers and prophets, these pacifist mystics seek profound revelations. (Blue)
I should note that at least this year there was a special option for players who wanted to play a “true pacifist”, that is, a character who had absolutely no saber classes. (While the Bellati and Vindori receive the most combat training, all orders get at least some saber instruction unless you pick this option.) As a true pacifist you were assigned the Venefari sect by default and received special classes in place of saber training; I was one of three people who chose this option in my run and while I don’t want to say what our special class was (in part because spoilers and also because I don’t know if it will be the same in the future), suffice it to say that staff certainly went the extra mile to make sure we didn’t feel as if we were an afterthought or had a lesser game experience than those with saber training.
Tradition and Preservation: Classes and the Campus Experience
As a real-life college professor, a veteran of several small-scale one-shot school larps, and a professor for two runs of the New World Magischola larp, at this point I feel pretty confident in saying that there is a fine art to creating a good school larp experience. You need to create classes that are interesting and create the right atmosphere for the setting – in this case, ones that really make people feel like they’re attending class in a sci-fantasy universe – while also respecting the fact that players have come to roleplay and enjoy a game, not just sit passively through hours of instruction. You need enough classes in a day for it to feel like a school experience, while also not overloading players with so many classes it feels like there’s no time to do anything else (or just test their patience sitting through hours and hours of classes). You have to take it seriously enough to create a proper student/teacher dynamic instead of having a room full of peers, but not lean so much on that dynamic that you accidentally stifle potential roleplay (especially from players who are looking to portray troublemakers and class clown types). Last but certainly not least, the classes need to be fairly interactive so that players have a chance to roleplay and express their character in class if they desire, which with all due respect to all concerned is not a teaching style every professional instructor can pull off in real life, much less staff members at a larp.
Fortunately, classes were an area where Starfall Academy‘s superb staff really shined. The classes were varied and interesting (and at under an hour each they had enough time to be compelling but not so much they dragged): history class had interesting slides for a visual component but also included discussions that drew students into the ethics and implications of various historical events; one first aid class featured surprise interruptions by local villagers in good injury makeup seeking help from the Guardians; philosophy class was a chance to catch your breath, center yourself, and question the nuances and complexities of some of the “big picture” questions surrounding the Guardians and their mission. All of the courses were enjoyable and the instructors clearly relished their roles and their lessons, but for visual impact alone zoology was a particular standout, featuring interactions with local wildlife that showcased some excellent costuming and makeup, and of course student favorite creature Teddy. (There are no short explanations for Teddy, just know that to a one every student who met Teddy would die for them.) You got a strong sense of the character of each instructor as well, but not so much that they took the air out of the room – staff did an excellent job at passing the spotlight around in class.
Starfall Academy classes also featured an interesting game mechanic that was one of those “why didn’t I think of this” moments as a gamer designer when I encountered it – attending class was also how you learned powers as a Guardian. During most – though not all – of your classes, by the end you would earn a card with a power on it, related to the topic of the class. These cards explain everything you need to know about the power OOC – what verbal call to use, how many hands it takes (and what gesture to make), what its effects are, how long it takes/what it costs to use, etc. – and by giving them out in class, staff gave players a concrete incentive to attend class and participate. Which sounds utterly obvious and logical, and yet is not a mechanic I’ve encountered before in any of the school larps I attended; in other games players already had their powers and classes were sort of a formality of the setting. If you missed a Starfall class where a power was taught, you could approach the instructor later to ask if they would teach it to you individually, but you’d better be prepared to explain why you were absent! Naturally, if you missed for an out of game reason such as a personal emergency or feeling unwell, there was a mechanic in place so that by telling your instructor that you were absent for OOC reasons you would simply be treated as if you had attended and your character would not be questioned or punished.
Students have three designated meal times – the cafeteria staff were great and seemed to enjoy our weirdness – and staff also provides a snack table with water and little things to tide you over. There are also blocks of free time, one right after lunch, another before dinner, and one more afterward, and the faculty offer electives that give you extra time to mingle and roleplay with them outside of class. These ranged from additional saber instruction to tea time to trivia contests, and of course students were free to devise their own activities and amusements during free periods as well. Free time was also when many plot events occurred, especially in the afternoon and evening, and even though sometimes classes were interrupted staff did a good job making sure no matter what was going on mealtimes were not disrupted (not every larp does that, which I think is a terrible notion for many reasons). Game events ended at midnight each night; while you certainly could stay in character and hang out, staff would not be running plot, and it was a good way to encourage people to try to get a reasonable amount of rest.
