Astra, the LARP

I do not LARP or play games much, unless it is with my five year old son. I have no idea why – I figure I am just lazy and much prefer to sit and read a good book. But occasionally someone comes up with something I would so totally get into. The idea behind Astra that Ivana Delac and Vesna Kurilic, both accomplished Croatian genre authors with day jobs in the culture and public education field and experienced game masters, came up with would have been my first LARP had they not asked me to be one of the small behind the scenes helpers. I am not sorry as I am sure I can bully them into making more of these. Also, I think it would be wonderful world if I could send my kid to school to learn like this.

Astra was a twelve days long, pervasive live action roleplaying game which took place in Zagreb, Croatia, October 15 – 26, 2014. It was designed and run by two game masters – Ivana Dela? and Vesna Kurili?, both accomplished Croatian genre authors with day jobs in the culture and public education field. Both have been active on the European LARPing scene since 2011 and have so far participated in designing and running three local LARPs in adition to Astra. These were: an intense chamber psychodrama LARP The Cabin, a prison LARP ?uza and a single-day sequel of Astra, held in the city of Rijeka under the name Astra: Apokrifija.

Astra was a pervasive game with elements of espionage and research on literature, with a playable plot relying heavily on the supernatural. It had a strong ARG  (alternate reality game) aspect, which is uncommon in Croatian LARPs. Most of the story had been kept secret until the game started (and continued so well into the game), the characters were pre-written by the organizers and the full number of participants – 28 active players, 2 GMs and a larger number of outsiders as supporting cast and crew – have been revealed only after the end of game. The main storyline revolved around the lives and works of three famous Croatian authors of the 20th century – novelist and journalist, Marija Juric Zagorka, Croatian Nobel award nominee and famed children’s author Ivana Brlic Mažuranic and acclaimed poet, Antun Branko Šimic.

What was it all about?

All of the characters in Astra were ordinary people applying for an internship at the Astra Agency, a discreet service which offers information – for the right price. The Agency had been monitoring information in the public domain and had selected a few potential candidates who seemed right for the job. The testing the candidates was what remained and that was done in the form of daily tasks. Some were some based on codes and cyphers, while other required creative activity (writing, drawing, sculpting…) Others yet revolved around the exploration of Zagreb, both online and in the real, physical world. There were also a couple of flashmob-based group assignments, i.e. public readings from works of the three authors.

Astra lasted for 12 days straight and 24 of the initial 28 players participated, in some way, until the very end. Loads of creative and informative material was produced: stories, poems, artwork, music, videos, research reports, statues, lanterns… All of it, as well as lovely ingame photos, are featured on the LARP’s website.

For every successfully completed task, players received a piece of information, often hidden in another puzzle, and the main goal was for them to put it all together in order to discover the story of the LARP. That story included the ancient, magical crown of Croatian kings that could bring a horrible death to those who desire eternal life, and immortality to those who fully accept that everyone must die. That crown subsequently, much to the joy of every fan of Marija Juri? Zagorka, made Zagorka herself immortal (and gave her enough time to continue her work and, eventually, create Astra).

Furthermore, a couple of characters were secretly working for Zagorka’s arch-nemesis, which brought on some interesting ingame situations and resulted in one character’s murder, which in return raised the tension and distrust among players. The highlight of the game was a treasure hunt in which players found the crown and discovered that Zagorka actually was  immortal, and the Director of  the Astra Agency. The game ended by Zagorka (played by the popular Croatian genre author Milena Benini) awarding the candidates with a job at Astra after which she left, with the crown, supposedly to end her over-long existence.

Why so special?

Although this game was not the first Croatian LARP based on the works of Croatian genre authors (that would be “Seekers of the Dawn”, created by Ana Rajner and Božo Špoljaric in 2012 and based on the Snakes of Nikonimor fantasy trilogy by Sanja Lovrencic), it was the first longer and pervasive one.

Astra included quite a few elements that were previously unseen in Croatian LARPs, such as numerous ingame video materials, “hard copy” casefiles (given to every player at the beginning of the game) filled with mysterious documents and old photographs, ingame blogs and websites created months before the game and regularly updated, etc. This game was also,to the best of our knowledge, the first Croatian LARP to include mainstream outside partners: Marija Juric Zagorka Memorial Centre, Školska knjiga Publishing House and the Booksa Book Club.

The feedback provided by the players shows that their opinion of the three authors improved significantly during the game, and that they learned a lot about the life and work of these writers who marked the Croatian literature of the 20th century. This leads to conclusion that pervasive LARP, as a transmedia form, is an amazing, efficient and fun tool for promoting literature and educating people about it.

Astra was nominated for the ESFS Award in 2015 and lost to Ireland. But I believe this is only the beginning.




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