Crew of the Monitor Celestra during a March 2013 Swedish larp. Image credit: John-Paul Bichard
For three weekends in Sweden, Battlestar Galactica was real.
With dozens of staff, over a million Swedish kronor ($160,000), and a retired naval destroyer, a team of designers hosted a live action role-playing game — commonly known as a larp — that would put many historical reenactments to shame. The Monitor Celestra took the setting of Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, but writers came up with 140 fresh characters and moved the action to the Celestra, a ship that was referenced but virtually never seen in the show itself. Over three-day periods in March, larpers played out a tense and sometimes deadly conflict between the Celestra’s civilian crew and a military boarding party, all while trying to unmask the Cylons in their midst. One of the game’s three weekend-long runs ended in a surrender to Cylon agents, another became mired in a bitter ethnic cleansing, and a third — while it had the lowest death count of any run — resulted in the fictional ship itself exploding.
But if the creators have their way, these won’t be the only fates of the Celestra and its crew. At the NYU Game Center in Manhattan, gamemaster Martin Ericsson and producer Cecilia Dolk laid out their plans for a new ship, this time on the show’s home turf: America. Years after airing, Battlestar Galactica still enjoys a wide fan base. The original cast has praised their adaptation — Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh) has even expressed tentative interest in participating. So what’s standing in the way? Well, among other things, the fact that it’s a larp.
"Saying the ‘larp’ word is a great way to lose somebody's attention in 30 seconds."
"One of the things we got in approaching fandom rather than larpdom is that saying the ‘larp’ word is a great way to lose somebody's attention in 30 seconds," says Ericsson. In Sweden and other Nordic countries, live action role-playing is relatively accepted as a form of gaming or improvisational art — some larps are actually funded by government grants. But in the US, it’s still a joke. Ericsson laments the YouTube videos and image macros showing poorly costumed larpers shouting spells: "That lightning bolt clip has created more problems for the US larp community than any video ever."
Ericsson, Dolk, and a group of American enthusiasts are trying to change that. Sometimes, that means simply raising the visibility of art-house Nordic larp: last year, a group ran Mad About the Boy, possibly the first extended Nordic larp on American soil. Sometimes, it means being willing to reframe the debate. "It's just a different way of expression," says Dolk at one point, comparing The Monitor Celestra to other games. "It's still a larp. it's still a game." Ericsson breaks in: "Or we can say it's not a larp! It's interactive theater!" If changing the name will make Celestra 2.0 happen, he’s all for it.
The HMS Småland, a retired destroyer and set of The Monitor Celestra. Image credit: Marcusroos (Wikimedia)
Currently, there’s no set date for an American run. The project will tentatively "launch" in some form in 2014, but the team still hasn’t decided where to hold the game or how to fund it. Besides a small grant-funded stipend for Dolk, the original Monitor Celestra was paid for by participants; this time, the team has also considered attempting to get help from the show’s owners themselves. The game hasn’t been officially licensed, but Ericsson doesn’t think this will be a problem — especially because Moore and others are clearly already aware of it. "Anyone can cosplay as Starbuck, there's no copyright issue there," he says. "We're really doing the same thing on a large scale."
If The Monitor Celestra runs again, it will expose American audiences to a new facet of Battlestar Galactica’s world, informed by Sweden’s own debates over racism and nationalism. "If BSG's main allegory is post-9/11 America, say freedom and security and the trauma that 9/11 brought with it," says Ericsson, explaining his game design, "then our main allegory would have to be something that's relevant today in Europe." The team chose to focus on cultural conflict between two ethnic groups within the world: the urbane, individualistic Capricans and the hard-bitten, family-oriented Taurons.
"If BSG's main allegory is post-9/11 America ... our main allegory would have to be something that's relevant today in Europe."
Ericsson hoped to explore the discomfort that motivated hard-right groups like the Swedish Democrats: in future runs, he plans to coach characters to adopt different body language and personal space expectations depending on who they play. "The rise of superconservative, frankly racist parties is the biggest issue in Europe right now," he says. "We found two cultures we thought would fit the bill for talking about these issues."
The Monitor Celestra is one part improvisation, with mechanics designed to shape the story and a vast array of possible outcomes. Ericsson describes it as a series of sandboxes full of different possible stories, comparing it to a player-created version of the popular interactive theater piece Sleep No More, an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. One person might end up in a fight for labor representation, while another could have an in-game relationship while working in a secret AI lab.
Image credit: John-Paul Bichard
But behind the social interactions lies a strict system for simulating life on a fictional spaceship. In the original run, 10 networked computers and 12 Raspberry Pis were used to control everything from the radarlike DRADIS sensor to which areas of the Celestra got power. In order to keep the action "in people’s heads and bodies rather than on a screen," things like coordinates and targeting had to be conveyed between different departments physically, but players were helped by Arduino-powered consoles and custom-built software based on submarine simulator Silent Hunter.
To Ericsson and Dolk, Battlestar Galactica is the perfect setting for a larp. "It is both about intimate character drama and sociopolitical commentary and awesome space battles," says Ericsson. An American revival would allow him to bring Nordic larp to the US without the pressure of representing an entire genre like steampunk or post-apocalyptic larping and it would give the team a chance to fix problems with the first run — primarily the fact that they felt many of the hundred-plus characters weren’t written well enough. "We're just doing something super-specific: one show in one environment," he says. "And then see if people like it."