I don’t want to spoil how all the classes were taught, as some of them featured elements and techniques that for maximum enjoyment I feel are best encountered for the first time without prior knowledge, but I will say this – I participated in several classes and heard about several more that made excellent use of props and staging to really give players the feel of wielding the mystical powers of the Light. These weren’t necessarily fancy razzle-dazzle methods so much as they were the result of clever staff who clearly put a lot of time and heart into thinking about things like “how could I make it really look like students were practicing telekinesis” or “what can we do to give the feel of hands-on medical training without making anyone pass out in the process” and it really showed. Kudos to staff for not taking the obvious shortcuts and instead really making each class shine. And to my fellow Venefari, if you see Yasha please tell them that I miss them very much, and can’t wait to train with them again soon.
Knowledge and Truth: Wielding the Light
Now that you know how Light powers are learned, it’s worth a moment to talk about how they operate. Starfall Academy keeps to a very simple, efficient system for the powers of the Light, relying on gestures and verbal cues rather than complex mechanics. (Though of course we were initiates and learning the basics of being Guardians; no doubt things might get a little more intricate as one rises in rank.) You call out a verbal cue to alert the target of your power to its use – or to make others around you aware of a power you are using on yourself – then make a specific gesture with one or both hands. Shield Self requires crossing your arms across your chest and keeping them there for the duration of the power, for example, while Push is a two-handed pushing gesture with palms out toward the target. If a power requires further clarification, you can add that to the verbal cue; for example, you can tell the target of Minor Manipulation that the effect only lasts five minutes, especially if you may not be there when it would end. That’s all there is to it – a verbal cue, a gesture, et voilà! You’re wielding the Light, Guardian.
As a fan of fast, simple systems with minimal chatter to disrupt roleplaying, this was right up my alley. While of course everyone is entitled to their own take on what they find fun in larp, I’ve played in a lot of action larps where “spellcasting” often involved things like stopping play to measure distances, taking targets aside OOC to explain complex mechanics, or other systems that felt intrusive to free-flowing gameplay. (Again, that’s my preference, YMMV.) So I was relieved to see that the powers of the Light were generally very simple and easy to understand both for the user and any potential targets; most required little to no explanation even if you hadn’t seen them in action before, and those few occasions where I saw players ask for clarification it was resolved swiftly and with minimal gameplay disruption. We learned a number of powers this event, so there was a decent amount to keep track of in your head, but I found that you could generally separate them into situational categories – powers that aided in combat, healing powers, powers that helped you investigate the setting, etc. – which helped avoid feeling overwhelmed.
As noted previously, each power you learn is represented by a very cool-looking, easily readable card that you can carry with you for reference. Their small size makes them easy to carry as well as allows you to consult them on the sly without breaking game/attracting too much attention – you can just slip a card from your pocket and glance at it rather than whipping out a character sheet, unfolding it, searching for the relevant text, etc. Card size and design might seem an odd thing to go on about, but making sure your players can carry what they need to know is an important and often overlooked part of game design, so having small, easy to consult cards that can be stashed somewhere in just about any costume is a real blessing. Plus, did I mention they look cool? Because they really do, and that makes you feel cool by association when you take them out. It’s a small thing but it’s a nice design detail and I appreciate it.
Almost all Light powers cost Focus Points (FP) to use, which can be replenished entirely with 10 minutes of meditation. As initiates every character had 4 FP, and it was my understanding that with each additional year of training we would add roughly the same amount (though this may change). Perhaps unsurprisingly considering we were learning basic powers this weekend, every power that had a cost to use was only 1 FP. However, it should be noted that using a power from outside your sect cost double, so as a Venefari if I wanted to use the Vindori power Shield Self, it would cost 2 FP instead. On top of that, if the power requires a hand gesture and your relevant arm is injured, the cost doubled again, so if I tried to use Shield Self (a two hand gesture) with an injured arm it would cost 4 FP. (Cost only doubles once due to injury, so if both my arms were injured it would still cost 4 FP, not 8.) Remembering those cost increases is about as complex as Light powers get.
