The six-foot-five figure pauses as it surveys the room, its wraps hanging loosely from its form. Grunts and guttural growls escape from its muffled mouth. Its victims huddle against the far wall, away from the gaping hole the hulking creature just punched through the pyramid’s thick, stone walls. A blonde, teen adventurer faints away at the sight.
The mummy lunges forward, scooping up the fallen woman. A shriek echoes in the space as the creature lurches back into the ancient ruin.
That’s how it all started.
Gail “Vortex” and “Dig” Doug Freedman were not newcomers to interactive fiction. Along with writing partner Doug Peterson, Gail had written two “How to Host a Murder Mystery” games for Decipher, INC. back in the early 90’s. Amazon still sells Roman Ruins, with an average rating of four stars. The Champaign County Historical Museum hired the two of them to pen the stories behind three of their annual murder mystery party fundraisers. The Museum paid the pair with a free rental. Gail had arranged to run a Live Action Role Play written by a friend from the East Coast with her free night, and was looking for players for the last couple slots. Overhearing the conversation, Doug Freedman raised his hand and suggested, “Choose me.”
Gail and Dig later collaborated on “Christmas with the Soddentarrys,” an interactive murder mystery served with a full period dinner, set against a December backdrop of pine boughs, garlands, and fairy lights of Champaign’s Wilber Mansion.
It took little time for the two to establish a reputation in the larger LARP community. They broke through the Appalachian Wall, proving to East Coasters people LARPed west of that mountain range by running games at the then Baltimore-based Intercon. Players got to know them for their intricate murder mysteries and sometimes quirky games. (Their Infobahn 2000 used croquet to resolve combat, for example.)
Looking to bring LARP back to Chicagoland, Doug and Gail started Fete Fatale Productions in 1996. Originally conceived as a LARP writing group, the organization transitioned to a production company, facilitating games of high quality in the area. The group brings LARP authors from as far away as the UK to run games, organizes the annual Tapas de Larpas festival over Memorial Day weekend, and hosts an annual LARP writing workshop, Peaky Midwest.
Doug and Gail strive to craft authentic, well researched stories. They want to convey the wonder of looking through someone else’s eyes, someone from a different time, someone from a different place.
The two married in 1999, moving into a 3,400 ft2 home in Inverness, Illinois. To celebrate, Gail and Doug decided to run a love letter to Hammer Horror films, a LARP entitled The Curse of Whately Manor, written by Frank Branham. After two successful runs, Doug looked over to his wife and asked, “You know, for my birthday next year, how about we write a LARP haunted house.”
In a gesture that would become emblematic of their marriage, Gail answered. “Sure, honey. That’s a great idea. How about we….”
With the blessing of Frank Branham, the two embarked on crafting The Curse of Whately’s Mummy. Roping in their two then teenaged children and a handful of friends, they took a week off before the first run to finish up the story and set aside a $500 budget to transform their home into an Egyptian labyrinth. Fifteen and seventeen at the time, Maggie and Rob remember having to take down foam core walls to make their way into their bedrooms at night. The game ran for four Saturdays (the story needed the very tall Rob to play the mummy, and his Friday evenings were taken up by high school football) and the four runs combined drew in 39 players.
Concerned they hadn’t written enough plot, or given the players enough to go on (the character sheets for Mummy ran six pages long), Doug and Gail worried the group would burn through their adventure in less than 20 minutes. As they watched, their costumed son broke through a Styrofoam wall to “kidnap” their daughter, and the first round of players completely lost their shit.
Dig describes it…
The excavators had found the tomb earlier, and then the archaeologists and sponsors gathered for the ceremonial breaking of the seal. The ceremony went like this: Whately made a tiny little hole to break the seal, and his daughter (an NPC played by Maggie) immediately collapsed. He said the only thing that could save her would be found in the tomb and quickly made his toast so they could go in, but as soon as he took a sip from his glass he fell over dead – poisoned! Then the mummy burst through the wall (and everyone screamed), picked up the daughter, and disappeared with her into the tomb. The players sat in stunned silence for a long moment before creeping fearfully through the ruined wall.
