It's Sunday night and I'm wielding an array of strobe lights in a disused metalworks in north London as though they were a crowd-control device. A man who I met a few minutes before has learned the complex sequence of button pushes required to power, arm and fire the lights and is following me around with the control box, lighting up the room at my command. Every now and again we scare away vampires with the strobes, but more frequently we only meet "thralls" – people who've been killed and resurrected by the undead. Both lots scatter at the sight of light.
I'm at Hunting Club Live, an event put on by 20th Century Fox home entertainment, in association with Serious Business, to promote the DVD release of the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Out now! Although, were it not for the posters and books dotted around the place, you wouldn't know it – the organisers were given remarkable freedom to pursue their own idea of fun). An hour before, 60 or so people had been gathered in a room and given all too brief instructions. They included the rules of the game ("Enemies attack you by tagging you – touching you on the arm, shoulder or back with an open palm. If you are tagged, you go down") as well as more pragmatic instructions ("Do not grab, strike or interfere with other players, no matter how well you know them or how much fun it sounds"), both of which were welcome.
Once the rules were dispensed, we were told to have a wander. A few of us decided to take a look at the adjoining room in the "safe zone", where a series of letters and maps were laid out, some handwritten and some in a strange cipher, which explained the back story of why we were here and what the vampires wanted to do to us. The more daring players, however, decided to leave the room and explore the wider building. A few minutes later, we heard their screams and the doors burst open as they returned, pursued by vampires.
I've always been a bit of a nerd but reluctant to throw myself wholeheartedly into some of the possibilities that come with that. Comics are my poison and to a lesser extent video games and arcane computer lore (Ask Me How to Get Your Mac to Greet You With the Voice of HAL 9000), all of which are basically solitary pursuits. You can talk about the experience with friends afterwards but the initial reading will always be solitary. The idea of role-playing games, from the archetypal Dungeons and Dragons to more avant-garde ones like My Life With Master always appealed to me – I even bought the latter – but I could never get a big enough group together.
Thankfully, the crew behind Hunting Club Live takes charge of the logistics and moves the action from a table in my mum's house to the real world. Clearly this limits what can be done somewhat. Mary Hamilton, one of the game's designers, says: "The biggest challenge live games face is getting people – by which I mean adults – to suspend their disbelief, stop being cynical and lose themselves, either in a simple but often very silly activity, or in pretending to be something they're not." The other players I was with did take their time to get involved, but the slow build of the night worked to their favour. Once the big guns were brought out (literally) in the second hour, everyone was raring to go.
The other challenge facing the game's designers is their own success. Live games can get expensive to run and finding a suitable location is often tricky. It's one thing to play a game with a dozen friends in a park, but when you need to move indoors and find a place that holds over 60 people, the number of suitable locales shrinks markedly. Many of the people behind Hunting Club Live had previously run a game called Zombie LARP, which is now on indefinite hiatus with nowhere to live.
The differences between live games and those played in the comfort of one's own home are more than just spatial, though. Mary writes:
It also means no flying, no teleportation, no disobeying the laws of physics, and no magical effects unless you can physically represent (phys-rep) them in some way.
For my night in the metalworks, this meant that the fighting was – if not realistic – unfussy. Half the hunters had NERF guns and the other half were equipped with foam axes, daggers and coshes. If you hit someone with those weapons, they were hit. If you didn't, you didn't. Meanwhile, if one of the vampires – actually members of the game team in make-up – touched you, you were down. And if someone didn't help you back to the safe zone, you became in thrall to the undead, and switched sides.
Of course, it wouldn't be a game if there weren't objectives. While "stay alive" was an ever present aim, the letters that we found in the library guided us to stashes (always guarded by a few extra vampires) which contained further clues and, as the game continued, better weapons, and some things that could even turn the tide in our favour. That's where the strobe lights come in.
While I'm waving the lights around, the vampires and thralls are working out the weakness of the system. (Since nobody had expected us to be mad enough to try to use the lights as a portable weapon, even the players who had a hand in developing the game took a moment to get their heads around what we were doing. The lead designer, Grant Howitt, blogs here about how no plan survives contact with the players.) While they can't come at us when the lamps are flashing, there's a lengthy recharge period between each use. Eventually, the vampires work out that if they rush us at that point, and take out the operators of the lights, they can turn the tables.
Which they do. I get attacked, and drop – but am rescued by a friend, who drags me back to the safe zone. I live to fight to the end, but with our key weapon gone, the battle just got a lot harder.