Focus Points are visually represented by bead carriers, displaying one bead per point; Guardians create a basic bead carrier during one of their classes on day one, though players are encouraged to customize these bead carriers later on if they like so long as they meet certain basic requirements. Like a lot of things about Starfall Academy, I appreciated the fact that this small but important costume piece was crafted during as part of a class lesson, as it made it feel much less like an OOC element and more of a personal expression. My character was prone to touching his beads when he was worried or upset, almost like prayer beads, and I saw similar habits with other Guardians as well, which made them feel like part of your character. I look forward to seeing what people do with them next year, how they continue to customize and personalize them. And without getting into spoiler territory, it’s worth paying attention to the bead colors on display – most Guardians have beads in either their sect color or neutral tones (black, brown, etc.), but occasionally you might see someone sporting a color that seems out of place, and chances are real good it’s not there by accident …
Compassion and Life: Do All Guardians Have to Fight? Can My Character Die?
While training and fighting with crystal sabers is certainly a draw for a lot of players, I know that boffer combat of any kind can be intimidating or off-putting to others, especially those who have never done it. Let me be clear – not wanting to fight/not being comfortable with boffer combat is absolutely not a barrier to enjoying the Starfall Academy experience. I should know, given that I played a “true pacifist” character who didn’t have any saber classes at all and I still had a great time! Let me explain a bit about how saber fighting works and hopefully that will clear things up.
First off, you don’t need to bring a weapon – everyone gets a crystal saber as part of the price of the game. (I can’t say for sure but don’t anticipate this will change for future events, even for returning players, as it’s important all players have the same gear for safety reasons.) It’s yours to keep, and while you’re at the event you also get a soft foam sleeve – referred to in-universe as a “dampener” – that you put on the saber to make it a boffer weapon, i.e., safe for combat striking other players. Aside from posing for personal pictures, you are required to keep the dampener on in order to avoid accidents. For safety reasons you are not allowed to use sabers other than the one you are issued, so do not bring any “illumination swords” you might have laying around at home.
While everyone has a crystal saber, as noted previously your character’s sect within the Order determines how much of your class experience will revolve around crystal saber training, so you can influence how much time is spent on this activity with your sect choice. For example, as the most militant sect the Bellati spend almost half their day in saber classes (and learn the most techniques and tricks related to saber fighting), while at the other end of the spectrum you can find the pacifists of the Venefari sect, who have just a couple of saber classes. Even the total pacifists still have sabers and can use them – I drew mine during a few scary incidents and even struck down a battle droid with it when my back was against the wall – they just have no extra training or ability with it.
Boffer fans take note, however, that at least for this first year there were very few unexpected combat encounters – for the most part players had to opt-in to combat situations. (There were a few surprise combat scenes involving NPC nefariousness but they were the exception, not the rule.) If you didn’t want to fight wolves with Doctor Vray, for example, you could just choose not to go on that trip; it wasn’t as though wolves would attack out of nowhere and force players to defend themselves spontaneously. It also wasn’t like many boffer larps where random combat encounters were frequent and could happen at any time, or where players could wander off into the woods and expect to find NPCs to battle. This might change in future years, but for this run at least that was how the game operated. So if you’re looking for a more freeform adventure and fighting game this isn’t it, or at least it wasn’t this year anyway. That said, the combat encounters we did have were good and often quite challenging, probably because they were planned and structured carefully (and at base even higher ranking characters are very fragile).
I should also point out that all players learned at least one or two purely defensive powers that could help you avoid combat or keep you from getting hit – the Vindori teach how to shield yourself from all harm for a short time, which is good for weathering a bad situation while waiting for help to arrive, the Ouiori learn to hide from sight near trees, the Venefari pacifists learn how to push enemies away from them without causing harm, etc. Likewise, while characters are easy to injure and even incapacitate with just a few weapon strikes, for this year at least death was not really on the table unless a player really wanted that outcome for their character (to my knowledge, none did). At worst you were rendered incapacitated for a time and needed medical attention from a knight or a master (as initiates could not heal the worst bodily injuries). This level of deadliness may change in the future, but for this year it felt appropriate that things were less lethal given that these characters were just starting out. I certainly didn’t feel that combat was any less tense because of it – after all, just because we couldn’t die didn’t mean we couldn’t fail!
