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Astra larp review

Croatian pervasive larp. That's becoming a category now. I ran Izgon and Izgon 2 last year (read more about them here), and they ended up being rather influential on our larp scene. Organized almost a year after Izgon 2 (and influenced by Izgon), Astra is basically a big Croatian pervasive larp of 2014. The two GMs running it - Ivana and Vesna - played some of the central and most active roles in Izgon, but they were also some of the most vocal critics of Izgon & Izgon 2 design choices.

The design of Astra reflects that. Unlike Izgon's approach - which fused characters to the player's real personality to justify their experiences and blur the distinction between in-character and out-of-character on purpose - Astra took a more classic larp approach of distinct characters. Put an in-game badge, and you're in-game (but only towards the people who are also playing). Take it off, you're out-of-character.

Astra also had some urban fantasy elements - a touch of supernatural. The flexible spellcasting system used in Izgon was out, but the most common use of it - to make players say the truth - was brought back in the form of "Mesmerism". The realism rule remained, so latex larp weapons didn't represent real weapons here, but NERF weapons could be used to represent a stun gun that would paralyze someone for 3 minutes (bright colors encouraged). The only actual way to kill someone would be to poison him (represented by vitamin C).

However, mesmerism, weapon licence and poison were not available to all players. Weapon licence required submitting an essay of why should you be granted one before the larp started. Writing it was a bit of a time crunch, because of the short time period between receiving characters and the deadline. Sign-up was done before, and the process included a lot of puzzles, de-crypting and finding stuff in books (if you had the right edition) which needed to be solved. Astra was all about spying, supernatural, and a bit about puzzles and literature, and from the start I got the feeling it was strongly goal-solution oriented.

The waiting period also included GMs hyping the larp, and sharing cutesy Facebook statuses to each other, and comments such as "This is gonna be awesome. Just wait and see what we have prepared for you! We're so excited!". Umm yeah. What are we supposed to do with these statuses? High secrecy was paramount for this larp, and if anyone liked, commented or shared everyone else would go: "OMG, they did that, they must be playing! Oh wait... perhaps because they did that they are not actually playing because they wouldn't dare to like it?" Aaaaargh. Too meta for me.

Right, back on topic. I got my character a few days before the larp started, and the character was very similar to myself - which was my preference for a larp of this type. I sent my weapon licence essay (which eventually got accepted) and the game started on October 15th. Since the larp is 12-day, I decided to review it in a diary format. That's why this post is so long, I've been writing it for a long time. One disclaimer before I start - I will change my opinions from a day to day, and if you don't feel like reading all the details feel free to skip to the end of this article when I'll write my conclusions. Anyways, here we go.

Day 1 (Oct 15th)

So, the first morning of the game I receive an e-mail that I should pick up my "starting packet". A live drop to start the mission. OK. The riddle to the location is too easy, and even if it weren't the second part contained the address. However, time... between 11 and 17. What? FFS, I have the 9 to 5 job. I can't go gallivanting around the city when I should be working. I arrange a later pickup at an alternate location, described by a puzzle of similar difficulty as the one above.

But then something hits me during my lunch break, and with the combination of some running and tram-hopping, I got to the location, picked up my packet and almost made it back in time to work. Afterward, it struck me that I made a meta error. The instruction said to pick up the package at that location. I immediately approached one of the GMs who was there, only to be told to pick it up at a bar, which is probably what I should have done first.

I promptly ignore the second part of the instruction, requiring us to sync our clocks to the one on the Central Square. Not seeing the reason for this, I decide not to do it... After work, I got better chance to see what's really in the starting pack.

The package impressed me with all the stuff that was inside. The first thought that came to my mind is how much all of that cost? Why is this larp free? I'm not complaining for receiving stuff I didn't pay for, but it makes me feel guilty and responsible for being ok with that. I believe we should pay our share. GMs can't be expected to spend their own money for their players' props.

The folder with my character's name on it contained an intro letter with instructions, a communication standard, weapon permit (which means my essay worked), two OOC notes explaining some stuff on meta level, two laminated business cards, a stack of empty papers, a pencil, my in-character e-mail and facebook details, two foam stars I can stick on stuff (?), a bag of herbal tea of some sort (???), two empty papers with agency symbols, random drawings (???), a story of a woman burying her mother, a photocopy of some pseudoscience paper, literary analises of the book Grička vještica (A Croatian book dealing dealing with witch accusations and burnings) including their historical origin.

I start my IC Facebook account and... nothing much happens, the account exists but it's entirely not activated. Because of course Facebook has spam protection and you can't open tons of fake accounts. Good for spammers. Bad for larpers. There's a reason why I never used IC Facebook profiles for Izgon (besides the fact they're against TOS) and why I told people to make their own profiles on Izgon 2.