Contrary to Doug and Gail’s fearful expectations, the players spent four excited hours plumbing the depths of the milieu they had created. The couple realized they had hit on something and would have to do it again. The two reckoned they had crafted a niche.
Their efforts have continued over the next fifteen years and involve nine other adventures, each paying tribute to a different sub-genre of horror or adventure:
2000 – The Curse of Whately’s Mummy
2001 – The Curse of Whately’s Mythos (Cthulhu)
2002 – The Curse of Whately’s Mausoleum (Dracula)
2003 – The Curse of Whately’s Mesa (Haunted Mine)
2004 – The Curse of Whately’s Monster (Frankenstein)
2005 – The Curse of Whately’s Meddling Kids (Scooby Doo)
2007 – The Curse of Whately’s Mission (James Bond)
2010 – The Curse of Whately’s Moonbase (Alien/2001)
2012 – The Curse of Whately’s Mayans (Indiana Jones, treasure hunts)
2015 – The Curse of Whately’s Mysterious Island (Jules Verne)
Looking back at their work, the success they’ve enjoyed, and the high quality of games they’ve produced, they realized they set the bar higher with each iteration. After moving into a 5,000 ft2 house in North Barrington last year a “What the fuck have we gotten in to?” moment struck them.
Planning for The Curse of Whately’s Mysterious Island started twelve months before the planned runs. Construction was scheduled to last for 10 weeks with a proposed budget of $6,000. Doug and Gail do virtually all of the writing themselves, while a crew of around 50 people–carpenters, computer programmers, sound engineers, network specialists, electrical engineers, plumbers, prop makers, set design and decoration, chemists, costume designers and creators, puppeteers, chefs, NPC’s, and an actual stage manager–will completely transform their home into an enigmatic jungle island, complete with a full size temple.
As fans of the series grew, so did the people willing to volunteer time in constructing the next adventure. A larger pool of talent allows Doug and Gail to explore new technologies to strengthen the emergent experience. “Designing for a LARP like this,” Gail explains, “is very different than designing for the stage or film. Everything here is three dimensional. People walk around props, interact with them. If we make something, it has to survive over 100 people touching it. Items need to work when they’re supposed to work, on the players’ timing. On the set of Star Trek they had two stage hands operating the doors to the bridge of the Enterprise, and they added the sound in post-production. For Moonbase, the doors opened automatically when the players activated them, complete with whooshing sound. And everything needs a backup plan in case of failure.”
Use of technology paid off. A film student working on The Curse of Whately’s Moonbase received college credit for their constructions. That particular adventure also included a custom designed and programmed moon landing simulator, and used RFID tags to automate a sick-bay biobed emulation.
Not to say the elaborate sets and props don’t take some getting used to by the participants. In The Curse of Whately’s Mummy a hopeful player declared, “I pick up the pot where I’ve painted the mummy’s name and shatter it on the floor to break the curse!”
“Right. Go ahead and do it,” a GM replied.
“What? Really? You want me to break this clearly homemade pot?”
“Yes. We have a source.”
With a squee of delight, the player dashed the pot on flagstone. Doug and Gail expected it. They had procured one pot for every run.
In addition to expanding into new technologies, this fall’s The Curse of Whately’s Mysterious Island hopes to foster more role-playing and character connections than previous stories. Character sheets will weigh in at about five pages. Players will have an opportunity to work through important scenes in their characters’ past as pairs or trios before the main game begins. The authors hope this will let the characters establish stronger emotional ties to each other that will provide a richer experience during the game.
The Curse of Whately’s Mysterious Island also introduces a five year chronicle LARP set in the world of Space:1889, Frank Chadwick’s tabletop RPG of Victorian science fiction. Ever since running into copies of the rules and source material at a used bookstore in Champaign, Gail has wanted to tell a story set in this fantastic world of Victorian-era powers in space. Planning that game started in January of 2015 and it’s set to debut in the spring of 2016.
This year’s run The Curse of Whately’s Mysterious Island has completely filled. For news on some of the best LARP’s in Chicago, the new Space:1889 LARP, or the next visit to Whately’s something, visit http://fetefatale.com.