Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 18 May 2024

Deadly Dinners

A woman sits at the dining table, the meal ready before her, a housewife and siren awaiting the arrival of her husband home, working late, or is he? Lovers, one poisoning the other to keep them even as they stray. Siblings, monsters all, confined by their father’s love and control until they have had enough and decided to ensure their escape by eating him. A nuclear family of loving cannibals whose predations have become too much and as the police closes in, enjoy one last meal of each other. A New Year’s Eve party at the end of 1999 when the world might end at the stroke of midnight and the ball drops, whilst visions of an alternate present haunt the party-goers. Mealtimes—dinner especially—can be times to celebrate, but sometimes they are performances of tension and despair, each course serving up another dish and another act that ratchets up the tension until it becomes unbearable and someone snaps. Seething. Shouting. Screaming. Raging. Worse. Thankfully, these are not scenes of everyday domestic distress, but of set-ups for—and from—the
Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous.

Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous is an anthology of American freeform live action horror roleplaying games that use the themes of food and consumption to explore horror in suburban environments. Published by Pelgrane Press—better known for Trail of Cthulhu and 13th Age and similar roleplaying games—following a successful Kickstarter campaign,
Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous is written and designed by Banana Chan and Sadia Bies, and contains a total of fourteen ‘Live Action Role Playing’ games or LARPs. These are not the traditional fantasy LARPS with multiple participants wielding foam weapons, but much smaller, more intimate affairs, that emphasise drama and tension. This is done via the set-up and then through character design and prompts. The players are free to interpret these prompts within the play, but these LARPS are designed to tell a particular story even if the outcome will vary from one playthrough to the next. The format and style is influenced by the Nordic style, but the fourteen here are classified as American freeform LARPS. All fourteen though, are reminiscent of murder mystery parties, each twisted into their own American horror story.

Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous opens with a short explanation of what LARPS, before delving into a discussion of calibration tools and setting expectations, essentially safety tools. Some of these are particular to LARPS, like ‘Tap and Scratch’, tap being used to indicate that a player wants to step out of a scene, ‘scratch’ to indicate that a player is enjoying a scene. Others, such as ‘Lines and Veils’ and the ‘X-Card’ will be familiar to standard tabletop roleplaying games. There are notes too on expectations for solo play, since some of the LARPs in the anthology are designed for one, and the experience of play can be made all the more intense because of the solitary situation. There is advice too for how to handle the debriefing following a solo LARP, necessary because being designed for one, there is no scope for post-play discussion with others as there is in a standard LARP with more participants.

The fourteen LARPs in
Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous range widely in terms of length and number of participants. From one to as many as eight players, and from under an hour to no more than three. All follow the same format. This includes, obviously, the playing time and the number of players, but to this are listed content warnings, tone and media touchstones—inspirational reading and watching, calibration tools—safety tools to be observed for the particular LARP, and items needed. The latter typically begin with a dinner meal and a table, and can be as simple as print-outs of the LARP’s prompt cards and a mannequin, or as complex as an unusual ingredient, a washcloth, a bathtub, a cup of water, a coin, and a pair of pyjamas. Others require video recordings, particular room types, and more. Following some background there is always a guide to how the LARP will work, but beyond that, each of the LARPs will vary. Many include character and prompt cards that are required in order to play.

Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous opens with ‘A Housewife in Her Twenties’, a solo affair in which a housewife—who happens to be a siren—who goes through the steps of preparing to have her husband come home from work. Doing her make-up, dressing, and preparing and cooking the evening meal, before sitting down to eat—and all this is actually doing those things rather than describing acting them out as you would in a roleplaying game. Throughout there are prompts and questions as to how you react, and there is potential here for transgression, and it is intentionally designed to scritch and scratch and needle, both physically and emotionally. Similarly, ‘TV Dinner’ is very personal as the player, living alone, enjoys a takeout meal, and suddenly realises that someone in the television series he is watching is talking to him. This explores loneliness and what might change as a result of the interaction. All three of the solo LARPs here have the feel more of solo journalling games, although the LARP aspect calls for a physicality that most journalling games do not.

‘My Love, A Poison’ is designed for two players. It is about a relationship that is about to founder, one poisoning the other after discovering their infidelity. It is intimate, consensually so, the player poisoner lacing the victim’s food with an unusual flavour. There is no reveal in the sense that the poisoned participant is caught unaware, both players knowing from the starter who is the poisoner and the poisoned. ‘Goodbye Father’ is not dissimilar. It is for three players, all taking the roles of monstrous siblings who want to escape the constraints their father has placed on their lives and have jointly decided to kill and consume him. The tension and horror of knowing what is coming is ratchetted up by much of the play being done in silence, communication being done via notes or even texts, except when Father speaks, and ultimately when he is dead and they escape. Then they freely find their voices… ‘Love and Betrayal’ begins with three of its protagonists waking up to encounter a Personal Assistant hurrying to get them to rehearsals for scenes from a soap opera. As they do so, the Personal Assistant interrupts with notes from the ‘Director’ on how he wants them to perform, stuck to their scripts becoming increasingly revelatory with secrets about themselves rather than their characters in the soap opera. It is short and direct and very quickly the players will learn that their characters are in a seriously perilous situation. For more players—as many as six—is ‘What Lies Beneath’ is another family affair, which begins on a sombre note. One of their number, the youngest, recently died, and there are revelations about his death to be made by each of the other members of the family. The LARP requires a fair bit of set-up in terms of questions, both as a group and a player. There is a lot in this LARP that is unspoken, and that includes quite literally the ‘Unspoken’, an unacknowledged presence that literally lurks under the table. The ‘Unspoken’ is almost the LARP’s director, using certain actions to indicate that someone is lying, when to reveal secrets, and ultimately to replace one of the family. It is weird and requires quite a lot upon the part of the person playing the ‘Unspoken’.

Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous is a lovely book. It is well written, with clear and careful instructions and advice. The artwork is a colourful range of the weird and the disturbing, each piece pointing to the horrors to come in the LARPs that follow. Thankfully, the tooth motif on the dust jacket does not follow through into the pages of the anthology.

Inspired by films such as Get Out and Hereditary, television series like Hannibal and Sharp Objects, the French folk tale Bluebeard, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit,
Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous is a demanding set of horrifying situations, fraught with emotion and tension that preys upon the participants, whilst asking a lot of them in terms of commitment. Players new to LARPS, even mature players—which is what the anthology demands—may find that too much, even with the excellent advice on safety tools and running each one. Nevertheless, they likely benefit from the presence and guidance of more experienced players. Who, of course, will find a great deal to engage with and run here. In terms of physical set-up and commitment, the contents of Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous are less demanding, because they are all designed to be run at home.

Suburban Consumption of the Monstrous is an excellent anthology of LARPs that brings the horror of the family and its relationships to the perfect venue—at the dinner table—and keeps it at home.


Pelgrane Press will be at UK Games Expo which takes place on Friday, May 31st to Sunday June 2nd, 2024.

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