Anyway, I edit my profile and get some friend requests who also friended Astra IC profile. Got invited into the IC group, and the movie with the human resources manager was soon linked to us (obviously filmed previous weekend at Rikon, but maybe I'm looking too much into it although I nearly made an IC comment).

The movie was odd, mentioning something about a blow being dealt to Astra etc. but offering zero explanations. At this point, all of this started to seem quite dodgy - and it was the first day! The hook was there, but the bait was nowhere to be seen...

Day 2 (Oct 16th)

Second task came in. Bring an umbrella and take a photo of yourself with a statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, the location once again obscured with an easy riddle (seriously, what is the point of them riddles?). Hint was easy, as was the connection - she was the author of Grička vještica, which was referenced in my starting pack. It's a quite well known statue in Zagreb. Photographing statues, this reminded me of Izgon. But with the catch. The umbrella we bring needs to be on the photo too.

This was a problem for me. I didn't bring an umbrella to work. I have a rain poncho, which protects my backpack with laptop better anyway (besides, all my years of fantasy larping made me much more comfortable with cloakish things as rain protection than umbrellas, really). And I live far away from work, so if I went back home after work and then back to the city this could prove quite costly and I'd lose the evening, something I can't afford.

And so I try being reasonable. My character is like myself, practical and sceptic. I'd personally see such request as weird. So I found some excellent photos online (Creative Commons and mass media), filmed with pro equipment and sent it in instead - with full explanations, of course.

Yeah well... that didn't work. "Do according to instructions", I'm told. "Find a way". At this point, I'm a bit angry TBH. I could spend some money to buy the new umbrella - but how many things will I be expected to buy? Or I could beg random people. Or I could beg some of the other characters whom I friended on Facebook to do that with me. All of that in a very narrow timeframe that I got, once again, during my lunch break.

So I decided it's not really worth it and it's not something I really want to do - maybe I would if I got more involved, but not as the first task and with zero explanations except "you want the job, we'll need you to do odd things - do as you're told" which didn't really serve to motivate me at all, so I decided to skip the task. There was no rational explanation for this (except maybe demonstrating the ability to follow orders without questioning them).

At this point, I'm having some trouble with playing out my character. He was written as a sceptic, but also as really really enthusiastic and determined to join Astra. Last night's video was quite disturbing, as if a war was going on currently, and I got the info that we're all in a very risky position. Why would they want me there taking photos in person of a well known public statue and it must be with an umbrella? No explanations, do as you're told. The communication protocol requiring all potential employees to put in more trust in the Agency than your average suicide cult requires... If there was a red flag checklist, the fictional Astra Agency would probably check all the marks. Seriously, this is the point where I would have bailed IRL.

But to reconcile my character's enthusiasm, I'm not doing that just yet - even though I'm skipping the daily task.

Facebook issues start. I keep getting logged off randomly and having to fill in security checks. It seems Facebook flagged our accounts as suspicious, and my friend list shrinks as people randomly disappear and go under (a group of new accounts that suddenly came into existance and who are ONLY friends one with another? Yeah, I'd be suspicious too). I call GMs to tell them about this problem, and do some investigative work myself to see who's affected. I get told we might need to switch to e-mail communication if this ends up too crippling.

I inform the GMs that I won't be doing the daily task, and then I get told I can do it tomorrow too. Alright, that might be doable - I have some time for a light jog there before my work starts and I can bring an umbrella with me... At least some good news.

The rest of the day appears quite confusing. Agency profile announced that it got compromised (seriously, if you manage to compromise a system you don't announce it ever), posted "Afraid yet? Better be." on Facebook, and e-mailed me a photo of a lily blossom which it also posted on facebook... yeah, so much about making sense.

Since they switched to English, I messaged them in English to elaborate their status. Got a garbled response. My first guess was that it's encrypted, and that lily or lily blossom are keywords, but it didn't work with any algorithm I tried. I receive e-mails that the Facebook account is compromised and we should switch to e-mail which is "now secure".

Anyways, I went home but I was called to Elysium 34 as several other GMs couldn't make it. My sister-in-law was at my place, keeping my wife and children company so I managed to go sort out stuff for the Vampire larp. This would give me the perfect opportunity to do the daily task as well.

I already had some suspicions about who some of the players were, due to their characters way of writing, and these suspicions grew only stronger when a certain character called for a meeting (just after the suspect player left the Vampire larp), and noted he will be unavailable the next day (due to the surprize birthday party that was being planned). But I didn't really act on these suspicions.