Oh, one last combat related thing: in a nice little touch, the reason it’s called a crystal saber is because in-universe the blade is made of a special crystal and it exists at all times like a regular sword; the blade doesn’t vanish when deactivated as some similar weapons do in other universes. So you don’t have to pretend it’s just a hilt when it’s not active, there’s always a blade there. When you channel your Light into it – that is, turn on the weapon prop – the crystal glows with the color of your sect and the weapon becomes infused with power, making it much more dangerous and able to cut through most targets with ease. You can still use the saber when it’s not infused with Light, however, it just does less damage – it’s essentially a club instead of a blade. So you’re not helpless if the button isn’t working or you forgot to recharge the blade battery overnight. I found this an elegant solution to a common problem with larping similar weapons in other settings, and a nice extra bit of lore flavor as well.
Passion and Glory: OK, So If I Do Fight, What’s It Like? How Complex Is It?
Saber fighting itself is lightest touch with minimal damage rules to remember – first hit to a limb makes it hard to use (and makes Light powers cost more if they require using that limb), second hit to a limb renders it useless, any additional hits to that limb are considered torso hits, etc. Two torso hits and you’re down. Armor simply adds extra hits before a location is compromised. Head and groin strikes are forbidden, as are thrusts, and hand shots do not count. In addition to lightest touch limiting the force involved, sabers require both hands on the weapon and all strikes should be made at a reasonable tempo – no high speed flailing permitted. Due to these guidelines, safety equipment such as gloves or helmets is not required for game, and anyone who fights in a way that hurts people or is otherwise unsafe will be benched or even removed from the event. In a profoundly cool upgrade of the normal boffer larp experience, the saber classes are taught by actual ludosport professionals who teach and compete in this sort of fantasy saber fighting for a living. It’s one of my favorite design elements about the game, honestly – Starfall Academy is a boffer game that has actual fight professionals train its players in proper fighting and combat safety as part of the in-character game experience.
So if you’re thinking “well I want to play a badass Bellati warrior or stoic Vindori defender, but I’ve never done boffer fighting before, can I still make play a character like that” then don’t worry – that’s what your saber instructors are there for! They’ll do their best to make you a capable fighter, and their best is pretty damn good. On my run there were quite a few brand new larpers who had never held a boffer weapon before but became pretty dang dangerous initiates by the end of the event. (As a true pacifist character I didn’t see what saber classes were like, but heard nothing but praise and a certain amount of healthy awe for the instructors.) My advice is that while you don’t need to come in with a lot of fight experience, if any, if you intend to play a fighter type and/or take lots of saber classes you should do your best to be ready in other ways – make sure your costume allows good mobility and helps avoid overheating, stretch before class, hydrate often, etc. Your instructors and fellow saber students will help you with the rest.
While the game is vigorously inclusive and will do their best to accommodate everyone in the roles they desire – and I should note that when the temperature hit dangerous heat levels one day all outdoor classes were adjusted accordingly – saber classes are still active physical activity and so you should be prepared for what that entails. If you have concerns about how your particular physical limitations might impact your ability to play a more fight-focused character, I would urge you to talk to staff in advance when character creation rolls around to see what can be done. They’re pretty cool and communicative that way.
As a final note for curious combat types, neither players nor NPCs had ranged weapons that I saw at this run of Starfall Academy, and as noted previously those Light powers that work at range such as Venefari telekinesis used verbal cues combined with hand gestures – no throwing birdseed packets or firing foam darts or other boffer larp mainstays. That does not mean future runs might not include enemies blazing away with Nerf blasters or Guardians throwing bean bags to represent shooting lightning from their fingers, mind you, but for this year at least staff kept things very simple and close range, which made combat much easier to navigate. Now this is just me speculating, but I have a feeling that even if they do start to add more ranged conflict and powers to the mix they will stay to this sort of simple format and have most such exchanges resolved with simple pointing and verbal calls rather than tossing around bean bags and the like. I suppose we’ll see next year!
