Lead a second life with Mount Pleasant By Night

Story and photos by Justin Cooper

Five mages are standing in an underground laboratory where 400 magically-enhanced cybernetic clones are kept in a vegetative state, waiting to be used as an evil army.

The mages debate whether their consciences can abide killing 400 people. One wonders whether killing the clones will only result in an army of vengeful ghosts.

What happens next is for the members of Mount Pleasant By Night to decide— not in an underground laboratory, but in a classroom in Powers hall at Central Michigan University.

This is called live-action role-playing, or LARPing. Everyone in the room has a character in the scene, described to them by a designated storyteller. Together they must speak to each other in character and arrive at a solution the way they believe their characters would.

Many associate the term “LARP” with images of people in fantasy costumes fighting each other with foam swords, but that’s only a specific type of LARP called “boffer.”

Mount Pleasant By Night does what’s called “parlor LARPing,” which focuses less on combat and more on drama, intrigue and plot. Some wear intricate costumes, some wear only a symbolic item and some just wear their normal clothes. If they do need to fight, they do it with a Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop game, with grid paper and dice.

“Improv acting with a character sheet— that’s the easiest way to think of it for me,” Troy Wixson, policy coordinator for Mount Pleasant By Night said. A character sheet is a list of a character’s attributes, abilities and biographical information.

The group meets the second and fourth weekend of every month and plays three games, or venues. Much LARPing lingo stems from theater terminology.

On Saturdays, they play a wizardry-themed venue as a group of mages, followed by a supernatural horror game as werewolves. Sundays are devoted to a game called “Changeling: The Lost,” where each character is an escaped prisoner of godlike beings, whose captivity changed them forever.

“These weekends are intense,” Wixson said. “We pretty much game for fifteen hours, with a little break when we sleep.”

Each session typically lasts about five hours, and a continuous story, called a “chronicle,” can last years.

All three venues inhabit the same fictional universe, so the events of one venue may be noticed or have an impact in another.

For example, Wixson’s werewolf character is running for mayor, and his public prominence has led to characters in another venue launching an investigation into him.

“That’s one of the things that makes the whole thing feel more real,” said Corinne Brandimore, assistant storyteller of the “Changeling: The Lost” venue. “The idea of if you use your supernatural powers, it will be noticed, and one of the consequences could be other supernatural creatures that you didn’t know also existed showing up and going, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”

Most members play roles in two, if not all three of the venues, and with three five-hour sessions twice a month, the time commitment adds up fast.

Corinne Brandimore, center and LeAnne Walker, right, during a “Werewolf” LARP session.

“You get to play different parts of yourself that you don’t usually get an opportunity to,” Sabrina Cunningham, the group’s president and events coordinator said.  “Whether that’s a job you don’t think you’re qualified for but always wanted to have, or you want to be the villain in somebody’s story but you yourself are too nice to do it. It gives you a really good opportunity to explore that. The best part is there are no real life consequences.”

The group is composed about equally of students and others, especially longtime members, who drive in from all over the state.

Students, though, are their “lifeblood.” Without them, they say, they wouldn’t exist. Cunningham earned respect and admiration in the group for making the recruitment process personal in a period where student involvement lulled.

By looking, listening and meeting face-to-face with some who show interest, Cunningham starts conversations and pitches the games in a format more suited to detailed description. It’s hard to explain on a bulletin board flyer what the group is all about.

The focus of Mount Pleasant By Night’s parlor LARPing style is accessibility. It requires little preparation and to participate, all you really need to do is speak. Since the stories sometimes revolve around disturbing or gruesome situations, the group is also sensitive to those who may be triggered by the details.

LeAnne Walker puts on her costume before a LARP session begins.

The conversational, laidback pace of the parlor LARP also fosters a non-threatening space for people to work on themselves, be it overcoming social anxiety, honing your social acumen, learning to think on your feet or seeing how it would feel to act on your craziest ambitions.

Brandimore was challenged in a previous chronicle when their character was crowned queen of a significant power through a series of accidents. At first they were worried about being saddled with such responsibility, but the way they handled it taught them a lot about themselves.

“It was a terrifying and very beneficial experience for me, because I made decisions and nobody got killed, and we actually solved the problem,” Brandimore said. “It has legitimately made me a more confident person in real life; not every decision I make is a terrible one and I have some sort of concrete proof of that.”

For many, LARPing is a way of keeping social anxiety at bay.

“If I can stand in front of 15 people and talk about being a werewolf, I can sure stand in front of 25-30 people and talk about finance,” Wixson said.

Troy Wixson recaps the group’s overall goals on a whiteboard at the beginning of a “Werewolf” session.

The group, whose history stretches back to 1998, is a collection of people who have the humility to acknowledge the absurdity of what, for many of them, is a primary hobby dedicating as much as 30 hours to it every month.

It’s an alternate universe you can slip into as deeply as you want, to become someone else with different problems and different tools to solve them. You’re someone with a different history and the only thing that’s asked of you is that you decide their future.

After a few hours you’re just you again, but with experience that can only come from living multiple lives at once.