After the Vampire larp I went to the location, snapped a photo and sent it in just a few minutes after midnight.

Day 3 (Oct 17th)

I got some ideas about the lily photo, and so I tried some steganography cracking on it, on well-known Mosaiq's service. I tried about 50 likely combinations, including filenames, descriptions, certain words and phrases used either by the "regular" or "compromised" account etc. but without success.

Then it struck me that it would be a cool method to use to encrypt player communication. So I start working on the encryption method to distribute to players - which included using codewords (intentionally sounding like they came from cheesy spy movies), encryption and steganography.

Several players online became more chatty, and I got to talk to them a bit. My suspicions about who was what rose. The daily task came in - research about labyrinths. I was otherwise preoccupied - due to work and the fact that this evening I was getting ready for a friend's birthday - but I had time until tomorrow morning - when I also arranged a meeting with one of the players.

The birthday was... interesting. Astra GMs were there, and it was quite obvious when certain players pulled them to side for chat. It could not be unseen. Several players went IC upstairs - but I didn't, as it made no sense to me why my character would be there at that time.

Tomorrow was the big day anyway.

Day 4 (Oct 18th)

Saturday. The weekend was here and I played for a large part of this day. In the morning, it was the first time when I met other characters IC. It was supposed to be an information exchange meeting, but they used the mesmerism ability to draw the truth from me. Nothing bad, really - they confirmed my character had nothing to do with a hacking attack. But it was still an ambush of sorts. I responded by being a corporate prick - we exchanged the player group lists (mine was VST, theirs IKV) and as soon as I got them I reported to Astra that I managed to get the names of other group. Look how good a spy I am.

After that, I had some family matters to attend to, but I managed to finish and send in my report on labyrinths. In the evening, I'd go fully back IC when I finally met other players from my group. We were doing a ritual in the Maksimir park, by making a labyrinth on the floor, walking it with a lantern on and reciting a poem from a Croatian poet Antun Branko Šimić.

Since my character was a sceptic (just like I am IRL), this was just as weird IC as doing it IRL would be, and we made several comments about this. My character's theory was that the Agency is going to post this video on Youtube, and earn some money on advertising.

Oh yeah. Day after, the GMs announced a ban on publishing any photo and video materials from this larp which could be used to identify players. This policy means that before publishing anything of such sort should first get permission from everyone on any specific photo. I took a lot of photos and videos - and since I don't really have the time to ask every single person I photographed or filmed about every single photo or video where they are identifiable, because that would mean having to get several dozens of permissions which I cannot be bothered with - plus, they would significantly delay this article. Instead, I just chose to not post them at all (or to mask their faces so they're no longer identifiable, such as the above used black-rectangle-on-face method).

Unknown agent photographed, talking to the
supervisors (in the back)

Anyways, back to the Saturday's events. Since our instructions were to "dress inconspicuously", I put on my running tights and shirt. Maksimir park is full of runners, and people wearing dark clothes and brooding look much more out of place. But after the ritual, we got the order to report to a place in busiest street you could go out to in Zagreb. Oops. Well, that was memorable.

After the IC debrief, we spied outside for a bit, hiding in the bushes and photographing everyone who would visit. We remained like that for a while, and then we split. Until that time we were fully in-character.

On our way back, we passed another group. After I left some sensitive documents in my car, I returned - hoping to meet some other characters I was talking to to arrange some stuff. Meeting other groups (yes, there was a third one) was quite interesting. After a bit, everyone went out of character and we continued hanging out for a while before we went home. It was a fun day.

Day 5 (Oct 19th)

Other players accepted my coding scheme, so I started exchanging coded messages. Yay! Did very little else on that day. My task was to research Vigenère and his work, but I postponed it to Monday morning. We also got a "leaked video" from "when the hackers attacked".

Day 6 (Oct 20th)

Came to work early to finish the Vigenère research. I wrote an 8-page paper - most of the information was pasted from Wikipedia - and got praise due to my research work.

One of the messages. Save the full photo,
upload here and enter password: zeta galeb

I'm not sure whether that was ironic, or true (in a sense that IC information was harder to come by than IRL), or true but very wrong (is Astra actually a malevolent alien entity who's never heard of Wikipedia)?

I keep exchanging secret messages with other players, encoded in seemingly innocent photos.

My task arrived: to do the evaluation of other players from the group. As we were arranging a meeting this afternoon, I put it on hold to get a better chance to know them - and a chance to get to know a few players who haven't been in Zagreb during a weekend.