Unity and Hope: Player Culture and Final Impressions
Now that I’ve talked probably way too much about the individual elements of the game – character creation, classes, Light powers, saber combat, etc. – I want to sort of bring it all together by discussing that intangible but absolutely vital element, the culture of the game. By which I mean something like a cross between school spirit and esprit de corps, or perhaps you could call it the overall vibe that you get interacting with people throughout the experience. I have played in many wonderful game environments over the years, and I will say it right here: the culture of Starfall Academy ranks among the best I’ve encountered, full stop.
Even if you didn’t see the hundreds of pages of lore they’ve written or the costumes they’ve made or the props they’ve built or the care they’ve taken crafting their characters, it’s obvious within minutes of interacting with them that the staff loves this world and is excited to bring you into it to experience it with them. Even when staff members naturally became the focus of attention, as could be expected when portraying professors at a school game, they did their best to turn it around and invite responses and interactions with students, or at least let the student body voice their reactions even as they engaged in a scripted scene. As a long time game runner myself I know that behind the scenes big games often consist of running around putting out fires all weekend, but I never once saw that stress bleed through to the players – staff never let their problem become my problem, never took out a setback on a player, and that’s damn impressive for a game of this size and complexity. I wasn’t surprised, exactly, because they seemed like excellent humans, but still. Seriously. I tip my cap to them. That’s a hell of a feat.
It was also an incredibly friendly and inclusive environment, with special care taken to make sure elements like player pronouns were properly addressed and that LGBTQIA+ experiences and expressions were welcome and normal as part of the Starfall Academy universe. I’ve heard quite a few players also express the fact that it was a game where they never felt sexualized and where they were comfortable trusting each other even early in the weekend, which is likely due in no small part to the emphasis on consent and raising each other up that starts in pre-game workshops and continues throughout the event. Staff made it very clear that any sort of “but I’m just playing my character/I’m sorry you can’t take a joke” creepy larper jackassery would not be tolerated, and I also appreciated their strong stance on things like “you are not allowed to think the space fascists were right” that can potentially lead to ugly OOC issues. The Guardian Order is not without its moral and ethical problems – in fact, staff was clear that a good deal of Starfall Academy involves letting players wrestle with questions without easy answers (if any) – but they also drew a bright line to make sure fascist apologists and other hatemongers would not be welcome in or out of character.
Perhaps the best expression of the culture that Starfall Academy is going for – and in my opinion at least, achieved with flying colors – is the concept of prisms, and that’s why even though I love it so much I saved it for this final section. Although players are organized into different sects, unlike many other school larps these groups are not adversarial or in competition with each other; while there might be pranks and some friendly rivalry, there are no “house points” or trophies to win. Instead, emphasis is placed on cooperation and teamwork between sects. Because unlike the mystic space knights of that other universe, who tend to be lone wolves or at most a mentor/student pair, Guardians form teams of five or six called prisms, so named because they represent the blending of different colors/aspects of the Light to form a cohesive whole. No Guardian acting alone is as strong as a prism working together.
Watching characters find friends and allies and form their prisms was a wonderful part of the weekend; even some of those Guardians who didn’t find a prism easily on their own still found that a prism hastily cobbled together in a crisis could be an unlikely source of friendship and camaraderie. And maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve wanted to wield a glowing blade since I was five years old, but it was a beautiful sight to watch a prism ignite their sabers and face down a challenge together, watch each other’s backs, use their powers to complement each other, and just be the heroes that their galaxy deserved.
Thank you for letting me raise my saber and finally realize a childhood dream, Starfall Academy.
Go in the Light!
Don’t be a hardcore fan, be a big one.
Why not? Hardcore fans almost always end up ruining their enjoyment of what they profess to adore, while “merely” big fans go on their merry way, still finding new things to enjoy and explore about what they love for years at a time. Today’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer release has given me ample evidence of this notion, because while we big fans of Star Wars are debating the pros and cons of what we’ve seen (and what’s been left out), the hardcore fan response has been pretty much the same. It’s either a rapturous, no-room-for-discussion “IT IS STAR WARS SO IT WILL BE AMAZING ALL WHO DOUBT IT ARE WRONG”, or more often a close-minded rejection of the very notion that anything could possibly be as good as the sainted Holy Trinity, usually accompanied by some tired lens flare jokes and the obligatory “stop ruining my childhood” screed. Which highlights an important difference in how you, as a fan, approach what you love:
Being a big fan is a statement of enjoyment; being a hardcore one is a statement of identity.
The difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is pretty immense. If you enjoy something, but it doesn’t define how you see yourself as an individual, then that enjoyment is capable of expanding and changing over time as you find new examples of what you like and new ways to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you automatically find every new thing in your fandom wonderful and great – I’m a big fan of Star Wars, for example, and still didn’t enjoy all the movies, let alone all the novels, games, and other tie-ins – but you are able to put the negative experiences in perspective with the positive ones.
To put it another way, I’m a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit when they’ve played a bad game (or season), or that I’ve decided the 1997 team was the single best Eagles team ever+ and that no current or future Eagles team could possibly be better. A big fan takes it as it comes, enjoying some things and not others, but always with an overall appreciation of what they love in mind. They recognize that Godfather III doesn’t “ruin” Godfather I & II, and that when you think about it, the very notion that it could is pretty absurd.
By contrast, when you’re hardcore to the point that you tag something as being part of your identity, whether it’s your Star Wars fandom or your love of a sports team or whatever, you become very resistant to the idea of anything about that subject changing. Because changing it now changes you, and as a rule, human beings are highly resistant to making alterations to our sense of identity. So a hardcore fan inevitably draws inward, becoming either fanatically positive about their fandom to the point of blindness and instant (often harsh) rebuke of the very notion that it could be in any way bad, or bitter and resentful about any new material to come after whatever arbitrary point they’ve decided was the “height” of what they love. They become gatekeepers, protecting “their” fandom from everyone they see as harmful to it, including other fans and even creators if they feel they have strayed from the “true” nature of the fandom.
As you can imagine, neither perspective is ultimately very conducive to continued enjoyment of what a fan claims to love, because either way you’re locked into a perspective that ultimately stifles your ability to appreciate the subject of your affection. You either won’t ever critique it and can’t accept the notion that others will, or you’ll ruthlessly critique every possible aspect of new material to the point where you’re incapable of enjoying any of it. Instead of a source of enjoyment in your life, your fandom becomes a subject to obsess over in a negative way, either because it requires you to block out and shut down any criticism you come across or because any news about it prompts a bitter tirade about how it’s been going downhill since whatever time you decided it had reached a suitable zenith.
No matter what, the hardcore fan always loses.
One particularly relevant case in point is the familiar “stop ruining my childhood” refrain that has been heard in a lot of fandoms but seems to hold a special place in the hearts of certain hardcore Star Wars fans. This is like complaining that, because they built a 7-11 where your own playground used to be, your cherished memories of playing in that park as a kid are now ruined forever. Stop and think about that a moment, because it’s both silly and a little terrifying to have that kind of view of your own identity, your own personal timeline.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you have to like that they built the 7-11, much less that Lucas inserted a bunch of pointless crap no one asked for in his classic films. As I said before, being a big fan doesn’t mean you can’t critique or respond negatively to things in your fandom, any more than you can’t feel a sense of loss to see something you cherished replaced by something coldly commercial. Those are perfectly normal and logical reactions, but they’re still placed within a context, a perspective – I don’t like that there’s a 7-11 there now, or that the re-releases now have pointlessly awful Jabba the Hutt CGI, but it won’t stop me from enjoying telling stories about playing in the park with my friends, or remembering all the many times I watched the original movies and had a blast.
What I’m saying is that if those sorts of things really do retroactively ruin your past – as in actually make you incapable of feeling any or all of the happiness you used to feel when you recollected those times from your past – you need to take a big step back and really separate your identity from your fandom. Because you’re clearly locked in a relationship with it that is bad for both of you. Seriously. Think about it.
Big fans? Always. Let’s spread our love of Star Wars – or Game of Thrones, or Doctor Who, or whatever else – to others and enjoy the ups and downs of following a creative property over the years.
Hardcore fans, though? Let’s let that notion go.
+Said no one ever, including me, so calm down everyone.
[Update: This review refers to the film’s “Festival Cut”, which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film’s “Extended Edition” will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo’s own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]
Full disclosure: I’m a geek.
Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters. (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.
I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Rising, because I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called). I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.
[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]
The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around. (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.
As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.) It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.
Don’t get me wrong – Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film – Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.
For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.
Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.
Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.
(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! – and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++
Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.
And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.
As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.
Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.
So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!
+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.
I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners – a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!
I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.