Before that happened though, we got info that a character was killed, and got a few photos of the act. On the photos he had his folder with documents

Seven of us gathered near the main railway station - we were only missing two guys, one who didn't really make any contact besides answering the call, and another whom we knew was an agent of Astra. We got ourselves situated in a bar, and gathered all our documents.

We noticed that a lot of those "random" pictures we got were actually a part of a puzzle - which connected together gave us our group name - vještice (witches). One of our tasks was to find out our group name, which was hinted by the short group name VST. It struck me as a weird thing for a spy prep group...

We figured other two groups were knights and inquisitors, thematically connected to the novelist and journalist Marija Jurić Zagorka. Everything, every single clue we had seemed to be connected either to her, or to the Antun Branko Šimić or Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. All Croatian authors, with three names (which is rare), born in late 19th century outside of Zagreb, active in early 20th century, and died in Zagreb - buried not far from each other. Very strange.

We tried to decrypt a few other things, but by then I had to leave. I was running another larp - Camarilla Agram Elysium 35.

After it was done, I've had another meeting, with two players (one of them was on Vampire as well) - we gathered our files together, snapped some photos and went home. It was rather quick, as it was already late. Another fun day.

Day 7 (Oct 21st)

Research day. After posting all info I had to the group address, I wrote my evaluation task - and afterwards, the new task regarding the locations in Zagreb connected to life and work of Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. One of the three, of course.

Afterwards, I played a bit with the "murder scene" photos, when I noticed something funny. In EXIF properties, the date and time of the murder were all wrong, more than 2 days older than when we had it reported.

Scrolling down a bit, I discover the camera owner's name - one of the organizers, playing a supervisor. Her IC surname - Lijan - is very similar to the Croatian word for lilly (ljiljan), which was the imagery used by the attacker.

It made perfect sense. Internal control, trying to figure out who would betray the Agency by giving candidates that exact same opportunity? Killing off traitors and showing them - at an opportune time - as an example to other candidates to warn them off from treason? Sounds perfectly logical.

So I wrote an encrypted warning to other players. Soon afterwards, I thought "hey, this could prove them my super spy capabilities since I figured out what was going on, make certain they know I'm the right candidate for the job" and called them.

Nope. Wasn't that. They never did that IC. Funny, I actually figured out who did it IRL and when, but still no IC info. Damn. Oh, it gers better. Now one of the organizers called me paranoid and a metagamer for making these conclusions. Wow. I'm speechless.

I spent the rest of the day wondering with my spirits down, considering to quit, as it became apparent to me that this larp not only had the solution, but it had the solution which had to be reached via the one single and specific way of thinking and solving the presented puzzles. I found this confusing, since both the evaluation task and other communications with GMs seemed to indicate they want an innovative approach? Anyways, I just took some time off to calm down.

Day 8 (Oct 22nd)

I had a busy day otherwise, so I couldn't commit any time to the larp which was fine as I was still in my cooldown phase. Received a research task, which was concerning pseudonyms, but didn't manage to complete it.

A call for volunteers for a special task tomorrow was posted. It's during the regular working hours, so I guess I can't do it anyway. Grand testing announced for Saturday 25th.

Day 9 (Oct 23rd)

Finished the pseudonym research and sent it in. The two groups out of three merged (we were left as is, other two groups merged into one). Timeframe for grand testing announced, and I make sure I'll be available at certain times in two days. Mailing list is dead, nobody posting.

At this point I'm getting a bit frustrated. I have no idea about all these poet quotes and what to do with them. Nobody who posted on the group seems to do so as well, or at least they're not sharing... I'm not really sure what I need to do at this moment, can't seem to see direction (and the grand finale is coming) or where the story is going and I don't feel very motivated. Perhaps it changes in the upcoming weekend, we'll see.

Day 10 (Oct 24th)

Surprize group daily task! Erm. After I just made some time for the Saturday and Sunday. Damn, guess I'm skipping that one as well. It's another ritual just like one past Saturday, but done in a more public place. Oh well.

No posts yet, apart from the arrangements regarding the group task. No other tasks.

Day 11 (Oct 25th)

Pre-treasure hunt coffee time

Saturday. The big day.

I arrived to our meeting place late (damn that city center and parking), but I was not the last one. We had an out of character coffee, and we got some meta explanations and extra rules regarding what was expecting us. A treasure hunt. Our teams - two by now - would follow the clues, and each one would lead to the next location. The storyline was about the hacker (the one who hacked Astra on day 2) stealing a crown. So "we got a different mission than what was originally planned", but every clue had something to do with the tasks we did so far. What a weird coincidence.

It was brilliant and hectic. We were literally running throughout the center of the city, from one location to another. We made mistakes, twice, and ended up going the wrong way. It was really exciting and our spirits were high.

Sometimes it was a bit embarrasing, as the city was crowded and there were still plenty of tourists around, so getting the secret messages felt a bit... exposed. And we were all almost deafened by the cannon fire from Lotrščak tower - which traditionally fires at noon, but the fact somehow slipped from our minds as we were decoding a Vigenère coded text just beneath it...

We grant ourselves a permission
to display our likeness in public

We outran our GM, who had trouble keeping with us. We were in a hurry, as we tried to get it done ASAP so we were decoding other clues along the way, on the tram etc. Some were coded, others were in a form of poem, others just descriptions, and there were a few drawings.

Last clue was a bit imprecise, so we had difficulties finding it. It contained a locker key from the nearby main railroad station. The locker contained a crown. Nicely done, handwork. It really looked impressive.

We sat in the cafe bar for our debriefing for the day, which was done semi-IC, semi-OOC. The other team arrived later, sharing some of the files they got (faster team got the crown, slower team got the documents).

This was, of course, the magical crown of immortality Crown of the Croatian kings. A very important historical artifact (IC, since it doesn't exist or has been lost for a long long time IRL).

Saturday was awesome (plus, I also sorted out the issues from day 7 with the GM) - it was a very well organized and fun treasure hunt. We went over 10 km on foot (and a bit more on tram) and would do it again.

Day 12 (Oct 26th)

Our supervisors (GMs) during debriefing

We gather IC one last time - again near Zagorka's statue and we're led to the secret location - Marija Jurić Zagorka's memorial apartment on Dolac marketplace (yes, an actual memorial apartment). Also, Astra's IC headquarters.

We are debriefed IC, and then we meet the director herself - of course, Marija Jurić Zagorka herself. She used the magical crown of immortality Crown of the Croatian kings and faked her own death in 1957.

Interestingly and awesomely, she was played by a current well-known writer, Milena Benini, who also resembles Zagorka a bit.

She informs us that pretty much everyone (except for a few people who couldn't manage to play a lot) passed the selection procedure and got a job in Astra. 17 out of 23 candidates.

Something like this

I was a bit disappointed, to be honest. To me, the "victory" felt a bit empty and hollow - since, apparently, you got a better chance of employment here, in a virtual super-secret spy agency, than in your local real life supermarket, fast food restaurant, bakery or a car wash. Didn't really feel like an achievement. Competitiveness and efficiency were in the end not really important, although the larp gave out every possible message and vibe that they were (at least IC).

The larp was over. We talked a bit over there, and then went to find a place to have a few drinks. Nothing was arranged regarding that, but we found enough room in a nearby bar and had a few drinks while debriefing and chatting before we went home...

Final thoughts

TL;DR version: Days 4, 6, 11 and 12 were fun for me - day 11 featured probably the best treasure hunt I've ever been a part of. On other days, I didn't really feel myself overly involved or motivated or able to contribute to play in any way apart from my daily task.

I was playing a sceptic, so I didn't really poke around where it didn't seem IC appropriate to do so, which was maybe a part of the problem. Also, I did expect some plot twist where there was none, and the end reveal was one we all really suspected. Good and bad were known and absolute from the beginning to the end.

Being a researcher on top of that was probably one of the less interesting combinations, as I had very few plot hooks. Some people had more outdoors missions, or creative work such as this animation (audio in Croatian):

I did, however, learn a lot about the trio of authors around which the plot had revolved - Marija Jurić Zagorka, Ivana Brlić Mažuranić and Antun Branko Šimić. Probably more than I have back in the school days. Which was also one of the points of this larp, I guess :)

A few things that annoyed me to no end were:

  • Most of the stuff happened near the city center, which is very unfriendly to those of us who live far from the center - it's very car unfriendly, parking is scarce, expensive, and you don't usually find it anywhere near where you want to go - and our most common meeting point was in the dead center of the "hard to reach" places.
  • A lot of stuff during the week happened during working hours, which made it less accessible to those of us who work.
  • A lot of my skills were useless due to the different ways of thinking...

Writing and organizing this larp seemed to require a lot of time, pulling strings, time, money and time. Despite my negative tone about certain parts of this larp, I still feel it should have cost something. At least 50 kn per person would be perfectly reasonable to cover the costs of a larp like this one.

But when all is put together... I will always remember that Saturday's treasure hunt. That was epic.

Edit: there seems to be some confusion about how I generally feel about this larp. The answer is positive. That's mostly due to the treasure hunt. I did write different sections on different days, so my tone changed. If it's not clear (and it seems it isn't), despite some down moments and quirks, overall I enjoyed this larp.


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